Title: La ninna nanna della morte
Warning: Violence, gore.
Character: Rokudō Mukuro
Spoilers: Through manga chapter 115.
Disclaimer: Amano owns. I only play. You do not sue.
Length: 3700 words.
Summary: History and folk wisdom both teach that it's wise to pay the piper. The Estraneos of Modica did not listen.
Note: Written for the Fairy Tale Anthology Project at khr_projects. Snippets from Robert Browning's poetic rendition of The Pied Piper of Hamelin are incorporated into parts of the story. "Ninna nanna, ninna o" is an Italian children's song; there are many versions of it.
Beta: None. /o\
Concrit: Always welcome and appreciated.
Once upon a time, at the bottom of a steep ravine, there stood a city called Modica.
Neither backwater nor tourist trap, Modica is known for its sweet chocolates and even sweeter wines. But the best-kept secret here is not a restaurant or cheese shop; it is the Estraneo family. The Estraneos own Modica, you see, but one would be hard-pressed to find any evidence of ownership. Nonetheless, a percentage of all profits in the city vanishes into the Estraneo coffers; this is a fact of life.
And what of the rumours about the children? The townsfolk pay their dues; the Estraneo brats are none of their concern. See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil -- the perfect ingredients of a fine life uninterrupted by unpleasant things like kidnapping, vandalism, and murder.
But tonight, a man lies dead outside a chocolate shop on Corso Umberto I. His name was Luigi Estraneo before his brain met an inopportune hatchet. Soon, a covered truck will take him into the mountains.
And people whisper, as they do. The Cavallone boss in the north is unhappy about the children, but rumours are not enough for him to move. The Lancias are too close to the Cavallones to act independently here. The Comisos do want strategic control of the mountain pass, but there are too many Estraneos in Ragusa province. The Corleonesi wouldn't even bestir themselves to come all the way out here; they'd send Calabrians. It must be a Siracusa family that has not yet tasted the Estraneo brand of vengeance.
"--fifth one this month; at this rate, we'll have no men left--"
"--ask the boss; he said he was planning a--"
"--they want the chocolate business, let them have it; what do we care--"
"--worse than rats--"
The clock above Teatro Garibaldi shows five to midnight. A woman emerges into the circle of lantern-light by the ticket booth. Her skin is as sun-dark as that of any daughter of Sicily, but her aura is cold and sharp like winter's sun. She is a foreigner here, and the world rejects her: light bends around her in strange ways, making her ripple and fade as she moves. She wears a cloak with stripes half of yellow and half of red. Inside an autumn forest, she would blend right in, but in this city's creeping, ancient darkness, she is like a semaphore. A scarf winds up her neck and round her face so all you can see is a pair of eyes, twinkling green and blue. The statues along the steps of San Giorgio Duomo seem to turn aside as she passes them. It must be a trick of the street-lanterns, which swing and creak in her wake.
She nears a restaurant, and her footfalls drown in the sound of music from within. A celebration of some kind -- perhaps a birthday party for an older boy, the sort where the wine flows freely and the whores wait upstairs. At the head of the table is Guerino Estraneo. Locals who value their lives would describe him as "stout"; those outside Modica's reach simply call him "wondrous fat". He cannot see the woman -- none of those present can, it seems, not until she is seated at Guerino's right elbow. The music stops, and so does all else -- time freezes inside the restaurant, and only Guerino is still blinking.
"You have a rat problem, padrone," the woman purrs.
Guerino turns to her, looks at the flute in her slim hands. "What, you'll play a song to make them nose-dive off the mountain?"
She smiles. "I could do."
"Name your price."
"Stop using the children."
Guerino's eyes narrow; he looks like an overfed piglet. "Is that all?"
He nods, and the woman raises the flute to her lips. She plays only a few simple notes, but the change they wring from Guerino is staggering; sweat beads on his forehead and he looks transported, serene.
"Is that all...?" he whispers, but the woman is gone, and the merriment around him has resumed. None of the partygoers seem aware they've just lost ten minutes of time to an unknowable force.
In a week's time, the Estraneo murders stop. Modica's citizens don't notice anything, but then they never do. The stream of rats from Siracusa has dried up; nothing's disturbing the peace, and as for rumours of the dead getting up to walk, well, those are like the ones about the little children. Only words on the wind.
A month later, Guerino is driving past where his nephew Luigi recently met an errant hatchet. A bell tinkles out of sight, and the truck stops moving as the night breeze stops ruffling Guerino's hair. The cloaked woman emerges from beneath a shop awning, her flute case banging against her hip as she walks. "Do you like your new toy, padrone?"
Guerino nods. His head is the only part of him that will move; the rest of him is frozen in time -- his right hand on the wheel, his left hand on the driver's side door, the potato soup in his stomach.
The woman chuckles. "And the payment?"
"Can it be negotiated?"
Her eyes flash. "No."
"That's too bad," Guerino says. "Your Possession Bullet has been useful in dealing with our enemies, but it is no match for the weapons we can build with our research. You ask for too much in return for too little."
The woman's cowl rises to obscure her face; only her eyes glow from within the darkness. "You do not know about making deals with my kind, do you, padrone?"
Her voice holds a sweetly mocking tone Guerino doesn't like. "The age of magic is long gone, gypsy whore. This is the age of science and reason." He spits through his teeth, out the window.
"Shall I show you how we lay waste to science?"
Before he can answer, she vanishes.
Guerino shrugs and drives on towards the mountain. At least the broad knew enough not to force his hand. He owns this city. No one sells him anything here; they give it freely. If he chooses to render payment, that's their luck, not their right.
Ninna nanna, ninna o,
questo bimbo a chi lo do?
Rocco floats near the ceiling of the cell housing his sensory-deprivation tank. He has been coming to this mist-filled nowhere every night for months now, but he is not truly outside of his body -- he still feels connected to every vein and strand of sinew. Thus, his vitals do not change; this makes his uncle click his tongue in frustration and fiddle with the water temperature inside the tank. It's not much, but it makes Rocco happy: he knows something his tormentors don't. No one can force a soul outside its body; it must leave of its own will.
Rocco thinks he can separate fully, but he's not sure if he'll be able to get back in. He thinks not. Souls separate when bodies die; there is no reason to go back. But what if he can? What if he can go and see what's beyond this room? Could he visit his house under the mountains, see if his pet turtle still lives in the pond? See if the night they took him away was just a big put-up job, and his mother still sits amid the roses with her embroidery hoops?
"You can't take him! You said he would be spared! You promised, Arrigo!"
"Calm down, Rina; we'll make another child. Step aside."
She snarls; twin blades flash in her hands. "I will not let you take my--"
Thwack. Thud. "A woman should know her place."
Rocco doesn't protest when he's carried off; he can only stare at his mother's crumpled body in the corner, her once beautiful face a bloody mask of flesh and bone.
That was sometime last year. Rocco thinks so only because he's read the chart next to his tank -- it lists his age as nine. But that, too, might be a lie.
"Is truth what you're looking for, little lost boy of the accursed Estraneo clan?"
A young woman sits cross-legged across from him, clad in a gypsy coat of red and yellow stripes. She has his mother's face, but her eyes are a stranger's -- blue or green or something in-between. An unfamiliar sensation courses through Rocco's being: an urge to hide. He has never met anyone here before, and this woman, with her many colours and the flute in her hands, does not belong.
Rocco flinches, and the woman smiles. "You did not like the song I played to call you?"
Song? Oh. The song he heard before ascending -- his mother's lullaby. She... called him?
"You are not my mother," he replies, and his voice does not shake.
"No? Perhaps not," the woman says. "Perhaps I was. I have walked the Paths for many lifetimes, but time is different in your world, little lost human boy."
"What do you want?" Rocco asks. He doesn't like this intruder in his private place.
"I want to show you something true," the woman says with a slight smile that does not touch her eyes. She stretches out a slim, dark hand. "Come, little lost boy. Come and find your way."
Her palm is smooth, unblemished by the lines which once so fascinated Rocco's mother and her yapping friends. The heart line, the life line, the health line -- Rocco knows them all and hates them; like the world, they lie.
He takes the woman's hand. An unlined palm tells no lies.
The room fades away into a perfect blackness, and for a moment Rocco thinks he's back inside his tank -- his minders must have noticed his vitals reacting to the hallucination and brought him back somehow. He can't see the strange woman, nor feel her chilling touch, but he senses her beside him. That's how he knows he's not in his tank.
Time passes, and his eyes grow accustomed to the dark. He is inside a cavernous passage deep underground; the earth under his bare feet thrums with warmth from the Earth's core. He hears a noise -- like the squeaking of rats, but higher-pitched -- and then he sees it: a monstrous brood of vampire bats hanging motionlessly in his path. They are waiting for him; they want his blood.
Rocco chuckles. This world is an even bigger lie than the real one, and he's supposed to be frightened by these creatures?
"How boring," he says, and the bats disappear.
He passes through the entrance where they'd hung and emerges onto a dark, frozen plain trapped in a circle of jagged mountains with icy peaks. A howling wind tears at his clothes, and tiny shards of ice bore into his arms and legs. His skin turns blue, and cold blisters rise upon it, erupting into bloody welts -- the blood freezes and cracks, etching spider webs of pain onto Rocco's body. All around him is a clamour of chattering teeth and lamenting wails from other people thrown upon this plain of ice.
Rocco laughs at his own pain and theirs; these foolish creatures can't tell this world is a lie, and so they suffer. They crack into pieces and disintegrate in the cold, becoming the ice shards to sting the next fresh batch of fools. The blizzard grows so intense that it resembles huge swarms of gnats attacking from all directions, and Rocco is blind when his feet tread upon hot iron. The ice turns into molten metal -- he feels its sting, sees his skin run down his limbs in steaming rivulets, but he does not care. In the cold world, he withstood ravages that should have killed him, but he is alive, and still inside a world of lies.
The damned attack each other with weapons like claws of blazing iron. They are sawed into pieces and left to melt upon the fiery ground. Huge rocks smash together, crushing bodies like apples in a cider press, leaving nothing but bloody jelly. There is no air but the sweet stench of burning flesh, and no sound but the heady screams of the dying. A flayed woman charges Rocco, aiming at his throat; he sidesteps and disarms her.
He expects the weapon to vanish, but it does not. Perhaps the woman with his mother's face didn't lie about showing him something true. The short-staff trident Rocco holds in his hand feels as real as his own juddering heart.
"You were almost caught," the woman says, and she is next to him again. "When you moved, you made the weapon real. For a short time, you thought it might hurt you. That is the power of the Realm of Hell."
Rocco lifts the trident up and gazes at it. "I made it.... real?"
"It's a part of you now."
They're walking through a sandpit brimming with scorpions and snakes, but Rocco only has eyes for the weapon. "It's mine," he says. "A thing I own."
"A true thing," the woman agrees. "Now you can draw upon this realm to create illusions."
"Lies," the woman says, and vanishes.
Se lo do alla Befana,
se lo tiene una settimana.
"What do you mean, I can create them?" Rocco asks, hefting the trident for the fifth time. He's following the woman through a red-tinged mist -- he cannot see her, but he hears the song flowing from her flute.
A fireball hurtles through the air above him, singeing his hair. A ball of smoke hovers near his feet, and Rocco thrusts his trident into its pulsing middle. The ball utters a high-pitched cry and disappears, but the weapon comes away thick with blood. Trickles of it run down to Rocco's hand, seeping into his skin. As he raises it for a closer look, dark red flames engulf it.
This is the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, where even illusions wear disguises. From balls of fire and smoke emerge vaguely human shapes, emaciated yet swarthy-skinned, with bulging stomachs and mouths so small they're barely there. They stretch their thin arms out to Rocco, each of them holding a trident just like his.
Oh, but these wretches do not know a human heart, especially not that of a boy who has just obtained his first possession. Rocco does not rage; his days in the tank have slowed his blood and cooled it. Calm, methodical, he cuts through the ghosts until ink-black blood is slick on every surface.
"Have you ever gone to school, little lost boy?"
"No." Rocco pauses to wipe blood from his face. The ghost he was about to skewer vanishes in a flash of dark fire. "Is it nice?"
The woman makes a see-saw gesture with her hand. "Do you punish these creatures by killing them?"
"What does that have to do with school?"
A two-toned scarf snakes up the woman's shoulders. Her cloak unravels as the scarf winds round her neck. "What do you get out of destroying the hungry ghosts?"
Rocco lowers his weapon. Each time he has used it, he felt a satisfaction so potent that he's willing to do anything to feel it again, but it is never enough. He could turn this whole world into his killing field until he died of exhaustion. Killing these pathetic creatures is a means without an end. "Nothing," he acknowledges.
The woman nods. Her smile is carnivorous, and Rocco begins to wonder why she has really brought him here. "They did not copy your weapon to steal it," she explains. "They absorb the abilities of those they meet. Make them teach you how."
And so Rocco's schooling begins.
Se lo do al lupo nero,
se lo tiene un anno intero.
When he killed the ghosts in the second realm, Rocco did so without aim.
In the Realm of Animals, he has learned that action for its own sake is a symptom of ignorance, and he remembers what it means to feel sympathy. Animals suffer only because humans make them suffer. It is not the animals' ignorance that is the source of their pain, but human intelligence, the same that allows them to prevail over all other beings.
Like the animals, Rocco has suffered because he is weak and helpless in body. He has long considered his tormentors evil, but he had thought that perhaps the Estraneos were a type of family where evil concentrated especially thickly. He had even resigned to considering himself an evil person because of his blood. But it's got nothing to do with blood: he has borne witness to the torture of animals: slaughterhouses and coops, ploughs and carriages, fur and leather and women's face-paint.
This is where Rocco learns that all humans are at the core evil, hardwired to exploit the weak. He claims the animals, species after species, for his own, and understands that killing must have a goal beyond extinguishing life.
In the Realm of Asura, he fights twelve hundred and eighty-four battles. His opponents are demons obsessed with violence, looking to cut him out of existence. He may be but a small boy, but his weapon rewards the faith he places in it. His right eye burns with hell-flame as he fights, and sometimes the trident extends on its own, ripping into the flesh of his enemies, casting them into the black sea that surrounds this world.
The woman with his mother's face laughs in delight, and when the enemies become too numerous to defeat, she bears him away into the Realm of Humans. Rocco will never remember what happened to him here, only the feeling: like an overfilled butter-cask, hoops groaning and creaking. Doubt and desire, pride and passion: these are the things which he must forsake to escape. For a small boy whose life has never been his own it is unbearably simple to let them go, and the hell-flame he brought from the demon realm consumes them, then lodges itself deep in his heart.
In the Realm of Heaven, Rocco walks amongst gods, shielded from their gaze by some enchantment of his guide. His mind feels vast and limitless here, in a world where knowledge is the air he breathes. In the middle of the realm stands a mountain: so tall that its peak can be neither seen nor reached. Languages, sciences, philosophies, and the meaning of all existence -- all wait behind a door in the mountainside.
Rocco plants his trident at the base of the mountain, throws away his name, and laughs.
"Why did you do this?" he shouts. "Why me?"
But the woman is gone, and so is the mist. The nameless boy surfaces in the salty darkness of a sensory deprivation tank, clutching a finely wrought trident.
Non lo dò a nessuno,
e lo tengo sempre più.
The Estraneo laboratory under Modica's mountain is silent.
A small boy picks his catlike way through corpses, heedless of severed limbs and puddles of blood. He meant to set the children free, but instead he cut them down like the rest. Despite what he learned in the animal realm, his skills brought with them a lust for killing, an affinity for blood. He thinks it is both pure and beautiful; the only thing worthy of occupying the world.
Out of one hundred and thirty children, three remain. The boy does not know why he spared the other two, but he remembers holding out his hand to them, and the way their eyes regained their shine when he said he would erase the world.
This place is not merely quiet; it is silent forever.
From the mountain, a passageway swirls down into the dry riverbed in Modica's heart. Three little boys walk along it for a time, ghostlike, then vanish into darkness black and sweet like Dolce Nero wine.
The mother of a boy named Rocco Estraneo had died because she wanted to protect her child. The mother of a girl named Nagi won't even acknowledge her own daughter, a child of remarkable potential who has been forced into her own mind because the world is slave to appearance, because it despises the outwardly weak.
After all this time, one thing remains true: humans are despicable.
Nagi's soul is twin to his; he feels it before he sees her. She is the lonely, wretched child who will be his to teach. He has been given knowledge and paid the price in blood and freedom. The woman with his mother's face had been a demon named Shiri, and he hates her like he hates his mother: she gave him life.
Because of what he has become, he cannot take his life. But he can give it away. This girl with eyes like Modica's ravine will be the one to receive it. "It seems like taking a walk has led me to something," he says.
"Who are you?" Her voice is soft and whispery.
"Perhaps you and I are the same kind of person."
He visits her, day after day, and tells her about the worlds beyond. In the physical world, her body is losing its battle. When the time comes, he will make her well again. But this girl will be so much more than his weapon.
"Non la dò a nessuno, e la tengo siempre più."
"What language is that?"
He turns to her with a slow smile. "Italian. It's from a lullaby my mother used to love."
"What does it mean?"
"It means everything will be all right now, Chrome."
"Th-that's not my name..."
"Indeed. Not yet."
She does not question him; she never does. There is a difference between this girl and his two sidekicks, though: she would not question or fight him even if she were stronger than him. And that's what makes her precious, for one day she will become far stronger.
After a silence, she speaks again, as hesitant as ever. "Hey, um..."
"What is it?"
"You never told me your name."
His answering chuckle is filled with tender violence. "Rokudō Mukuro."