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View Full Version : 2014 Fanfic Contest Entries - Actioning with a Vengeance



Milbunk
March 4th, 2014, 10:50 AM
Alright let's do this first up the Action Category I'll post links to the fics on this first post but thanks to DP's "Spam" filter I can only post once every 10 minutes so excuse me if this takes a little bit:

Action:

Milbunk
March 4th, 2014, 11:06 AM
Afterlife Return




The festivities might look strange to an outsider. Despite the autumn air, workers were busy stringing up fake cherry blossoms. Streamers of green and blue hung from poles and the colors of springtime marked the signs announcing the celebration. Unlike a ceremony such as Obon, the solemn feeling was shot through with liveliness. It was a time to think of life, despite the decay of death that awaited them the moment they stepped beyond the grounds.

Ikegami Honmon Temple’s park was dedicated for that week to the life of its patron saint, so to speak, as was practice in the middle of October. Temple workers sought to birth something enjoyable as their founder was thought to have done when he passed on.

Irony laughed.

The celebration of such opposed things could not go unnoticed forever.


Reien Academy was what could be called strict. Mass was held punctually. Students were expected to attend every class and had no extraneous excuse for tardiness. Meals were only offered at specific times and snacking was prohibited. When not in prayer, class, or at meals, students were required to be in their dorms studying. Leaving the grounds was barred under normal circumstances except by permission that was acquired in advanced.

So Azaka was delighted at being out of school in the middle of a week, in the middle of a semester. Even if she was allowed to leave regularly to help Fujino with her doctor’s appointments. Even if she had frequent weekend breaks that she had been spending training under Touko. Even if that reason was technically to work. Even if that reason was troublesome. Perhaps even a little bit strange, since it was to offer help to a religious ceremony that was not Christian in any shape or form.

However, the forces of balance in the world conspired against her. To be free to leave grounds and participate in an event, her own work for that event all in the preparation and leaving her free to enjoy the day itself, Azaka must have been required to pay for the exchange rate.

“Why do I have to spend it with you?!”

Energy always bubbled beneath Azaka’s skin. She was sure no such thing occurred within Shiki Ryougi. In fact, Azaka was certain that the dour woman was capable of sucking the energy and vitality of the world around her in like a black hole, never to return. It happened every time she opened her mouth. “I didn’t decide on this,” Shiki said.

Azaka took her flashlight and wove it right in Shiki’s face; the elder woman waved it away like an annoying bug. “You could’ve said ‘no,’ you know! I’m capable of taking care of this myself!”

Shiki scowled at that but said nothing. Azaka had been under Touko’s wing for a few months but nobody except Touko knew what exactly Azaka was doing or how well she was doing it.

“It’d have been perfect to show how much I’ve improved,” Azaka mumbled.

Probably a product of the surroundings, as well. Despite the celebration tinged with the touch of death, it was a festival of sights and sounds, music and dancing—something that, if nothing else, Azaka had a strong affinity for.

Hands in her jacket pockets to ward them from the autumn cold, Shiki continued to stroll on down the street as unconcerned as ever. Yet for all her bluster, Azaka kept a close eye on the woman, certain that beneath the calm surface, there was something upset by the situation they found themselves in.


It was the scent of the supernatural. Not an uncommon thing to the superstitious—and death was certainly a superstitious topic—but it was a condition that cried out for attention more than the simple whispers and rumors of things just out of sight and mind. The kind of situation Garan no Do was intimately familiar and experienced with.

“Ten different occurrences in the last two weeks,” Touko said. “All centered around the Ikegami Honmon Temple while they’re finishing up prep for Oeshiki.” Oeshiki was the celebration of a Japanese bodhisattva, Nichiren, and his life.

The redheaded magus sat in her usual place behind her desk, reports strewn about her desk amidst other random things: a box of staples, a book that looked like it predated the printing press, a wooden toy top, the leftovers of an unfinished sandwich, and a rapidly shrinking cigarette in an ashtray. More than half of the reports included photos taken of the temple and park, a rather large area of greenery amidst Tokyo’s urban landscape. All in all, it looked strangely as if Touko was actually busy with something of importance.

Shiki, for her part, appeared as indifferent as ever, staring at one of the television screens tuned into the local news.

Touko smiled, like the silence was a challenge. She leaned back in her chair as if to enjoy the show. “So I have to dangle the interesting bits in front of you like a carrot?”

There was a small snort to signify Shiki’s discontentment. “You always seem to think that the stranger things that happen are more interesting.”

“I’m a magician blessed with a demon hunter and ESPer for students. I have no other way of looking at it.” She grinned, peering at Shiki over the top of her glasses. “Except, perhaps, troublesome as well, getting my pawns to dance to the right tune.”

Shiki sighed and held out a hand. Touko passed one of the open files. A brief police report and statement from witnesses. A worker at the temple reporting what was thought to be a simple case of trespassing. Signs of disruption in the cemetery. “So?” Shiki asked, once she was finished reading.

Touko handed her a second file. Now a missing person’s report: the worker from before last heard from the day she made the police statement.

“Before you ask, the police looked into it, and that’s when it starts turning interesting,” Touko said. She handed Shiki the next file, but summarized its contents. “When it was clear the first person was not going to turn up, more workers looked into it and disappeared as well. Within five days, the police had half a dozen missing. So they set up a taskforce and patrolled the site themselves. Then police officers started going missing.”

While Shiki perused through the different files, Azaka made her presence known, finished with the training tasks Touko had assigned her to complete in another room. She slipped a glove off as she entered, shoving it unnecessarily violently into her pocket. “Alright, you’re showing that woman favoritism,” the teenager complained. “I asked about it first!”

“Now, Azaka,” Touko started.

“No, you tell me what’s going on too,” Azaka said. She tore the next set of papers from Touko’s hands before Shiki could look at them, then stalked off to the opposite side of the desk as if expecting Shiki to pursue her.

Shiki did not. “They found a body eventually,” she said, not quite a question.

“Your expectations for this world sure are top notch,” Touko said. She pushed her glasses back up the bridge of her nose. “The first disappearance turned up two days ago. No signs of a struggle. No cause of death. She seems to have simply passed on, like her heart gave out on her without rhyme or reason.”

Azaka gave a violent shudder, not-quite hiding her face behind the file in her hands.

Touko’s expression was sympathetic. “You wanted to know, Azaka.” Leaning back in her chair, she raised a new cigarette to her lips. “I’m not even sure I want you involved, either. It has the sense of something you’re not yet ready for, perhaps.”

That brought the paper in Azaka’s face down, a frown marring her face. “You’d send nii-san, if he were here.”

“True,” Touko said, “but my instincts also tell me that he would be left alone for the most part.” She smiled around her tobacco. “Care to say why, Shiki?”

Despite her supposed disinterest, Shiki did seem to be leaning in toward the discussion rather than assuming the entire leave-me-alone body language that made up her demeanor most of the time. “The people that make it back, along with that first report, they talk about seeing people?”

“The departed, to be specific. Ghosts of friends and family long gone.” Touko nodded. “A person in grief claiming to see the recently departed is a common enough occurrence.” The cigarette between her lips pointed upwards as if to follow her gaze while she stared off into the unseen sky. She slipped her glasses off and absently wiped them clean with the tails of her blouse. “But before he left, I had Mikiya look up some things on some of the people mentioned in the reports. Nobody has had family or friends—so far as Mikiya could find—that have croaked within the past two or three years.”

Both of the younger women perked up at the mention of their shared interest. Touko smirked, which soured their expressions in return. Teasing them about the man while he was off for his training had become something of a small pleasure in her life. It almost made up for not having him around to do the gopher work she now had to get done herself.

“That’s…” Azaka trailed off.

“Strange, huh?” Shiki made a faint nod.

Touko twiddled with the glasses between her fingertips. “I suppose grief periods run differently for people,” she eyed Shiki significantly at that, “but a few years sure says something when they don’t have a coma in between.”

Shiki rolled her eyes and looked away.

“Mikiya only had time to look into a few of them, but circumstantially it’s enough for me, coupled with the bodies that started turning up.” Touko looked to Azaka, slipping into the closest thing she had to her instructor-tone. “Rather, the issue is the shared location. Even without a source like what happened at the Fujou building, if enough rumors spread and a pattern of experiences gather at one place, events could trigger on their own. Like a curse.”

Azaka looked doubtful, warily staring at Shiki from the corner of her eye. “You said something about demons before.”

A frosty smile from Touko congratulated the younger Kokutou. “Not dissimilar to them, although not entirely the same concept. This sounds more like wraiths or apparitions. I would gather that Shiki understands what I’m talking about more, given her history.”

Both women’s gazes fell to the third person in the room, kimono-clad and silent up until then. A displeased expression marred her face. “Back to boring.”

Azaka almost jumped in place. “I’ll handle it, then.” She lifted her chin like she could stand over Shiki with it raised in superiority.

“I guess Azaka can go along, but you really need to be the one to go, Shiki.”

A dull glare. “Why?”

“Oeshiki isn’t complete without Shiki,” Touko said.

Both Azaka and Shiki looked displeased once more.

“But I am serious. You, perhaps more than anyone, need to.”

“Whyyyyyyy,” Azaka whined.

Touko ignored her, eyeing Shiki with a thoughtful look. “What if I brought up something related to your family?” Shiki’s head snapped back Touko’s way, causing the redhead a quick laugh. “Not directly. But there was one other fact that Mikiya scrounged up that caught my interest. About a trio of siblings that were recently interred at the temple.”


A family said to have special eyes. The sighting of long-dead apparitions. Asagami and Fujou, two names long since disassociated with the Ryougi. The third, said to be the strongest of all four.

“So we still have three people unaccounted for,” Azaka said, “three police officers that disappeared in the middle of the night seven days ago. And these Nanaya might be inhabiting their bodies.”

It was evening, long after everything had shut down in the temple proper, the monks staying there either finishing meals or in prayer. The street they ventured down was quiet and unlit, forcing Azaka to lead the way with an oversized torch that she flicked on and off. Whether from annoyance or nervousness, Shiki was not sure.

“And we think these Nanaya are responsible…why, exactly? All you said was they hunted demons. Killing people and stealing their bodies seems like the opposite of what good they might have been doing.”

Shiki almost laughed at that. Almost. “Good might be relative, Azaka. They did it because they were skilled at it, not because it did the world anything.”

“Like you, huh?”

Shiki ignored the jab. “Their abilities, so far as I know, are also in line with this. Some had the power of possession. Others could read minds.” Really, it was something of a strange culmination of the four families. Nanaya the eye-technique users. Nanaya the psychics. Nanaya the assassins. Three things the other families supposedly mastered, all within their repertoire.

“But why?” Azaka sighed. “Why do it? I don’t care about what they do, I just wanna know why.”

“That’s why Touko thinks an apparition or wraith to begin with. All they want is to live again.”

Azaka still did not look convinced, looked unwilling to accept the possibility of no higher reasoning. So she quieted, waving the mechanical light back ahead of them.

The cemetery grounds were a stone’s throw from the main temple space, all of a short stroll down the street that bisected the park’s greenery. In the dim twilight, it made for a strange maze of monolithic shapes and masses, varied in height and regularity like the remains of a child’s building block playground. Despite Azaka waving her light between the stonework, it seemed the kind of place where something could lurk just between gaps and one would never know even if the light passed right over them.

“Sure would be nice if they had street lamps here,” Azaka said.

People don’t want to shine light on the dead.

It was not a voice, nor even the whispers within the mind. It was more like a touch, fingertips playing across the skin, like the sensation itself transferred the idea directly to the mind. Despite being voiceless, it carried with it the sense of masculinity.

“Did you…?” Azaka looked to Shiki, clearly certain it was not Shiki communicating, yet certain it was. The feeling, whatever it was, carried with it the overwhelming sense of Shiki-ness.

Shiki’s hawk-like glare burned through the dim lighting even as it stared at nothing in particular.

That same sensation washed over them both again, like the touch of a close friend or lover. For Azaka, it was a strange feeling, having never been acquainted with Shiki before the accident, never knowing that side to her rival. It was undeniably the feeling of Shiki, however, like there was another besides the woman standing at her side, reaching out from the beyond. Truly a power of a spirit, as Touko had described: the strong emotions and memories of those passed on, anchored to the world like a curse.

As if Shiki were the one dead.

“I get it,” Shiki said under her breath. Louder, so as to be heard wherever it came from, she said, “So, it is true, what the records say about you. Huh.”

“What?” Azaka hissed.

The presence in their minds changed, now clearly a different person—yet with the same strange tone to the mind’s eye. Ryougi. Yes, we know you too and what makes you. He speaks even within your silence.

Azaka shuddered, then stomped her foot. “This is really annoying. Come out, you freaks!”

The sensation ignored her. Instead, it shifted once more, somehow seeming like a separate Shiki was reaching out to the pair. Yo. Long time. Still no see.

Shiki stared. Although the presence was ephemeral, seemingly everywhere and nowhere at once, she could imagine looking in a mirror and seeing him grinning back. She could imagine it so clearly—and what’s more, as a thought of one untainted by what she now saw in everything—

SHIKI.

He looked back at her, no lines upon his body. Like before, now after.

He was already dead. There were no lines to see now.

Long time, still no see. She could imagine him saying that, irreverent and sarcastic, biting in a way she mimicked but could not fully reclaim.

“Then come out here where I can see,” Shiki said. She focused her gaze and peered into the tangled web of death that stood before her.

Crumbling tombstones. Burning incense. Bones and rotting flesh melting away. Decaying wood evaporating to dust. Names etched by family and friends disappearing into time. Three human forms nearer to the center of the cemetery, all peering back at her.

“Eyes of Purity,” Shiki said to Azaka. “Mind reading of some kind. They’re seeing into the thoughts others have of the dead and reflecting that back.” She huffed. “Wraiths that make apparitions. An entire circle of death.”

“Can…” Sobered by the confirmation, Azaka tried to see what it is that Shiki had managed to find, “I mean, are the people still alive?”

“No,” Shiki said. “They can’t share space with the living. Only the dead.”

Yet we can share with the living now, one said in its own “voice.” With their secrets being exposed, they exposed themselves, stepping out from behind columns of stone to face the intruders.

Azaka moved her light over their faces: the missing police officers. Their vacant expressions and faintly-glinting eyes, however, suggested more than a simple solution. One, the more svelte of the two males, pulled a snap baton free of a holster at his belt.

Shiki stared at that one, the threads of power she could feel reaching out to her coming from him. “Get out of my head, dead man.”

Dead man? Rather than SHIKI, a Nanaya bubbled up to the surface. From one who walks around as lifeless as you, I take that only as irony.

They closed in on each other slowly, circling around rows of tombstones separating them and stepping over the remains of items left for the dead and unclaimed by the temple.

“The dead ought to stay dead,” Shiki said. “I’ll see to that.”

The SHIKI in her mind’s eye sneered, and the man closed in on her, weapon raised to strike.


The two remaining body snatchers dissolved further back into the cemetery darkness, though that whisper-like sense that they still watched remained. Azaka took one glance to Shiki’s situation, then sped off after them, leaping over a row of the gravestones in pursuit. When it was clear she would not find them so easily, she took off full-tilt down the narrow aisle she found herself in, took the next corner she found, and made her way to what she considered the centermost area with the largest open walkway. She tried to aim the spotlight in her hands between the rows of stone to find something human-shaped.

A stone flew her way, smashing her torch bulb like it was a target bull’s eye.

“That flashlight cost me 5000 yen, you bastards!”

The shadowy figures moved just beyond her, she was sure, their presences never quite leaving her mind. She spun in place, took in her surroundings and what options she had left to her, then slipped on a leather-like glove from her pocket .

“Don’t wanna light up the dead, huh?” Azaka fell to a crouch and raised her voice, sing-song aria echoing through the quiet of the sleeping dead. “Mezzoforte!”

Her gloved fist struck against the stone ground. Like a match head, flames licked up in its wake, illuminating the graveyard and highlighting the shadows moving between the columns marking the dead.

Two shadows.

Hissing through her teeth, Azaka aimed for another light-up past the shoulders of the larger figure at a grave that had sticks of half-used incense. “Pianissimo!” she called, and the prayer paraphernalia sparked like fireworks. The shadow of the man was given depth while at the same time causing them to flinch and turn toward the source of the sudden sparklers.

Azaka took the opening and charged, planting her hands on one gravestone and spinning, bringing a crescent-kick to the man’s head. He ducked beneath the blow and her heel hit the same gravestone with a shudder, shaking dirt and dust from the monolith. Moving somewhere between a spider and a leopard, the man-shaped form hunched on all fours, then sprang up at Azaka, still bunched up as if to plow all four limbs into her chest.

“Uggffffortissimo!”

The blow from her assailant carried Azaka back, bashing her partially against the gravestone, but she coughed out her spellcraft, her arm extended into the side of her attacker. Unlike what one would expect from a normal human body, it did not combust as the oils and tissue set aflame. Instead, like a rocket, the fire spewed forth from the point of impact and rocketed the man a dozen meters to one side before their combined weight crashed down onto the walkway.

Azaka hit the ground with a nasty crash that knocked the wind from her. Her attacker plowed right through a stone marker.

The light from the first spell was snuffed out. Azaka fought against the dark spots forming in her vision. She attempted to pick herself up but found her body screamed at her from within to stay still.

Without illuminating flames and the twilight of the sky having faded away, Azaka could only just make out the smaller figure that loomed over her.

Don’t you have ones who have passed on you wish to see?

Still cringing against the pain, Azaka merely stuck her tongue out.

The last incense stick shot up like a rocket and exploded like a firework bomb, briefly backlighting the form of a woman standing over Azaka’s head. The figure raised a foot to stomp on her enemy.

“Fortissimo!”

Given a form she could see, even with her body unresponsive, Azaka could still blast them into the next life.


Despite wearing the face and body of a simple police officer, he had the uncanny stare of one who knew death and murder. For that, Shiki was grateful.

He charged. She swung out of the way and tried smashing her elbow into the back of his head. He contorted as he flew past, flipped forward, struck her arm with his foot, and reset himself upright as she regained her own balance. Before she could make another move, he swept in again, jabbing with the snap baton like it was a spearhead. Each stab she blocked and parried at his wrist with her own, and once an opening presented itself, reached back, unsheathed her blade, and slashed in one motion.

No chance. He was dancing back out of her reach the moment her stance shifted, the edge of her knife missing his face by an arm span.

The SHIKI presence was mocking. No sword? Well, I suppose I was always the better at it.

Shiki flipped the knife in her hand, eyes glaring ethereal light.

That must have been the decision to abandon the bodies of the monks for the police officers. Assassins within the bodies of monks that did not practice any kind of kenpo were limited; assassins inhabiting public servants that had self-defense training and fitter bodies was a step up. If they took hold of Shiki’s body, they would be right back to what they had in life.

Not that she thought the Nanaya before her was at a deficit. In fact, he moved just marginally faster than Shiki could, putting her on the defensive. His strange choices were not the type made by a swordsman, a duelist, a martial artist, or any kind of combatant that fought in warfare. Instead, he seemed to work abstractly with a thought process entirely alien to even one like Shiki.

When he closed in on her again, it was not a charge or even some kind of test-strike to feel out the situation once more. The closest comparison Shiki had to it was like a capoeira practitioner, weaving a low set of feints to either side before coming up with the baton right to her groin. Moving too fast and strangely to strike at the weapon’s lines, Shiki blocked with the pommel of her knife, batting the attack aside and out of line with her body. It gave her an opening to step in and stab him right in the chest or face with the blade.

Which did not work. Before she could land the blow, his foot came around like a hook, scorpion-kicking her in the shoulder—if a scorpion had a tail that went horizontal rather than from above its body. Shiki rolled aside, her attack did as well, and they ended up back to square one, a meter or so separating them.

Shiki glared as if her eyes could themselves cut him to pieces. The Nanaya that remained in the world were supposed to be the betters of the other families with histories of demon slaying, remaining true to their task as the others fell apart. Shiki’s own training was that of tradition rather than for use in hunting—she simply ended up applying it like none of her immediate ancestors had.

This one had seen combat, real wet-work, in his lifetime and now in death. His initial blow would have been enough to have ripped right up into her stomach and destroy her like the gruesome monsters they were.

A faint smile.

“Monsters,” Shiki said.

Half-alive, you are the monster. Live fully, or die together, as it should be.

The hypocrisy within seemed tinged with irony and sarcasm. He wanted to live just as much as she did, yet found himself in an equal-and-opposite position.

For a split second, Shiki hesitated. He wanted to live.

He had wanted to live, too…yet had chosen death.

With that distraction, her attacker was on the move—his own eyes seeing her thoughts shift—and before she could react those eyes were right in her face. Guarding against the quick one-two blows to her right kept her from seeing how he contorted his body to conceal his left and from behind his back, grabbed her free wrist with something cold and metallic. Shiki pulled her arm straight up and found it handcuffed. Nanaya spun in place to let his own arm get dragged along, the cuff’s matching link around his left wrist.

Shiki kept her gaze on the baton lest her focus earn her death by distraction. She jabbed in return, mirroring the same fast slashes Nanaya made on her before. He avoided with the same body-contortion as before, moving like one bereft of solid bones.

I’ll drag you down and you’ll lift me up, just like before.

The feeling shifted once more to SHIKI, to that part missing from her, yet always tainting her thoughts and feelings like a well-worn scar marred the skin.

“Shut up,” Shiki growled.

Still connected, Shiki tried pulling while jabbing, tried off-balancing her opponent, but his balance matched her own, counter-pulling and flinging his weight side-to-side. He nearly wrapped her up like he was her dance partner, their arms snaking around Shiki’s body, and only a last-minute deflection from her knife kept his baton from smashing her head in.

The sensation of words shifted back to the unfamiliar feeling. I’ll keep him for you when I take you.

“No.” Shiki kicked at his feet with a jujutsu footwork routine that, if he did not seem to have the balance of a monkey, would have given her the leverage to flip him over her shoulder and leave him prone to a quick end. He instead managed to kick his feet right up into her thigh, bouncing the attack back and sending them both flying. Shiki let herself get pulled along, then dug her feet into the ground as Nanaya planted his feet into a gravestone and aimed for a rebound strike.

Shiki got her knife between them and had enough time to hit the lines she wanted.

Nanaya shot past her and she fell back so both her shoulders hit the earth and her feet stayed flat. The handcuffs chaining them together severed. Shiki watched upside-down as the man rolled away, his baton split in half, the pieces crumbling away like dust blown away.

…But in their exchange, as Shiki had destroyed the cuff links and then the baton, this Nanaya had struck her hand and forced her to drop the knife. In the same motion he had swept away the weapon with his own freed hand, all in a flash.

I always was the better of us, the SHIKI-sensation mocked.

“You’re not him,” Shiki said. “Even if you can see echoes in me, he’s truly gone.”

Such words, even as she spoke them to defy her enemy, were more like a slash to her own throat.

Undeniably, either way, we are both the better at facing death.

Shiki closed her eyes, unable to help herself—imagining that nothingness, the emptiness afterward, the cold that terrified her. Always there, where he should be, only there because he was as this Nanaya said: better at facing it.

Nanaya took a low stance, one Shiki recognized from her own training. Not the specifics of what was to come, but the way it was to carry him. To victory.

“And I’m the better at making it.” Shiki spun the non-existent knife in her hand, mirroring the stance of the form before her. Knees bent, arm extended, blade in a low guard, pale blue gaze meeting pale blue gaze.

That same strange, animal-like speed shot forward. The knife went flying her way as if rocketed from a firearm. The man disappeared from her line of vision.

Yet, just like SHIKI had without any special eyes, she peered toward death.

Shiki was a hair’s breadth slower, leaping and inverting, hand reaching out. Even if she could not see his physical form, she could still see what led to his final moment.

She blocked his inhuman grab for her with her prosthetic arm. She reached down, caught the knife, and brought it up in a cut.

The swing went wide. They crashed into one another—with Shiki gaining the better placement, her fake arm far stronger than his wraith-inhabited body. They hit the ground, Ryougi half-astride the echoes of the last Nanaya.

“You’ve had seven nights,” Shiki said, almost involuntarily. “Now get lost.”


SHIKI was gone from her mind by the time she had wiped her knife clean. Something of a byproduct from the transient nature of wraiths, or the way the Pure Eyes worked to cast a reflection of read thoughts and memories, or something else—she was not sure. Whatever it was, it seemed as if the strange presence had removed itself from her mind.

Like it was not even there.

Emptiness, once again.

In the same vein as grasping for a memory just out of reach, Shiki only felt a foul sense of frustration. Her urge to truly kill something now felt on the rise.

“He made a second you,” Azaka said. She pulled herself out of the gloom, victorious and bruised all over. “Ugh.”

Perhaps, just maybe, a tiny spark of amusement could be made in Shiki’s glare. If there was, she killed it fast enough that it did not show for long. “I thought you would be more respectful of the dead.”

Azaka scrunched up her face. “You’re not dead yet.”

“Go find—”

“Go find a phone and call Touko-san, yeah, yeah.” The younger girl did as suggested, taking the shrine stairs in twos, but kept talking as if Shiki followed along. “Although, if you’re offering, I’m sure I could find it in me to be remorseful at your funeral, sad that you could leave this world with such bad karma. Knowing we could have been such great friends if it weren’t for that awful personality of yours…”

Shiki snorted. The girl was probably right.

However.

She wasn’t dead.

Not yet, anyway.


Akitaka bowed his head as he accepted the note from Shiki.

“No hurry,” Shiki said. She was certain she looked as grumpy as she felt, though, the fight still fresh on her mind even after a couple of days to get over it.

Things like that always came at inopportune moments, that was a certainty. Perhaps it was just in her destiny somehow.

The sharp-dressed man excused himself from the apartment, taking the request she made to her father with him. Shiki closed the door behind him, then made a beeline for her icebox.

Recovery time was really not an issue. While Azaka had returned to Reien with a bruised backside and an amusing dress-down from Touko regarding property damage that came out of their paycheck, Shiki had not suffered anything that a stretch the next day could not solve. Even the manhandling from being handcuffed had gone to her prosthetic and healed perfectly fine. So well, in fact, that for payment, she had asked Touko to make an addition to it so that she would not be left without a weapon again. The request to her family was of the same mindset, especially with how her shortcomings in the fight had presented themselves.

Yet she felt unusually restless. If she had a carpeted floor, it would certainly have a divot worn into it from pacing.

Not wanting to die.

Wanting to kill.

The dead returning.

The dead staying dead.

Touko once said that it meant that she could be filled. Filled with what, exactly? She felt like she might even breach the subject with the magus at some point, yet some part of her still felt terrified at the prospect of doing so.

Or Mikiya.

Scowling, Shiki went for her jacket. No point in thinking over such things like this when all she would do is run her mind into a wall and run her feet around in circles.

Perhaps she could rid herself of such a feeling if she found something to take her frustrations out on.

A thought of Mikiya shaking his head and telling her she should not go out at such a late hour flashed through her mind. The hypocrite.

The fight had only served to make her feel more restless rather than satiate the desire she had to face a challenge. Azaka had complained about how getting to be out and use her newfound talents came at the price of annoyance. Shiki was now inclined to agree.

Red jacket wrapped around her body, she departed in search of trouble.


October, 1998

Milbunk
March 4th, 2014, 11:11 AM
Clipped Wings



100%



It was as subtle as a truck driven through a brick wall.

The complex’s many bounded fields overpowered into uselessness, their broken energies erased from existence by the corrections of the world happened so savagely and abruptly that their destruction could be heard with human ears. One by one, in a swift, erratically-paced staccato, the shattering of the layers boomed through the streets of the company town, the sound seemingly emanating from nowhere in particular yet was heard by all residents equally. Confusion began to stir among the people, ninety-five percent of whom were rudely awakened from dreamless sleeps by the noise.

The other five percent sprung into action, as per the orders of their superior.

Confusion erupted into panic, just like that. Spurned by an irrational but powerful surge of fear directed right into the most primal sectors of the human brain, the residents poured from their beds and squeezed into narrow streets lit with too few lampposts. The stars above were erased from the sky by the light pollution from the nearby but unseen city, with only a pitiful hunk of visible moon and a cover of smoggy haze to further illuminate the night. It was nowhere near enough for any members of the rapidly growing crowd to see adequately as they jogged and stumbled in the dark.

For the other five percent, the “security,” the light was plenty. They made a beeline for the one and only entrance into the territory, acrobatically pouncing from rooftop to rooftop like they were gliding the distances, rather than jumping to and from as they made their way to what ought to have been the tightly guarded landbridge.

One more of those impossibly clear and loud shatters. Immediately next, a shadow cleared the wall taking a burst of true flight above the town with leathery wings. Something about it glinted, luminous like how Sirius the star would be if it could be seen tonight. Then it roared, and fire rained down on the town.

The nearest security was eviscerated into a mist of exploded meat by blazing blue-silver flechettes. The projectiles set miniature, red hot bonfires alight where they carved into it, further conflagrating its unholy flesh into charcoal. With its head and chest caved in and torn through the thing hadn’t even had an opportunity to let out a proper death scream.

It only began from there. The single shot became one in a barrage as the shadowy figure continued firing the light with a deafening bambambam. Each flash brightened up the night for an instant, like a full moon. Security shrieked with alarm and anger at the intruder and amongst themselves as they took to evading the blasts, communicating in a ghoulish language; the crowd wailed as one as individuals were flayed by stray shots that burnt them just the same, not because of the say of thermodynamics, but because of their enthrallment and association with the security that had directed them lemming-like from their homes to the avenues of the compound.

The dragon-shaped decorative muzzlepiece of the Holy Crematal Artillery continued to snarl and spew clouds of flame and steel with each pull of the trigger, the massive firearm kicking like a wild horse every time. How fitting that the beast of the pagans be reappropriated in His name, enslaved as a symbol to immolate heretics for the rest of time.

Down they went. Security into seared corpses, motionless and crumbling into dust on the blacktop, the hapless members of the crowd into various states of wounded and dead from collateral, the attacker into a crouch and sprint in that of split second their feet touched the ground. Without pause, in fluid movements, the figure stowed the shotgun onto their back, strapped over his cloak, and drew from the perpendicular scabbard a hefty saber, wider near the hilt than at the tip, and somehow blacker than the dark of the night and scarred with nightmarishly glowing runes that radiated more of that pitch non-light that seemed to compromise of the blade’s construction.

Brandishing this sword, the figure stomped the ground and with a kick and a flap of their wings flew to where the crowd was at its thinnest. This was done not out of choice, but neither with any care if innocents came between them and prey.

Blood ran in the streets of Hunyad, Dubai’s secret district. The last bastion of the White Wing Lord was besieged by a single man, and any undead or the cattle they husbanded that found themselves in his way would not survive the night.


◇ | ◇




“In my brief life, I’ve had two fathers. The both of them died by my own hands.

“I am not proud of it. I am not ashamed of it, either. It happened, and now I presently live with the consequences. That is what I would say, but in my experience there is no point in letting yourself get caught up in the past. There is no time. Not when it will not do your plans any good. Do not even stow those thoughts away to the recesses in the back of your mind. In my situation the sensible thing to do is to slash and burn those bridges. Act in the present, look to the future.

“Then, when all is said and done and that future has become the present, before it finally sinks in just how wrongly you have been forced to live your blighted sham of a life, you burn that one last bridge.

“Because once you have dragged the kind of people who deserve it all down to Hell, what is keeping you?”


◇ | ◇




Moments before the silence of the night was broken by a lone invader, a sealed room deep underground glowed with dim, sickly green light from an extravagantly detailed magic circle. Then, the light became blindingly bright, and the room’s temperature rose. Linoleum melted, metal glowed hot red, and the very moisture in the air was baked out of it into pitifully ephemeral coils of steam. But in that instantaneously made furnace that the room had become, one thing of its remained untouched by the uncannily explosive rise in temperature – the raised platform of cobblestone from which that infernal light shined from.

Ancient energies stirred in the chamber like a hurricane. Lightning surged outwards from the nexus point of the light as it continued to feed from the vein of the leyline the basement lay directly over. It gouged into the concrete walls where the electricity had danced across it, exposing steaming rebar. Then – in an instant like how it began – it all ended. The circle had burned through all of the prana required to go through the ritual it was created to achieve. The room was once again silent, with nothing to suggest the tumult it had experienced only seconds before. Nothing save cooling puddles of linoleum and a somewhat frazzled looking man whose physical years seemingly placed him somewhere between the roaring thirties and middle age who stumbled his way from off of the stone tiles, right where the focus of the circle used to be before the spell had spent itself.

He panted heavily. His countenance bore a worried expression. Though the system used to essentially teleport him to here had been a mighty and primordial magecraft of an old age, the Greater Ritual was a one-time deal. For all intents and purposes the thaumaturgy was broken.

That was just as well. There was nowhere to return to.

He stepped out into a windowless hallway, scarlet-hued by the redlight bulbs installed in the ceiling every few meters. He glanced to the side as he made his way to the end – all the other doors were sealed shut. Not a good sign, he thought with a grimace.

Into the elevator he went, and with the passcode and cardkey set a course for the highest level that his access would allow him. As the chamber ascended from the subterranean levels he produced from the breast pocket of his vest a sleek cellular, the latest model produced by the company and a standard asset for all “employees” who he shared rank with. The man tapped into the contacts list and called the one number he wouldn’t ever be calling without exceptionally extenuating circumstances or was more audacious than he’d ever been to his higher-ups.

“Lord. It’s me, Rozen, and I’m here with the update,” he said, with anxiety and weariness in his voice, “I’m calling from the elevator I took from Sublevel S. And yes, I believe that it’s safe to assume that no one else is coming. Not a single Virgin Coffin was breached, besides mine.

“I know you’ve probably received a dozen other calls like this, so I’ll keep my report brief,” Rozen said, “The Delhi villa was straight-out assaulted. No warning that we’d been compromised. Strike team of the usual expected, Executioners and hireds. They were too confident, they must’ve known all about it. Ready to torch the place before I fled. Goes without saying that I doubt there were other survivors.”

With a chirpy ping the elevator stopped and its doors opened. Hazy moonlight filtered through the stained glass windows of this floor colored everything from an empty secretarial desk to the stack of old magazines on coffee table set up to alleviate the drollness of waiting for an appointment with a blotchy mosaic of primary colors. No longer did the architecture possess that soulless feeling in the way that only postmodern corporate style can be. Rozen knew that his own tastes could be considered old-fashioned, but he still found himself questioning his lord’s fond obsession for all things of gothic design whenever he made contact with him.

This was so few times that he could count all his meetings on the fingers of a single hand, but, all the same, the impression was a lasting one.

Rozen almost reflexively muttered “tacky” under his breath on sight of the antechamber before he remembered that he was still on the phone with his lord. He caught himself before he could say anything that would have been unbecoming of his obedient demeanour.

“I’m yours, Lord,” he said with too much stammer a little too suddenly and insistently as he reached for the ornate knockers on the door to the office, “Tell me where to go, what to do, and I assure that I’ll get straight on it with the whole of my being.”

“Very well. Guard duty on the ‘business levels’ with the others until further notice. Simple is best,” replied the velvety, stoic voice that had suddenly picked up on the other end. That worked out. For it was at that moment that the crashing boom of the first shattered bounded field, equally like a thunderclap and hundreds of breaking windows echoed through the self-contained city.

Feelings of dedication to his lord won out over his generally unassuming characterization, and with a firm and stable grip on the ceramic tube strapped across his shoulder blade that served as the sheath for his Mystic Code hurled himself from the floor. The elevator was too slow for this state of emergency, and he was able to impulsively take out one of those out-of-place windows that he found so irked him. The way he saw it he even had a reasonable excuse for doing so, provided that they all make through this new and unprecedented adversity for him to offer it up as a defense.

With thoughts like these in his head, the dichotomy between subservience and secret rebellion, it was perhaps fortunate that he had not given thought to how quickly and insistently his lord had sent him off on his way.


◇ | ◇



It was quite the sight – to see a sister and a man in a black jacket commonly accepted to be a demon praying together in the private chapel of Santa Anya, Patron of the Scorned, at the same time as the regular service continued in the church’s expansive nave.

“This plan is far from perfect, you know.” he pointed out.

“It’s the best chance we have,” said the nun, her clear azure eyes peering at the man from under bangs that fetchingly snuck their way out from her habit, “If Altrouge Brunestud is princess of the Dead Apostles, then Trhvmn Ortenrosse is the prime minister. Or I should say the imperialist businessman. The man has had a thumb in nearly every entrepreneurial pie the Aylesburian faction had over his millennia of life.”

“Which I already know, Professor,” the demon said sardonically, “He is the head we need to cut off the snake as soon as possible. Does not change the fact that your plan has too many moving parts and uncertainties to be anything but a risk.”

“Who are you to be lecture me about unnecessary risk-taking?”

He drew his eyes from the Romanesquely-styled ‘Simon aiding Christ’ and cast his gaze at her from over the edge of his highly worn collar, meant to deter undesired lip reading.

“It does not matter to me what happens to any of you. Though, I would rather not have any of your deaths on my conscience, even if it is only by association. I have plenty on it already.”

“We all appreciate the sentiment,” said the nun, the comment accentuated with a roll of her eyes, “That said, your personal thoughts on the matter aren’t relevant. Regardless of your opinion, which I didn’t ask for, the joint simultaneous operations on the White Wing Lord’s estates will proceed in one month’s time anyway. Of course there’s risk involved. But we’ve spent far too many hours and taken countless risks to prepare for this. We cannot possibly wait any longer.”

His hands clasped in faux prayer tightened the sterner his contact became in her tirade. He remained quiet for a moment, his silence an indication that he understood. He had no doubt in the resolve of her and her people, but this undertaking of theirs was to happen on a scale frankly never attempted before. It would dangerously spread their resources thin all the while.

Still, with that being said –

“While I would rather my fight be my fight and leave everyone else out of it, I cannot simply say no to free and willing help.”

“Quite right. We both understand what sort of situation we’re going to be getting into. The Holy Church may hate you because you’re a vampire, but no one denies your capabilities as an asset. In times like these many are willing to look the other way and forget the elephant in the room that you are.”

“Which makes me what to them, exactly? A hunting dog to be let loose against your foes?”

“A natural disaster, in actuality. None of us truly holds any illusion that you can be controlled.”

“So I am one forest fire that you would rather see blaze unhindered, huh?”

“One that can at least be reasoned with, somewhat. Depends on who carries out the negotiations.”

“Small wonder you are the one.”

The nun allowed herself a chuckle, heartfelt or otherwise. “This doesn’t change the fact that you remain a controversial topic amongst the Holy Executioners. Opinions about you are as strong as ever. It’s technically against the creed to offer you any direct assistance at this time.”

“Jesus, one would think an impending crisis would be enough for someone to whistle a different tune.”

“Like what we think matters to you, right?”

“Shut it and go on. You were saying something.”

“Indeed,” she continued, not skipping a beat, “Direct assistance may not be allowed, but you’ll find that, amazingly, it’ll be easier to slip in and out of territory under our watch, and that you may go about and do as you please, as you need to.”

“How is that for boring?” He said with an eye roll of his own as he broke from prayer posture and shoved his hands into his jacket’s pockets.

“Pardon?”

“I said that that’s boring. I go where I want and do what I want anyway – I do not need the consent to do so, that will not clear my conscience.”

Was that his shadow flickering, or did the candlelight catch a stray draft?

“You said that the mission takes place in one month, and I need to be at the place you told me about? You may be alright, but no way am I giving my word to your organization. Natural disaster, remember? The perfect firestorm you all love to hate and cannot decide what to do with?”

Was this same draft also responsible for the way his jacket began to billow like a sail, and ripple and twitch?

“You want trust? Allow me to let you in on an open secret – there is one thing that you can trust about me: trust that I hate these guys way more than any of you could possibly ever. And that is not up for debate. Let that tell you something.”

The demon in the black and the nun had a shared moment of silence following how heated the conversation was starting to become. A good minute passed by before anyone spoke up again.

“You know I have to ask. Is it getting worse?” she asked.

“Cannot tell,” he replied.

“At least that’s not a ‘yes.’ Could you use a change of Shroud?”

“No thanks. I still have Erinyes. I will be fine.”

The nun hmphed at the name and let her feelings go otherwise unspoken. “Then what of the scripture? Is it fine?”

“Seriously, woman? You know what using it does to me, and you care more about it?” he asked dryly.

“You ought to know full well my feelings on those who use up their borrowed time in such a way.” she replied, with a vague sense of distance in her voice.

Once again, so soon, there was no conversation lost between the two, and for how long neither could say. In time, the usually-scheduled evening mass had concluded as it always did, and the crowd of devotees murmured amongst themselves like a swarm of thoughtful, satisfied bees as they pushed their way through the cathedral’s heavy, mahogany doors. The father’s sermon had evidently left on a good note.

That was a natural cue. It indicated that the dialogues in the private chapel too had run their course.

“Happy hunting, Enhance,” she said.

“Don’t we know it, Ciel,” he said.


◇ | ◇




Trhvmn Ortenrosse, the White Wing Lord himself, calmly sat at his desktop computer. His fingers clacked at a brisk pace away at the keyboard, all the while the bloodshed took place in the industrial park outside of the penthouse. Save for the initial breaching of the lair’s barriers, the noise canceling properties of his one remaining residence thoroughly muffled the sounds of violence. Though, even if Ortenrosse could have heard the battle cries and death screams of his subordinates, his attention would have been too diverted to other pressing matters the present situation brought to the forefront for him to truly care for any of their ultimate fates.

A handful of keystrokes and one final strike of the ‘return’ key brought his business to a close. Now, nothing remained but to see how the rest of tonight’s events were to unfold remained on his agenda.

The White Wing Lord was in luck (of some sort), for he did not have to wait long.

Once, twice, three times gunshots roared. The thick, mahogany doors caved in like brittle plyboard, smoking where the rounds had punched through the wood. Even though Ortenrosse had taken all the measures he could to design his quarters in a way that it would drown out the intrusive cacophonies of the outside world, it had not stopped the smells of battle that had intruded upon his last vestiges of sanctuary.

Smoldering sawdust. The iron, raw tang of stale blood. Gun smoke and ozone.

‘…The simmer of slowly cooking flesh…’ he noted.

The man who had passed through the empty doorframe where his beloved imported mahogany had been, and set foot in his office, Enhance, the Knight of Vengeance, stank of carnage. A thin wisp of smoke rose from the side that gripped the Artillery with, accentuated by the gentle hiss and pop of the skin of his arm. Though his face contorted with an emotionally charged sneer beneath his pale shock of hair, he said nothing and only growled under his breath, through his glistening fangs. The pristine gun shat out hot casings and a spent page of canon that clattered and floated to the tiled floor. Its cylinder clicked a notch as part of a reloading mechanism.

“Ah, I see. It is you. I do not know much about you, I’m sorry to say,” Ortenrosse said as he willfully broke the verbal silence his chambers had known for days. “Circumstances rendered me unable to better acquaint myself with the Eighteenth to see what made him so unique. Not since he slayed his predecessor, and my friend. Not since he fled, to continue on with the kinkilling.”

“You seem terribly cool for a guy about to lose everything,” Enhance replied as he kept the hefty scripture’s serpentine barrel leveled in the direction of the White Wing Lord, the edge of his sword rigidly parallel with the floor. “Odd.”

“I’d anticipated that the Church would attempt something as the end date approached. If anything, the sheer scale of the operation would be what caught me off guard, not that fact that it happened in the first place. They have considerable power and numbers in their favor, of that there can be no doubt, but this, the systematic and ancillary assault of all of my lands, that must surely have their resources stretched to the fraying point.

“For such a daring plan to be boldly carried out, in the wake of a network as tight as mine is, someone must have quite the trust in you.”

Enhance’s sword arm twitched. The gun and its wielder roared, and it expelled a shells-worth of blazing steel at the Dead Apostle Ancestor across the room.

“Oh, clearly,” Ortenrosse said when he stood from his seat and adjusted his tie as he stepped out of the way of the veritable dragonfire. To human eyes it would have seemed more like he teleported out of the way. For Enhance’s efforts, the window on the opposite wall shattered unsatisfactorily. “How else would one explain the lack of any Executioners at my doorstep? Not even the most superstitious of ignoramuses would take that for a coincidence. Even if they happen to merely be lagging behind compared to your gung-ho ways, the fact remains that the only one who could have laid my people low so is you. You’re a far more integral component of their plan than you credit yourself for.”

“Why the hell do all you keep talking? Trying to blow your brains out of your damned head, here.”

“As I said before, Blade,” He sneered-smiled as Enhance’s nickname that circulated about vampire society passed his lips, “You break in to my house,kill my men,kill my food, put to waste of resources that have taken longer to accumulate than you’ve been on this earth. It is only fair that I wish to come to an understanding with you, to get to know you, Ancestor to Ancestor. This is to be our first and last fight, after all. Simple is best – until that time I’d rather pick your brain than incise what I want to know from yours after its been pulled from your broken skull.”

“Have a fun time multitasking, then, you rotten old fuck!” The world blurred, and darkness and light came together in a chiaroscuro swirl as Enhance hurled himself with abandon at Ortenrosse, snarling with feral rage.

The sword called Erinyes ached, and when it ached gleefully drank away the life of any who came near it. Even if the life in question was of the “undeath” variety. Even if it had already gorged itself aplenty through the night as Enhance killed his way to Trhvmn Ortenrosse. With a swing of his arm, he sent a backhanded slash, level like the horizon, a void trailing in the sword’s wake like a streamer of blacklight, to slice across the White Wing Lord’s chest.

But the curving darkness cleaved at nothing but air and particles of dust, and the blade remained hungry. Ortenrosse exploded forth from a gust of wind, pounded from the ceiling and was behind Enhance in a less than heartbeat. A rending claw lashed down at the back of the Knight of Vengeance’s head.

Right in a blindspot. A killing strike.

Enhance felt Ortenrosse’s momentum displace the air behind him. In the span of time between instants, he felt the sensation of raw power just about ready to brush at the back of his neck. In that moment’s moment, the subconscious, automatic portions of his mind registered only one, simple message:

Danger.

Without giving any true thought to it, Enhance surged forward and spun on his toes in rightward-favoring inertia. He had his opponent in his line of sight as he flew backwards from what would have been the strike zone. Ortenrosse’s blow, like Enhance’s only scant fractions of a second before, caught nothing.

Not promising, Enhance realized. To his keen reflexes, the other ghouls and their Dead Apostle betters he had spent the previous minutes quickly annihilating with holy incendiary buckshot and cleaving strikes from the bygone and infernal sword had been walking into battle against him. He was so far above them in all parameters that the redundancy of clearing through their mobs had disoriented his vampiric muscle memory. By wading through such a large crowd on the way to his target, going through the motions required to dispose of any who got in the way of his self-appointed mission as fast as possible, he had inadvertently dulled himself into a position where he could be caught off-guard and overwhelmed by Ortenrosse’s awesome, primeval strength and agility.

In a fight like this, where all it took from the combatants to determine who lived and who was red-and-grey paste on the walls was a single decisive strike, there were no second chances.

He kept this in the back of his mind. Enhance lunged from the wall, focused intently on his enemy’s position, and drew his blade to his side and perpendicular with his shoulders.

He couldn’t trust his reflexes. There was no way to make up the gap in experience that Ortenrosse had on him. Ortenrosse still had an undeniable home turf advantage, even though Enhance had eviscerated his boundary fields with Erinyes’ handiwork. All he could do was trust in his God-given ability to make the most of any given situation.

His throbbing, burdened sword arm, the vestigial relic of his existence before life as the Eighteenth and his familiarity with the truly moonlit side of the moonlit world, twitched involuntarily at the mere thought of begrudging his heritage anything.

No past. No present. Only the future.

As always, it hurt to hold the sword, just as it hurt to hold the gun. But with those words overshadowing every other thought, the pain and the memories were dispelled from his mind.

Sword flashing dark even in the darkness, Enhance made once more for Ortenrosse in an inhuman burst of speed. The first strike, another backhanded slice bearing the full force of his inertia, was an attack that Ortenrosse had already dodged at the start of the fight. He stepped out of the blade’s path even more contemptuously than he had the first time he avoided the move.

Enhance intuitively knew this. That was why he played that old hand of cards. Though it would have been a fortuitous miracle if it had, his blow was not meant to kill. It was to lead. In that time between moments, when actions decide the difference between win or loss, the strike became a feint, and the sword’s edge split the air on its way into Ortenrosse.

One strike led into a string of combos, seeking to carve into the Seventeeth Dead Apostle Ancestor’s body. And still Ortenrosse stood, moving out of the way enough to avoid being torn by the black storm cloud of afterimages and aura left by every high speed swing of Erinyes.

“You possess true talent for destruction, young Eighteen. Unfortunately for you I have my years on my side. You’re far too simple, and for me, as it always is, simple is best!”

Enhance snarled as he swung his sword over and over again, the razor edge cut where Ortenrosse’s evasions should have taken him next, bitterly spiteful of his own uselessness. His bloodshot, icy-clear eyes bore like a basilisk’s into Ortenrosse, angered by how he had been one step behind the ancient vampire since the very start of the fight.

In sympathetic response to Enhance’s surging fury, a pair of massive and limber batlike wings sprung forth from the holes cut out of his jacket above his shoulder blades. The dark fleshy appendages flapped with supernaturally-charged force and blasted Enhance above and past the White Wing Lord. From the ceiling to the far wall to the other wall to finally Ortenrosse he zoomed like an angry pinball to the Magus-turned-Dead Apostle Ancestor. With their aid, Enhance had true access to the full range of three-dimensional movement the businessman’s sizable lair had to offer.

He knew now for sure that his speed surpassed Ortenrosse’s. No longer did he attempt to sneak in a sucker punch of a kill-strike in between Enhance’s movements. Now, the elder vampire seemed to have dedicated his efforts fully to dodging all of the “Blade’s” ceaseless barrage of dive bombings and incineration-upon-impact gunfire. Ortenrosse, if his movements could be perceived unaided, stepped like a well versed ballroom dancer, or a seasoned fisticuffer, led by an aggressive partner or on the ropes in the prize fight, forced to go where his foe wanted him to.

Enhance’s undeniable yet inconclusive domination of their brawl had forced the flow of the battle into one of the workshop’s numerous siderooms, a large greenhouse in which the sliver of moon shone down from the heavens on the vegetation like a sepia spotlight. Amidst the exotic succulents, rare trees, and unbelievably valuable flowers shipped in from overseas that together all made for an arboreal, sylvan atmosphere, the battle to the death continued with no clear end in sight.

Ortenrosse frowned as he was forced to kick up clods of moist dirt from his beloved garden with each evasive step. Enhance bore less apprehension for the state of his senior Ancestor’s fauna and kept up the pressure. Again and again he chopped at Ortenrosse. Erinyes pulsated thirstily, as usual but even moreso, like a Pavlovian dog in response to all of the life and other energies kept in the greenhouse. He continued to chase the hastily dodging, unsure-footed Ortenrosse deeper into the greenery.

That’s when it happened. In that moment, in that instant, Enhance’s dogged pursuit was stopped and his world was filled with nothing but pain. The agony halted him in his tracks so suddenly, so unexpectedly that he nearly fell to his knees when it hit.

Watermelons. Pumpkins. Squash. His body was covered in their fruits and vines. His arms, his legs, feet, knees, abdomen, and sides were taken into the plants. Where his body had disappeared into them, blood poured from in crimson rivulets. And they moved. And every time they moved he was wracked with torture and more blood spilled into the soil beneath his boots. And the ground seemed so very much like it greedily drank every drop he lost.

And the plants moved like that because they had jaws. And they had jaws because they had mouths full of knife teeth.

Vampire melons. They were honest, Goddamned vampire melons.

In any other context, it honestly should have been funny. But it was not. It was an audienceless gag wasted on of two humorless men.

“I knew this was a trap you’d fall for. Do you like them? It was I, Trhvmn Ortenrosse, who was the one who actually pioneered these familiars and popularized them in Eastern Europe. Didn’t think that you were in a duel of fates with a patent-holding minor celebrity, did you?”

That is until the White Wing Lord couldn’t help himself.

“It appears as if first blood has gone to me, then. In spades, to boot. It’ll be the last blood, too, you little shit upstart,” Ortenrosse said, attempting to keep the composure that was expected of him but was simultaneously slipping into the ecstasy of victory. “You’ll spill no more my people’s blood here, and pay for that debt in triplicate. Or anywhere else for that matter. For better or for worse your story ends here, as the punchline of an incredibly dumb but disarmingly funny joke. I shall endeavour to keep your story alive and well long after you’ve been reduced to mulch by relaying it friends and acquaintances. You can bet big dollars that it’ll most definitely be a hit at the Aylesbury event.”

The very name of that forbidden ritual made Enhance quiver uncomfortably. The implications of the Dark Six’s summoning to the world were fearsome.

“You recall how I keep saying ‘Simple is best’ like I believe it? Well, I do. These little ones here are no exception, even though I did go on to cultivate them as part of a pet project. Improved on the originals, of course. Now they can do so much more, and are still a SNAP to use!”

The fruits all bit down in unison and Enhance shrieked. His muscles spasmed. Again, the only thing that kept him standing were the plants clamped into his flesh. His head swam. He suffered vertigo with both feet planted firmly on the dirt floor. His wounds felt like battery acid spurted into them from their rows and rows of teeth.

A watermelon had bitten so hard into him that the arm that held the Holy Crematal Artillery fell down with a plop, torn off at the elbow. Barely still attached to his body by thin sinew and stringy veins, it lay there on the damp topsoil uselessly, stained with dirt and blood, like the now wielderless Mystic Codes of so many other Dead Apostles slain by him that night. From the stumps dribbled a liquefied puddle of pinkish sludge that used to belong inside of Enhance.

“While they are not so good at direct offense,” Ortenrosse said, “I’ve found they serve as excellent traps, and as a way to dispose of undesireds. Forced decay by means of the injection of foreign, malignant prana. A hatefully handy and simple little technique, indeed. ”

Enhance could barely keep his eyes open. Even if he could, he would not see much. His vision was dissolving away.

Trying to turn his head felt like he was trying to move a mountain.

It took so long, and he could feel nothing.

After what felt like hours, he gripped between his teeth a stretch of fabric.

With one last burst of motion, possibly the last move he would ever make again, like a proud, wild wolf ripping the throat from an elk, he tore the Shroud knotted around his shoulder joint off.

All went dark.



◇ | ◇




All went dark, and in the darkness something bellowed.

It flared out like a lightless firework. It emanated the true opposite of light.

It stood in front of where the vanishing points of the black rays came together, somehow illuminated by the backdrop like an ultradark anti-halo. It clung to him. The leering mass hung halfway on, halfway off Enhance, simultaneously like a suit of armor and a mirrored shadow of the darkest sables. It was a vaguely man-shaped clump of miasma. It twitched and flickered like a staticky television set, which lent to it an unhinged, impermanent impression.

There was no doubt it was now part of reality. In the explosive instant that it appeared, Ortenrosse lost all connections with his familiars, their lives snuffed away in that moment of a moment with little familiar moans.

It raised an arm and pointed the sword right in his direction. The greenhouse, the whole building itself, rumbled, rhythmically, soundlessly. Ortenrosse’s dawning realization figured it out. That thing, that which could only be seen by where it didn’t appear, was laughing.

And it hungered like a black hole.

Hundreds of lances of fiery darkness blanketed the room. The moon could not shine here. Not a speck of light could sneak its way in, so all encompassing was the black.

Ortenrosse was overwhelmed by the sensation of claustrophobia. The air was thin. Even though he had rid himself of that limitation, lost the need to breathe, he clenched at his suit jacket’s chest involuntarily. His hairs stood on end. He felt the drain.

All of his experience screamed at him. Screamed at him to get out of there right this instant. That a continued existence waited for him outside, anywhere not here, just past those windows that he knew the greenhouse plentifully had. He unfurled shining white, feathered wings from the back of his silvery suit’s jacket, ready to escape.

He could not bring himself to move even a millimeter from his position.

Once again that night, he heard the sound of glass shattering. For the last time, he heard the sound of glass shattering.

From within the shadows, a dozen broken Plexiglas windowpanes swung like axe blades at his trapped form.

Ortenrosse was flayed where he stood. Over and over again.


◇ | ◇



He shambled, rather than walked, and stumbled rather than stepped forward.

However it could be described, the task was a Herculanean one for Enhance.

What seemed like a league to his battered, unstable body could not have been more than four meters in reality. Slowly, ever, ever so slowly, but with unmistakable sureness driving his clumsy, limping baby steps he walked to the ruined mess that was the rent figure of Ortenrosse.

“Curse? Curse? Curse. Yes, that must be it. That has to be it, most definitely assuredly indubitably so. Yes, indeed. No, curses. No. Curses. Yes, curses, plural…” Ortenrosse said with a weakly, retching sputter, though he no longer had a stomach to vomit with.

It could be said that Ortenrosse no longer cut the same profile that he used to before his fight with Enhance. His mangled limbs twisted unnaturally and were broken off from his body. Hulking blades of shattered windows still steaming with the aftereffects of the devouring curse shredded and stuck his body like a pincushion, or an abused insect specimen. Every where the oversized shanks gored him inconvenienced any healing that would have been otherwise taken by his ability to restore himself.

But, tonight’s moon was nowehere near full. Crimson Moon would not smile upon either Ancestor. Yet, even if that were the case, the lingering presence of the spell made than an impossibility, either.

Ortenrosse finally noticed Enhance peering down and bleeding on him, moving like a Hollywood rendition of the walking dead. “You! How can one so young, so contemporary, be haunted by such an imposing curse that they are possessed by a demon of that magnitude?” Ortenrosse gagged out a wheezy hack for this outburst of uncharacteristic for a vampire, but perfectly in line for a Magus who had just witnessed an event of mystery and wonder.

It was far more in character for the man he used to be, before he tossed aside the mortal coil that bound all humanity and transformed himself into a feared creature of the night.

His eyes flicked down to Enhance’s one remaining arm. It still defiantly held on to Erinyes, the blade that was at center stage the whole time in the incident that, if it had eaten a meal, now seemed well-fed but still unsatisfied for deeper reasons.

“Was it all because of that swor –” He began to ask impulsively before his chest was impaled by the sword in question. He felt that, and yelped and went cross-eyed as the sharp metal buried itself into him up to the hilt.

“I don’t tell my life’s story to strangers or assholes,” Enhance slurred, as if he were groggy from lack of sleep. “ ’specially not assholes who sic gourds on me. But, if it really gets your knickers in a knot so badly, then let’s just say that because my family tried to play God for years and in the end they got me for their troubles. Since I’m here now, as an ‘Apostle Ancestor, it didn’t end so well for them.”

“Do you believe this was worth it?” Ortenrosse asked, his senses brought back down to reality by his newest chest wound, though he still stammered to get his words out, “Do you really believe this was worth the trouble?”

“ ‘course. The Aylesbury Ritual’s effectively neutered now. Your empire’s gone, came apart at the seams, and you’re not for long to follow it. ‘s nothin’ but over.”

“THEN I’VE HAD YOU, AND THAT’S ALL THAT MATTERS!” Ortenrosse screamed, caught up in a state of sudden mania. “IT’S ALL GONE! IT’S ALL GONE, ALL RIGHT, BECAUSE THERE’S NOTHING!! I GAVE IT ALL, ALL AWAY TO THE OTHERS, AND WHAT I COULDN’T, I PURGED!!!

“DON’T YOU SEE IT?! DON’T YOU SEE HOW STUPID AND POINTLESS IT ALL WAS NOW!? I HAVE NOTHING TO MY NAME! YOU’VE, SIR, YOU’VE BEEN GIVING IT YOUR ALL TO KILL A BROKE MAN!!!!”

Enhance blinked slowly, his eyes glazed over and unfocused. He said nothing. An expected answer, his defeated foe thought.

“It will proceed, according to plan, like it always has been, and there is nothing you humans and traitors alike can do about it,” Ortenrosse said. Rationality was once more present in his voice, though he breathed harder, more arhythmically than ever before. The venerable Ancestor had neared his final, conclusive end. “Though I may die, I can rest satisfied knowing that you will be gone with me, and that I can spend my final moments in the lands of my birth. That, that cannot be taken from me.”

Then, Ortenrosse’s face was twisted and slammed into the bloodied dirt by Enhance’s one palm; his neck twisted almost a full one-hundred eighty degrees. The stiff bones creaked in audible, desperate protest.

“What? What are you doing?” He stuttered, caught off guard.

“Had to tempt fate, didn’t you?” Enhance said as he suddenly straddled Ortenrosse’s chest with his viselike knees. Pretty damn obvious, ain’t it? Whether ‘r not this mission was ultimately a wash or not didn’t matter. You hurt me so badly that I was gonna’ve t’ suck yer blood if I wanted to get out of here alive. I do. But now y’ just deserve everythin’ yer’re gettin’.”

That was the first time that Enhance had experienced a dying man balk all the way to the grave. “Crazy talk! How petty must you be?! The Dead Apostles cannot drink from themselves! The pain has gone to your head for certain!”

“Y’ kept goin’ onanon ‘bout getting’ to know me better, ‘ight? Well, nowsyer chance to see me fer what I r’lly am.”

Enhance buried his fangs deep into the base of Ortenrosse’s neck. He snapped down with so much force that he broke all of the bones with the power of his jaws. That was when he drank. To him, Ortenrosse’s blood tasted utterly putrid. It was just like drinking vomit, it burned, it was disgusting, his entire being rebelled against the nature of the act, and the value for his body in what he downed was a virtual nil.

For Enhance, it was enough. He choked it all down, and was rewarded for his shameless drive to live. He could make the most of any given situation, after all. His talents were innate to the Nth degree, and all he had to do was apply himself. He could already feel his vampire’s Curse of Restoration at work, the biological clock turning back to make his tattered body whole once more like it should be.

“I…see……a per-…pref…a perfected…human………How rare…so…nostalgiiiiiic…” Ortenrosse said his final words as he was reduced to a brittle and shriveled husk.

Erinyes flashed brilliantly for an intense second before all “light” from it blinked out. The sword had swallowed the remaining vestige of life from Ortenrosse. Now, it seemed to be truly content, or possibly asleep.

Enhance stood up, dusted the remains of the ash formerly known as the White Wing Lord, and flexed the bicep and made fists with his newly grown arm. His body was revitalized, yet Enhance’s mood remained dour and unsatisfied. A shame about the old one – it still wore the sleeve from his jacket. Repairs would need to be taken, and they were sure to be costly, too.

He directed his gaze to the other arm, the one that had not needed to be restored. Not that it his sword arm could be in the same fashion as the rest of his body. It hung numbly at his side, all pins and needles and wrinkles like an old man’s. His hate curse, his own personal demon bolstered by Erinyes’ own Curse of Devouring, had done no inconsiderable number on it. It was practically necrotic at this point. Enhance would need much spiritual healing therapy to get it functioning again, assuming it wasn’t already in so terrible a condition that it would need to be replaced with a puppet limb.

He gazed at the old, thick line of scar tissue right where it met with the shoulder, the old wound that had somehow broke the “perfection” that he represented and allowed so much of his humanity to survive into his transformation into the Eighteenth.

It was comforting, he supposed, to still retain a part of himself like that. It was basically like having a friend with him at all times.

The metronomic, monotonic hum of helicopter blades cutting through the air could be heard in the distance growing closer, just in time for everything to end, like a cliché straight out of an action movie’s ending. Enhance turned his haze now to the expansive view of Dubai’s nighttime skyline. Sure enough, a row of flying lights was making its way across the bay to Hunyad.

“Well, shit. You guys missed all the fun,” he mumbled. “It will be boring here, now.”



~To be continued in Tsukihime II~


100%


This is what I get for trying to write a MoonPrin story with unbelievably piss-poor memory of the lore and speculah. It’s not a pretty thing. Please tear apart at your leisure, judges.

Milbunk
March 4th, 2014, 11:23 AM
DEVIL'S THRILL






“The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.
An evil soul producing holy witness
Is like a villain with a smiling cheek,
A goodly apple rotten at the heart.
O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”



William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice







Part I


The architect of the building was either clueless or negligent about the acoustics of the building he had designed. That, and the stairs were a little too steep.
Those were the two observations that an old priest made during his ascent towards the third floor of the building; a somewhat run-down palace in one of the side-streets around Vatican City. His every step was accompanied by a loud and long echo, which resounded throughout the stairwell and the hallways. Moving around the building silently was completely impossible, the traitorous echoes bouncing off the walls and marble floors, and alerting everyone inside the building. The priest wondered for a moment if perhaps the building had been designed that way on purpose, so as to alert its staff of any intruders. Knowing that he would never know the answer, he made a small mental shrug and decided not to entertain the thought any more.
He was quite old, with numerous wrinkles and a small hunch, yet he retained a youthful spirit and had a surprisingly good endurance for someone of his age and stature; the long and arduous ascent to the top floor of the building failed to take any noticeable strain on the man.


Hurrying up the stairs and down the poorly-lit hallway to the right on his target floor, he found himself in front of his destination in no time.
'Director' – stated a small brass plate on the door.
The priest straightened the small black cap on the back of his head, pushed his round spectacles higher, to the root of his nose, and knocked politely a couple of times.
He waited to be invited in, but there was no answer. Not discouraged by this, he just knocked again, this time a little louder. Again, no one replied from the inside or opened the door, to which the priest narrowed his eyes a little; he was certain that the person he was looking for was inside the room, so the lack of reply came as a little bit of an annoyance. He decided to try once more, knocking on the heavy wood three times, slowly and loudly. And again – silence.
Tired of knocking and waiting in vain, he grabbed the doorknob and tried turning it. With a silent creak of the hinges, the door swung open sluggishly, but still more easily than one might expect considering their size. The priest entered the room without further hesitation.


The first thing he noticed was how stuffy the office was, his lungs reflexively gasping for air within a few seconds. The second was how dark it was in there; the three large windows, which spanned almost the full width and height of the wall opposite the door, had been almost completely covered by the curtains, leaving only narrow cracks open for the few rays of sunshine to get through. In its path the weak light revealed an entire cloud of dust, which seemed to perpetually hang in the air; neither swirling around nor showing any sings of subsiding, either.


The priest's eyes were instantly drawn to a large mahogany desk that lay in front of the middle window, but that wasn't due to its massive size nor its central location in the room - what caught the old man's attention were the contents of the desk.
All the usual things - books, files, stationary, and various accessories - had been removed from the desk and placed rather carelessly into several heaps to the both sides of it. Its place had been taken by a huge, and rising, house of cards. Its bottom layer covered the entirety of the desktop. The pyramid of the cards rose over three feet in height, and there were only three or four rows remaining for it to be completed. One after another, pairs of cards were added atop the existing rows, slowly but steadily. The builder of this imposing structure was almost completely hidden behind their creation, but the priest managed to catch a glimpse of messy, silvery hair behind the top layer of the cards.
“Hello, Narbareck,” he greeted the person, his lips curling into a small and kind smile.
There was no reply from behind the rising mountain of cards.


The old priest sighed, as if to say ‘this is so like you’. He dragged one of the chairs from the corner by the door across the room and to the desk, and started observing the meticulously built house of cards as it grew taller and taller. He was restless, though, and grew bored of watching Narbareck put cards together into triangles within less than a minute. He stood up and proceeded to stroll around Narbareck’s office aimlessly. Loud creaks from the ancient wooden floor accompanied his every step. He passed sluggishly by the tall bookshelves that lined the wall to the right of Narbareck’s desk, running his fingers across the spines of the books, and finally stopped in front of the window. Even though the curtains had been drawn over the window so that natural light could only come through a tiny crack in the middle, it was obvious that the sun was high and shining brightly. Without even thinking, the priest raised his hand to spread the curtains.


He was stopped in his tracks, though, when Narbareck suddenly spoke:
“Stop right there or I will kill you.”
The order was effective; Narbareck’s voice was low, menacing, and ice-cold. However, while one might have expected the priest to freeze in terror – as most people would – he just chuckled childishly and slowly backed away from the window, turning towards Narbareck.
“One might start thinking that you’re a vampire, the way you seclude yourself in here in total darkness,” he said, his lips curling into a mischievous grin. A few seconds passed in silence before Narbareck replied:
“If you break my concentration and I make a mistake, I promise I will kill you.”
“You’re as harsh as usual,” the priest said with a sigh and sat down in his chair again.
He started tapping on the small part of the desk that wasn’t occupied by the house of cards with his index finger, but a killer glare from Narbareck quickly made him opt for twirling his thumbs in his lap instead.


Finally, after a very long minute of silence, Narbareck declared:
“Done!”
“Finally.”
“Patience is a virtue, Merem.”
“My. Never thought I’d hear that from you.”
“Spare me your wit,” Narbareck said and finally emerged from behind a mountain of cards. Her silvery hair was uncombed, and strands of it covered the right half of her face. A single emerald eye was locked with Merem’s.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
“Business, I’m afraid.”
“Ah. ‘Business’.”
She turned away from the priest and walked over to the window, her hands behind her back. Merem couldn’t help but notice that her figure, albeit partially obfuscated by her baggy black and white habit, seemed somewhat thinner than the last time he saw her. And he had utmost confidence in his memory.
“Stop staring at my arse,” Narbareck suddenly said.
“How did you...”
“I can feel your stare,” she said, shooting him a cold look over her shoulder.
“Sorry,” he replied, chuckling, “You do seem awfully thin, though. Are you eating properly?”
”What are you, my mother?”
“Of course not. Your mother is dead.”
“Do you have a degree in stating the obvious or something? It was a rhetorical question.”
Another chuckle came from Merem, before he spoke again:
”So...?”
“I’m doing just fine,” Narbareck said, cutting him short, “I’m working out regularly, and my muscles are fine.”
”You don’t seem particularly fine, though.”
”Of course not. They’ve been keeping me locked up in here since last year. I mostly just sit here all day, except when I’m sleeping. Oh, and there’s also the gym. Such fun.”
“I knew that they kept an eye on you, but I didn’t know it was that bad.”
“It’s bad. The building is also under constant watch; I figure that the Vatican would be under red alert if I suddenly went out for a walk or something. Seriously, those guys are incredibly paranoid. I’ve had to dismantle surveillance cameras and mikes throughout the building twice in the last year.”
“They do seem pretty jumpy around you. Maybe...”
“Maybe they should just fuck off. I’m telling you – if I just left for the nearest grocery store or restaurant, there would probably be a dozen Executors breathing down my neck in a second, and the Pope would be declaring apocalypse!”
Merem waited for a few seconds for Narbareck to calm down after this outburst of frustration. There was still a buzz in the old man’s ears, as Narbareck didn’t seem to possess the ability to control the loudness of her voice.
“Are you okay now?”
”What a stupid question,” she said and turned back to the window.


In one fell swoop she spread the curtains apart, and opened the window.
A stream of bright light and fresh air suddenly filled the room, and Merem had to squint in repsone. Warmth of the stale air tapered off, and the gloomy darkness that permeated the room was dispelled in a blink of an eye by a powerful and blinding torrent of warm June sun. Narbareck took a strand of hair that covered her right eye and tucked it nonchalantly behind her ear. She stood silently in front of the window for a while, observing the scenery below.
The city was bustling with activity - a group of tourists were insecurely making their way across the small piazza below the window of her office, on their way to the nearby Via della Conciliazione, and then, of course, to the Vatican.
Muffled noise of thousands of cars and mopeds permeated the air, mixed with the clicking of the tourists’ cameras and shouts in some incomprehensible Asian language. However, the bustle and charm of the streets of Rome failed to leave an impression on Narbareck; she neither scowled nor smiled, and just kept looking at the rooftops and the alleys with an expressionless look on her face.


“Lovely weather, isn’t it?” Merem said, trying to reignite the conversation.
“Sure,” she replied, and then promptly returned to her desk, disappearing behind the tower of cards again.
“What are you going to do with this?”
“I don’t know. I thought about setting it on fire or something.”
“It’d be a waste – this looks like a very fine desk. It would be such a shame to damage it.”
Merem’s feigned concern for her furniture didn’t trick Narbareck, who only replied with a snicker.
Then, just as quickly and unexpectedly as she had pulled the curtains apart, she toppled the cards.
She swept the bottom layer completely, after which the upper layers came tumbling down, and rather loudly at that. The whole process was surprisingly short, Merem observed, considering the sheer size of the structure. Within only a few seconds a huge house of cards that Narbareck had spent God knows how many hours meticulously and painstakingly building, was gone.
Narbareck’s impulsive action and the momentous collapse of the card tower left both her and Merem in the state of mild shock for a while; they just sat in silence again, staring at the heap of cards on the desk. It was again Merem who broke the silence:
”Dammit!” he said, looking visibly disappointed.
“What’s wrong, old man? Feel sorry that it’s gone?”
“No. It’s just that I had this brilliant plan about feigning a sneeze – which I would have justified easily with all the dust that’s still in the air; you should really open that window more often – with which I would have toppled the tower myself. But now my plan is ruined, thanks to you.”
Narbareck stared at the old priest, wide-eyed and seemingly at a loss for words. His fast-paced babbling and the nonchalant tone of his voice left her stunned.
”Say – are you senile or childish? I can’t tell.”
”I’d say that there’s not much difference,” he said with a chuckle.
“I guess you’re right. But still – thinking of destroying this without my permission? Do you crave death so much?”
“Now, now. Is that a way to treat an old friend? To kill me over such a trifle?”
”I’ve killed people for less,” she said, in a flat voice, took out a small dagger from one of the drawers in her desk, and started clearing her overgrown fingernails.
“So, what is this ‘business’ that you have with me?”
“Right!” the priest exclaimed, suddenly energised again. “I’ve got some news for you which I think you’ll be pleased to hear.”
”You seem quite impatient. Come on, tell me.”
“It’s about Gransurg Blackmore.”


Narbareck’s mouth widened into a grin. Her emerald eyes were suddenly alight with excitement.
“Do go on.”
“Our informant told me via my... helpers, that Blackmore has left his mansion in Prague yesterday evening, and has headed for his old castle. He’s taken most of his coven with him.”
“Has our operation been discovered?”
”I don’t think so – apparently he left because the Association had started to tighten their grip in Prague. The word is that a special team of Enforcers was sent from the Clock Tower.”
”Are you sure about that?”
”Pretty sure. I’m still in contact with out friend in Blackmore’s coven.”
“But... wait – isn’t Blackmore supposed to be cooperating with the Association?”
”Heh. ‘Cooperating’ might be stretching it a little. Anyways, yes, he does, usually; but apparently he got into a conflict with some of those stuck up Clock Tower lords, and now he’s sort of fallen out of favour.”
“I see. So, Blackmore is back to his castle?”
”It seems so.”
”Well, that makes things simpler.”
”I... don’t see how it-”
“It’s time for action, Merem. At last!”
”You can’t just storm Gransurg’s castle without a plan!”
”I’m afraid there’s no time to waste,” Narbareck said, rising to her feet. She hid the dagger with which she was playing inside a compartment in her right boot, and headed towards the door, “It’s a race against time now that the magi got involved. We can’t afford to wait, so I’ll just make some sort of plan as I go.”
Despite her words of concern about the agents of the Association, Merem got the impression that she wasn’t at all disturbed by the turn of events. On the contrary; having been left with a narrow window of opportunity seemed to have made her terribly excited. Her grin was positively disturbing.
“Narbareck, don’t be reckless!” Merem pleaded, but he had already resigned to the fact that there was no negotiating with his Captain once she had come upon a scent of prey. Narbareck had set her sights on Blackmore a year ago, and her patience - if she ever had any real patience – was running short.
“You know you’re asking the impossible, Merem,” she said with a chuckle, “I could never forgive myself if I let this chance slip, or worse; if the Association’s dogs beat me to it.”
The two stared into each others’ eyes for a few more seconds, before Merem finally gave up:
”I guess it’s meaningless to implore you to come up with a new strategy.”
”It is.”
“Well, since that’s the case, I’ll just leave the necessary documents here,” he said, taking out a large brown folder and placing it on the desk, “These are maps, blueprints, escape plans, and everything else you’ll need.”
”Are you going somewhere already?”
”Yes. Otherwise I would stay and maybe even plan this out with you, but since you’re so determined to take immediate action, I better adapt to the situation. My little friends will keep an eye on Blackmore’s castle, and I’ll stay in touch with you to let you know if anything happens.”
”Good. And do try to reestablish contact with our guy there. So that he’s ready when the time comes.”
”Of course.”
”Good. Well, that’s it then,” Narbareck said, barely suppressing her excitement. A familiar spark had already appeared in her eyes, Merem noted – a spark of an insatiable murderous impulse. Even an Ancestor like himself couldn’t help but feel nervous at the sight of it.
“Well, Merem,” she said, opening the doors and stepping outside, “It’s hunting time.”


(...)




Part II


Within seconds of leaving her office at the headquarters of the Burial Agency, Narbareck was already dashing down the narrow streets that led to the Via della Conciliazione, impatient to get to the Vatican as soon as possible. Still catching her breath after running down several flights of stairs, she entertained herself by fantasizing about reactions of the agents placed in charge of her surveillance. Her sudden venture into the outside world, after being locked up in that godforsaken building for months on end, must have taken them completely by surprise. A few cups of coffee must have gotten broken or spilt, she was certain.
‘And they’ve probably already alerted those old farts in the Vatican.’
It was only a matter of minutes before men in black robes would surround her and escort her back. Hers was an unwelcome presence in the normal world, among other humans, and even less welcome in the Vatican, where she was aching to get to as quickly as she could.
Well, as fast as she could without breaking into running, to be more precise. Not that Narbareck particularly cared about appearances; it was just that running in her habit would have almost certainly ended in her tripping and falling face-first onto the pavement. And she had no wish to show up with a bleeding nose in front of the cardinals. Again, she didn’t really care about their opinions of her – she knew that they despised her as the lowest of the scum and wanted to have nothing to do with her – it was just that she questioned her own self-control, and wasn’t really sure that she’d be able to stop herself from breaking a neck or two should anyone laugh at her.
So she settled for the next best thing, which was to walk at a fastest pace possible and contain her urge to take lives for a while. She looked a bit awkward walking like that, but then again, Narbareck was hardly someone who could just simply disappear into the crowd.


Her silvery hair and her black robes fluttered in the warm summer zephyr, turning a number of heads in the streets. The long and unkempt strands of her hair kept falling over her eyes, which quickly started to annoy her. Just as she had reached the avenue, she decided that she had had enough; she took a small hairband and pulled her hair into a tail. That only made more people pay attention to her, but she hardly noticed.
The Via della Conciliazione was absolutely packed with people and vehicles; tourist buses, motorcycles, taxis, bicycles... all of them creating an unimaginable chaos and noise as they tried to wiggle their was to St. Peter’s Square.
Even though it was quite a shock, following months of what was not much different than solitary confinement, Narbareck remained unfazed by the hectic atmosphere of Rome most famous avenue, and just kept pressing on towards St. Peter’s, pushing people aside with her hands and elbows without batting an eye, her gaze fixed on the towering dome of the world’s most famous church.


A few hurt and stunned tourists later, she was standing in St. Peter’s Square, a little surprised that she hadn’t been caught by the agents of the Church yet.
She moved to the relative safety of the colonnades on the northern side of the square, and remained there for a few seconds to observe.
Failing to spot the familiar black robes of the Executors, she mingled into the crowd again and headed for the Via di Porta Angelica, just behind the northern colonnades. The crowds were somewhat thinner in the street, but there seemed to be some commotion around the Gate of St. Anna; two black cars had just left the Vatican at full speed, apparently not concerned in the slightest about the pedestrians scattered throughout the narrow streets. Several tourists around Narbareck mumbled in disapproval as she elbowed her way to the gates, which had already been closed shut.
Two Swiss guardsmen in their plain, blue uniforms, stood on guard in front of the gate – Narbareck immediately noticed that they were carrying sidearms; an unusual sight, seeing as how the Guard mostly had a ceremonial role. Weapons were only carried when Pope was nearby, mostly during his trips abroad. That two regular guardsmen were armed meant that the Vatican was on alert.
This only brought a wide grin on Narbareck’s face.


She straightened her hair and clothes a little, and took out a large, black, Pectoral cross from one of the pockets of her habit. She hanged the necklace around her neck, put on an angelic expression on her face, and approached the gates. The guards immediately stopped her:
”I’m sorry, sister, no entry,” said one of the guards; a middle-aged and well-built man.
“The Vatican is currently off grounds for everyone,” added the second guard; a young blonde lad with blue eyes.
“Oh? Did something happen?”
“Nothing serious, don’t worry. But an emergency situation has been introduced, and the security has been tightened around the city.”
“I see. I hope nothing bad has happened.”
”No, no, don’t worry,” the older guard said with a kind smile, “just a little security issue, but nothing serious. Everything should be taken care of soon.”
”That’s good. Well, I’ve received an invitation from cardinal-“ Narbareck started, stepping forward, but was cut short and stopped again by the younger guard.
“I’m afraid we can’t let you pass. No one enters or leaves the Vatican until the situation’s been resolved and the state of emergency recalled.”
“And besides, we couldn’t let you in without proper authorisation anyways,” said the other man.
“Authorisation? But... I don’t have any papers with me...”
“In that case I’m afraid we can’t let you enter the Vatican.”
“But... I had a call this morning from Cardinal Tomko. I’m from the Urbaniana University, and he asked me to come at this hour to the Vatican. We have some issues to discuss...”
”Couldn’t he have arranged to meet you somewhere else?” said the younger guard, eying her suspiciously.
“He said that he was too busy today to leave the Vatican, and asked me to come to his office here. He said there shouldn’t be problems with me entering,” Narbareck replied humbly, keeping her head down.
“Well, I’m certain that the Cardinal and you have some important issues to discuss, but I’m afraid we can’t let you pass without proper documents.”
“But you don’t understand – I have to hurry! I can’t let the Cardinal-“
”Sister, I’m sorry, but the Vatican is currently off-limits,” said the younger guard, stepping forward ad forcing Narbareck to back away a little.


Narbareck hung her head, staring at the pavement blankly for a few seconds. Then, she locked her gaze with the older guard’s, and started to twirl the cross on her necklace between her fingers.
“But... I really have to go to that meeting with the Cardinal...” she pleaded. Her pale lips twirled into a small and cruel smile.
The guard’s eyes slowly moved downwards. A second later, they widened in terror. He recognised the cross with which the young nun in front of him was playing; the shiny black Peter Cross – a cross turned upside-down – was undoubtedly one of a kind. And, being a veteran part of the Vatican’s security, he knew to whom it belonged. While he had failed to recognise Narbareck by her unique white hair, he realized her true identity by her cross necklace. Pope’s security force had been informed of Narbareck’s existence over a year ago, when she took over the infamous Burial Agency. And while her picture faded from his memory in time, the black reverse cross somehow got firmly engraved into his mind.
He swallowed nervously, and his entire body suddenly got soaked in cold sweat. Narbareck didn’t fail to notice the man’s reaction, which made her grin even wider.
And when the guard lowered his right hand to his sidearm, she said in a quiet, but menacing voice:
”I don’t want any trouble, gentlemen.”
“I’m sorry?” said the younger guard, who, unlike his senior partner, didn’t recognise Narbareck. He had only been in the Swiss Guard for a few months, and while he was aware of the existence of the Burial Agency and its infamous leader, he didn’t know what Narbareck looked like.
“Would you please let me pass?” Narbareck said to the older guard, her voice angelically sweet again.
“I... have to consult my superior officer...” the man mumbled. He was breaking into sweat already, which greatly amused the girl.
“I don’t think there’s any need for that. Why cause unnecessary trouble? And I’m already late to my meeting with the Cardinal.”
“There’s still procedure, sister. I’m sure you understand,” the younger guard said.
“Of course, of course. I understand.”


She turned to the older guard, fixing her cold green eyes with his terrified grey ones.
“W-well, of course, we must be professional... but in this case I think we can make an exception. No need to alert the rest of the garrison over such trivial matter. I’m sure the honourable sister has no shady business or anything. No need to make a fuss...”
“Thank you, kind sir,” she said with a curtsy.
“Sir, we can’t just let someone into the Vatican without papers!”
The older guard, who was quickly coming to terms that he has to choose between his life and his career in the Guard, wiped a few drops of sweat from his forehead.
“Mark, don’t complicate things, please. No one needs to know. And I promise to take full responsibility, okay?”
”Eh...”
“Please, good man, “ Narbareck pleaded, with an expression so humble that the older guard was left bewildered how someone of her reputation could look so... innocent; “I’m in a hurry. Please let me pass.”
Turning his head from Narbareck to his partner, and back to her, the young guard eventually caved in:
”Alright, fine. But I still have to search you, alright?”
”That won’t be necessary, Mark.”
“Sir, we can’t just forgo the entire procedure! I can’t just let someone in without checking them, even if it’s a nun!”
”I’m telling you-“
“It’s alright,” Narbareck said, cutting the other guard short, “I don’t want to give you any trouble.”
“Alright. Excuse me,” said the younger guard and started searching Narbareck for any weapons.
She looked at the older guard, who was almost shaking with terror, and winked at him. Her twisted smile made him go pale. The young guard, Mark, groped her chest – which was rather bountiful – for a second while probing her, to which she grinned and chuckled:
”I think it’s a little inappropriate to touch a lady there.”
”S-sorry, miss,“ the young man apologised, then tapped the tip of his beret and bowed, “You’re good to go.”
”Thank you, “ Narbareck said, curtsied again to both guards, and entered the Vatican. She made sure to shoot another grin at the older guard while passing by him.


(...)




Part III


The heavy thumps of Narbareck's boots on the ornate marble floors of the Apostolic Palace's stately corridors echoed loudly throughout the building. One or two clerks and priests that she met on her way to the palace's top floor looked perplexed at the sight of her. She paid them no heed, though, and just hurried towards an office of a Cardinal; not the office of Cardinal Tomko, the head of the Vatican's Congregation for Evangelization of the Peoples - he was merely a cover story. The man she was meeting was not a public face in the Vatican.
'Department of Holy Relics' said the brass plate on the door before which she stood. She didn't bother with the knocking, and just opened the doors without hesitation.


“Oh, good, you’re here alr-“
An elderly Cardinal stood up from his armchair to greet the newcomer, but stopped in the middle of his sentence once he saw who it was that had entered the room. Just like that guard before, he, too, turned sickly pale at the sight of Narbareck. And once again, it amused her.
“Greetings, Your Eminence,” she said, bowing, “I hope I’m not disturbing.”
As she took a step towards the petrified priest, another figure rose from their armchair.
“You...”
The second man was also a Cardinal, albeit he seemed to be much younger than the first one. They both fixed their gazes at Narbareck, their eyes betraying a mixture of fear and disgust. Narbareck just shrugged their questioning stares off and approached the two:
“Yes, it’s me. I’m sure you’re quite surprised to see me here.”
The Cardinals said nothing.
“You’re tense. Relax, I’m just here for a chat.”
“What do you want you fiend!?” the younger cardinal, a middle aged man with a strong Sicilian accent, asked. He seemed very tense, even more so than his older collegue.
“Like I said, I just want to talk,” Narbareck said, sneering a little at the priest.


She crossed the room sluggishly, her scuzzy boots sinking into the thick and soft red carpet that covered the entirety of the floor, looking around the room as she did so. Compared to her dusty, dark, and simple office, this salon was an entirely new world; lavishly furnished, its walls adorned with numerous portraits of Popes and Cardinals, and its ceiling decorated by elaborate plasterwork. In front of a tall window overlooking St. Peter’s Square stood a small coffee table, surrounded by three large and, by the looks of it, incredibly comfy armchairs. On the table there was a large silver plate with a beautiful, ornate porcelain tea set. Next to it was an obligatory plate of biscuits.
Circling behind the older cardinal, she took the liberty of taking a seat in the unoccupied chair right in front of the window.
“Hm... this is a great chair, I’ll tell you that.”


The two cardinals again said nothing. Narbareck then let out a long sigh of resignation. With the priests still in a state of shock, and thus incapacitated for conversation, she set her sights on the coffee table.
“You won’t mind if I help myself to some tea?” she said, and, without waiting for the priests’ response, grabbed the tea pot from the table and started filling an empty cup in front of her.
“Mmm...” she mumbled, sniffing the steam that was rising from the dark brown, nearly black liquid, “Don’t tell me – it’s Darjeeling, right?”
The cardinals remained silent and tense, but they slowly went back to their armchairs, eying Narbareck suspiciously while she continued to enjoy the strong scent rising from her teacup.
“I never knew that someone like you would be so knowledgeable about tea,” said the younger of the cardinals with a supercilious sneer as Narbareck reached for the sugar.
“Yeah, well, I’m full of surprises Your Eminence,” she retorted.
“I must say, you guys do surprise me a little, “ she continued whilst putting one sugar cube after another into the tea cup, “Even during such an emergency, you still cling to your comfort and perks; I mean, someone like me is walking around freely, but you still make sure there’s tea and biscuits during your emergency security meeting.”
Her sneer made both cardinals’ twitch in annoyance, but they said nothing as Narbareck took a sip of her tea.
“Mmm, this is really good. I’ve got to say, you people certainly do have taste. But say, I count three cups and three chairs here. And I sincerely doubt that I was meant to be the third person. So, who else was invited to this little party?”

The cardinals exchanged a worried look but remained silent once again. However, Narbareck soon got an answer to her question when someone knocked on the door and, without waiting for a reply from the inside, entered the room.
“Sorry I’m late, I...” the man started, but stopped once he saw Narbareck at the table.
“Hello, Colonel Buchs. How are you doing?”
”How...?”
”Oh, I had a chat with some of your men down at St. Anne’s Gate, and... let’s say that they were swayed by my feminine charms.”
The commander of the Swiss Guard stood in the doorway with his mouth half-open in astonishment. This kind of security breach might cost him his career, and he knew that very well. Stares of contempt from the two cardinals made him swallow nervously.
Narbareck, who was quite enjoying seeing the Vatican’s chief of security squirm, took another sip of tea.
“Well, I’m afraid there’s only three cups, Colonel, so unfortunately you won’t be able to join us for our little tea party. Perhaps next time?”
“I...”
The poor Colonel seemed completely lost.
“Leave, Colonel. We’ll discuss this later,” said the younger cardinal and dismissed the commander with a wave of his hand.
“Y-yes, Your Eminence,” the man said and quickly left the room.


“Well, then,” Narbareck continued after a short awkward silence that followed the colonel’s quick departure, “Why don’t you help yourself to the tea? It’s delicious.”
”What do you want, Number 1?” the younger cardinal asked impatiently. It seemed that his dislike of Narbareck overcame his fear of her, and he was now showing open disdain.
The title that he used to address her didn’t sit well with Narbareck, though. Creasing her forehead, she leaned back in her armchair, and shot the priest a look that would freeze one’s blood in their veins. It made the Cardinal twitch a little, but he remained firm.
“Well, Cardinal, I’m here to talk business.”
”Business?” said the other cardinal, finally joining in the conversation.
“Yes, business. And I’m sure you can imagine what kind of business it is.”
”Vampires?” said the younger cardinal.
“Bingo! Sharp-minded as always, Rossi.”
“That’s ‘Cardinal Rossi’ or ‘Your Eminence’ to you,” the priest said, not even bothering to conceal his disdain anymore.
“Whatever,” Narbareck replied and helped herself to one of the biscuits.
“These are really good. Anyways, yes, it’s about a vampire. A big one, in fact.”
“An Ancestor?”
“Yes. Gransurg Blackmore.”
The two cardinals exchanged a worried look for a few seconds, the time which Narbareck used to stuff another biscuit into her mouth.
”We’ve been keeping an eye on Blackmore for some time now. We even have some people from your department helping us in Prague,” she said, her mouth still full.
“I don’t remember approving of Executors cooperating with your bunch,” said Cardinal Rossi.
“We recruited them for this operation secretly. This is a unique operation, aiming at the very top of one of the most powerful Ancestor covens. I’m sure you understand that we couldn’t risk the Ancestors finding out and sabotaging our efforts?”
”There is no way the Executors would leak information to the heretics!”
“Well, you never know. And besides, while Blackmore is a secluded eccentric, you can bet that Ortenrosse has his spies everywhere. And he’d like nothing more than to get leverage over Black Wing.”
”If there is a spy in the Church, then I’m afraid your Agency are the prime suspects. Especially your Number 5.”
“Merem? What about him?”
“What about...?” said the other cardinal, “He’s an Ancestor, for goodness’ sake! A vampire working for the Holy Church?!”
”It’s alright, Cardinal Naro. I assure you that he can be trusted. As long as you keep providing us with trinkets, at least.”
”Why, you...”


“Anyways” Narbareck interrupted him; her patience was quickly running thin, and so she decided to cut this meeting short. She leaned forward onto the edge of the chair and continued in cold, business-like tone, “I’ve just received information from our intelligence network that warrants immediate and resolute action. And seeing as how we’re against a top-level Ancestor, the Burial Agency will require the assistance of both the Executors and the Assembly of the Eight Sacrament, both in manpower and in resources.”
“I thought you people preferred operating on your own?” asked Cardinal Naro.
“We do. However, need I remind you that this is the Lord of the Black Wing we’re talking about; even I will need some assistance to capture an Ancestor as powerful as him. And I can’t count on my other agents right now because they are all scattered throughout Europe, and time is of the essence here. I’m sure you understand the need for inter-agency cooperation in this case.”
“We can’t just lend you-“ started Cardinal Rossi, but he didn’t get to finish.
“I’m not asking you; I’m telling you.”
“Who the hell do you think you are!?” the cardinal exclaimed, springing to his feet. While his colleague just sat in silence, the head of the Executors decided that he would have none of Narbareck’s brash attitude.
“I am the Director of the Burial Agency of this Church,” she stated calmly, “And you, Cardinal Rossi, the 120th Cardinal of the Curia, will lend me your men without any further complaints. Is that understood?”
“I won’t-“
“Or do you perhaps want me to take this matter to the Pope?” she added with a cruel and twisted smile.
The effect of her words was instantaneous; the Cardinal suddenly turned pale, and got soaked in cold sweat.
“The Pope...?”
”Yes. He is my superior, after all. Maybe we should take the matter before him?”
”That won’t be necessary.”
”I think so, too. It’s better not to bother the Holy Father with some petty inter-agency squabbling.”
“Yes...”
”And that way no one needs to know about that young man from the Urbaniana University and you...”
If Narbareck’s earlier threat to take the matter to the Pope made Cardinal Rossi turn pale, this sentence made his skin transparent. His heart started beating fast and he swallowed nervously.
“What? What young man from the university?”
“Oh, you know- your assistant at the faculty of Theology. You’re quite fond of him, aren’t you?.”
“I-I have no idea what you’re talking about,“ the priest said, trying his best to calm down and peeking at the other cardinal; Naro was eying the 120th Cardinal with growing suspicion and disbelief.
”Oh, don’t worry – your secret is safe with me!” Narbareck said, her face adorned with an angelic smile once again, “So, about your cooperation...”
“Yes, yes, the Executors are at your disposal,“ Cardinal Rossi said, falling back into his armchair. He took a sip of tea to try to soothe his nerves, but it didn’t seem to have much effect.
“And you, Cardinal Naro? Will the Assembly assist us in hunting down this dangerous vampire?”
”Yes... of course....” the old priest replied slowly, and helped himself to tea, as well, “We’ll put the sacred relics of the Holy Church at your disposal.”
”Excellent,“ Narbareck said and emptied her cup. As she placed it back on the coffee table, her eyes glinted again.
“There is one other favour I have to ask you, Your Eminences.”
The twisted smile on her face didn’t pass unnoticed by the two cardinals. They lowered their cups back onto the saucers, and stared at her with tense and questioning looks. She replied with another grin:
”I’ll need your keys for the Hall of Mirrors.”


Complete silence. The two cardinals nervously avoided eye contact with Narbareck, who used the time to pour herself another cup of tea. All she had back at the Burial Agency’s headquarters was cheap fruit tea and some bad coffee, so, as a connoisseur of teas, she wanted to make the most out of this opportunity. The priests kept exchanging nervous glances with one another while she slurped on the hot brown liquid.


Finally, under the pressure of her twisted smile, Cardinal Naro gave in:
”Very well. I shall provide you with my key. The Assembly is willing to lend you any assistance you require to fight the heretics. I hope our trust will not be taken advantage of.”
”Of course not! And you, Rossi; what do you say?”
”Yes, we will give you the authorisation, too. I shall arrange it that you receive our key, and security clearance for the complex.”
”Very good. Well,” Narbareck said, emptying her cup and placing it gently on the colourful saucer in front of her, “as I said, time is of the essence. I will be leaving for Prague tonight. I need you to send your keys to the Agency immediately.”
”A-ha.”
“Cardinal Rossi: I’ll need three of your best Executors, fully armed, and ready by seven o’clock.”
”Sure. I’ll find you some good men.”
While his tone was respectful and seemed sincere, Narbareck narrowed her eyes at the priest; she knew Rossi well, and was certain that he won’t send her the best men available. He wouldn’t want to waste his top Executioners on her, and will probably give her some cannon fodder.
‘Well, it is just as well’, she thought to herself.
“Right. And you, Cardinal Naro – I’ll need one of your men from the Assembly. And a relic or a Scripture, too. I’ll let you know which one I’ll need over the phone, once I’ve returned to my office and drawn up my plan of action. Alright?”
”Yes, yes, anything you need.”
”Good. Well, gentlemen, thank you for your cooperation, “ Narbareck said, rising from her chair, “I must say this was a very enjoyable tea party. I think we should do this more often.”
”I think not,” said cardinal Rossi, in a flat voice.
“Well, at least let me grab another biscuit”, she said, not waiting for his permission and stuffing her pocket with the rest of the biscuits from the plate, “These are really delicious.”
“Right. Well, if that’s all, please be kind enough and leave now. We have to fulfill all these requests of yours now, and it will take some time.”
“Don’t make it take too much time, though. I want those keys within two hours, and your men to be ready by seven o’clock. It would be most troublesome if I had to come here again because your cooperation was lacking.
Oh, and try to organise a Mass for me and your men.”
”Are you serious!?” said Cardinal Rossi, looking genuinely shocked, even more so than when Narbareck requested their keys for the Hall of Mirrors.
“Yes, I’m serious. We can’t go on a dangerous heretic hunt without God’s blessing, surely.”
“Right... I’ll arrange for a Mass. Now please, go.”
”Alright, alright. I won’t disturb you anymore, “ she said, and walked over to the door.
“Say hi to the Pope for me, will you?”
“Get out.”
”Heh.”
Satisfied, Narbareck quickly left the salon, leaving the two stupefied Cardinals to their own devices.


The halls of the Palace seemed to be completely deserted, and she didn’t encounter anyone until she reached St. Anne’s Gate. Two familiar faces were still there.
“Hello, gentlemen!” she greeted the two guards when she got close to them.
She noticed that both men turned pale and jumpy when they saw her; the older guard must have told the younger one who she was. The expression of terror on the young man’s face brought another grin to Narbareck’s cheeks.
“Oh, I completely forgot,” she said sweetly to the man, and reached for her right leg.
She took out the small dagger which she had hidden in her boot earlier, and handed it over to the young guard.
“I should have given this to you back when you searched me. I’m afraid I completely forgot that I had it!”
The young man trembled and turned deathly pale in the face of Narbareck’s angelic voice and sweet smile. He stared at her, bewildered, for a few long seconds, then reached out for the knife with a trembling hand.
“I-it’s alright...” he managed to stutter out.
“I wouldn’t want to cause you any trouble,” she said, “Well then, have a good day, gentlemen.”
With a smile and a curtsy, Narbareck turned on her toes and left for St. Peter’s Square, leaving the two shocked and petrified guards alone. As she walked away from the gates, her kind smile warped into a devilish grin.


(...)




Part IV


Several hours after her meetings with the heads of the Executors and the Assembly of the 8th Sacrament, and having already decided on the plan of action, Narbareck found herself in another centre of power of the Holy Church as she continued to gather the pieces needed for the hunt. But this place was a world apart from the stately salons and halls of the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican.


It was a vast underground complex, located deep under the Castel Sant’Angelo, right in the heart of Rome. A maze of corridors, rooms, and shafts shaped like a reverse pyramid, sprawling over several acres and seven levels beneath the ground, it was the centre of the Church’s military arm.
The complex - most of which had been built during the Cold War by the Italian government as shelters and a command centre in case of a nuclear exchange, and then almost immediately bought by the Holy See - comprised offices, training grounds, armouries, an espionage centre, research laboratories, messes, a chapel, underground garages, and various other functions necessary for running an international force numbering hundreds, if not thousands of agents.
From here the Church coordinated its spy network, its Knights’ Orders, and elite Executors, ensuring that all emergencies and threats to Christendom by supernatural and demonic forces were dealt with swiftly and effectively. It was a face of the Vatican that no one from the normal world had ever seen, a secret army about whose existence several authors of conspiracy theory novels speculated, but no one save a small circle of privileged individuals within the Church knew of.
Indeed, the Holy Church’s existence was to be kept secret from the public at all costs; just like the Mage’s Association took great effort in concealing the existence of a thriving community of practitioners of magecraft scattered throughout the world.


After entering the complex through one of the plain, Church-owned buildings surrounding the Castel, Narbareck descended down to the seventh level of the complex, over 150 feet beneath the streets of Rome.
The corridor outside the elevators was bathing in cold white and blue light of the fluorescent bulbs. One other person was also in the corridor, walking in the direction of the elevator. The seventh level was only for the select few who were working on research and development of new anti-vampiric weapons for the Church, so it was no wonder that the hallways were mostly empty.
Narbareck stepped forward into the hall, a large silver briefcase in hand. She had changed her clothes before coming here, and instead of her usual black and white habit, a black leather coat fluttered behind her as she made her way through the hallway and towards the elevator doors on the other end of the corridor. A pair of army boots creaked against the polyester floor, alerting the other man, who had previously been staring intently at a file in his hand, of her presence.
‘Captain.’
He nodded to Narbareck and quickly moved out of her way. She didn’t even acknowledge the man’s presence, and just speeded by. The elevator doors on the far end of the corridor were sealed, and required a security code to open. Only two people in the world - numbers 1 and 2 of the Burial Agency -knew the code needed to enter the elevator, which led to the deepest, eight floor of the complex.


Narbareck quickly typed in the eight-digit code, anxious to get to the lowest level as soon as possible. She was brimming with excitement, but skillfully managed to conceal it. On the outside, she was cold and collected. Only a glint in her emerald eyes betrayed her true emotions.
The sealed doors slowly spread open to the loud hiss of pressurised air being forced through the pneumatic mechanism inside them. Narbareck stepped inside the small elevator cabin. After a short ride downwards, the elevator stopped. Doors slid open, and Narbareck entered the corridor outside.
The light was weaker here compared to the previous level. The walls and the floor were bare concrete, but there was no moss. Pale fluorescent bulbs shed eerie light over the narrow hallway. There were no side corridors, nor doors leading to other rooms. Save for one. At the opposite end of the hall, half-hidden in shadows because the weak light barely reached that far corner of the hallway, was a single door.
It was a bulky, steel hatch door, not unlike those found on ships and submarines, secured by a rotating lever. To the right of the door, there was another panel for entering authorisation code. And beneath it, a small keyhole.


Narbareck approached the hatch door and entered the eight digit code again. Once she did, a green light next to the keyhole started blinkin, to which she took a key from the inner pocket of her coat. A normal key at first glance, it bore the insignia of the 120th Cardinal – the commander of the Church’s Executors.
A turn of the key was followed by loud metallic noise from the doors. Narbareck pulled the lever and opened the hatch.
Just a few yards behind it was another door, identical to the first one. And again Narbareck entered the code and took out a key from her coat. This key was marked by the mark of the secret Assembly of the Eight Sacrament – the Holy Church’s division responsible for retrieval, research, and managing of sacred relics and Scriptures. The key was turned, the lever pulled, and the second hatch opened. Finally, Narbareck found herself in front of the third door.


The key for the third door was her own; she kept it with her at all times, except when the Number 2 of the Agency requested its use. Unlike the silvery keys of the 120th Cardinal and the head of the Assembly, the key of the Director of the Burial Agency had no marks or insignia - it was a simple, charcoal black key.
She repeated the opening procedure for the third time.


A sudden flood of bright white light made her squint. Nevertheless, she stepped forward into the room behind the third door. After a few seconds her eyes got accustomed to the strong light inside the room, allowing her to see the inside of the hall clearly.


It was probably the most strange and surreal room imaginable; circular, dozens of yards wide, bathing in the light of over a hundred light bulbs attached to the low ceiling.
The walls, the floor, and the ceiling were all white, discombobulating anyone who entered the room. But most peculiar of all, the room was a labyrinth; hundreds of mirrors, all about as tall and wide as a person, were arranged throughout the room in form of an intricate maze, with dozens of dead end corridors.
The maze was shaped like a spiral, its halls converging towards a single small open space in the centre of the room; this spot was Narbareck’s final destination.
She managed to navigate her way through the maze splendidly, and reached its focal point in no time. A thick wall of mirrors encircled the central opening, leaving only a few tiny cracks between the neighbouring mirrors, which allowed one to see the area that they enclosed.


And the sight was a most grotesque one.


In the very middle of the opening there was a cylindrical water tank, and inside it was what looked like the remains of a human body.
A brain and a spinal cord - almost fully developed - were floating in the liquid inside the tank, connected by bundles of nerves to a collection of organs: heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and some of the intestines. While the first traces of the skeleton ( like the vertebrae and the ribs )had already started to grow, there wasn’t any skin, muscles, or eyes.
The organs were connected, via a myriad of tubes, pipes, and wires, intertwined and forming an intricate web inside the water tank, to numerous medical life-support machines and devices lined up next to the circle of mirrors.


Narbareck had only seen this bizarre place once before, back when she took over as the leader of the Burial Agency. She remembered the strange feeling of awe she felt back then, for that same feeling overtook her mind and body as she gazed at the grotesque collection of entrails in the middle of this hall of mirrors.


The remains of El Nahat, one of the Twenty Seven Dead Apostle Ancestors.
This vampire’s unique ability to destroy his enemies, no matter how strong, along with his main body - and still retain the ability to regenerate over time as long as his stomach remained - was deemed useful by the Church, which is why his stomach had been ripped out, and transformed into a Holy Scripture in the form of a book.


Alien Stomach World.


The Scripture did not possess the exact same amount of destructive firepower as its original owner; in fact, the power of the Scripture was directly proportional to how far El Nahat had managed to regenerate his main body by the point when the Scripture would be activated, which meant that in order to be of any use, the Stomach World could only be used once every few decades.
The medical devices that supported El Nahat’s body weren’t really necessary, but they did speed the regeneration process up a little.
Still, even with its downsides, it was the Church’s final weapon against the Dead Apostles, a tool of unfathomable power, and Narbareck was genuinely ecstatic to have finally gotten a chance to use it.
She entered the central area through a narrow opening between the mirrors, and approached a small desk that stood in front of the water thank that held El Nahat’s body.
On the desk lay a simple, black book.


(...)

Milbunk
March 4th, 2014, 11:30 AM
DEVIL'S THRILL(Continued)


Part V


As the church bells struck half past seven in the evening, a special Mass that was being held in the church of St. Anne in the Vatican came to an end. Only a handful of people attended it, and all of them were the members of Vatican’s secret organisations.
Four of them – one priest from the Assembly of the 8th Sacrament and three Executors – had exited the church, and two started smoking while waiting for the fifth person, Narbareck, who was still inside.
Two black cars were parked in the narrow street in front of the church. All four men seemed restless, conversing in low voices about the mission for which they had suddenly been handpicked. It was incredibly unusual - perhaps even without precedent, at least in the last few decades – for the agents of the Burial Agency to cooperate with members of the other branches of the Holy Church.
They were all lone wolves, an eccentric and feared lot among the rest of the Church, who preferred dealing with their prey on their own terms. Their actions were sometimes too extreme even for the most ruthless of the Executors. For the Director of the Agency, the most infamous of the bunch, to suddenly organise a hunt like this meant that the Church was dealing with an enemy of the highest order; a particularly powerful Dead Apostle Ancestor.
The four agents had already received some basic briefing before coming here, but the most of the data pertaining to the hunt ahead of them was to be distributed during their flight from Rome to Prague. Thus, all four of them were still half in the dark regarding the vampire hunt ahead of them.


Just as the two Executors were about to light a second round of cigarettes, Narbareck finally emerged from the Church. One gloved hand was stuffed in the left pocket of her leather coat, while the other was firmly clutching a silver briefcase. Her face was stern, and her tone commanded obedience:
“Move out! You three, go in the first car. You, Assembly guy; you’re coming with me in the second car. Go.”
The four agents obeyed immediately; cigarette butts were thrown on the ground, doors slammed as the men entered the cars, and with a loud hum of engines, the group left the Vatican through the Gate of St. Anne.


After getting bored of watching buildings, palaces, and churches fly by as the car speeded through central Rome, Narbareck turned to her companion, the priest from the Assembly of the 8th Sacrament.
He seemed to be Asian, but he was rather tall, and brown-haired. Simple black clothes and a golden Pectoral cross on his chest were his attire. He, too, was staring through the window in silence. Narbareck had expected him to take the front seat, by the driver, but he didn’t appear to be at all uncomfortable sitting in the back, next to her. He only seemed bored.


“So, what’s your name, priest?”
He slowly turned towards her, with a look that was half-empty, and half-surprised at her speaking to him. Still, he replied clearly:
”Kirei. Kotomine Kirei.”
”Which one of those is your first name?”
”Kirei.”
“A-huh. Sounds Asian.”
“Japanese.”
”There aren’t many Japanese here in the Vatican. You’re the first one I’ve met, actually.”
”I’m aware of that.”
“You look pretty tall for an Asian, though.”
“My father was Japanese, but my mother was not. He met her during a pilgrimage to Lourdes.”
”Quite a lovely story – a man and a woman find each other whilst seeking God,” Narbareck said, with a mocking grin, “Say, what made you choose a career in the Church?”
“I never really thought about it. My father is a priest, too, so it seemed only natural.”
Kirei’s last few words didn’t pass unnoticed for Narbareck, but she decided to focus on something else at the moment:
”Wait, your father is a priest? Wow. That’s just... wow. That must have been a pretty awkward confession he had to make after that.”
“Don’t talk bad about my father.”
“I wasn’t talking bad about him.”
”You were mocking him. I will not allow you to do that. He is the most virtuous man I know.”
Words that came out of Kirei’s mouth sounded firm and confident, but it did not escape Narbareck’s sharp gaze that the young priest’s eyes were as empty while he was uttering them as they were while he absentmindedly looked through the window earlier.
It brought a twisted grin to her face:
”What a good son you are, defending your father’s honour. Then riddle me this, priest – if he’s so virtuous and good, how do you explain and justify the fact that he broke his vows and slept with a woman? It doesn’t sound like something a truly good and virtuous priest would do.”
Kirei didn’t respond immediately, instead taking a few seconds to think before he answered:
”My father’s act wasn’t born out of passion or lust, but true love. There was nothing sinful about it, and even if there was, he already repented for it through confession and penance.”
“Heh. What a masterful evasion of the problem. Well, you’re good with words, I’ll grant you that. You’d probably make a great preacher. But you haven’t really addressed the issue: how can he be virtuous if he’s broken his vows and the Church’s code? It doesn’t matter whether his act was born out of passion or love – your Church explicitly forbids its priests to have sexual relations and marry. No exceptions.”
”His act-“
“No, don’t give me that shit. There’s no way around it. If you’ve taken up a vow - and one that binds you to God, at that – then surely breaking that vow diminishes one’s virtuousness. Don’t you see a logical contradiction in your claim?”
”Even so...”
”So you admit that I’m right?”
”Even so! That doesn’t mean he’s not a virtuous person. One act cannot overturn a man’s entire character.”
Narbareck didn’t respond to him for a while, and instead just watched him intently. The young man’s words and tone, and even his facial expression, were those of a man certain and confident in his beliefs. But Narbareck wasn’t really interested in his words or tone. His eyes told her all the truth that she needed to hear.
“I do believe that you greatly respect your father. And that he really is an incredibly virtuous and pious man.”
“He is.”
“But this is not just about your father, isn’t it?”
”What do you mean?”
“Well, you said you became a priest because of your father?”
”I.... yes.”
“That must mean that you greatly admire him and want to be just like him, right?” Narbareck said, grinning at Kirei.
He looked down, seemingly lost for a few seconds, but then answered.
”Yes, I do.”
“There’s a lack of conviction in your voice, priest.”
“No there isn’t. I mean it – I do want to be just like my father.”
”Heh. I’m sure you do. But... how does breaking one’s vows count into that?”
“I don’t understand.”
”Well, you said that you want to be a perfect priest because you look up to your father, and consider him a perfect priest, no? But how can one be a perfect priest if they’ve broken their vows?”
”I... I am not a perfect priest...” said Kirei, in an emotionless voice.
“Oh? Have you broken your vows, too?”
Kirei said nothing.
“I see,” Narbareck said, grinning wider and wider, “but still – I don’t think that sleeping with a woman is what’s really troubling you, priest.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m saying that I think that you have other problems on your mind?”
”What would you know what I think?”
”I can tell. It’s my talent.”
”Right. I’m afraid I don’t care much for psychics.”
”Oh, I’m not a psychic. It’s just a little talent of mine. Say, priest – do you want to know what I think you think?”
“Well that was a mouthful.”
”I think you don’t really care about this whole priesthood business at all.”
“I beg your pardon?”
”I don’t think you really have any passion in your chosen career, Kirei.”
Narbareck’s twisted grin, her blunt words, and the fact that she said his name for the first time since he introduced himself to her, all made the calm and collected Kirei twitch a little. Still, he had enough presence of mind to remain in control of his emotions and acts:
”And what makes you think that?”
”Oh, not much. It’s just that you didn’t sound particularly enthusiastic when you said how taking up priesthood was ‘only natural’ to you.”
”Plenty of children take up professions after their parents, it’s nothing strange. And they don’t only do it out of a sense of obligation, but out of genuine passion.”
”Yes, but not you.”
“You know nothing about me.”
”I think I know enough,” she replied, her eyes now glowing with twisted pleasure.
“Spare me your insights. I am a man of God. I will do whatever is asked of me for my faith. My faith is everything to me, no matter what you think.”
”Spoken like an exemplary priest. I bet your father is proud of you. I bet everyone who knows you thinks you’re a model priest,” she continued after a small chuckle.
“But say, Kotomine Kirei; do you find pleasure and purpose in your career as a priest?”
”Of course I do,” Kirei replied, but the consistent lack of passion in his eyes failed to convince Narbareck. On the contrary; each further answer to her instigations only served to strengthen the impression she was getting from the young priest.
”Do you? Somehow I doubt that.”
“Think whatever you want.”
Kirei had by then been left positively disturbed by his conversation with Narbareck. She noticed a slight dose of terror and insecurity creeping into his voice and into his emotionless eyes. As if he had been shown an glimpse of a dark abyss.
Narbareck’s only response was a grin.
“Say, Kirei, do you know who I am?”
”Of course I do – you’re the leader of the Burial Agency.”
“And what do you know about me?”
“That you’re the Church’s most powerful vampire hunter. That you have captured a Dead Apostle Ancestor on your own a year ago, when you took over the agency, even though you were only 16.“
”Is that all you know?”
“Of course not. Everyone knows what happened during your hunt of the Ancestor,” Kirei said, turning a suspicious eye filled with disgust at Narbareck. She, of course, noticed that.
”Do I disgust you, Executor?”
”Of course you do. You’re a vile murderer. You’re godless. Your actions go against everything the Church teaches.”
“Indeed. I am monster. I enjoy killing. I do not deny that. What point is there to deny our own nature?” she said.
Her twisted grin revealed two shiny fangs, and Kirei backed off a little from her. However, that wasn’t because he was intimidated by her appearance. It wasn’t Narbareck’s sick smile that made Kirei’s heart pound stronger, but her words.
“What point is there...?”
”Yes. Why fight against who you are? Why deny your impulses? What good will it do to a person if they keep killing their own nature?”
”Self restraint and control of one’s urges are some of the most important teachings of the Catholic Church. That is the path to holiness.”
”And are you on that path, priest? Will you ascend to heaven one day?”
“If God judges me to be worth it. All of us are at his mercy.”
”Heh. Kotomine Kirei – if those are your actual, honest thoughts, then you truly are an ideal priest.”
Kirei fell silent again, staring at the palms of his hands which he rested on his knees. He felt that they got sweaty during his conversation with Narbareck, and it unnerved him.
“Still – would embracing our own nature be so bad?” Narbareck said after a long silence, “Wouldn’t people feel more at peace if they could just be who they are and accept themselves as such, instead of always denying themselves, always killing themselves because the society expects or tells them to do so?”
”And what about evil people?”
”What about them?”
”What you’re saying is all well and good as long as it’s about harmless things, about mostly good people. But what about the likes of...”
Kirei stopped in the middle of his sentence, and the abrupt pause didn’t fail to bring another smirk to Narbareck’s face. She guessed what the priest was about to say, but decided to torture him no more. She had already read the man; while others must have thought him a virtuous man to the core, Narbareck knew better. She could read his thoughts and feelings, for his eyes always spoke the truth. One just had to look, and Narbareck was good at looking.
‘We are birds of a feather, after all, Kotomine Kirei. You just haven’t realised it yet,’ she thought to herself, ‘But don’t worry; you can’t run away from yourself forever.’
Just then the car stopped as they finally reached their destination; the Fiumicino Airport.
Through the thick shower of rain – which Narbareck hadn’t noticed while they were on the way here due to having a rather... engaging conversation with Kotomine Kirei – she could see that the Vatican’s private jet was already waiting for them at the far end of the runway. The first car was already there, and she saw the three Executors loading some bags and briefcases from the trunk of their car into the plane.
Both Narbareck and Kirei opened their car doors at the same time, and were just about to leave the car when Narbareck suddenly stopped and said:
“Hey, priest!”
”Yes, what is it?”
“I was thinking; you said that one act cannot overturn a man’s entire character, and that doing one bad thing doesn’t mean someone isn’t virtuous.”
”Yes; I said that, and I believe that.”
”Yes, but... I have a question: if it’s possible to commit a sin and remain a virtuous person, is it possible to always act virtuous, and still be a sinner?”
“What do you mean?” Kirei said, an ominous darkness falling over his eyes.
“I’m asking you: if one can do evil, and still be good, can one also always act good, and still be evil?”
Narbareck’s grin made Kirei’s heart skip a beat. He was certain that the woman in front of him was a demon.
“Something to think about during our flight,” she said and stepped out into the rain.


(...)




Part VI


Bohemian Forest, Czechoslovakia
South of Vimperk


A large Tatra army truck bumped along a dusty and winding country road, loudly making its way southwards, deeper and deeper into the Bohemian Forest. A crescent moon adorned the starry sky above, shedding some weak light on the woodz hills of southern Bohemia. Tall pine trees loomed threateningly over the narrow road which meandered through the forest and along the ever steeper hillsides. The truck had left the last human settlement over seven miles ago, penetrating the sprawling woodlands further. The thunderous roar of the old diesel engine had been piercing the eardrums of the truck’s passengers at the start, but after over four hours of driving, thez grew accustomed to it. There were five passengers apart from the driver; four Executors and Narbareck. Only the latter didn’t seem to show any signs of fatigue due to the journey, and Kotomine Kirei held pretty well himself. The remaining three men weren’t doing so good, and were suffering from nausea and back pain after having spent the last four hours sitting on a hard wooden bench in the back of the truck. Kirei mostly just stared absentmindedly through the rear opening at the winding road behind them. Narbareck, who was sitting in the deepest corner of the truck, just behind the driver, was sitting calmly with her eyes closed and humming some obscure melody to herself. Her black Peter Cross was resting on her chest again, rather eye catching when set against her white sleeveless shirt. With her hands stuffed nonchalantly into the pockets of her leather coat, and a blissful smile on her face, she puzzled her colleagues; they were on a hunting mission which would pin them against one of the most powerful Ancestors, and already inside the vampire’s territory, yet she was completely laid back and calm, as if they were on a sightseeing tour. Seeing the other three Executors eying the leader of the Burial Agency in disbelief, seeing them squirm and sweat in bewilderment, Kirei couldn’t help but feel slightly gleeful. He wondered whether Narbareck acted like this on purpose in order to unnerve her companions. His lips twitched a little, as if starting to curl into a smirk, but he quickly regained control of himself. He sneaked a peek at Narbareck, worried that she might have seen him, but thankfully for Kirei she still had her eyes firmly closed. He didn’t really want to hear anymore of her poisonous remarks; the conversation he had with her during their ride from the Vatican to the Rome Airport drained him of much of his mental energy. In order to suppress the tide of dark thoughts that had assaulted him after her final question, he tried his best to focus on the mission at hand; running over the battle ‘plan’ ( which was really mostly vague guidelines, making Kirei think that the head of the Burial Agency placed little importance on detailed strategies, and mostly relied on her own flexibility, planning things on the go ), going through the map of the place with which Narbareck provided them, to make sure that he has all the route memorized, and fumbled with his cross necklace out of sheer boredom.
Suddenly the truck stopped, and the passengers all bounced a little at this unexpected halt.
“This is it,” came a muffled voice of the truck driver, and the four Executors immediately rose from the benches and stepped out of the truck. Narbareck followed them after a few seconds, seemingly in no rush.
The Executors took out a large crate from the truck and started distributing its contents among themselves; MP5 submachine guns, bayonets, pistols, and, of course, Black Keys, their armaments were truly formidable. Kirei, however, did not take any firearms, opting for only arming himself with a load of Black Keys. Narbareck raised an eyebrow at him as she took one suitcase out of the truck:
”Aren’t you going to take any other weapons, priest?”
”These will do,” he assured her, stretching his neck a little to overcome the stiffness that took hold of his body during the journey here.
“Suit yourself,” Narbareck said and opened the suitcase.
Inside was a most dizzying collection of knives that Kirei had ever seen.
Two M1905 long army bayonets, over a foot long; two shorter M1 bayonets; tactical knives; a large Swiss pocket knife; a fruit knife; and, the jewel in the crown – a pair of cutlasses. They were over fifty inches long, with a silver basket-guard, and the wide curved blade was decorated with elaborate patterns near the hilt.
Narbareck had all this weaponry blessed and coated in holy water back at the Vatican, after the Mass at St. Anne’s church had ended. Even in the hands of a less skilled fighter those would be extremely lethal anti-vampiric tools, and with Narabreck being the one to wield them, it was guaranteed that they’ll wreck havoc among the heretics.
There was something else Narbareck had gotten after the Mass ended and the four Executors left the church – she took out a small bundle out of her pocket and threw it to Kirei.
“Here, take this, priest. We’re soon gonna need it.”
”What’s that?”
”You’ll see. Put it in your pocket for now, and be ready to take it out at a moment’s notice.”
“Alright,” Kirei said and obediently placed the package into the pocket of his coat.
Narbareck took her knives out of the briefcase and arranged them in pockets and compartments on the inside of her leather coat. She then took out a pair of leather sheathes from the case, hung them on her back with their belts crossing on her chest, and placed her cutlasses in the scabbards. The only things left in the truck were to silver briefcases belonging to Kirei and Narbareck. Kirei’s bore a coat of arms of the Assembly of the 8th Sacrament; Narbareck’s was blank. She pulled her fingerless leather gloves tighter over her hands, pulled the two cases out of the truck, and handed over Kirei’s to him. Now they were good to go.
“Alright men, it’s time,” she commanded, “Kotomine, you stay behind me at all times. The rest of you watch the flanks. Move out.”
Her silver case in hand, and her long black coat fluttering behind her in the gentle breeze, she headed boldly into the thick forest before her. The four Executors followed after her.
The truck driver continued to gaze after them until they all disappeared into the darkness of the woods, and then drove back to the sleepy town of Vimperk. He would return here later in the morning to pick up those who survive the hunt.


As the team went deeper and deeper into the forest, they started to feel their hearts sinking, and the thicker the trees became the more did a feeling of dread creep into their minds. The starry sky was no longer visible as the sprawling branches of the black pines covered the skies completely. Even in the open space the pale moonlight wouldn’t be enough to properly illuminate their path, let alone in the belly of this monstrous forest. It was pitch black, but Narbareck had issued a strict order not to use any flashlights so as to not reveal their position. And while she had no problems finding her way around the forest in the dark, the four Executors who followed her were less skilled, and could just barely keep track of the silhouettes of the trees and their companions.
The company slowly advanced southwards, navigating their way over creeks, crevices, logs, and ever steeper slopes of the hills of the Bohemian Forest. But neither the pitch black night nor the challenging ground bothered the men; they were used to operating in difficult terrain and testing their stamina to their maximum. What ate away at the minds of the Executors, and what strained their nerves almost to the breaking point, was a thick miasma that covered the entire forest. Like a suffocating, toxic fog laying over the land. They could feel it from the moment they entered the woods, and with each passing step and with every minute they spent in the forest, the terror gripped their hearts tighter and tighter. They were anxious to get out, just a step away from running back and out of this cursed forest. However, they kept pressing on; both out of their discipline and sense of duty, and because they feared their team leader more than they dreaded the forest.
In start contrast to the nervous twitches and frightened glances of the Executors – save for Kirei, who, albeit feeling very uncomfortable, wasn’t really overtaken by terror of the forest like the other three men – Narbareck showed no signs of being affected by the forest at all. There was no nervousness in her movements, no fear in her eyes; if anything, the deeper they penetrated into the forest, the more excited she seemed to get. The arduous journey through the woods did nothing to wear her down, and she energetically ran down the hill sides, climbed the rocks with ease.
The Executors who followed her from behind couldn’t see it, but her eyes gleamed in the darkness with thrill and joy. While the others were numbing down with each passing step, her heart pounded faster and faster – after sitting idly for a year, she was finally back out. Living for the hunt, she couldn’t wait to finally catch her prey. She could barely suppress her bloodlust at that point.
However, no matter her enthusiasm and her itching to fight, Narbareck was not satisfied. Even as she speeded through the forest, she didn’t fail to keep notice of her surroundings. Rather than mindlessly dashing forward, she kept a close eye on the terrain. And what she was noticing didn’t please her. Finally, after they had climbed yet another hill, and ended up in another valley, she had to come to terms with her suspicion.
“Stop. This is of no use – we’re going in circles.”
The Executors’ hearts skipped a beat as they stopped dead in their tracks. They said nothing, but their bewildered looks spoke louder than words. Kirei approached Narbareck, distressed but still firm:
”What is going on?”
”The bounded field is literally throwing us off the trail. We’ve passed this exact place already.”
”How is that possible? We’ve been constantly going south, I’m sure of it.”
”Yeah, well, the boundary is probably messing our sense of direction. At this rate we’re never going to get past it and find the castle.”
”Then what the hell are we gonna do?” asked one of the other three Executors, who had overheard the conversation between Narbareck and Kirei.
“Relax, kid,” she said with a condescending grin, “this is nothing unexpected.”
”Nothing unexpected!?”
”Yes. I thought something like this would happen. What? You guys didn’t honestly thought we’d be able to storm an Ancestor’s castle just like that?”
“But...”
“Oh, quiet, I’m trying to think!”
Narbareck placed her briefcase on the ground, turned away from her men, went down on one knee, and gazed at the trees at the far end of the valley. A few seconds passed in silence, with the Executors exchanging nervous glances. Kirei crouched next to Narbareck and followed her gaze.
“What do you see?” he asked, straining his eyes to see past the faint silhouettes of the faraway trees.
“Nothing,” came a cold reply. Narbareck clenched her fist, straining not only her eyes now, but all of her senses.
“But I can feel it.”
”Feel what?”
”Don’t rely on your eyes. Try to hear it. And sense it.”
Kirei listened to her advice and closed his eyes. Surprisingly, his mind got much more focused, and he strained his nerves to try to ‘feel’ what was in the woods. It didn’t take him long to get some results.
The miasma was completely suffocating now, swirling around the valley, even though the air was completely stagnant. The darkness was tangible, and he had an ominous feeling of something hostile approaching them. There were no footsteps to be heard, no vibrations of the ground to be felt, but he was sure – something was coming.
”We’ve been discovered,” Narbareck said and stood up. Kirei was a little impressed to see that she wasn’t wavering in the slightest; her eyes were stern and determined, her fists clenched and her muscles tense, ready for action.
He looked back towards the three Executors – they had obviously felt that something was terribly wrong, too, as they got deathly pale and clutched their weapons more tightly.
“What are we going to do?” Kirei asked in a hushed voice.
“I had hoped that it wouldn’t come to this, but it looks like we have no choice,” the silver-haired woman said with a sigh, and turned to her men. She started issuing orders quietly but resolutely:
“Alright, on your guard! Form a circle! Prepare your weapons and stick together. Don’t do anything without my order!”
“As you command”.
“And you,” she said, turning back to Kirei, “Put your case and your weapons aside for the moment. Time for you to play the role of a virtuous priest.”
”What do you mean?”
”Take out that thing I gave you earlier.”
Kirei blinked once before the wheels in his head finally turned. He quickly reached into his pocket and took out the small bundle.
“Unwrap it, quickly.”
Her order was unnecessary, though, as Kirei did just that as soon as he had taken it out. He was expecting to find some weapon, but his expectations were off the mark – wrapped in some dirty cloth wasn’t any kind of weapon, but a candle.
“A... candle?”
”Not just any candle. Take a closer look.”
Kirei looked down at the candle. Even in the pitch black, he could see the Greek letter ‘alpha’ carved just an inch or two beneath the fuse. It was only a fragment of a candle, though, as it was clear that what he was holding was merely the top part of the candle.
“I took the liberty of borrowing the portion of the candle in St. Anne’s church after the mass. I thought it could prove useful.”
”This is a...”
“... a Paschal candle, yes. I didn’t want to use it unless the push came to shove, but we’re out of options right now.”
”And what do you need me for?”
”Well, using this need a virtuous priest,” she replied with a grin, “I trust that you know the Exultet?”
“Of course.”
”Then move, and quickly! Get in the centre of the circle and set the candle up. Here’s a lighter; only use it once you’ve finished the incantation.”
Without another word, Kirei took the lighter from Narbareck and moved into the circle, surrounded by her and the other three Executors. Feeling the threatening darkness coming closer by the second, he wasted no time.
He fell on his knees, stuck the candle into the ground, and started reciting the Exultet, the holy prayer of the Paschal candle:
” Accept this Easter candle,
a flame divided but undimmed,
a pillar of fire that glows to the honor of God.”
The miasma crept closer to them, and the stagnant air dried up completely.
“Let it mingle with the lights of heaven
and continue bravely burning
to dispel the darkness of this night!”
One of the Executors started shivering, and the other coughing. Narbareck narrowed her eyes even more. Her fingerless leather gloves creaked as she started twitching her fingers, ready for action.
Kirei continued with his chant, unperturbed by the outside world; he completely focused his mind on the prayer, kneeling before the white candle:
“May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning...”
The Executors released the safeties on their weapons, looking around nervously.
“Christ, that Morning Star...” the chant went on -Kirei’s voice did not waver, and not a single drop of sweat appeared on his forehead. Narbareck bit her lip.
“...who came back from the dead...”
There were silent creaks in the forest just a dozen yards away from the group, but they echoed like thunder.
Narbareck bent her knees a little, like a predator ready to jump on his prey.
The Executors raised their weapons fingers on the triggers.
“...and shed his peaceful light on all humanity...”
As Kirei started reciting the final sentence of the chant, the rustling became louder and closer.
Narbareck reached back and drew out her cutlasses.
“...your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.”
He lit the lighter and brought the flame to the fuse of the candle.
”Amen.”


An explosion of light erupted in the middle of the forest.
Like a lightning bolt, a pillar of blinding whiteness rose from the candle. All five of them were left dazzled by the sudden flare. A shockwave spread in all directions from the Paschal candle, obliterating the bounded field that covered the forest. Within a few seconds the formidable defences of the Gransurg Blackmore’s castle lay in tatters, and it was left without any magical protection.
However, it didn’t mean that it was left completely defenceless.
While the candle continued to shiny brightly, its powerful light illuminating the whole valley as if it were daytime, the initial explosion of light subsided within a second or two, and the five agents of the Church opened their eyes again.
The sight that greeted them was that of hell.
Only a few yards away, like a tsunami heading for the coast, a sea of the Dead was quickly advancing towards them. Dozens – no, hundreds of ghouls, were coming at the intruders, thirsty for human blood. With the magical boundary of the forest obliterated, they lost their stealth and invisibility.
However, even without their protection, they had the upper hand – not only did they have the numerical superiority over hopelessly outnumbered agents of the Church, but they managed to creep up to a distance of only a few feet by the time Kirei destroyed the bounded field. Even though they could finally see their enemy, it seemed as if it was too late for the Church’s vampire hunters.
But Narbareck had no intention of giving up.
“FIGHT!”
With that battlecry, she plunged into the advancing tide of the Dead, swinging her silver cutlass above her head.
There was no need for her ‘encouragement’ though, for the Executors opened fire as soon as they could see their targets. Their nerves were already at the breaking point when Kirei had finished his incantation, and they pressed the triggers of their weapons the second they saw the enemy in front of them.
But it was all rather disorganised on their part; they panicked, shooting wildly into the mass of bodies in a desperate attempt to fend the off. Their volleys did manage to hold back the advancing enemy a little, but too many bullets were being spent, and too many of them failed to hit the heart or the head, so the wounded ghouls just continued marching towards their enemies. The Executors had really lost their heads, and just randomly sprayed intense salvos rather than calming down and shooting in precise, controlled bursts. That certainly didn’t help them with the odds.
It didn’t take long before their panic started costing them their heads; one of the Executors got overwhelmed by the advancing Dead while he was reloading his submachine gun. Another one followed him within a few seconds after emptying the clips of his pistols.
All of this unfolded so quickly that Kirei had barely stood up and took out his Black Keys when the second Executor succumbed.
Kirei wasted no time, nor did he allow his mind to be overcome with fear and panic. He faced the faceless crowd of the Dead and plunged into them with no hesitation, tightly clutching the Black Keys between his fingers.
With a swift swing of his right arm, the sacred blades tore one ghoul’s head and neck into three pieces, and its lifeless corpse collapsed into a pool of blood on the ground.
The Dead did not back away after this; if anything, they only rushed faster towards the priest. He cut them down without mercy.
One ghoul was cut in half, the other pierced through the heart; another two killed in one stroke through their stomachs, followed by a swift and powerful cut upwards that spilled their entrails, collapsed their lungs, and pulverised their hearts.
Pulling his blades from the decomposing corpses of his latest two victims, Kirei noticed two ghouls running towards him from the flank; with an explosive move of his right arm, he launched three deadly steel missiles towards them. Each Black Key hit its mark. The ghouls’ heads were split open and their brains splattered over the roots of the trees.
Just as he had drawn three more Black Keys from his jacket, ready to fight a new wave of the Dead, Kirei took a quick peek behind him to see how the remaining fighters were doing. The third Executor had already been devoured by the living dead, who were now descending upon the only other survivor on the other side of the opening.
Kirei followed the tide of the ghouls with his gaze until he managed to locate their target.
There, alone in the middle of the army of Dead, stood Narbareck.
Even the cold and collected Kotomine Kirei felt his jaw dropping a little at the sight. He was left speechless and in awe.
Her eyes were glowing with the thrill of the hunt, with ecstasy of killing, and her wide and gleeful grin revealed her two shining fangs. It was truly a face of a demon.
She moved around as if dancing, cutting down her enemies without a single pause nor break to catch her breath. She wielded her two silver cutlasses with such skill and such speed, that Kirei could only see a bright silvery blur from time to time. While Kirei cut his enemies down with cold precision and deadly efficiency, Narbareck played with her prey. As opposed to Kirei’s quick and short blows, she danced around, making elegant yet unneccessary moves as she chopped the ghouls’ heads down. While Kirei always aimed for the lethal spots, Narbareck would often toy with her enemy, chopping one limb at the time, obviously drawing immense pleasure from the act. She jumped, and dodged, rolled over, but with each and every move she made sure to make a cut or a slash, always landing a blow without fail. Kirei only saw a glimpse of her fight, as he had to quickly turn back to face his own opponents, but had he continued to watch, he would have been in for a spectacle.
Narbareck brought her cutlasses together, placing them horizontally to the right of her body. With one explosive swing, she decapitated the ghoul in front of her, and even cut the throat of another one coming from her left.
She then spread her blades, and with a turn to her right and an accompanying swing of her right cutlass, she slashed another ghoul over its face. This slash was followed by a joint cut of its stomach with both blades as she crossed her arms in opposite directions.
Then she placed her cutlasses on the ghoul’s shoulders, crossing the blades right under its bleeding throat, and with one fell swoop, cut off its head.
Two Dead who were charging at her back were met with a blade through their forehead as Narbareck just pointed her cutlasses backwards over her shoulders, and made a short and strong jerk to pierce their skulls.
Another ghoul charged at her from the front, but with a lightening fast high kick of her leg, she literally blew its head off.
Rotating her sabres a couple of times in her hands, she stepped forward and cut off the arms of the ghoul coming at her, then decapitated him, too. Two Dead used the opportunity to grab her by the shoulders - she just bent her knees, taking her centre of balance lower, and with a powerful jerk from her hips, she pushed them both face first forward onto the ground, using her elbows and upper arms to send them on their merry way. The two ghouls quickly got up to their knees and turned towards her, huge trails of saliva coming out of their gaping mouths.
Narbareck just shoved her cutlasses into their gobs and pierced their brains.
As the indomitable number 1 of the Burial Agency continued to effortlessly cut down one ghoul after the other, the battle drew to a close.
And it was just as well – Kirei was down to his last six Black Keys, so he opted to use them for hacking rather than throwing them at the Dead, which was rather strenuous since the weapons were difficult to wield that way. Still, over a dozen ghouls paid with their heads for testing Kirei’s skills with the Keys; as the number one in his class, he wouldn’t have even had much problem beating the Dead with his bare hands ( which he still didn’t prefer to do when facing such an overwhelming number of enemies ), let alone using the Black Keys for close quarters combat.
Once he had dispatched the last remaining ghoul by turning on his toes and cutting him diagonally from hip to armpit – spilling all of its guts out in a bloody stream – Kirei took a deep breath and turned around to inspect the battlefield.
The Paschal candle was still standing in the middle of the opening, casting eerie white light over hundreds of corpses scattered throughout the forest. A good portion of those had been taken out by Kirei, with some negligible contribution from the three dead Executors, but by far the largest part of the defeated ghouls had been killed by Narbareck. She stood there, some two dozen yards away from Kirei, looking perfectly calm. Her breathing was only slightly faster than before the fight, and she didn’t seem to have even broken a sweat. Even her ponytail was still in perfect shape, despite all her acrobatics during the carnage. Her black leather coat was splattered with lots of blood, though, as were her boots and her face. Huge drops of sticky, crimson red liquid were slowly dripping down the tips of her curved blades; the ornaments on the blades were now almost completely obfuscated by the blood of the ghouls. And yet, she appeared to be completely calm. No, she didn’t just seem calm – she looked happy. There was an expression of blissful satisfaction on her face; even the burning fire in her eyes seemed to have subsided a little following the carnage.
“Are you alright?” said Kirei, more out of habit or politeness than actual concern.
She didn’t immediately reply to him, waiting for a few long seconds and drawing a deep breath before she spoke:
”Of course. Do I look hurt?”
“You are covered in blood.”
“So are you, priest.”
Kirei looked down on his clothes and saw that Narbareck was telling the truth; his black jacket and trousers had a few big blood stains. His shoes were completely soaked in blood, and there was even some on the edge of his golden cross. He quickly wiped it on his sleeve until the cross was speckles and shiny again.
“I’m surprised you’re still alive,” she said, walking over to the part of the ground that wasn’t covered in corpses, and wiping her bloodied blades clean on the grass.
“It seems Cardinal Naro really did give me one of his best men. Unlike Cardinal Rossi,” Narbareck said with a snigger, looking over the dismembered and disfigured corpses of the three fallen Executors.
Her words and her attitude towards the dead men disturbed and angered Kirei. His righteous mind rebelled at such a pathological lack of any empathy. Her attitude was just wrong.
“Don’t you feel anything for your fallen comrades!?” he said.
However, he was perfectly aware that his anger at Narbareck, and his brash action – for which this maniac might as well take his life – were not really motivated by righteous feelings or respect for the dead. On the contrary; by questioning her for her lack of empathy, he wanted to avoid confronting his own lack of feelings for the dead men.
Narbareck again looked deep into his eyes, and again they told her the truth.
‘I wonder to whom your question is directed, Kotomine Kirei?’ she mused to herself, but refrained from saying it out loud. Instead she said:
”Of course not. They weren’t my comrades. Why should I feel anything for them?”
”Not your comrades?? Then why did you ask us for our help on this mission!?”
”Oh, I didn’t really need you. All I needed were the things that are in these briefcases of ours. That’s why I contacted your Cardinals. Well, I guess I did need someone to carry the other case – thought even that I can do myself - but as for the rest of you...” she said, waving nonchalantly towards the corpses of the Executors, “it was really just a whim. A meat-shield, if you will. You must have already realised that I could have taken care of this bunch all by myself.”
“So you asked for men knowing fully well that they’d die? And you didn’t even try to do anything to help them?”
”And why should I help them? Those are their lives, not mine. Why should I be responsible for them?”
”Because... you’re our leader, are you not?”
”I think you got this all wrong, Kotomine,” Narbareck said, “I’m not your ‘leader’. You just happen to follow me. I prefer to hunt alone, to be honest. But considering the enemy I’m hunting now, I thought that having someone to serve as distraction would be smart. If you don’t like this, you’re free to hand over that briefcase to me and go back home. I can go on from here on my own.”
Kirei was at a loss for words. He knew that Narbareck was a monster, but her complete lack of emotion for anything besides killing disturbed him greatly. He was disturbed because, in a way, he felt like looking at himself in a mirror. His nature, which he constantly fought against and which he despised, was not that different from hers. Looking at the devil and seeing some of your own reflection was bound to disturb anyone.
However...
“No.”
” ’No’ what?”
”I won’t just back off and leave you with this case unguarded,“ he said, walking over to the candle, next to which he had left the silver briefcase, “I am a member of the Assembly of the 8th Sacrament, and as such it is my duty to safeguard this holy relic.”
The familiar combination of confident voice and empty eyes once again made Narbareck grin in sick amusement.
“How admirable. Truly you’re a virtuous man, Kotomine Kirei. Well, then, let’s go,” she said, and picked up her own briefcase, “the dawn is approaching and the castle is nearby. Let us bring this hunt to a close.”
Her silvery hair and her blood-stained coat fluttered behind her in a sudden gust of cold wind as she made her way across the valley and towards the hill to the south.
After standing still for a while, Kirei picked up his case, collected some Black Keys from around the field, took a pistol from one of the dead Executors, and followed after her.




Part VII


The castle of Lord of the Black Wing, Gransurg Blackmore, didn’t fail to impress Kirei; a black behemoth towering over a ravine at the bottom of which ran a narrow river, it instilled a sense of awe and terror into everyone who saw it. Well, almost everyone; Narbareck didn’t seem to pay much attention to the gargantuan castle. She barely even spared a glance at the countless towers and turrets that rose menacingly towards the dark skies above. Kirei couldn’t afford to gaze at the castle for long, either, for he had to watch his step as the two made their way along the ravine. A narrow goat path led up and down along the length of the canyon and towards the great castle. And in the pitch black darkness of the night, one could all too easily miss their step, which would immediately send them tumbling down the rocky slopes and towards the river. Such a long fall was something only a lucky few could hope to survive.
Nevertheless, the two pressed on at a fast pace, and the massive black walls and towers of the fortress grew ever taller with each passing step. The goat path eventually led them to one of the doors that opened right over the ravine and the river, and which led into the castle’s sprawling underground dungeons and cellars, dug throughout the hill and the cliff on which the castle stood.
Much to Kirei’s surprise, the door at the end of the path was open.
“What is this?”
”What is what?”
“The door. From what I understood from your instructions, we were supposed to break in here.”
”You understood wrong.”
”So this is normal?”
”Yes. The fact that these doors are open means things are still going according to plan. I thought that the operation had been discovered when those ghouls intercepted us in the forest, but apparently not.”
”Or this could be a trap.”
”Yeah, that’s a possibility, too.”
”And you still think we should enter and go on as planned?”
”Sure. We won’t know if it’s a trap if we don’t enter; and in case that it’s not a trap, there’s no problem, right?”
“Right... but, how come this door is open?”
”We have an accomplice on the inside.”
“You’re cooperating with someone from Blackmore’s coven?”
”Yeah. He’s been providing us with valuable info for over a year.”
Kirei decided not to comment on the fact that the Church was cooperating with heretical monsters such as vampires. Besides – seeing as how the Burial Agency had already openly admitted a Dead Apostle Ancestor into its ranks, this sort of covert cooperation seemed rather insignificant. So he decided to say nothing.
“Alright, let’s go,” said Narbareck, lighting a torch that hung on the wall, and stepped into the castle. Kirei followed her with a torch of his own.


“Be prepared, priest.”
”Huh?”
”We may have dispelled Blackmore’s bounded field over the forest, but this castle is another matter. There’s no doubt that they’ve detected our presence when we entered just now. Keep your Black Keys close.”
”Of course.”
”And try not to get separated. I still need that relic in your briefcase, you know?”
”I am touched by your concern for me.”
Narbareck stopped in her tracks and turned around at Kirei’s last remark. He expected her to be angry, but to his surprise she didn’t seem to be at all insulted. On the contrary; her trademark grin was on her face again, and that probably disturbed him way more than her anger would.
“My... losing your inhibition already?”
”...What?”
“That sarcastic little comment of yours. It’s the first time you said something like that.”
”I just... it suddenly came to my mind.”
”Of course it did. It’s only natural,”
”What’s that supposed to mean?”
”Oh, nothing, nothing,” she said, grinning even wider, “come – we’ve got to hurry, priest.”
Narbareck had memorised the map of the building perfectly, and they navigated the underground maze of corridors without ever hitting a dead end. However, the closer they got to the upper levels, the higher was the likelihood of someone seeing them.
Two floors up from their starting point they came across first of the guards. It was the first time either of them had come into contact with Blackmore’s minions, and their appearance confused Kirei and Narbareck, even though they had heard of them.
Members of Blackmore’s coven were very unlike normal vampires, just like their master was unlike the other Ancestors. They all strived to model their bodies after those of the birds, and each one of them was unique in their own way; their jaws were shaped like bird beaks, they had feathery wings on their backs, and their feet were shaped similarly to those of birds.
‘Freaks’, Narbareck thought to herself.
Unable to go around them, and not knowing when the guards might move, they had no choice but to confront them.
“How many Black Keys do you have?” Narbareck whispered, peeking around the corner of the hall in which the two guards stood, blocking their way.
“Twelve.”
“Alright, you do the honours.”
She backed away and let Kirei forward. He inspected the situation, measuring his distance, waiting for the guards to move into a favourable position. Once they were shoulder to shoulder, he took out two Black Keys from his jacket. There was a small glow as he materialised the holy blades, and it did not go unnoticed; one of the guards took a step forward, observing the wall behind which the two hid with a suspicious eye.
Kirei knew that there was no time for hesitation.
He sprang out of his cover and threw the Black Keys in the direction of the vampires, praying for the weapons to hit their targets. They did.
The first vampire got hit in the neck; as his throat started to bleed, his skin quickly turned dry like sand, and his eyes turned from red to black. He fell onto the floor and turned to dust the moment his body hit the cold cobbles.
The second vampire was killed even more quickly; a hit right in the middle of his chest turned his heart to ashes, and he died on the spot.
Once the guards had been taken care of, Narbareck emerged from around the corner to join Kirei. Just then a third guard appeared at the far end of the corridor.
He looked at the dead bodies of his two comrades, then at the two agents of the Church standing over them. Kirei and Narbareck were, naturally, a little shocked, and the vampire downright terrified at the sight of Narbareck – the black Peter Cross on her chest became well known among the Dead Apostles after her first, and successful, Ancestor hunt over a year ago.
As soon as she took a step forward the bird-vampire ran back as fast as he could, screaming and screeching in terror:
”Alarm, alarm! Intruders!!!”
“Oh, dammit, he’s gonna alert the whole damn castle now,” Narbareck said with a sight.
“I think we should hurry.”
”Yeah. This is gonna be messy, priest. You sure you’re up to it?” she teased, drawing one of her cutlasses from her back with her right hand.
“Let us hope so, “ Kirei replied, and drew another three Black Keys.
They both exchanged a look of trust, clutching their weapons tightly, and then hurried down the corridor and up the stairs behind it, their nerves tense and ready to react at the slightest sign of danger.
It didn’t take long for those signs of danger to appear. After climbing four flights of stairs and running down a corridor at the top of them, they found themselves in the entrance hall. It was an enormous room, shaped like the letter ‘U’, spanning the height of two floors, and was almost a hundred feet wide. Two staircases led from the ground floor to a pair of galleries, each supported by a series of columns, which converged like a horseshoe at the far end of the hall. From these galleries numerous corridors led to other parts of the castle. But, most important of all, the gallery opened into the great hall, or the throne room, through a pair of large, ancient wooden gates located at the point where the curves of the galleries converged. And Narbareck was willing to bet that that was where Lord Blackmore was. There was only one problem.
The entire entrance hall was filled to the brim with Blackmore’s winged minions. The way to the gates of the great hall was guarded by well over a hundred vampires. Kirei was left in a slight shock after witnessing the sight – the winged vampires screeched and shouted like harpies, and there was an unmistakable killer look in their burning, red eyes. He looked at Narbareck to see her reaction; just as he had expected, she wasn’t at all perturbed by the situation, assessing it with her familiar grin. He could see fire of excitement starting to rise in her emerald eyes as thirst for blood started to take over her mind again. However, Kirei was worried. Yes, Narbareck had managed to kill some two hundred Dead on her own in the forest without even breaking a sweat, but each of these vampires was worth a dozen ghouls, at least. While the Dead had their numbers and their sheer stubbornness on their side, they were still little more than dumb, walking corpses. These vampires, on the other hand, possessed intelligence, cunning, monstrous strength, and even weapons, even if it was only in the form of razor-sharp claws. Taking even a dozen of them wouldn’t be that hard of a task for an Executor as skilled and experienced as Kirei, and Narbareck was a monster far above his league, but he still had doubts. There were two of them against a hundred of those winged beasts. He looked a little indecisive, and Narbareck noticed that.
“Are you scared?”
“Not really. I just doubt that we can win.”
”You’re not scared?”
“No.”
“Then you are a fool.”
”Why is that foolish?”
”Because only a fool would not be afraid of these monsters.”
”And you? Are you afraid?”
She snickered at his question, and then replied, her eyes burning with hellfire:
”No. I’m the bigger monster.”


With those words, she dropped her suitcase from her left hand, drew out her other cutlass, and charged into the mass of vampires.
Kirei dropped his own case, made a sign of cross on his chest, and followed after her, clutching six Black Keys between his fingers.
The vampires were being mown down before Narbareck like wheat. One of them swung his right arm at her, intending to rip her head off with his long, steel-hard claws, but she blocked his arm with her left cutlass, and pierced his neck with her right. The winged monster didn’t even have the time to be stunned by how a mere human had managed to match him in strength and stop his blow. It turned to ashes after being smitten by a blade coated in holy water, and its remains fell to the ground. Narbareck wasted no time, and swung her right cutlass in a wide arch to the right, cutting the throat of another vampire. A third monster came at her from the front, trying to ram through her chest with his claws, but dodged the blow, cut off his arm, and then stabbed him in the face.
While the pile of ashes beneath Narbareck’s feet started to grow larger and larger, and she penetrated deeper into the mass of bird-vampires, Kirei wasn’t slacking off, either.
Though the Black Keys really weren’t the best weapon to use in close quarters combat, he was too short on them to be able to afford to use them as missiles. So instead of just nailing him with a single Black Key, he cut off the attacking vampire’s arm and then decapitated him. Two more vampires came from the front, one attacking him from above and one from his right. He crouched and then threw himself to the left to avoid both blows. He rolled on the floor a few times to get to the safe distance, then rose back to his feet and took a defensive posture, his arms crossed in front of his chest and the Black Keys pointing over his shoulders. His enemies weren’t going to give him any respite, and charged at him with full force. Kirei didn’t remain idle, but stepped forth towards the vampires. One of them aimed straight at his head, and the other swung from left and below, up towards his spleen. Kirei followed the trajectories of their claws closely, waiting for the right moment to spring into a counterattack. When the vampires were just one step away from him, he finally retaliated; he spread his arms apart in one tremendous swoop, moving his right horizontally to the right in order to intercept the claws which were aiming for his head, and his left diagonally to the left to protect his side.
It all happened in the blink of an eye.
The vampire who was aiming for his head had his right arm sliced into four pieces, and the other one lost his hand and whole forearm. Kirei breezed between them, his arms stretched behind his back, then turned on his heel, and, bringing his arms together again, chopped both their heads off.
Kirei had no time for celebration, though, as five more vampires headed his way to replace the fallen ones. He was being driven towards the stairs, where even more vampires awaited. He realized that he would be overwhelmed and killed if he tries to fight them all at once at close quarters, and so immediately made a decision.
Before the two decapitated vampires even fell to the ground, the deadly Executor launched a volley of Black Keys towards the incoming wave of enemies. All blades managed to hit their targets.
Holy steel pierced their chests, stomachs, and heads, and they all stumbled and then fell to the ground at Kirei’s feet, turning to ashes.
Kirei turned towards the stairs, creasing his brows and weighing his chances. All he had left were four Black Keys and a pistol with a single clip, and considering the number of enemies they were facing, those supplies were sure to dry up within seconds, a minute at most if he opts for more hand-to-hand combat.
Still pondering what to do next, he looked down from the stairs to see how Narbareck was doing.
He immediately noticed that the ranks of Blackmore’s minions had grown much thinner since the time they entered the hall. It was difficult to judge how many had fallen since they all turned into ashes, but he was certain that she had already taken some twenty or thirty vampires out, and was showing no signs of stopping or even slowing down. Even though her current enemies were much tougher than the Dead that she annihilated back in the woods, she dispatched them with same ease and even more vigour.
Five vampires encircled her, but she just stepped over one of them to break out of, then proceeded to cut each one of them to pieces, tearing their limbs from their bodies, chopping their heads off, cutting their hearts out. One vampire managed to grab her from behind then, and threw her a dozen yards across the hall. She didn’t rise back to her feet at first, and just crouched on all fours, fixing her eyes on the winged monster. Her eyes were burning with an uncontrollable passion, and she looked like a beast ready to leap forward after its prey. Even the vampire who threw here, a tall beast with giant gray wings, wavered a little after she looked at him like that. He hesitated for a moment, and it cost him his life. Narbareck immediately jumped at the opportunity, rising back on her feet and charging forward like a runaway train. She crossed the distance in a split second, her superhuman speed taking the vampire completely by surprise. She shoved her left cutlass into his abdomen, and her right into his neck. She then violently pulled both and simultaneously spilled his guts and chopped his head off. In one moment the vampire was standing, ready to take Narbareck on, and in the next his lifeless body fell to the floor like a doll with its strings cut, and crumbled into dust.
But Narbareck didn’t stop to celebrate or gloat; more attackers came into her sight, more prey she was dying to kill.
She lunged forward to dodge a blow, rolling two times before standing up and turning around to face her enemies, who were now just mindlessly screaming and swinging at her, without order but also without fear. However, their bravery did them no good.
Narbareck parried their blows to the side, then turned on her heel as the two assailants stumbled forward, having been thrown out of trajectory and out of balance. She quickly lowered her cutlasses into their backs, right between their shoulderblades.
She held her blades inside them for a few seconds, then took them out and kicked the vampires with her right leg. More dust fell onto the ground, and more blood stained Narbareck’s swords and her clothes. Her black leather coat was now almost completely drenched in the blood of her vanquished enemies.
Most of these feats went unnoticed by Kirei, as he had his own foes do face. He was halfway up the stairs, and on top of them stood three winged monsters, screeching and shouting at him. They had the advantage of the higher ground, and trying to just push through them might turn out to be a mistake. Of course, he could probably easily eliminate them with a volley of Black Keys, but then he’d be down to only one. While he was weighing his options, the fact decided for him; the three vampires started to advance towards him, and spreading out in order to encircle him. He was in a very unfavourable situation, and so decided to resolve it in the quickest and simplest manner possible; he took out three Black Keys and threw them in the direction of his attackers. Two of them hit the bulls-eye, piercing the vampires’ hearts. However, the third blade failed to deal a lethal blow, and only hit the vampire in his leg. It was still effective, for the wounded monster fell down the stairs and broke its neck, removing the need for Kirei to deal a lethal blow.
His triumph was short-lived, though, as a whole new group of vampires blocked the top of the stairs. There was even more of them now, and Kirei was quickly running out of weapons. He drew out his pistol and sprayed the beasts with lead. His efforts were useless, though, as even those bullets that managed to find their targets failed to deal any significant damage; the vampires quickly regenerated such superficial wound.
Left with only a single Black Key and his own fists, Kirei took a step back, ready to launch his last missile. The vampires wasted no time, having realized that he was almost completely out of ammo, and charged down the stairs. Just as Kirei was about to throw the last Black Key between the leading vampire’s eyes, they charge stopped and collapsed into ashes before Kirei. It all played out in a split second, and it took him a moment to realise what had happened.
“Don’t use that, priest, not yet.” Narbareck shouted.
Kirei nervously glanced over the railing of the staircase at the hall below. Narbareck was standing in the middle of it, surrounded by piles of dust and ashes, and grinning at Kirei.
She had stopped the charge of the vampires with a volley of her knives and bayonets, and Kirei was amazed that she had managed to hit all of her marks considering the circumstances. Still, there was no time for idle chat.
“Thanks.”
”You’re welcome. Now move on, I’ll meet you at the gates.”
With that, she returned to slashing and hacking, while Kirei dashed his way to the top of the stairs. There were only three more vampires left in his way; the others deemed Narbareck to be the bigger threat, and focused their attention on stopping her. It suited Kirei just fine.
He took a stance some seven or eight yards away from the vampires, facing them sideways, one arm in front of him, the other behind his head. He stared at his opponents with steel eyes, inviting them to come to him. He completely cleared his mind, now no longer a human being, but a machine whose only purpose was to kill. The vampires shuddered a little when they saw the abyss in the eyes of the priest. Nevertheless, they couldn’t wait forever – they gathered their courage and charged at him.
Taking the first vampire out was easy enough – it came straight at Kirei, trying to strike before Kirei could even react, putting its faith in its superior speed and power. This overconfidence was quickly punished by Kirei.
He dodged the blow by moving his torso out of the line of attack, and then, as the vampire came just inches away from him, struck him in the stomach with his knee. The blow was monstrous – organs were crushed inside the soft belly, blood vessels ruptured, and blood started gushing out of the winged creature’s mouth. Its fate had already been decided, but Kirei still managed to find space to deal a finishing blow, and broke the vampire’s neck.
Then came the second vampire’s turn. He was coming right behind the first one, but he lost his vigour when he saw the young Executor defeating his comrade with a single blow. Kirei took advantage of his moment of hesitation, and delivered a skull-smashing blow to the vampire’s head with his right leg. It failed to kill the monster, so he grabbed it by the neck and pushed it over the edge of the gallery and to the hall below. A sound of its neck breaking was drowned in the noise of the other vampires below as they kept attacking Narbareck.
Kirei took guard again, locking his eyes with those of the last remaining vampire; this one seemed braver than the second, for he didn’t waver even after seeing Kirei dispatch the first two with his own bare hands. Kirei expected some trouble from his third opponent, but was still confident enough in his own skills that he opted not to use his last Black Key yet.
The two were locked in a stand-off for a while, and then they both broke out of it at once, leaping forward towards their opponent. The vampire swung from Kirei’s left, aiming for his neck. He couldn’t dodge to his right because the enemy already started taking a swing with his left leg, so Kirei had to dodge that, too. He managed to slow down with his last step, and changed his course a little to the left in the last second. He parried the arm to stop its deadly claws from tearing his head off, and got behind the vampire’s back. He grabbed him by the neck with his left hand, pulled him back and out of balance, and as the vampire started falling back and to the ground, Kirei swung his hips and delivered an elbow-punch to his chest. The vampire died on the spot as its chest got completely crushed.
He threw the dead body aside where it promptly turned to ashes, and leaned on the railing of the gallery to see the battle below as it rapidly approached its end.
Narbareck was fighting bare-fisted now, too, her cutlasses tucked into the leather sheathes on her back. Kirei couldn’t help but feel hopelessly outclassed as he watched her wreck havoc among the remaining vampires.
She, too, utilised some sort of martial art, but considering her strength, no special techniques were needed, at least in Kirei’s opinion.
She knocked one vampire’s head off with a single punch. She ripped the other’s arm off with a single jerk, and broke the third one’s back just with her arms, not relying on the strength of her hips nor her knee. Another vampire got its jaw ripped out. The fifth one she hit in the stomach with such a force that her arm ripped all the way through his abdominal wall, intestines, and finally tore through his back.
The vampires’ numbers were dwindling fast as the goddess of death continued to slaughter them one at a time, in the most savage and gruesome manner imaginable, to the point of strangling one vampire with his own intestines.
Finally, some two minutes after Kirei had beaten his final enemy, Narbareck extinguished the life of the last remaining vampire in the hall.
Breathing heavily, she looked up towards Kirei. She looked positively ecstatic.
Her leather coat was now soaked in blood and entrails, her boots, gloves and trousers were in a similar condition, and her sleeveless white shirt had turned red. Even her silvery hair got spattered with some red. The only shiny and white thing on her now were her fangs, which she was showing with a wide and distorted grin.
“You done?” Kirei asked in a flat voice.
“Yes,” she said shortly, her breathing now almost back to normal.
She went to collect the two briefcases which they left by the side entrance to the hall, and then climbed up the stairs to the gallery and joined Kirei.
“Say, what was that martial art you used?” she aked him, looking genuinely curious.
“Baijiquan, “ he replied, “I learned it from my father.”
“Heh, is that so? Well, in any case, it’s a rather impressive fighting style. I’m thinking of taking some classes once I’m back to Rome. It seems rather... efficient.”
“Thanks.”
”Oh, and before I forget: please give me that last Black Key of yours.”
”What?”
“I’ll be needing it. I’m thinking of performing a special trick for the lord of this castle, and I’m afraid I can’t do it with my cutlasses.”
”Alright. Here you go,” Kirei said and gave his last remaining blade to Narbareck.
“Thanks. Well. Ready for the grand finale?” she said to him as she handed him his briefcase.
He replied with a small nod.
“Alright then, let’s go.”


(...)




Part VIII


The gates of the castle’s great hall flung open, and two agents of the Church bravely ventured into the heart of the castle. There, lined up against the walls and gathered around the pillars, was the elite of Blackmore’s court. They were obviously the vampire aristocracy, for their attire was elegant and they wore expensive jewelry. Some of the vampires, though, wore steel rather than silk, and carried spears and swords; those were Gransurg Blackmore’s personal bodyguards, an elite group of vampires that was, within the coven, second only to Blackmore himself in power and prestige.
Blackmore himself was standing in front of a large, black throne at the opposite end of the hall. Even compared to his minions, he was still grotesque.
A strange hybrid between a crow and a human, he had wings spanning almost five yards across. His feet were like those of a bird, and he had long black claws in the place of his fingernails. Locks of his long, black hair, almost completely obscured his face.
“Greetings, Lord of the Black Wing,” said Narbareck as she descended the stairs to the floor of the throne room. Kirei followed, but remained a step or two behind her. The gates of the hall closed shut as soon as they had entered. Kirei couldn’t help but feel like they had just walked into a mousetrap.
“Quite a lovely castle you’ve got here,” Narbareck continued, after getting no reply from Blackmore or anyone in his retinue, “But I’m afraid your entrance hall will need a good clean.”
“So you’ve defeated them all. You do live up to your reputation, Director.”
”Yeah. You might wanna think of finding yourself some better minions. This lot barely managed to put up a fight.”
“I hope you enjoyed it. For it was your last one,” said the vampire lord menacingly, spreading his black feathered wings as he grew angry.
“My last fight? But... aren’t you going to fight me, Blackmore?”
”Of course not. I’m not going to waste my strength on vermin such as yourself. Guards!”
Six of the winged vampires wearing steel armour and helmets stepped forward. These were each as strong as several of those vampires that Narbareck had slaughtered in the entrance hall, but Kirei had by then stopped worrying about any of these vampires posing a real threat to Narbareck, save for the Lord Blackmore himself. Narbareck herself didn’t even bat an eye as the six vampires formed a line between her and Blackmore, pointing their spears at her.
“You think these are going to stop me, Black Wing?”
“I think that you won’t be leaving this castle alive,” Blackmore said, his voice colder than the steel in the hands of his bodyguards.
Narbareck just shot him a grin of definace. The vampire lord, now barely managing to conceal his rage, finally ordered:
”Kill them.”
His guards obeyed, and took a step forward. Narbareck was waiting for just that.
She took out the Black Key that Kirei had given her out of her coat. The guards took another step forward.
Then, in one swift motion, Narbareck twisted her body, stretching the arm in which he held the Black Key, and with another twist in the opposite direction, threw the blade at the group of advancing vampires.
In the split second during which she executed her throwing technique, everyone, including Kirei, snickered at her – a single Black Key wouldn’t do much against six heavily armed guards, so her action was rather pointless.
But they were all proven wrong.
The holy blade cut through the air with a loud swish, traversing the distance in only a fraction of the time that it would take with a normal blow.
Then, as it collided with the ground under the guardsmen’s feet, all hell broke loose.
There was a massive explosion, accompanied by a flash of blinding yellow and white light, and the entire throne room shook from the impact. Thunderous noise of the blast continued to echo throughout the castle for some time.
Soon the banging in their ears stopped, and the smoke over the impact site cleared, allowing everyone to see the effects of Narbareck’s attack; a large crater in the cobbled floor, and smoldering remains of the six vampires.
No one in the room could believe their eyes. A single attack had obliterated six armed vampires at once. It was the Burial Agency’s secret technique – “Iron Plate Effect” – which allowed them to utilise even regular Black Keys in the most deadly manner possible.
Narbareck was grinning gleefully, obviously proud of her handiwork and entertained by the disbelief of everyone present. Particularly Blackmore.
“What did you do?”
“I killed them. Isn’t it rather obvious?”
”You... you... insolent...”
“Spare me the talk. Your minions are dead. Will you sacrifice some more of them or will you finally fight me yourself?”
”Fight a vermin like you...? I’ll neve-“
”Does that mean you’re scared?”
With this, she finally managed to touch a nerve.
Not only had Narbareck damaged his prestige by invading his own castle like this, not only did she challenge his authority by talking to him like this, but she insulted his pride and tried to humiliate him before his entire court. That finally made him snap.
The vampire lord stepped forward, looming over Narbareck, and piercing her with his burning crimson eyes. Kirei reflexively took a step backward; the black lord’s wrath was really terrible to behold.
And yet Narbareck firmly stood her ground and defiantly looked Blackmore in the eye. This only served to aggravate him further, and he finally gave in to his anger.


“You will die here and now.”
Blackmore’s voice sounded distorted, and as if coming from a large distance.
Suddenly the whole scenery changed.
Instead of in the middle of the throne room, Narbareck and Blackmore were standing atop one of the castle towers. Looking around, Narbareck noticed that the crescent Moon was no longer shining in the sky. That alone wouldn’t have meant much had she not also noticed that all the stars had disappeared, as well. And the sun was nowhere to be found, either, even though by her calculation the dawn was about to break at any second. In fact, there was nothing to be seen in the pitch black skies, not even the tiniest cloud or a speck of light. It was the vampire lord’ turn to grin cruelly now, as Narbareck looked around herself with a puzzled look in her eyes.
“So... this is your power, eh, Blackmore?” she said, clutching her briefcase tighter, and looking at the charcoal black sky above; a familiar miasma had started to fill the air around her. Only this time it was much more suffocating. The invisible toxic fog was so dense that she could practically feel it on her skin.
The Lord of the Black Wing shot her a sadistic and gleeful grin, enjoying the sight of Narbareck’s helplessness.
“Yes. Welcome, my lady, to Nevermore,” Blackmore said, and waved his hand at the sky.
Suddenly the heavens moved.
Narbareck looked up and saw that there was a massive flock of black birds swirling above the castle. They seemed to appear out of nowhere, and their numbers were increasing by the hundreds with each passing second. The perfectly synchronised movements of the flock left Narbareck with an impression that it was all one single and huge organism.
“Impressive,” she said, taking a step back away from Blackmore.
Her movement did not escape the vampire’s attention.
“Are you thinking of running away?”
”Of course not,” she replied, taking another step back to secure the distance between herself and Black Wing.
“There is no escape, you know? You will die here.”
”I’d very much prefer to live, actually.”
“Your brash attitude... I assure you that you’ll pay for it.”
”Well, I’m not seeing you do anything yet. Are you all talk, Blackmore?”
She took yet another step back. Now, she had a good distance, she assessed.
“Be careful, Narbareck. Do you really crave death so much? Because...” he said, pointing towards the swirling flock above them, “the birds dancing in my sky are vicious only to the dead.”
As he uttered those words, the toxic miasma started to suffocate Narbareck. Her sight got blurry, and her limbs felt numb. She fell onto her knees, clutching her silver briefcase on her chest. Through the creeping darkness came Blackmore’s voice, freezing the blood in her veins:
”Time to die.”
She could hear the gigantic flock of birds quickly descending towards her, the deafening flapping of their wings making it unable for her to hear her own thoughts.
Death was coming for her. It was only seconds away.
But she did not just give in.
“No.”
She lay her briefcase in front of her and opened it. Before her was her last weapon, and her last hope. A black book. She hurriedly pushed the case aside and put the book in front of her. Blackmore saw her, and started laughing:
”A Bible? I think it’s a little too late for prayers, don’t you think?”
She paid no heed to the demonic vampire, and flipped through the pages of the bible in a frenzy. It was a race with time, as the menacing black cloud crept closer and closer, and inch by inch. The noise of the wings grew louder, but she removed her mind from the outside world as much as she could, only focusing on finding the right page.
Finally, near the very end of the book, she found the passage she was looking for.
”Your God will not help you now.” Blackmore said with a sneer.
It brought a grin to Narbareck’s face; she looked up at the vampire, her eyes glowing in the darkness, and her lips curled into a twisted smile.
“It is not God’s help that I’m seeking.”
Blackmore stepped back, shocked by the expression of her face, which in turn filled her heart with sadistic glee. She turned her eyes back to the pages of the book.
Indeed, as death crept nearer, Narbareck didn’t turn to God for help. It was not his grace that she could save her now. Her salvation lay in this, most powerful, and the most unholy weapon that the Church possessed.
Alien Stomach World.
A Holy Scripture made out of a defeated vampire’s innards.
The ultimate weapon against the Dead Apostles.
Narbareck traced down the page to find her passage. As the roar of Blackmore’s army came within a few yards of her, she began reciting her chant:
”The seventh angel sounded his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: "The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever."
As the holy words of the Apocalypse rolled over her tongue, there was a bright flash of light radiating from the black Bible. It spread through the floor, down the walls of the tower, and further out, eventually engulfing the entirety of the castle.
Blackmore’s eyes widened in terror; he knew he had to stop Narbareck, to prevent her from finishing reading the passage. He didn’t know what exactly would happen if she finishes reading it, but he had a strong feeling it would be disastrous for him. And yet, he felt completely paralised, and could do nothing.
Narbareck continued to read, her left hand spread across the Bible, and her right clutching the black cross on her chest:
”Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant”
Earth started to shake, and the black heavens began crumbling. Blackmore was petrified with horror as his world, his mighty Reality Marble, began to collapse.
He turned to Narbareck, who read out the last sentence:
“And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a great hailstorm.”
She raised her head, and locked her gaze with Blackmore’s. Her eyes were shining with fire of the pits of hell. She grinned one last time, and screamed from the top of her lungs:
”AMEN!”
And with that, the world around them disintegrated. The cloud of black birds was swallowed by a pillar of fire that rose from the black book. A hailstorm of fire brought the dark heavens tumbling down onto the castle. And earthquake split the hill beneath it into two, and the bottomless abyss swallowed the great fortress, along with Blackmore and Narbareck.


Seconds later, the two were back in the castle’s throne room. While Narbareck expected to land into hostile and unknown environment, with Kotomine already killed by the remaining vampires, everyone was in the exact same place as before they left, making her realize that all the events that happened in Nevermore occurred within a fraction of a second. As far as the outsiders were concerned, the two probably never even left.
While she remained on alert and ready to react to the slightest sign of danger, it turned out that there was no need for it. The entire court remained silent and motionless when the two reappeared in the normal world, and Narbareck managed to put the Alien Stomach World back into the briefcase without anyone noticing it. She rose to her feet, cracked her neck, and finally looked up to see what had happened to Blackmore. And once she saw him, she realised why the rest of the people present were so quiet and seemingly paralised.
The Holy Scripture hadn’t just obliterated Blackmore’s Reality Marble; it also directly injured the vampire. While Narbareck, the wielder of the Scripture, returned without a scratch, Blackmore was not in very good condition. He looked like he had just been run over by a truck; collapsed on the floor, full of bruises, with a small trail of blood coming out of his mouth. He was barely conscious, and in no condition to even stand up on his own, let alone fight. It was a total victory for Narbareck.
However, there were vampires there who did not plan on letting her get away with it.
“Men, to arms!” one of the armed vampires said, drawing his sword. Several other vampires joined him, pointing their spears at Narbareck. But not all of them.
“Now,” she said, looking at a vampire who was standing behind the eager captain calling for action.
The vampire nodded and sprang into motion; he drew his sword and stabbed the leader of the guards in the back. Other guards, who had not yet answered their captain’s call to arms, took this as their queue and suddenly sneaked behind the backs of their comrades who were loyal to Blackmore, and slid their throats. Kirei and the rest of the vampire court could not believe their eyes; the traitorous guardsmen, whose leader had been cooperating with Narbareck, executed a coup in a split second. They threw the bleeding bodies of their comrades onto the ground, and the corpses quickly turned into ashes, leaving only empty armour and weapons behind them.
While shock still reigned, Narbareck took the opportunity and approached the leader of the traitors:
”It is done. You’re the head of the coven now, and Blackmore is ours. With that, our deal is fulfilled.”
”Yes.”
”We’ll be taking Blackmore with us now. I trust we won’t be having any trouble on our way back.”
”Of course not. I give you my word.”
”Hm...”
Narbareck turned away from her conspirator, one who had been supplying the Burial Agency with information about Blackmore for the past year, with a look full of mixed feelings; she would like nothing better than to slaughter them all now – and she could do it with no problems – but she recognised the strategic benefits of having someone loyal and dependent on you in charge of what was still one of the greatest vampiric covens.
She walked over to Kirei, who was still in a state of shock after seeing a Dead Apostle Ancestor utterly defeated and then betrayed, all within a few seconds. She snapped her fingers before him to bring him back to earth.
“Listen, time for you to put that thing in your case to good use; go over there and secure Gransurg Blackmore. We’ll be taking him with us to the Vatican.”
Kirei obeyed her without a word.
He approached the battered and barely awake Ancestor, and the remaining vampires cleared his path. He kneeled by Blackmore’s side, opened the briefcase, and took out the relic hidden inside.
The Relic that Narbareck had requested from the Vatican was a holy shroud – the crimson red Shroud of Martin. Its special ability was to seal the magical powers, and generally act as a ‘lid’ for all things pertaining to magic, and it was for this reason that Narbareck had Kirei bring it along. While the Shroud wouldn’t be nearly enough to contain the power of an Ancestor ( especially one as strong as Blackmore ), in his current weakened condition Blackmore had now power to resist the effects of the Shroud. It would this allow the Church to transport him back to the Vatican; once there they could easily seal him in appropriate premises.
Kirei wrapped the vampire from head to toe, except for his wings, and with that the two were good to go.


However, just then, a third party suddenly appeared, barging violently through the gates and into the throne room. Their sudden arrival shocked even Narbareck, though only a little, and she immediately stepped forward to confront the newcomers.
The group consisted of four men in black, led by a young woman in her late teens. The girl had an aristocratic air about her, entering the hall and walking down the steps as if she were a princess invited to a ball. Her attire screamed richness, too, for she looked like she had just come from a session of polo: tall riding boots, a long white coat, and a pair of white gloves. She contrasted completely with the men who followed her, who wore plain black suits and longcoats.
Narbareck approached the girl, who looked at her with a mixture of mistrust and repugnance. Narbareck noticed this and chuckled a little.
“Sorry for my disgraceful appearance,” she said in English, pointing at her blood-soaked clothes, “I didn’t have time to change. I guess I would have put more effort into it if I had known that we had such esteemed guests coming. Though, I’m afraid that you’re a bit late to the party.”
Narbareck’s laid-back attitude and cheerful banter did not manage to erase a grimace of disgust from the other girl’s face. It entertained Narbareck a little.
“May I ask with whom do I have the pleasure of conversing?” she said.
After a brief hesitation, the other girl replied, in a very posh British accent:
”Lorelei Barthomeloi. Vice-Director of the Mage’s Association. And I assure you, the pleasure is not mutual.”
“What a rude thing to say! Especially to a stranger.”
”But you’re not a stranger. I know very well who you are.”
“Oh?” Narbareck exclaimed, becoming more and more entertained by the second, “And how come you know about me?”
”The word of your infamy has spread even to the faraway Clock Tower, Narbareck.”
“Looks like I’m pretty famous.”
”If you wish that sort of fame for yourself,” Lorelei said, not hiding her disgust with the woman in front of her, “Murderer. A psychopath.”
”You flatter me too much.”
”Who, among other things, skewered a bishop in the middle of Milan!”
“I must admit, that was one of the best experiences of my life,” Narbareck teased, shooting a twisted and insincere smile at Lorelei, “Maybe I’ll tell you all about it one day.”
”I hope not. I’d rather if I don’t have to meet you lot ever again.”
“Such harsh words, Miss Barthomeloi. I’m sure we’d get along.”
”I doubt it.”
“Heh. Hatred for your own kind?”
”I beg your pardon?” said Lorelei, genuinely shocked by Narbareck’s remark.
“Your own kind. Killers. Murderers. Psychopaths. Vampire hunters. You see, Miss Barthomeloi, “ Narbareck said, grinning at the girl, “we know about you, too. The Church is just as informed about you lot as your are about us, if not better. So it amuses me greatly when I see someone such as yourself despising me for being who I am. Or is that perhaps because, unlike your ladyship, I am of common birth?”
“I don’t have time for this nonsense”, said Lorelei, cutting Narbareck short, “We’re here for Gransurg Blackmore.”
”Well, like I said, I’m afraid you’re a little too late for the party. We’ve already got him, and we’re taking him to the Vatican.”
”I don’t think so. Blackmore is ours, and I’m taking him to London for some questioning.”
”Think whatever you want, Miss, but we’re not giving Blackmore to you no matter what.”
”No matter what?”
”No matter what.”
There was a long and unnerving silence as the two girls locked their eyes in a stand-off.
“You know,” said Lorelei, “We could kill you all right now.”
“I’d like to see you try,” Narbareck replied sweetly.
“You are outnumbered, and weary. We would crush you.”
”I’m sure you would. And do say, what happens then? Do you think this little incident would just stay a secret?”
”The Church would not go to war with us over someone like you.”
”Maybe. But this isn’t really only about me, and I can promise you that the Church would react. So, if you really want that war with the Vatican so much, then be my guest.”
Again the two girls tried to stare each other down. The green eyes of the Church’s finest killer locked with the brown eyes of the de-fact leader of the Clock Tower; it was an incredibly tense situation, just a spark away from carnage and an inevitable war between their great organisations.
Clock tower magi, vampires of Blackmore’s coven, and the Executioner Kotomine Kirei, all intently followed the stand-off between the two women, trying to guess which one will eventually give in.
It turned out to be Lorelei.
“Fine. You can keep Blackmore,” she said, turning her eyes away from Narbareck’s, and biting her lip to swallow her defeat. Seeing this only made Narbareck’s grin wider.
“Thank you for being so understanding.”
”Spare me. Right – men, let’s go.”
The four men in black immediately obeyed their young mistress’ order and left the throne room.
Lorelei followed them, and when she had climbed up to the top stair she turned around to Narbareck again:
”Don’t make me have to suffer your presence again. I’d appreciate it if you were to remain in that hole you’ve crawled out of.”
”That’s such a shame; I was hoping that we could talk again sometime,” Narbareck replied with an innocent look, “I like you, lady Barthomeloi. We are birds of a feather, after all.”
”Don’t be ridiculous!” Lorelei said and hurriedly left the throne room.
“Right. Well, now that that’s taken care of – Kirei!”
“Yes?”
”We’re done here. Grab that pile of shit over there and let’s go. I’m getting hungry.”
”As you wish.”
Kirei pulled the unconscious body of Gransurg Blackmore from the throne and towards the exit, where Narbareck waited for him. Once he was out of the throne room, Narbareck addressed the remaining vampires, who had been left completely puzzled and bewildered by the recent events.
“Well, ladies and gentlemen, it’s been fun. We’re off now. Pray that you never see me again.”
She left the throne room, closing the gates behind her, and joined Kirei who had been waiting for her.
“Ah... I’m really starving. Aren’t you?”
”Yes, I am a bit hungry,” Kirei admitted.
“No problem. Let’s just go find that smelly truck, and then I’ll treat you to lunch when we get to Vimperk. Deal?”
”Deal.”
And with that, the two vampire hunters left the cursed castle.
In the east, the summer sun had just risen over the horizon.


(...)




Epilogue


“Congratulations on the successful hunt, Narbareck”.
“Thanks Merem. It really was a good one. Shame that it’s over now.”
“Well, you know how the saying goes: ‘All good things must come to an end’.”
”Thanks. That really cheers me up.”
Merem chuckled a little at his Captain’s last sentence – he liked that he had the ability to provoke that kind of reactions from here. With everyone else, she was either manipulative or sadistic, so it was nice to know that she, too, could be teased.
Following the great hunt in Bohemia, things went back to normal for the Director of the Burial Agency. The Cardinals thanked her for eliminating a dangerous and powerful vampire, praised her skill and courage, expressed satisfaction about the cooperation between the different branches of the Holy Church, etc. etc.
But then they put her back into custody as before, and put surveillance over the building to make sure that she doesn’t leave again. It seemed that her life was exactly the way it had been before this.
‘Well, not exactly the same way,’ she thought to herself.
There was a silver plate with a beautiful tea set on the table, as well as a bowl of vanilla-flavoured biscuits. It was a gift from Merem, who took pity on his Captain for always having to drink cheap fruit teas from stained coffee mugs, and thus bought her an antique tea set and a year-worth supply of finest teas. At the moment, they were drinking Earl Grey. For this special occasion he even came to the Burial Agency HQ in person, rather than sending the old priest that was his right hand. And his efforts did not fail to yield results; probably for the fist time in his life, he saw Narbareck genuinely smile. It wasn’t a feigned smile nor a twisted, sadistic one, but an honest smile brought about by something as simple as good tea, a bowl of biscuits, and the opportunity to speak face to face with the only person whom she considered a friend.
It was a somewhat surreal scene; a psychopathic vampire hunter, and a Dead Apostle Ancestor with the appearance of a fourteen-year-old boy, were having a tea party, and were chatting about the most trivial things. The windows were open, bathing the entire office in warm June sunshine, and the muffled sounds of Rome’s bustling streets filled the air.
“Say, Merem, remember that priest I told you about?” Narbareck suddenly said.
”That Kotomine guy? Yes, what about him?”
“He was a really interesting man. I wonder where he’s now.”
”I actually checked him out. I knew you’d be interested in him, so I tracked him a little.”
”And?”
”And only a few days after you got back, he suddenly went to Turin, along with his father.”
”What’s he doing in Turin?”
”Funnily enough, he’s no longer in Turin. He’s not in Italy, nor Europe, for that matter. He’s returned to his home country, Japan.”
”Ah, such a shame... I was hoping that we’d get to talk again. He’s a very... peculiar person.”
”How do you know; you only knew the man for two days.”
”Women’s intuition, dear Merem,” she said, chuckling.
“Well, maybe one day you’ll meet him again. And there’s also mail, you know?”
”I guess. I just think it’s such a shame that he left so suddenly. Ah well... more tea?”


The idyllic atmosphere was short lived, though, as Merem was forced to interrupt their light-hearted conversation with more serious matter:
”Narbareck, I’m sorry I have to interrupt, but I’m afraid there is a piece of news that I should really tell you about as soon as possible.”
”Oh, business again, huh? Why must you always ruin our conversations with such things.”
”Sorry, but this is really important. It’s actually one of the main reasons why I’ve come.”
”And here I was thinking it was because you wanted to have a chat with me.”
”That was the main reason, yes. I’ve only received these news this morning, and thought you should know.
“Oh, fine, spit it out – what’s going on.”
”Well, it seems that an entire town in central France has completely disappeared. The “Church suspects that it’s a work of a vampire.”
“Wouldn’t surprise me, really, But... France is Ortenrosse’s territory. I thought he had a firm control over his land. Such things don’t really happen in places under his control.”
”Yeah, that’s the problem really.”
”Yes?”
”The Church doesn’t think it’s some of Ortenrosse’s vampires.”
”Then who?”
“Well, nothing’s been confirmed yet, but they believe it might be Valdamjong.”
Narbareck was struck speechless for a few seconds after hearing this,
And then her lips curled into a twisted smile.




The End.

Milbunk
March 4th, 2014, 11:33 AM
Monsters




It appeared suddenly and without warning. Both the dead apostle and I were caught completely off-guard. It was a creature lifted straight from legends, something out of place in this modern era.


And for just a few moments, I was reminded of something from many years ago. That holy war that took place over two short weeks yet managed to change my life so much... I immediately refocus on my surroundings. This was not a situation where I could afford to lose my concentration for a second instant.


Soaring through the night sky on a course aimed directly at us, the dragon let loose a roar that shook the very mountains we were standing on.


__________________________________________________ __________


Today was the fourth day that I have entered these mountains. During my journey, I had heard local rumors saying that there was some dangerous phantasmal beast which had been sighted around these parts. With that information in mind, I decided to make a detour and go check it out.


“But does it really exist?” I muttered to myself as I analyze the information again while setting up camp for the night. To begin with, the majority of phantasmal beasts should have long since disappeared from this world. Of the remaining few, the most likely culprit would be a chimera that had somehow been transported over. That is, if there truly was a phantasmal creature living around here. A much more likely possibility in my opinion was that this was simply some manmade golem which had obtained power rivaling that of a phantasmal species. Although that was equally troublesome in its own way. Combine that with the fact that these mountains were the suspected hideouts of several runaway magi with sealing designations on them, and that particular theory becomes more and more convincing.


And of course, this could all just be nonsense, just some silly rumor with nothing behind it. In any case, I’ll continue with my search for a few more days.


“…!?”


All of a sudden a chill runs down my spine and my body stiffens up. My instincts were screaming that something wasn’t right, and I immediately understood the reason why. These mountains… they were supposed to be completely isolated and devoid of any other human being. During my four days and three nights of searching, I had not seen even the slightest hint of any other humans. Yet in the distance, I could hear the sound of heavy footsteps slowly getting closer. From the loudness of the approach, it would seem that this stranger didn’t care that if I noticed him.


And then just as suddenly, the stranger stopped moving some distance behind me. I began quickly going over the possibilities of who he might be. Another person hunting for the mysterious phantasmal beast? In that case, depending on his motivations, we may not necessarily be enemies. It may also be one of those magi with a sealing designation rumored to live around here. However, in that scenario, the magus’s approach should have been much stealthier, so as to hit me with a surprise attack? Although if the golem theory was correct, it could also signify that he is absolutely confident in his creation’s victory.


Out of nowhere, the sounds of new footsteps quickly rushing towards my location. Even more people? No, this was different. One, two… eight feet corresponding to two beasts. Considering both the sound and speed of their steps, they’re both probably some type of hound or wolf. Regardless, it’s clear that this is an enemy attack…!


“Trace on”


Twin swords appear in my hands. In my left hand was the black Yang sword and in my right hand was the white Yin sword. Kanshou and Bakuya. Without waiting, I turn and facing two black demonic dogs charging towards me, I dash. Not expecting my reaction, the beasts leap into the air, their fangs aimed at my neck but their timing is off. Without wasting a single moment, I dodge to my right and swing Kanshou, digging deep into the nearest beast’s gut.


“…what!?”


Unusual resistance. Or more accurately, a lack of resistance. Instead of the flesh and bone I had been expecting, it felt more like the entire body was made up of some sludge or ooze. And despite the fact that I had definitely dealt a fatal wound, the corpse of the dog collapsed into some sort of liquid and was quickly flowing away. Returning back to the source…?


I had no time to ponder this mystery as the other beast had recovered and was charging at me once again. However, a single beast is trivial to take care of. If it is attacking me with its fangs, then all I need to do is focus on that one point. Waiting until it gets close enough, I thrust Bakuya forward, stabbing right through its open mouth and out the back of its head. Once again, the odd sensation of stabbing into a liquid, and once again, the corpse collapses into a black ooze which flows away.


Having dealt with the initial threats, I turn to face my enemy. He was a tall man with pale skin, wearing a large black trench coat that covered his entire body. However, despite this ordinary appearance, I could felt an ominous pressure coming from, as if he was some type of monster. And it was clear that he wasn’t a normal human. As I carefully watching the black liquid, the moment it made contact with him it almost seemed to be sucked up into his body.


“Impressive. I had expected magecraft, but not many would have been able to dispatch my beasts in close combat so easily,” the man spoke in a deep voice.


“You are…?”


“The name given to me by the church is Nrvnqsr Chaos,” the man stated in a flat tone of voice. But it was enough for me to lose my breath. Chaos… one of the twenty seven Dead Apostle Ancestors. The most elite of all vampires. And to make matters even worse, it was one of the immortal first ten ranks, who were rumored to be unable to defeated by normal concepts. Fortunately, I was able to bypass this particular obstacle, but defeating an enemy who has survived for over a thousand years will not be a simple task.


More importantly, considering the rumors about his abilities…


“So you are the source of these rumors?”


But the dead apostle denied my accusation, shaking his head. “No. However, if there happened to be truth to these rumors, I thought it perhaps an opportunity to add it to my collection.” With that final statement, it seemed like our conversation had come to an end. I tense my body, gripping my blades tightly. With an expression that makes it clear that he considers me more of a meal than an enemy, Chaos narrowed his eyes and the body beneath his trench coat began to bubble.




And then a roar that shook the very rock we were standing on. The most unexpected participant arrived.


__________________________________________________ ______


An impossible scene appeared before my eyes, but there was nothing I could do but accept it as reality. Dragons should have long since disappeared from this world entirely, having migrated to the “Inside of the World”. In other words, the one that appeared before me should be a fake, perhaps some illusion conjured by magecraft. However, those shining red scales which glowed like rubies, that loud roar which cracked the air, that giant body which was easily at least twenty feet long, and above all that ominous oppressive aura like death itself confirmed that this is the real deal.


In that case, somebody must have forcefully summoned it here.


I briefly recall a list of magi with a sealing designation. If memory serves me right, at least one of them was trying to create some type of portal or opening to the “Inside of the World”. Looking at the monster before me, I guess he must have succeeded. However, there was something else that I understood. Despite succeeding in summoning this dragon, he was also in turn destroyed by this dragon. This creature, this power before me… was not something that could be contained.


Spreading its wings, the dragon opened its maw and unleashed a torrent of flame at our location, forcing the both of us to leap away. Okay, the good news is that this meant it was probably a lower class dragon. Otherwise I would be dead now. There was absolutely no way I would have been able to avoid an attack made from a high class dragon. Although considering that even a low class dragon is still extremely powerful, I’m not sure how positive a point it was. The bad news was that the appearance of the dragon made the situation much more complicated. Fighting against one of the twenty seven was by itself almost an impossible task. But for me, it was not a completely impossible one. If I went all out and used my trump card, Unlimited Blade Works, I may be able to defeat Chaos. However, I definitely would not have enough prana left to fight the dragon. Of course, the opposite also held true. If I devoted everything to defeating the dragon, I would not have enough left to fight off Nrvnqsr Chaos. In that case, the very best scenario would be if Nrvnqsr Chaos and the dragon depleted both their strength fighting each other, but the dragon appeared to have flown away after its initial attack.


In the distance, a constant swarm of nightmarish beasts poured out of the Ancestor. Hounds, leopards, bears, giant insects and even more creatures materialized and charged me. He must be thinking to finish off the distraction first before focusing on the main issue.


The stampede of monsters reaches my location within a few moments. I immediately leap backwards and decapitate a leopard that had charged in too quickly with a swing of my right hand. At the same time, the sword in my left hand parries the stinger of a giant eight foot tall praying mantis. Taking advantage of the opening that created, I step in and slash with both swords, cutting the bug in half, before leaping away as a large rhino charges by. Continuously moving, dodging, dancing to open space, parrying, slicing, cutting, blocking, reacting, I defend myself from the black mass of creatures.


However, no matter how perfectly I move, how far ahead I plan, I could already see the outcome. A sharp pain as an attack finally makes contact. From behind, a large black grizzly swings its claw, barely grazing my shoulder. However that was enough to open up a large gash. Getting greedy, or perhaps sensing the kill, the bear swings its other claw at my head. I respond by turning, ducking under the attack, bringing both blades up and splitting the bear in half. But just like before, it turns into liquid and flows back to its owner far away. Without a doubt, it would soon return in perfect condition while I run out of stamina. Was the Ancestor able to infinitely regenerate his creatures? I don’t even have time to ponder as I swing both blades upwards and cut apart an eagle that had been trying to gouge out my eyes.


Suddenly a large wave of air blasted me. I turn and find myself gazing into the eyes of the maddened red dragon. It had returned. I quickly run in the opposite direction, slashing my way forward against the mass of beasts. Perhaps sensing my desperation, the countless black beasts collapse upon me even harder, making it even more difficult to defend against their attacks. Behind me I could feel the air being sucked in as the dragon inhaled. I redouble my efforts, hacking, slashing off limbs, being slashed in return, but I wasn’t sure if I was going to make it. No, I would. Reaching the edge just in time, I leap off, falling roughly onto a second ledge a few meters below. The creatures on the platform above me weren’t as lucky as the dragon’s breath wiped out every single one of them in an instant. With no more living creatures there, the dragon took once more to the sky, not leaving but simply flying around, circling aimlessly. And like a massive black tidal wave, the life essence of the numerous corpses returned once more to the vampire known as Chaos. And almost immediately, a new horde of monsters were stampeding towards me, born out of the Ancestor’s body.


It would still take them a few more seconds for them to reach me. I was given a few moments respite. But no matter how I looked at it, the situation looked hopeless. The outcome of this battle was predetermined. The result of this battle was my death. My defeat was guaranteed…


Different images flash across my eyes. I once again remember those two weeks that had taken so many years ago. Those two weeks that I had once forgotten. I had almost died many times. I should have died many times. But I survived. I lived, and simply living was a victory. How did I live? How did I manage to make it through all those challenges and trials again?


…how disgraceful. My defeat was guaranteed? With a defeatist attitude like that, of course it was inevitable. But those heroes would never have had that thought. Those heroes became heroes precisely because they defied that thinking. I felt good. I felt like laughing at my own foolish self. How could I have forgotten something so simple? So long as there remains a one percent chance of winning, I simply need to calmly analyze the situation and find that one percent. Now let me begin crafting my promised victory. First, I need to define my objective. What is my victory condition? Completed. Now how do I achieve that? Think about the battlefield. Think about your enemy. Think about your tools.


Come to think about it, didn’t a person once tell me? Something like ‘If you can’t defeat your enemy, create something that can’. And didn’t another one of my enemies once teach me about the lineage of weapons? For example, how a spear that never missed turned into a spear that never missed the heart as it was passed down through history.


Don’t I have something similar? Can’t I do something similar? Like altering a sword into an arrow, I just simply need to reinforce the correct parts. From a blade that kills gods to a blade that kills phantasmal species, just take it a little further to a blade that kills monsters.


The Kanshou and Bakuya in my hands fade away. Taking their place was a single, beautiful sword with a crystal hilt which glowed with a soft white light. Compared to Kanshou and Bakuya, this weapon was much more prana intensive. In fact, it was constantly draining away my prana at a steady rate. But in exchange, it was quite powerful. That was my time limit. So long as I achieve victory before my prana runs out, it’s fine.


Still though, that means I can’t wait, so I charge. I face the approaching horde head-on and stab my sword forward. The instant the first beast made contact with my holy blade, it gave a loud shriek before evaporating back into its liquid form. This was fine. Even if I can’t permanently kill them with this weapon, just a single touch is still a fatal blow for these monsters. I easily break through the swarm of beasts without stopping and quickly approach the source of them all.


“This is-!? A holy relic of the highest class? Impossible. Why would someone like you possess such a thing?”


This time it is Nrvnqsr Chao’s turn to be surprised. Before either of us fully realize it, I found myself standing right before him. Gripping the holy sword in my hand, I swing it with all my might.


And Nrvnqsr… easily avoids it. As expected, he simply takes a step backwards, dodging the blade. However I immediately chase after him, and swing again and again. Some of his remaining beasts try to flank me from the side, but I easily dispatch them. His sure-win plan is in shambles, where he simply overwhelmed with numbers. He doesn’t know exactly what my sword is, but he’s seen what it can do to his beasts and he can feel the holy power it radiates. However, the power of this sword comes at a price, and he can also see that simply using it is draining me of all the strength I have. So nothing has changed. He simply has to continue dodging and wait until I completely exhaust myself and unable to fight back.


Of course this all hinges on the fact that he is able to successfully dodge every single one of my strikes! At this distance, there isn’t a single margin of error. Even if he doesn’t think it is enough to kill him, he wants to remain in perfect condition to take on the dragon afterwards. Still, for a vampire who has lived over a thousand years with centuries of combat experience, dodging my attacks was a trivial task. Once you reach a certain point, everything becomes planned in advance, and the rest is simply acted out, like following a script. That’s why if something unexpected happens, everything breaks down. Even as I furiously swing my sword, I am constantly watching, waiting for my chance.


And he finally dodges to the exact location at the exact moment I want him. Suddenly reinforcing my body, I pull out a sudden jolt of speed out of nowhere, moving in to slice him in half with a broad swing! With nowhere to dodge and no time to think, he takes a reflexive leap backwards, onto a different ledge. But the moment he is airborne, he is vulnerable.


Now everything depends on my speed, if I am able to make it in time. The sword in my hand begins to warp and change shape, and in my other hand I had already projected a large bow. Nrvnqsr’s eyes widen as he understands what I plan to do, but he cannot do anything to stop me. In one smooth motion, I place the arrow in the bow, calmly pull back the bowstring, aim, and fire.


My arrow cuts through the air, with more than enough power behind it to completely pierce through the monster known as Nrvnqsr Chaos.


Nrvnqsr’s feet finally touch ground, but it was too late. He doesn’t have enough time to twist his body out of the way. And then he does something that I had never expected. Almost like he was melting, his body suddenly lost all form and collapsed onto the ground. The next moment the liquid flowed together and he stood there once more, after the arrow had passed harmlessly by. Victory had been secured.


A loud shriek that threatened to split the sky echoed through the air. Forgetting about me, the vampire turned around to see the results of my attack. Some distance away, the arrow had lodged itself dead center in the chest of the dragon. Furthermore, the light given off by the weapon had reached a new intensity as the flesh nearby literally began to melt off the dragon’s body. A loud crash was heard as the dragon smashed into the side of the mountain, writhing in pain. It unleashed blast after blast of fire at the sword, but it was completely futile.


Not altering the shape of the sword, but reverting back to its proper form. Originally it was a spear created to kill a god, the holy lance Longinus. However history distorts all legends and Longinus was no exception. Its descendant no longer had the power to kill a god but instead gained a new ability altogether, the power to slay phantasmal species. But more than anything else, it was specialized in killing a very specific type of phantasmal species, said to be the strongest of them all.


This was Ascalon, the dragon killing spear wielded by Saint George. Even if it is against the strongest of all phantasmal species, because it is specifically against the strongest of all phantasmal species, it can kill them without fail without leaving even a corpse behind. And due to its existence as a holy weapon of the highest order, it is an ideal weapon for fighting vampires and demonic creatures. Vaporizing a few of Nrvnqsr’s beasts was nothing to it.


But still, killing Nrvnqsr Chaos himself was something else entirely. Even if my arrow had pierced him, he likely would have been able to recover. For someone like him who has lived over a thousand years, I doubt a projected Ascalon would have the power necessary. However the power it displayed and the holy pressure it emitted was enough to make him wary. That was enough. If I can grasp the way my enemy thinks, I can then control the way my enemy thinks. From the very moment he became wary of my weapon, he was dancing in the palm of my hand.


By the time Nrvnqsr Chaos turns around again, I will have been long gone. I retreated the moment he turned around to witness the dragon’s death cry. Staying was suicide as I no longer had enough power left to fight against an Ancestor. But from the very beginning, my objective was simply to take care of the mysterious phantasmal beast. And your objective was to capture the mysterious phantasmal beast and add it to your collection. If we look at it that way, this can’t be said to be anything other than my victory and your defeat.


I quickly make my way down the mountain. With the rumor taken care of, there wasn’t any particular reason for me to stay in these mountains and I didn’t really want a rematch. Fortunately, the moon and stars provided plenty of light so traveling wasn’t that difficult. And within a few hours, I had made it out of the wilderness and returned to civilization.

Milbunk
March 4th, 2014, 11:36 AM
substance_DepenD(Dance)


Author's Note: I regret nothing.


A sweet fragrance filled her lungs with every breath she took. The stinging sensation that accompanied it penetrated her entire chest, but she was able to suppress her coughing to wheezing sounds. The smell was a hard-to define mixture of nail polish and alcohol. A smell many would find nauseating, but to the woman it was calming like nothing else.

Her being used to-...no, even fond of it like this would be a sign of worry for many, but not for her. In this moment, all she could feel was euphoria born from numbness.

And a desire for more.


Rummaging through her small, cheap-looking handbag the girl gripped a brown-tinted bottle. Her steps turned from walking to stumbling, now completely breaking the facade of a woman in full possession of her mental faculties she tried to keep up.


A living being has a lifetime to learn and internalize how to control its body functions. Nature did not intend for a human to suddenly unlearn how to move its musculature.


Nature also did not account for her substance abuse.


Here she was, more shaking than standing, trying her hardest to figure out how to make her leg move. The coordination of a muscle pair she barely had any feeling of anymore seemed impossible, an act of dexterity simply beyond her, as if trying to fit a thread through a needle's eye while being electrocuted. It had ceased to be a part of her, and now it was just another object within her field of vision she could not affect with her mind, no matter how hard she tried.


The bottle. She used her involuntary stop to read the bottle.


In this state she was barely able to decipher its label, but she had already memorized what it said.


99% Methanol. Warning Flammable.


The last part was true. The former, a mislabeling, or rather a lie.

For a second she wondered if it was the paper that had lied to her or the one who had printed these. She tried focusing her stare on the bottle as this question became more and more pressing to her addled mind, and its form slowly changed into a shape that she was sure must exist in some way, yet was certainly indescribable. Its wavering motions caused her to feel sick; her eyes were now lacking a point of focus.


Seasick in a standstill.


She looked around. She was sure she had been here before.


Shikura City. On her way home. That was her goal. Such a simple thing to remember and yet it felt like a massive achievement, an achievement that should be rewarded with another huff of the substance in the bottle.


Again she looked at it, trying to find the cap of the bottle, its shape still changing with every new angle she saw it from. The fluid inside it licked at its shifting borders, strangely more coherent in structure than the vessel it was contained in.


As she pried and pried she once again had a moment of clarity. The texture of the cap had been strange, as if...


She had taped it shut. Outsmarted by herself. What a good girl she was, trying to prevent herself from overdoing it in her intoxication. She would have taken another huff to honor such a stroke of genius, but the current situation made this impossible. She would need some scissors or a knife to get to more of it.


She started licking her lips, in search of the aroma from before. Tiny pearls of sweat ran down her face, and as her tongue touched them the indescribable taste from before came through to her.


She did not need the bottle anymore. Her body had reacted to her desires. A new function that it had developed not too long ago.


The news called it possession. Professionals called it a disorder. How strange. What meaning did possession, a seizure of control by a foreign will, have to somebody who relinquished control whenever she pleased? What was a disorder to somebody who preferred a sickened mind to a “healthy” one?

And still, it would be wrong to call it a gift. It simply was. Another part of her body. Like an arm. Neither good nor bad, just existing to be used as she saw fit.

After she pulled down the surgical mask she wore over her face, she pulled the sleeve of her black hoodie over her elbow. There were no inhibitions left in her current state. Frantically, she started licking her lower arm in her craving of the substance.


The taste was unmistakable


The mask had been a small countermeasure against the smell that oozed from her mouth and nose, and an easy way to avoid identification on the streets.


Not that they were particularly busy at this time of the night. Not to mention that even the most rational citizen would probably avoid talking to a girl wearing a surgical mask at this time of the night.


Still frantically engrossed in licking her own arm, she spied something of interest out of the corner of her eye.


Beyond her craving there still existed a mind with a mission.


Even in her current state she recognized it. On the hood of the car, a three pronged star in a circle. A huge almost tank-like car right next to her. A symbol of status and money.


In that moment the symbol could just as well have been a right-inclined swastika. It was a symbol of hatred to her. So hatred was what she felt.


There were not a lot of people in Shikura City driving this kind of car. The brand simply attracted these kinds of people. But she had to make sure. Walking over to its side, she stared into the driver's window.


A reflection of herself greeted her. Bloodshot eyes, dark rings under them. A hood pulled over unkempt, short hair. Not so pretty after all.

Another lick of her lips. Again the slightly alcohol-like taste greeted her.


She had to make sure. Holding on to the flask in one hand, she again shifted through her bag for a small, cylindrical object. It felt cold against her skin, and her grip on it was slightly loosened by her sweating.


With a rather inelegant flick of her wrist the small object expanded into a baton, the clicking sound endlessly reverberating, reminding her of heavy machinery in use. The rythmic, eternal echo of the clicking had something almost musical to it.


One.

She placed the end of it on the window.

Two.


She pulled back.

Three.

A thud. Nothing else. A slight pain in her wrist, dulled through a narcotic filter. A normal car window would be broken by now, but this was an armored car.


No ordinary businessman in Shikura City drives an armored car.


Clumsily she tried to retract the baton. A last longing look to the bottle. A last licking of her lips.


It was enough.


She tried to tell her body what to do but her consciousness had already been ejected from it. Like a crane operator she tried to steer her own arm muscles to push the baton back together while still holding on to the bottle. The movement was slow and stilted. The levers she pulled did not seem to have the effect she intended, as if the controls in her mental cockpit had been reversed and rearranged.


The hands started sweating harder, shaking under the pressure applied to them.


In a small moment of clarity it decided to not retract the baton, putting it back into the handbag with the end inelegantly sticking out. Carefully measured but clunkily executed movements tried to trace the opening of the handbag before finally letting go of the baton, dropping it inside.


A job well done. To reward itself it licked its sweaty hands, but the sensation of the taste had become weaker already.


The input of the machine seemed to be broken.


A step back. Pitcher up. Another frantic search through its handbag and it had what it needed. A cheap orange non-refillable lighter.


The spirit had been relegated to mere suggestions, watching over the machine execute the closest analogue to its will.


Another step back. It almost stumbled over its own legs again as the world kept turning.


The spirit had now finally lost all of the comfort she found in the numbness of the state it had been in. She felt only aggression, and the machine executed her will.


With a crashing sound her treasured bottle landed right on top of the car's hood, the precious fluid leaking down on it.


Only a second later, the lighter followed.


A bang. The sound of the car siren. And it, running. The few remaining lights at this time of the night caused immense pain in its forehead as it passed by them. Every single step it took sounded like the bang of a drum, warning it of some undefinable assault, endlessly repeating.


Through this cacophony the voice of a man could be heard, shouting. The machine interpreted syllables, tried to form them into words, understand their arrangement in a sentence and parse it back to the spirit, but it was unable to. Only intentions became clear to it.

The man was not amused.


It turned around, looking back. Not for the man. If he wanted a fight he could have one. As of that moment all feeling had vanished from the machine.

She just wanted to see its-...no, her work again.


It stepped towards the man, ignoring the trash cans and lamp posts in its way as they bumped into it without effect.


A declaration of war, made possible by the union of lighter fluid and diethyl ether.


The man was holding on to a switchblade, but the confidence the weapon had given him a few meters ago seemed to wane as the machine approached closer and closer.


A warning of Shikura City's most dangerous to the band of pathetic criminals known as Nanase group.


And with an effort greater than what it took to end the man's life just seconds later, the girl tried to put a smile on her own face.



__________________________________________________ _




The guy seemed like he did not expect this kind of ambience. I could not blame him, even I did not feel comfortable in here most of the time, though it had nothing to do with the room itself anymore. The blue shimmering lighting that covered the entire box-shaped room with all the little gizmos strewn across it was unsettling to humans on a subconscious level. You really realized that the light that came down here was filtered through the water tank on top of it, and that made you think of all kinds of outlandish scenarios involving suffocation and drowning and all those other fun things.


But I think what really unsettled the guy was that me and my employer looked like a freak show, and the light didn't factor into that.
He and his two buddies probably regretted their choice of attire right now. Or well, at least their choice of shoes. Their clothes were probably chosen to make a certain impression here, all styled up in their expensive designer suits, but it didn't change the fact that their shoes looked like they had been dragged through shit.

Turns out dress shoes were not the best choice of footwear for a walk in the forest.


“So, you must be Kaie? My name is Hirono. It is a pleasure...”


His buddies didn't get to talk. They looked like teens put in uncomfortably scratchy suits for the family photo compared to how natural the middle-aged man seemed to pull the look off. I bet these guys would act a lot more comfortable in some kind of shitty-brand v-neck talking to some vapid sluts about how they are totally raking in the cash from their occupation as human trash.


“Isn't respect the most valued commodity when dealing with partners in your circles? Calling me Kaie is awfully casual of you, don't you think?”


The two muppets were now obviously angry while Kaie threw them an honest smile, one they probably could not see very well due to the lighting. He really was enjoying this, but I don't think I could really appreciate the situation as much as he did. God knows what it takes to kill this...demon, but I know I don't want to take any chances with some pissed-off thugs.

The leader seemed to be startled for a bit before he started, rather nervously, smiling himself.


“Please excuse my impoliteness. Mister Karyou it is then.”

“How did you find this place?” Kaie tilted his head. Goddamn it, stop being so cute. It's a man. It's a man. Very young too. Do you want to get arrested? Though from the looks of it our new friend here could totally get you out of prison...what am I thinking?

“I like to listen. And when people talk about possessed there are always all kinds of strange rumors. From conspiracies to self-diagnosis tips to remedies. And one of these remedies was an eccentric living under a water tank.”


Rumors are like a festering cancer in the town of Shikura. People like Kaie and Hirono however were always on the lookout for them, for different reasons, obviously, but they both knew that people don't start whispering for no reason. Oncologists of a city, always searching for the source and where it spreads.


“Eccentric? I guess I could let my manservant clean up a bit...so you are having trouble with a demon possessed?” Kaie let his head fall on the bed. I guess he was enjoying the fact that he had all his prosthetics on for once.


Apparently the humorous part was over for our sharp-dressed friend. His face lost all of its previous ease and his whole body tensed up as if he was awaiting a uniform inspection.

You would probably fail that inspection at shoe shining, mister.

“Yesterday a business partner and friend that I valued and treasured was stabbed to death in front of his own burning car.”


Wow. Somebody here does not fuck around.


“I imagine there are some people that would do that, why would you assume it was a possessed? A lot of ordinary crime gets attributed to these people, you know? Maybe it was just somebody who wasn't quite happy with how he ran business.” said Kaie as he tugged on the bedsheet with his pitch black left arm.


A good question, really. I can't imagine these guys having too many friends. Shikura is a center of power for them, and is as such basically uncontested, but you never know when some cocky upstart gangsters want to infringe on their turf.


“There were witnesses.”


Well, that was fast. Either they knew this before the police or because of them, and at that almost instantly. Corruption must be really bad in this town, I never thought of it. It did explain Tomato's car now that I think about it.


For a second I wonder what she'd do if I told her that little gag personally. Probably something involving a lot of cover-ups and vehicular manslaughter.


“And what did they say that lead you to the conclusion of it being a demon-possessed?” Kaie sounded increasingly bored. It seemed that with every new question the danger of this turning out to be a waste of time increased.


“My friend, he pulled a knife on his attacker, and in a desperate attempt of self defense...”




“...of course.” Kaie absent-mindedly looked at the small peak he continually raised up and collapsed again with his tugging. He's probably the only guy in this city who dared to speak with a gangster like this without being a gangster himself.


“...he stabbed her in the throat. She was bleeding all over the place. And yet she continued to beat the hell out of him, somehow getting the knife out of his hands.” It seemed like Mister Tough here had trouble keeping his voice from breaking there. The wound had been inflicted only yesterday, so it was still fresh.

“Nobody did anything?”

“They called the police. Was too late. She had the upper hand, and even after he cut out half her throat she killed him with multiple stabs to the chest. She was relentless.” He pushed through his discomfort, but in doing so his two monkeys shot each other increasingly worried glares. They probably didn't get paid to pat his shoulders though, so they abstained from commenting. I guess it would break the professionalism at play here.


“People pushed to their extremes can do the most amazing things.” Kaie sat up. Now he was intrigued. Not necessarily because of demon possession, but that didn't sound like a contract killing at all.


What really captured the attention of the “boy” was human emotion. A contract killing, done for cold, hard cash, that was boring. A murder committed for reasons beyond reason, out of sheer human impulse, that was something he could really indulge in.

What a nasty hobby. Truly, rich people are the worst.


“Believe me,” as he said that, he looked deeply into my eyes, unable to find Kaie's in the twilight of the room. “I've seen things that could be described as that, but there is no extreme that lets a person walk off a slit throat.”


I didn't feel fear. I was not able to anyway. But there was something really sharp in the eyes of this man, as if he was in every moment absolutely sure of what he had to do to achieve what he wanted, no matter how taxing or cruel it may be.


“So what happened to that attacker?” Kaie's face. still obscured by the strategic placement of his bed. was now adorned with his trademark wide smile again. Just looking at it made me feel uneasy, and it wasn't even meant for me.


Well, not right now. That smile meant he wanted me to look into it. I didn't know if I was too comfortable with that idea to be honest. Prodding in yakuza circles was kind of at odds with my life expectancy planning.

“Nobody wanted to hold her down, obviously. And that woman was masked, so no identification beyond lots and lots of blood on the scene.”

DNA evidence, pretty strong once you actually narrow down suspects. Which was his main problem right now. He wouldn't have come to us if the police had a reliable lead. Not like he would let the police act in such a case...

“So how do you know it was even a woman?” Again, Kaie tilted his head to the side. With his doll-like body I was almost afraid that his neck would just snap. Not like I thought that would kill him, but it would probably be very troublesome for me to put the pieces back together afterwards.


“She slurred some words. Nothing coherent. With the way she was running away from the scene after the incident, the wutbess thought she was drunk.”

“Anything else of note?”

It seemed like had been waiting for that specific question, almost cutting off Kaie mid-sentence. “She wasn't really drunk. Maybe she needed some extra courage to mess with Masaki, because the car had been lit on fire with ether. Not exactly the number one choice for arson. And the witness reported that she seemed to have taken a few pills while running off.”


“Doesn't that make her a customer of yours then?” Kaie clasped his hands, his voice increasing in vigor.


“Nobody in this city that we know of sells ether, but maybe. We can't exactly pin her down with the info we got. And even then I don't feel comfortable sending people under my patronage to kill something which seems to shrug off lethal knife wounds.”


“My my, that's quite the interesting situation here. That does indeed sound like a possessed. I'll have somebody under my patronage look into it. But don't think I will play gun for hire for your group now, Mister Hirono. Let's just say this case...intrigues me.”


“I understand. I cannot thank you enough.”


“Don't thank me just yet, Hirono. Letting the hounds loose often forces criminals to new extremes.”


The man bowed. Probably the deepest he had ever bowed to a 14-year old. Or at least somebody who looked 14-years old. Then he gathered his two monkeys and went out of the door.


It told us a lot about the pressure he faced currently. A lot of which would now be passed onto me.


“Arika, it seems that there is something I would like you to do.”


“Take the dog for a walk?”


A little joke, with a lot more truth to it than I would have wanted.



__________________________________________________ _



There was no point trying to phone up my “police contact”. The yakuza would probably give us all the hints she would have given me, and more. Not to mention that I'd still probably rather deal with gangsters than with that unpleasant woman. Instead I wanted to meet a good friend of mine who could help me here otherwise. Just a few tips, something where I could start from. That would be all that was necessary for now.


To that end I invited him to a restaurant. A bit of an exaggeration, really. Actually it would be closer to a bar. Nebula they called it, quite aptly if you looked at it. Or tried to breathe in that place. Sometimes I was afraid careless arm movement would poke my own eyes out in that smokey atmosphere.


It was all but impossible to get a table during the busy evening hours, so I guarded mine with my life and wallet since half an hour ago. I ordered juice at regular intervals. No alcohol; I needed to remember everything. Not to mention that getting this info out of my friend here would require a certain amount of precision.


I saw him come through the door. He looked kind of worn-down and and exhausted, but he was still a man of impressive stature. A small, woven braid hung from the side of his spiky hairdo and his dark brown eyes seemed to scan the fog for me.


I waved before I realized what made him look so exhausted.


He did not come alone.


“Arikaaaaaaa! Hiiiiiiiiii!”


It was a voice like a cheese grater against a chalk board. There were few times when I was happy to see her, and this was not one of them. I wasn't sure if Tsuranui could have had any worse timing.

“Met her by chance, really. I told her we were going to eat, and she just tagged along.” Kirisu pulled one of the stools back and sat on it. Him sitting next to Tsuranui looked like the setup to some kind of optical illusion, Tsuranui looking tiny in her chair, while Kirisu made it look like a fishing stool.


“So Arika, you wanted to talk about something?” Kirisu said with his arms crossed on the table. He seemed quite tired. Probably because of Tsuranui.

“Yes, yes. How have you been? Just felt like meeting you. You know. For some guy talk.” I shot Tsuranui a glance.


“Eh? Guy talk? That sounds so strange when you say it like that...” Tsuranui blurted out, not being able to take a hint. I was really not sure if she was just innocently obtuse or deliberately trying to get a rise out of me. She had already waved at a waiter, showing no intention of leaving.


“Sounds weird, yeah, but hey, at least I get some free food.” Kirisu joined her in a tag team of embarrassment.


At least there was one way I could turn this situation in my favor.


“Exactly. After all Tsuranui will pay for us today.” I still fixated her but my annoyed look had changed into a bright, honest smile.


“Eh? Shouldn't a man always treat a lady?” replied Tsuranui dumbfounded, her hand against her chin.


The shirt you are wearing could feed me for a month, and that's your reaction?

“Well, uh, see Tsuranui, this is an Italian restaurant, right? In Europe, men get invited by the women. It's a strange and fascinating culture.” I tried to swindle my way out of this. She had to make this more difficult to me, so a white lie was only fair.


For a second she pondered on my answer, exaggeratedly tapping the side of her face with her index finger.

“Oh, if Arika is so poor that he has to make up stories about foreigners I guess it can't be helped. It will be on me. But only if you promise to drink with me.”


That went a bit different than I expected. Still, to quote a good friend of mine, at least I got some free food.


The evening passed by rapidly. I absent-mindedly doodled in a notebook I had on me as conversation went to pointless places. Decanters of wine emptied themselves rather quickly, and the sun being down meant that alcohol wasn't the only problem I would have if I wanted to keep my memories of this event.


After a pause in conversation I bring up what I needed answered.


“By the way, did you hear about that gangster being stabbed? I hope this doesn't escalate in some kind of street war.” My eyes shift between Tsuranui and Kirisu, resting on Kirisu just long enough to see how he reacted.


Poker face.


“Eh? You mean the one with the burning car?” Tsuranui was well-informed regarding gossip and actual news, so just a mention of a newsworthy event straightened her posture in a flash.

Kirisu chose tactful silence and relaxation.


“Yeah. Sounds like it was some rival gangster. He got stabbed in the abdomen over and over. With his own knife even!” I tried to sound uncharacteristically excited. Come on Kirisu, just a few hints and we can talk about bars, friends and all that other irrelevant stuff again.

“Eh? It's a hitman that doesn't bring his own knife?” She seemed really into this. A morbid kind of curiosity, so unladylike. Like many other things about her.

“Strange isn't it? And they said that they found drugs at the scene too, apparently they used some inhalant to light his car on fire.” Trying to stoke the fires a bit I kept shooting Kirisu glances.

Come on. Come on.


“Do you really think that's a good conversation topic? You're going to give Tsuranui nightmares.”


Kirisu finally spoke up in a jovial, teasing tone. But it was too late to change the topic by teasing her. Tsuranui the shark smelled the blood in the water.


“It all doesn't add up to a hit...wouldn't they try to get rid of the evidence too?” She took a sip from her glass, and Kirisu followed.


“But who else could do something like that?”

“Somebody with nothing to lose, or somebody who lost something very precious. Takes a lot of courage to go up against gangsters if you ask me.” said Kirisu, now visibly uncomfortable.


“They also said he totally slit his attackers throat. Their blood was everywhere, and they just walked it off.”


“Arika, is this going to be about demonic possession again?” She pouted. Bad sign. Losing the thread of the conversation there, and it gives a jumping-off point to slippery Kirisu here.

“It's a theory.”

“You seem kind of fixated on that stuff lately. Maybe it really was just some junkie.” Kirisu leaned back in his stool, now relaxed once more.


“But where would one of those hide?”

“If somebody wanted to live anonymously in this city they'd pretty much have to contact the yakuza.” Kirisu seemed unreasonably cooperative now.

“Unless they'd be in the recovery center!” Tsuranui offhandedly mentioned it, as if it was a matter of course.


“Huh?”

“Drug Rehabilitation and Recovery Center? You know, that Christian thing.” She said, nipping at her glass again. “They have help programs for addicts and stuff.”


“You mean a mental hospital?” I asked her with a confused look. Was she thinking of that prison-like thing?


“No. Nononono. It's on the outskirts. Oh Arika, you really need to read the news more often. There was a magazine article about the volunteer workers in an issue of...”


A magazine is not the news you idiot!

I cut her off. It was just a hunch, but even that was more than enough for now. After all I wasn't the only one investigating this issue, so looking somewhere not immediately obvious might be for the best.


“Here in Shikura?” Even Kirisu seemed surprised. I guess it wasn't exactly common knowledge, which as a plus made me feel less stupid about myself.

“It's a rural area but still easily reachable by train. Big enough to live comfortably but not big enough that the drug market becomes a problem for recovering people. Very few places are better than Shikura for that center...you know, this topic is getting kind of boooring.”


“See, I told you, she's all scared now.”


“I'm not.” Tsuranui pouted. Honestly I would be surprised if there were things that could even scare that girl. Her brain was probably too occupied by vapid gossip to leave even the tiniest speck for something as trivial as fear.


“Still Kirisu, you should probably walk her home. The Streets are unsafe right now, especially at night. And I bet more people are intimidated by you than they are by me.”


One armed scrawny kid versus ponytailed athlete? A clear win for Kirisu.

“Are you actually worrying about me?” Tsuranui seemed energetic again, almost jumping out of her seat.


In the most matter-of-fact tone I could muster, I replied to her.


“Of course! Unless this is the last time you treat us, that is.”

“Meanie.” Tsuranui pouted again as I poured myself the last few drops of the wine.

-------


It was bitter in her mouth, and she got tired of it. Over an hour had passed since she gad first tasted it, and she was beginning to get thirsty.


It was a bit like waiting for a dear friend to come with only a vague time of meeting, and the same mixture of anxiety and boredom filled her. But without her very special friend, this entire operation would be pointless.


A vending machine was what she needed most right now.


Not like it was too hard to find one. Very few sources of light illuminated the deserted industrial park during that time of the night. It had quite the bad reputation around this time. And that was for a good reason.


As she stepped towards one of the vending machines, she noticed that her feet felt weighted, making the task of walking over to it a difficult one.


Together with her dry mouth and her heart's unusually fast-paced rhythm, it was a good sign.


Plastic mockups of different drinks greeted her with warm light, each of them with its own separate button under it.

Some sports drink would probably be for the best. After all she had to stay hydrated through all of this. The next few hours would be very strenuous for her body.


With some difficulty she managed to fit a few small coins in the slit, and with a satisfying tone of metal hitting metal the machine let her know that her money was good enough for it.


Slowly her hand neared the oval-shaped button below the sports drink. She had to be careful; after all the other buttons had been focusing their pupils on her for a while now, and the timing was of great importance, since she had no idea what would happen if the button closed its lids as she was about to press it, their act of opening and closing sounded like a hundred camera shutters going off after one another.


Thinking about it blinking was a nuisance, for her and for the buttons. Not that it stopped her eyes from drying out anyway, or that the buttons were actually able to see anything, no matter how much they looked like human eyes. The only thing they could do was trace her and upload her information into the central body from which the yakuza could probably find out her permanent residence, her intentions, her deepest, innermost thoughts, her hair color, her eye color, maybe even her cup size. In this modern world there was just no way to keep your privacy anymore.


As her fingers finally touched the squishy eye, a hot sensation ran from her fingertips all up her arm, and on a closer inspection of her own finger, it seemed that there was a drop of hot tar on it; maybe she irritated the eye after all. Rumbling informed her that the drink had hit the chute, but she was not trusting the vending machine anymore; maybe it would bite down with its bright, shiny teeth just when she was about to reach for the bottle, so she just left it in there. If somebody else would defeat this monster, he would be rewarded accordingly, she thought to herself, and so she walked away with the satisfaction of leaving treasure to a future hero.


Just where to?


The buildings around her were mostly for storage, giant blocks of corrugated sheet metal and small windows that were far too high for her to catch a glimpse inside, and in her current state every shadow that left just the tiniest bit to her imagination seemed to move like a voracious animal, showing a glimpse of teeth polished to a white sheen and more eyes than she was comfortable with. Thankfully a reliable source had informed her about the place.


The only problem being that she could not decipher her own hand-drawn map.


Somehow there were five long black worms crawling all over it, mingling with each other as if fighting for dominance on the piece of paper. Obviously disgusted she shook the sheet and with a splashing sound the worms hit the ground, where they were swiftly dispatched with her shoe and a satisfying squishing sound.


Unfortunately this had left the sheet completely blank.


“Shit.”


“Is there a problem, miss?”

A man. Casual outfit, Hawaiian shirt showing hints of a trained physique. Shorts. Sandals. Sunglasses. Weirdo.


“Yeah. Yeah. I need to find the place.” The destination. It was the most important objective of tonight's expedition, if only her map had not fallen off, then she would have been able to find it easily.
“Hm? For what purpose?” Curious guy, maybe an agent of theiry; no tie though, no suit; then again it's not like this was some kind of bad movie, and if it was it must be a horror one, and in the horror one she would be the monster, and this man would have to be an innocent victim, so he could not hurt her. Would not hurt to tell him.

“The place where they are. They have to be removed from this city.” The truth. Maybe he could not handle it so she monitored his expression to the best of her abilities, but he seemed calm, relaxed, his black brows raised in surprise at her answer before slightly changing his expression to a questioning one.


“But why?”


“Too much fear. It is extortion. They keep their position with fear. Respect is what they call it.” But respect was not what it was, it was just an image, not like they tried much to cultivate one, they were never the traditional type, maybe calling them yakuza was wrong in the first place, then again the classical yakuza may have died out decades ago, who knows, still probably the closest term.


“Do you respect them?” Short question.


“No.” Short answer.

“Do you fear them?” Hard question.

“Not now.” Easy answer.


“So what will you do once you find this place?” His hands go to his hips, as if he had made a decision, not a hostile one, he was not going to call the police, he wasn't going to call the gangsters, he was supportive, supportive of what she did.


“Kill them all and take the delivery with me.” Firm statement.

“Very well. Let me show you where it is then.” Firm answer.


He took her by the hand and she felt the warmth of his touch, comforting in the cold sweat she was bathing in right now, her hoodie still pulled over her red bangs.


He pulled her through the dark streets of the industrial park, and with his touch her heavy feet became light again. Her mouth was still dry and the faint smell of fumes seemed to stick to it even moreso because of this, but it was not like she minded with him in tow. Fences seemed to be no hindrance as she climbed over them with ease, the barbed wire at the top not hurting her at all as it pierced her skin. Sure she, contrary to him, now had blood on her hands, but it was a warm, comforting feeling, a reassurance that she was in fact alive and progressing towards the goal. They approached the target.


Compared to the gigantic storage halls from before, this seemed more like a shed, not much bigger than two shipping containers stacked together. A roof, a door, and 2 windows on each side peeking out of the wavy metal surface were the only indication that this was even meant to be a permanent building. Otherwise it would have looked like it was intended for transport.


“This is it.”


The man told her. She was thankful, truly and utterly so; without him she would have taken ages with her body dragging her down, with no way to find this little hideout wedged between what seemed to be factory buildings and with no way to get past the fence.

She was so touched by his charity that she almost did not mind that he never existed.


As she tried to grab his hand once more she realized that she was fishing in empty waters.


A sensation overcame her body, like a step in the abyss during a particularly vivid dream. Just for a second there was clarity.


The location was right. She was at the right place. All that mattered now was to go in as fast as possible and do what was needed to succeed, then run for her life.


With her last moments of reasonable thought she came closer and closer to the door.


She took a deep breath. She was about to take a dive. About to immerse herself in the flow of the river that separated dream and consciousness, not fully belonging to either.


Delirium.


And with a sensation so unlike what she was used to, a fuzzy feedback that ran through her leg, she kicked in the door.


And was promptly greeted by a gunshot.


“Yeah, hate to tell you but climbing up a fence does make a lot of noise.”


Second. Third. Fourth. Fifth. Sixth. Seventh. Eighth. Click. Magazine goes out.

“Don't get close to her.”

In her chest. All over her chest. Her stomach area too, maybe three of them, maybe two, with the third one she was not quite sure.


Strange feeling to breathe through these holes. Stranger feeling to hear the bubbling with every strained breath.

Somehow she was still breathing. Choking too. Coughing a bit. Her arms, which she had instinctively wrapped around her thorax, were full of blood.


But not a lot of it.


Then she felt sick.


“Wait, wasn't she supposed to have black hair?”

“Maybe she dyed it, who gives a shit. Get me the other mag. We gotta shoot her in the head.”


Voices. Fuzzy vision didn't let her make out much except for shoes and the legs of a table, strategically positioned in the middle of the room.


And two duffel bags.


She raised her hand. A stop sign.


And vomited a torrent of at least ten balls of coagulated blood.

“Urgh, that's nasty.”


Once more. The bleeding seemed to have almost stopped, and a light-headedness overcame her. A bit of a headache too.


What a strange fever, the only way to get it was to take medicine in the first place.


She was still standing.

Normal fever purged infections. Strange fever purged inhibition.


Tear rolling down her face.


Feeling the pain.

For the first time


Just crying.


The sound of a gun cocking.


“Please...please...”


Under heavy breaths and sobbing she tried to reason with the man.


“I don't...”


Coughing and bubbling again. She could barely draw another breath.


“I don't want...”


She fell to her knees as more and more strength left her body.


“You're scared? Afraid to die? Now? Bad timing. Should have thought about that before you killed one of our own.”


The man stepped forward.

Sobbing had now turned to full on bawling. They say human emotion is infectious, but the approaching gangster showed none of it.


It was not like she needed to affect them.


“...n-no. Not scared.” And as quickly as she had begun she had stopped. Sniffing sounds accompanied her every word.
And a dancing shadow from the corner of her eye, expanding and contracting as if breathing, crept slowly out of the corner of the room, licking like flames at the man's feet.


And from this blind spot they enveloped him, dragging him into oblivion.


The voracious animal had awakened.

The only thing that was heard was a gasp as he drew his last breath, followed by the sound of a gun hitting the floor.


“I don't want...I don't want you to survive this.”


With her face still contorted in pain and slowly scrambling backwards on her knees, she looked to the ceiling.


And covering almost all of it were a thousand blinking eyes.


Muffled screams were all the remaining one could muster.

Even the room felt more than them, and yet she was expected to treat them like humans.


The eyes cried along with her, and from their tear glands came a torrent of hot tar, cooking the gangster alive.


The girl on the verge of death rummaged through her pockets in search of a painkiller.


After emptying the entire bottle she threw it to the ground.


She still had a lot of work to do.


As the pain left her body, wounds seemed to vanish with it.


Quickly she was back on her feet. Even quicker she grabbed the duffel bags and ran for the exit.


Sirens were already heard in the distance. While she appreciated the music she was not planning to stay for the lights.


And with her hard-earned booty she vanished into the night, a bitter taste still in her mouth.



__________________________________________________ _



It took almost an hour by train from my humble little residence to the recovery center. Calling it a clinic or something similar would be overstating it. What I saw when I entered the humble-looking western-style house seemed more like some kind of friendly weekend get-together of some middle-class housewives. Behind a small entrance hall, where I changed into a pair of comfortable slippers, there was a table set up around which a wildly mixed group of people were seated. Some of them were close to what I pictured, a man roughly my age with visible cheekbones, wearing sunglasses indoors for example. Others seemed to have come to the wrong place, like the middle-aged lady that seemed to judgmentally scan me upon entering.


“Hello?” I asked the room more than the people in it.


“Come in. Come in!” A friendly male voice greeted me. “My name is Father Mitsushima. It's nice to meet you.”

He seemed almost too eager to greet me as he stood up from his desk, which had been parked right next to the entrance like a sort of makeshift reception. These guys didn't really make a profit, so this was an absolutely earnest greeting, not like some drawn out “Welcoooooome” when you enter a store. No, this guy, clean shaven and a crew cut, but giving off a relaxed aura due to his casual attire, was honestly happy to meet me. He introduced himself as “Father” but all that could have indicated a religious background was a small cross around his neck, pronounced due to his white shirt.

“Nice to meet you. My name is uh...Shozai.” Introductions were quickly taken care of. I tried my best to match his rather casual tone.


Oh, right, he thinks I am a junkie. Let's clear up some misunderstandings then, first.

“I'm here to check the facility out, for my...sister. She has a lot of issues that need some taking care of.”


The best lies are merely embellishments of the truth. Helps you to keep track of things.


“In that case I think one of our volunteers would be the best choice. A tour is, as you see, not really something we offer, but she will be able to answer every question you might have.” He waved over to the girl sitting at the top of the table. Really plain looking, a bit older than me.

Being kind of startled out of my conversation I shoot the man a confused look.

“Pardon me, but is there a reason why you can not answer my questions?”


“I think I am not qualified as much as my honored colleague is,” he says with a smile “Hitomi, would you mind? I'll take over for a bit.”


From her seated position on the ground the girl stood up. A strand of her hair, which she had done up in a bun, was wiped from her face before she responded, revealing, big, radiant eyes.
“Sure. Hello, my name is Hitomi Ueda. Can I help you?”

She seemed kind of nervous, taking shallow breaths while talking.

“Uh yeah, as I told your colleague I am looking at this facility for my sister. My name's Shozai by the way.” I was getting more and more routined at these introductions. Maybe I should print some business cards to go along with it.


“Well then, Mister Shozai, anything specific you want to know?” For the second time, a warm, welcoming smile, and again it felt utterly sincere.


People being sincerely friendly kind of creeped me out to be honest. Maybe I was spending too much time with Kaie after all.

“So what does this place do exactly?” I asked her. I didn't know too much about it besides what Tsuranui told me, and considering I didn't want to risk her going on a tirade again that was quite lacking.


“We're offering outpatient and daytime outpatient support for people wishing to get over their drug addiction. We offer counseling and support groups mostly; medical counseling should be done by a doctor. Is your sister currently...” Seems like she rehearsed this a lot, but I wasn't here for the whole tour. I needed answers to a much more concrete problem, so I cut her off.


“...actually she is currently institutionalized.”


“My condelences. I hope she stays strong.” Out of nowhere she grabbed my hand with her own two and raised it to her chest as she looked into my eyes. I was not ready for this kind of escalation! We had barely met!


Also don't make me feel bad about myself lady. Whatever, I am doing this for all the right reasons. I think. Gangsters are people too, right? Maybe not the most correctly living ones. And it's not like Agonist Disorder sufferers are known for their restraint, so I am doing everybody a service. Nobody blames the detective in a pulp novel for lying either.


“I am merely looking for options on what to do next.”


“You haven't given up on her. That is good.” Finally she let go of my hand. Either because she had said what she wanted to say or because she actually realized it made me uncomfortable.


Okay, now answering to that would have to end in a blatant lie, so I let it go. My brain capacity was not sufficient for one that big.

“What does this counseling involve?” I keep playing the role of concerned brother. Which required quite a bit of acting talent. My only concern regarding her would be if she's safely locked up.

“A twelve step program. Total recovery is the goal, and it is usually achieved through a multitude of means. We have some leaflets about what they exactly involve. Usually we try to do so with group therapy, which involves...”


Wait, those guys at the table REALLY were all junkies? Even the auntie?

“Shouldn't we keep addicts away from other addicts? They might sell each other their...” I was about to finish my sentence before Miss Ueda returned the favor of cutting me off.

“You wouldn't let your sister talk to me?” There was a slight notion of her being hurt because of my statement in her wry smile.

“You're an addict?” But me being surprised at them straight up employing junkies took precedence over an apology.

“The basis of the program is having people involved that understand their struggle beyond having read studies about what kind of neurological processes are involved to develop dependence. And I prefer the term ex-addict.” I should have come here a bit more informed. The smile on her face had vanished.


Maybe I should try my hand at a compliment.


“You don't really look like...”


Her reaction was to cross her arms and her neutral expression turned into an obvious frown.

“So what do addicts look like? We have people of all kinds seeking help from us, from pressured kid to housewife to World War veterans. While I find your involvement admirable, maybe you should think over your stereotypes first.”


“Housewives?” Somewhere else, take that conversation somewhere else.

“I presume it was some really aggressive marketing.” She shrugged.


Are those gangsters selling drugs or fashion now?


“Marketing?” My disbelief came through. For just a second I imagine a billboard advertising for a speed sale and have to suppress a giggle.

“The gangsters in this city are trash, and Speed is their snake oil. Almost eighty percent of our patients are here because they take it. Maybe your sister too? Word of mouth spreads uses beyond just having a good time, and soon you have it penetrating every level of society.” Anger was in her voice, but it wasn't against me. It was against the yakuza.

“She's...yeah...yeah, that is totally it.” I should have sounded more secure, but that was all that I could manage for now. Not that it was necessary to be convincing.


Ueda had switched into full monologue gear.


“Doesn't matter if you need to stay focused because of work or pumped up for a party, the answer is always amphetamine. Kids take it for exams or stress relief, while dad uses it so he can work through the nights and still play with them in the evening, and mommy uses it as fat burner and appetite reducer so she feels 25 again. Nowadays we even get people in here that take it as analgesic. There was a patient that got addicted after she took it against menstrual pain, imagine that. And after all is said and done, they come down and feel horrible. Until they discover that they can just take it against its own adverse effects, build up a massive tolerance, and meanwhile the yakuza are rolling in cash.”


Seems more like she should wear that cross. Would fit her crusading attitude.


“If people are willing to throw the cash at them they are just satisfying a demand...” Not like I sympathize with the yakuza, but neither do I with the people that keep financing them like this. Those are the ones that keep this machine well oiled after all.

“With loan sharking for indebted customers and hit and run attacks when they don't pay? Not to mention they cut it with whatever seems handy at that time. There are people that occupy a niche, and then there are people that exploit the downtrodden even further.” From second to second she sounded less like a therapist and more like an activist.


What does she propose, an ethical code for drug dealers?


“I guess there is a strong anti-yakuza sentiment among the support groups.” At least this allowed me to probe a bit in the right direction.

“Yes. Not too long ago they actually had somebody standing outside of the center's grounds, just looking a bit menacing. Securing profits I guess. We try to take these people away from temptation and when they are finally strong enough to resist it on their own volition they are extorted back into it by human filth...” She shook her head in disappointment, though maybe that wasn't the right word. A mixture of sadness and rage. Not like she could do anything about them.


Out there there was somebody who did though.


This center was probably the key after all. Silently I thank Tsuranui for paying attention to useless things, then regret it seconds later. She's the kind of girl who would even let a silent mental display of gratitude get to her head.


“...where was I? Oh yes, we also have experience with people abusing prescription drugs. People that go through painful operations or rehabilitation, especially due to spinal injury often develop dependence on painkillers, which in turn are also often supplied by the gangsters.” For some reason she did a pause here and once again smiled at me in the trademark Rehabilitation Center sincerity.
“Further, as sad as it is, the gangsters have been expanding their market so we deal with more and more people addicted to MDMA and cocaine.”


“I see.”


We continued our talk for a few more minutes. She gave me a few tips on how to convince my sister to attend meetings and what I could do as a brother to support her outside of them. She told me how she had been studying psychology and started experimenting with drugs because it fascinated her from a professional's point of view, until she lost control, and her journey back into sobriety. And finally we came to the topic that interested me the most.


“Aren't you afraid it could have been somebody you treated?” I ask her with a worried look on my face.

“No. We don't have anybody that we treat for ether, and even if we had it would be confidential information that I am in no way obligated to give to you.” And she crossed her arms again.


I tried to work my charm for a bit. We got along greatly just a few seconds ago.“Why so hostile?”

“Because your questioning in that area made me think I made a mistake, so I'll just ask outright,” she said. She shot a look towards the table, then bowed slightly forward and continued to ask in whispers “do you work for the yakuza? Is this all a little trick to scout out whoever stabbed this guy? Because I'll tell you right here that...”

No. She couldn't play this trick on me. I opted to answer her intent rather than her question.


“I'm an exorcist. Yakuza or not, I work to protect the people.” My wallet too. And my life, don't even want to imagine what Kaie would do if I blow this event off. “The possessed are dangerous. Maybe she goes after yakuza now, but these people are unpredictable and soon she will lash out against innocents. So if you hear anything about her whereabouts, even if it's just a rumor...”


I wrote my number on one of the leaflets I grabbed from the reception desk.


“Call this. Please.”


An awkward pause followed. It felt like it took almost half an hour to me, in reality it probably wasn't even a full minute.

“Two things.” She broke the silence.

“What?” Honestly I had been close to walking away just seconds ago

“There are two things that I need to get answered first.” She said with a tinge of anger to her voice.

“Alright, ask away.” I tried my best to ease the situation with a casual shrug.

“First, does this sister of yours really exist?” Oh, tricky question. I don't think I could really consider her a sister anymore.

“Her problem is something different than drugs. But yes. She does.” Let's just say it like it really was for a change. I didn't make a good pulp novel detective. Maybe I should have gotten a hat.

“And the second one is, do you have a problem with painkillers?” Now that one came out of nowhere.

“What?” I raised a brow in disbelief.

“Your arm. You come to a Rehabilitation Center inquisitive about its methods for a family member with only one arm. Phantom pain, neurological complications, you name it. A lot can happen when you miss a limb...” Now anger seemed to have been replaced with worry.

“Hahaha...” I couldn't hold back a slight chuckle at her perceptiveness that lead her to a wrong conclusion.


“What?”

“I don't, and you know why?” Responding to my question only nonverbally she looked at me, puzzled. “Until next time, try to think about the difference between missing a limb or having lost a limb. Take care.”

And with a one-armed wave I took my leave from the rehab center.

Milbunk
March 4th, 2014, 11:40 AM
substance_DepenD(Dance) (Continued)

She took her leave from the scene. There was no doubt about this, it was a crime comitted by a possessed. Otherwise the evidence just would not add up. There was a corpse fully encased in tar, a dropped, fully loaded gun and clumps of coagulated blood in a dried up puddle of the same.


The smell was not the most pleasant she had been exposed to. But considering the conservation of the corpse it was far from the worst.


A nonsensical crime scene. Or rather a crime scene that went beyond common sense. It would add up if she just knew more about the aggressor. Just what was his illness?


She looked over the little information that had been gathered. Three people were at the scene, going by the footprints. A bit of residue of white powder was on the table in the center of the shed. Parts of the shed were covered in tar, most of it right under the corpse. Gruesome death, but nothing somebody who worked in her department could not stomach.


“Hello? Can I speak to the one in charge?”


Yelling from outside.


A man in a dapper suit. His hair had greyed slightly, which gave off a feeling of calm seniority. Age did him well in general, though judging by his reddened eyes and the rings under them, stress must have been a major factor in his life recently.


“These people here were friends of mine. My name is Hirono. It is a pleasure to meet you finally, miss Mato.” A respectful bow. Not like he had any for a cop, but at least he was good at faking it.


“This is a crime scene. Back off.” As carefully as her unexpected guest had chosen his words it was only contempt she had to offer him. No disturbances on the job, no exceptions.


“I am sorry. But I think we might be able to help one another.” Weariness and friendliness in equal parts, from the mouth of a gangster. Lovely.

“I have no interest in helping you, so tell me what you know, and then leave.” Her expression remained stone cold, as did her tone. She was not in the mood for negotiations with a demon on the loose.

“Maybe we should continue this talk between the three of us. Just you, me and the superintendent. You'd be surprised how receptive your superior is to suggestions made by mine.” His voice increased in sharpness as he formulated a threat. He took a step towards Mato, focusing her with his dried up eyes.


“What do you want?” She was not intimidated by him, but there still was no need to trivialize an eventual promotion from where she stood. So maybe listening to him could be beneficial after all.

A smile accompanied a realization that he finally met open ears. “The stabbed one. Also a friend. These cases are linked.”


Of course they were.


“I don't think so.” She replied. Her gaze was interlocked with his, and neither seemed to move an inch.


“Nobody raised a hand against the Nanase for quite a bit, Miss Mato. Two of instances occurring shortly after another is no coincidence. So what I propose is an exchange of information. I grieve for my friends, so all that I get would be helpful to get over my trauma.”

Nobody steals her game. Not in her city.


“Are you trying to get me to compromise evidence?”

“Share it. Merely share it. I think it is in everybodies best interest that this criminal be found in the quickest possible manner.”

So he could exact some macho justice on the criminal to make an example for everybody else? She was a policewoman, not a hitman handler.


“Get out. Now.”


The man raised his shoulders, no longer seeming aggravated. “If that is your final answer I am afraid I will have to look for information elsewhere. Don't think I can't get them from your department.”


“Go.” Maybe it was a bluff. Maybe it wasn't. All she knew was that she did not want to see the man around anymore.

“Well then, farewell. Have a good hunt.”


She was overcome with a realization. She had to tap into a more personal source of information if she didn't want any to be compromised.

She had to act just the slightest bit autonomous.


Because yakuza did not inspire fear in Touma Mato.


The only thing that did was failure.



__________________________________________________ _



Fifteen minutes.


Quick in. Quick out.


She dipped into the bag with a finger, digging a small amount of it up on her nail and slowly balanced it towards her nose.


Made from plants and the greed of a few, filtered with blood and petroleum and smuggled in containers and literal shit.


A bit of powdered war imported from a foreign country to peaceful little Japan.


It was better that she held on to it than those that profited from suffering.


The feeling reminded her of her childhood. Like ripping open a packet of fizzy tablets and chewing on them.


Only that the tingling sensation spread far beyond her mouth and through her entire body. And that there was no mother here that could scold her.


Ironically she would actually be needed here.


Sparks were flying through her entire body. Little zaps of energy in every muscle movement, no matter if conscious or unconscious.


A little bag of electricity. It felt like she had been running around on an empty battery her entire life, and only now she finally felt what it meant to be fully charged.


She took off her shoe and put the bag back in. Even such a miniscule task made her feel like she just won a battle against all possible odds


There would be a multitude of ways to describe what she felt like right now. Euphoria, exhilaration, pure bliss or just high, but it all boiled down to one thing.

She was feeling amazing. She was invincible. It wasn't hard to imagine that people would kill for this.


And that was the problem. She had to be very careful. This would be her only one for this week. She swore to herself, and hoped she could keep the promise.


She stepped outside of the little alley.


Her feet made no sound anymore. Her flowing blonde hair was not the only thing drawing the attention of passerbys.

The girl was taller than them. Not because she had grown.

She was literally walking on air, looking down at the small, helpless peasants that would never taste what it felt to be truly alive.


Only a few little steps separated her from the bar next to her.


Calling it a bar might have been slightly inaccurate.


As she opened the door she was greeted by the unnaturally intense smell of smoke. Classy lighting was provided in the form of low hanging chandeliers and the furnishing incorporated leather seating as well as solid marble tables.


Not exactly a traditional Japanese venue. Nothing that she would usually spend her evenings in.


But tonight there was somebody here that she would need to talk to. She had received a small hint from a dear friend that he just had to be here tonight.


“I am sorry ma'am but tonight this venue has been reserved for a private party.”


The barmaid tried to be friendly but was swiftly ignored.


“Shhh.” She put her finger on her lips, not even dignifying her with a look.


She walked towards the only table that was currently in use.


A corner table where four people sat around an ashtray so full of cigarette buds that it probably could not be moved without ruining the table. They had been talking until they noticed the girl walking to them.


And realized that she wasn't what they ordered.


“Hey. HEY!”


“Hello Gentlemen. Am I disturbing something?”


In less than a second four guns were taken from various holsters and aimed at her head in close range.


“Oh. You stocked up. The last time word of armed members of the Nanase group reached my esteemed self I was told they had to share one gun between the two of them. It proved quite fatal.” Her voice was a playful sing-song. Fear was not meant to be felt by something as perfect as herself.


“You're dead meat.” The man sitting at the outermost corner,a young, well built bodyguard-type threatened her with his sharp words.


“I allow you to bask in my radiance and that is what you have to say? How disgusting. No wonder you are a dying breed.” Anger, and yet a hint of countenance

“Give me one good reason not to kill you on the spot.”


“Because I am here to deliver a message.”


“I'm listening.”

She slapped one of the thugs, or at least attempted to.

But her hand passed right through his face.

Not like she would touch trash like that.


And for a second, the thug felt nothing. But after it had passed, nothing that could feel was left.


A clean brush stroke decorated the wall. Maybe a bit too much ink, the imperfections as the ink faded out were the real signature of a calligraphy enthusiast after all. The red was quite tacky too. Also the pieces of skull, brains and skin ruined the flow. All in all it wasn't a work somebody could really be satisfied with.


She had to try again.


The bairmad dived under the bar with a loud shriek, but it was all drowned out by the repeated thumping of semi-automatic handguns.


Open warfare. This would not reflect well on the organization. How would they touch this up?


Bullets flew at her. She could see them coming right at her face.


They were intended to hurt her. It was a simple law of the world. Force applied to an object had to influence it.


It was just that the woman did not feel like following it.


And thus, three salvos passed right through her.


The sound of broken glass. And another shriek.


Just a step to the side.


And with a dismissive gesture she pushed her hand through the second thug's stomach.


With a surprised “Eh?” his eyes, head, and entire upper body followed the motion of the hand through his body.


The spin from his hips, which were now separated from his torso with a ten centimeter wide divide, caused a, to her quite amusing, gory spiral to spray the entire table in intestines and blood.

Sadly this also erased her “stroke” from before. And she had just gotten fond of her avant-garde interpretation of traditional art.


And yet, not a single droplet had stuck to her.


Two left.


One of them ran, a slightly pudgy fellow that was seated next to the corner seat. He ditched his stool and tried to make a dash for the exit.


The woman just stretched her leg out.


But rather than tripping the man up it passed right through his knees, with the expected effect.


The soprano shrieking was now accompanied by tenor howling of pain, and what used to be a standing man was now reduced to a calf-less crawling bug. A feast for eyes and ears.

“As I was saying...” She turned to the last remaining member of the table.


“SHE'S GOING TO KILL US ALL! SHE'S GOING TO FUCKING MURDER US!” The man, leaking massive amounts of blood from his stumps tried to crawl his way to the exit.


“See, your colleague here has something you don't have. Foresight. Because...”


“SHE'LL KILL EVERY LAST ONE OF US! THE BOSSES! THE GUARDS! THE RUNNERS!”

“Yes. Basically that. Unless there is the possibility of an agreement.” The girl clasped her hands to accentuate her proposal.

“We don't form agreements with killers of our brothers.” But the man, soaked from top to bottom in the blood of a dead comrade remained utterly stoic.


“If you would please hear me out, just in the interest of politeness...”


“YOU GOD DAMN FUCKING BITCH! MY FUCKING LEGS! MY LEGS!”


She shot the man a gaze that could have killed him. If she cared.


“Please watch your language and volume. We are having a conversation.” And calmly she continued, focusing on the shaken, drenched gangster in front of her. “See, if you can convince your boss to cease all activity of the Nanase group in the Shikura area I will not have to take out the trash personally. And I will allow you and all of your friends...to live. Otherwise I will work my way through the entire organizational structure, from top to bottom, until there is not a single one left. And I am not just talking your little dealing sub-endeavor here. The sweatshops, the extortion, the night clubs, the brothels, all of it. ”

“No.” No hesitation.

“You sound quite sure of yourself. I have my doubts if it will pay off. Good day, Mister Hirono. And send my best regards to your boss.” Waving her fingers playfully she left the venue, clean as she had entered it.


It was time to get a good night's rest. She had big things planned for tomorrow.



__________________________________________________ _



“I'll make myself clear, Shozai, if you are hiding something from me 'daylight' will be a distant memory to you.”


Oh, scary, scary police officer. The Tomato had the good cop-bad cop routine down to a T. Really unfortunate that she never could find anybody who took the second role. Though considering her behavior that was not too surprising, I certainly would not want to work with her. That's why cooperating with her was less a matter of “want” and more a matter of “had to or who knows what the hell could happen” to me.


“Mhm, I have something unimportant, merely a lead. How about you tell me what you know first?”


“There is no 'unimportant' in criminal investigation.” She crossed her arms. Her investigative words were the first thing I heard from her when she entered my apartment. Right after she shut my door.

No “excuse the intrusion.” Not even a “hello.” Just jumping straight to the point. She was working under pressure it seemed.


Now that I thought about it it all lined up. Fetish for expensive cars, love for guns, no respect for simple customs. Matou must be an American in disguise.


“We have three crime scenes. Six dead. All of the victims were members of the Nanase group. And three culprits that managed to completely disappear despite leaving crime scenes with mountains of evidence.”


Nothing new here.


“Witness accounts confirm AD in the first and third case. The crime scene of the second case was utter nonsense, almost like a prank if it wasn't for a tar-encased gangster and cocaine residue.” Mato flipped through a folder, showing me pictures of all three scenes. Blood stained streets, chaos in the small shed and a really nice bar looking like somebody shot a western in it.


“So you should have enough evidence to nail somebody down, right?”

Mato furrowed her brows and her voice shifted from her clinical assertion tone into one of frustration. “That's the problem. We got DNA evidence on scene one and two, and it doesn't match up. Not to mention witness reports from scene one and three do not.”


“Eh? Multiple culprits?” This case became more and more curious.

“They seem to be organized though. One of the Nanase higher-ups got interviewed by us and he told us about threats against the organization. Apparently the culprit there also told him about the second crime scene.” She was clearly not too happy about having to rely on a gangster for information here. She wasn't exactly a by the book cop, but a cop nonetheless. This was a matter of principle.

“She could have just read about it in the news.” I shrugged. Not like this wasn't the talk of the town. Shikura had a tendency for Agonist-related crimes and the rumor mill surrounding them.

“She mentioned two gangsters. We only found one body, but the underboss said that two had been assigned to the operation.” She pulled two file photos from the folder and gave held them in front of my face.


Not like I recognized those faces.


“Oh. So what does that mean for us?”

“Either there is a possessed who affects other people. We already had some of those. Which would be the best case scenario, since it means finding one culprit. Or there are multiple possessed somehow organizing against the mob. Which would be the worst. And badly enough it is the most likely one.” She sounded increasingly concerned. Multiple Agonist Disorder sufferers on the loose would reflect very badly on her department. Prevention of possessed crime was a major part of its mission statement.


“I see...”

I told her about the rehab center, reading out everything I wrote down in my little notebook. About Hitomi, the angel who hates the yakuza and the general anti-yakuza sentiment. As I kept talking I was able to glimpse a slight sense of astonishment coming from Mato. I guess she had not thought of the recovery group.

“She's not crazy enough to have AD. But maybe her groups organize something she doesn't know about.” I fired a wild guess, better than nothing I hoped.


“Try to talk to her. I doubt she will be too receptive of the police. But take care...”


What was that? Human emotion expressed by the killer tomato? Actual concern for my well-being?


”I need you to get all the information you get out of her to me before they kill you.”


Ah yes. A bleeding heart looking out for my safety.


“Seems good enough. I will tell you when I know more, I think I'll try to interview her again tomorrow.”

“One more thing, Shozai.”

“What?”

“All info goes to me directly. I don't know if there are leaks happening, and I don't want them to get their hands on the culprits.”


“Understood. Now if you could please leave?” I tried to phrase it as politely as I could.

“I wanted to anyway. Not like I can take this rotten single apartment smell for any longer.” And her reply had been just as polite. As much as she could manage anyway.




We both left the house seconds later. Matou with her folder under her arm and myself with a white empty plastic bag.


Stores would close soon. I had to do groceries.



__________________________________________________ _



I exited the small, brightly lit convenience store. I had left so fast that I could barely catch the fading sound of the store clerk wishing me a good evening, and I kind of felt bad about it. I should have at least waved at him, but that was easier said than done. Not like Kaie would lend me Hatred for shopping or putting on clothes.


As I, slowed by the weight of various foodstuffs, tried to make my way back to my place I felt rather uneasy. Maybe it was the whole case still weighing down on my mind. And as if it had been a premonition about things to come, my cell phone vibrated.


I could hardly look at it at that moment though. Even carefully setting down the plastic bag might have broken some eggs, or even worse, a bottle of beer. Maybe I should have really thought over my bagging habits and put the sturdy stuff at the bottom for once.


As I tried to cross the street a car parked itself right in front of me. Pitch black Mercedes with tinted windows. It blocked the whole pedestrian crossing like an insurmountable tank.


Uneasiness turned into a really, really terrible feeling in my stomach.


“You are Kaie's man, right? Get in.” The window had only opened by a small margin. The only thing I could see inside were a pair of sunglasses. Presumably, but not necessarily attached to a head. One that I did not really want to talk to right now.


“Uh, actually I wanted to get this home first.” I raised the plastic bag in his field of vision.


“Get in.” The door in the back opened. A suited guy got out, built like a meat cupboard. Also wearing sunglasses. On any other day I might have silently laughed about their cliche uniform appearance, but not today.


“Alright, alright. Can I just put this somewhere?” I asked.

The answer came when the bodybuilder ripped my bag from my hand and, with the distinct sound of shattering glass, smashed it against the ground.


“Get. In.”

“Alright, alright.”


What greeted me inside was the heavy smell of tobacco, and Mister Hirono smoking a fat cigar. He looked like he had not slept for a month, and it seemed that he did not derive any joy from the occasional drags he took from it.


The man who destroyed my hopes for a relaxed beer in the evening sat next to me and shut the door.


“Just a round around the block, okay?”


“Sure.” I kept a stone faced expression, but the feeling of uneasiness just did not want to go away. Annoying. Arika Ishizue did not feel like running away or even panicking, but I still understood that I was in a terrible situation.




“It's a nasty habit. Actually I quit two years ago. I promised it to my wife, you know? But seeing that my men keep dying like flies I think one can be excused, don't you think?” He carelessly dropped the ashes on the floor mat, dragging them across it with his shoe.

“I'm on it. We'll prevent as many further deaths as we can.” I stared him right in the eyes. There was barely any white to them anymore, just a brown rim with a black dot peeking out of a red sea.


“That is the exact word I was just getting to. Mister Ishizue, let's talk about accident prevention.”


The man snapped with his cigar-free fingers. The gorilla next to me instantly reacted to this sign, fixating my left hand by pushing it down on the seat with his left and pushing my head back into it with his right.


Hirono pulled my short sleeve up to my shoulder and pressed the lit cigar against it.


I started to breathe heavily. I did not want to scream, even if the pain became greater and greater as he smeared the cigar down my arm.


“In this city, a lot of accidents tend to happen. People get hit by cars and end up, if they are lucky, with a surviveable polytrauma. Though there are a multitude of ways to prevent this kind of thing from happening, people still steadfastly refuse to just follow these simple hints.”

Behind grit teeth I managed to squeeze out a reply “Horrible.”

“One. You should always listen when somebody with working experience in a field talks to you. Two. Commit your utmost attention to any task given to you. Three. Don't withhold any possible mistakes you might have made from your superiors.”

He pointed at me with his cigar, and as he continued talking to me not only did the volume of his voice increase but also the reddish tone of his face.


“So, keeping that in mind why haven't you found who we were looking for? Why do you find time to chat with your friends instead of focusing on fucking finding the piece of shit that kills my associates? And why the fuck do you talk to a police officer behind my back?”


He drilled the cigar on a burn-free spot on my shoulder.


This time I screamed. “I am trying! I am trying!”


The built dude increased the pressure on my head. I felt a bit dizzy. Hirono's face came so close to mine that I could feel his breath on my cheeks.


“TRYING is not enough for me. So I have a proposition. You certainly know something I don't. Until tomorrow morning you and your crossdressing friend have time to give me a list of names. The Nanase will take care of every person on it. Should we encounter any trouble dealing with them you are of course cordially invited to help us out. And if the murders stop after that, I will think about rewarding you. And if they do not, I will add two more names of my choice to this list.”


He looked away from me, fumbling with the window control and throwing the burnt-out cigar stump out of the window.


“Have I made myself clear?” He did not dignify me with another look.


“Clear.” I tried to regain my composure, but my shoulder still hurt.

“Good. Now get the fuck out of my sight. When I see you again I'll either see a man rewarded for a job well done, or a dead one.” Words spat like venom. He reached into his suit pocket for another cigar and put it into his mouth.


The man who pushed me down now opted to lay me sideways on his lap. I felt the car slow down.


Grabbing me at my shirt and my pants he dragged and pushed me out of the car on the cold, hard concrete. I heard it drive off.

I remembered my cellphone. Now of all times I remembered my god damn cellphone.


Mail.


Someone wrote me that they had something important to tell me.
Someone wrote me an address to go along with it, and a time tonight.
Someone was Hitomi Ueda.


Without a second thought I forwarded the mail to Tomato.


I had a few questions that needed answering.



__________________________________________________ _



Tonight I was a bit more complete than usual. It wasn't that I really missed the arm I had, but still, there was a slightly exhilarating feeling about being back to two again, starting from being able to tie shoelaces.

I told Kaie about my little run in with Hirono. He told me to not worry too much about it, but my arm still hurt. And I still did not feel too great about essentially having a hit ordered on myself by the most influential syndicate in the area.


Not like I could leave the prefecture either thanks to my lovely little sister.


The elevator ride seemed to take hours for me. For some reason I expected the unexpected. Not exactly a simple chit chat between acquaintances. Which is why I was armed with Hatred.


Finally it came to a stop. 6th floor, nice view, not exactly a penthouse. I walked over to the door number that I had been given.

The first warning sign was that the name on the door had not been Ueda.

I knocked.


No response.


I pressed the bell on the middle of the door. A sing-song tone could be heard even from the outside. For a few seconds there was silence, and I wanted to press the bell again.


Finally and very faintly I could pick up a female voice.


“Come in. It's open.”

Whoops. Seemed like I had lost my focus somewhere there, not noticing that the door had been opened just a tiny bit. I pushed it completely open.

“Excuse me...”


I took off my shoes and placed them into a tiny compartment, then slipped into the neatly prepared slippers. The process took a lot less time than what I was used to.

Good puppy.


I walked through the hall into the darkened living room. The sun had already gone down, but the woman had for some reason not switched on the lights in her living room. Carefully I looked for the light switch in the darkness.


Found it.


The place was a mess.

I would have called this my second warning sign, but this single, banal action had revealed more than one of them. All alarms in my head went off.


The table was full of drugs. A real collection.


White powder packets were neatly stacked next to chaotically strewn hypodermic needles and brown-tinted little bottles. There was a mortar that had been knocked over, in it some kind of brown, plant based powder. Something that looked like a seed pod lay next to it, cracked open of course. Bigger brown bottles with labels warning of their flammability and content. And of course bottles of medication. Not exactly aspirin either, what I could decipher was some diazepam and oxycodone. Various other small bags completed the optic impression, filled with small white crystals and green herbs.

“Not there. In the bath.”


Oh, I am sorry. I apparently saw something that I was not supposed to see. Or maybe I was.


I stepped back into the hall and took a turn to the left.


Just a normal bath. A tap, a shower head, a stool and a bathtub with a woman in full clothing inside.


“Don't worry. I won't drown.”


The woman lifted her wet shirt.

“See, I am wearing a swimsuit.”


Mhm. Makes sense. Just one question.


“Who are you?”


This was not Ueda. Different hairstyle, less round face, a bit taller too. Smaller eyes.


“Don't you think reality is a weird concept?” She asked me out of the blue.

“Uh, sure.” I shrugged. It wasn't the first time I heard people do this kind of crazy talk. Mentally I prepared myself for an assault.


The air smelled perfumed but at the same time a lot of undefined alcohol-like smells could be made out.


“Think about it. We define it as the sum of our perception on top of which we add extrapolations derived from that very perception of nature and the universe. We accept perception as subjective but try to find an objective truth beyond it based on measurements we take from that very subjective perspective in the first place. But when we alter the subjective perception suddenly what we perceive is no longer defined as “reality” but rather a hallucination or imagination. Don't you think that's weird?” She did not look at me. The wall seemed to be a lot more fascinating.

But if she wanted to know what I thought, I thought she was pretty damn high.


“It's kind of a paradox if you want to call it that. What I perceive is reality but subjective, but a different subjective reality is not.”

What complete and utter bullshit. If drinking nine beers and think the world is shaking, it not actually shaking is not a paradox.


“A paradox that does not apply to me. What I perceive becomes reality as understood by others. And the first thing any substance changes about your perception is the perception of yourself.”

Now that was interesting. It took me another sentence to fully make it click though.


“Welcome to my little apartment, Arika Ishizue. My name is Hitomi Ueda. And I have a problem.”


Yes.


Now it made sense, didn't it?


Three attackers, all looking differently, leaving different evidence but going after the same people. All of them suffering Agonist Disorder, and yet they take action so close to each other?


Touma Mato's predictions had been wrong.


No possession was in play. No multiple Agonist Disorder patients bonding against a common foe.


Just a single, sick woman with a mission.




Agonist Disorder was a disorder of the mind that spread its effects to the body, granting it a new function. Software creates a new hardware that the system can use. It was just that in this case the hardware accepted all kinds of software and thus changed its function. Like a game console that accepted a new cartridge, the hardware would be identical, but the function of the hardware would be changed completely. Steering a team of adventurers or flying a fighter plane, it was nowhere near the same thing.


Hitomi Ueda seemed to have contracted chronical Super Famicom Disorder.


“You don't practice what you preach?” I asked her. Why was she acting like that in the rehab center then?

“Hahaha. You got me there. I don't exactly think of myself as somebody who has a substance problem per se. Though there is one I have to use more often than I would like...”


Failed the first step of your own program there.

“Aren't you a good role model.”

“Their problem is different. It's not that the use is bad. It's that their way of using it is bad. They don't see it like I do.” She is completely motionless in the water. Not a single movement was made to disturb it.

“Is that so?” I asked half-heartedly. I just needed an opportunity to strike.


“I want to see reality. True, actual reality. I want to truly feel, not just get told what I should by electric impulses and a brain that fails to truly encompass an objective reality. That's why I use these. I don't want to forget. I don't want to party. I want to see. I am not addicted to anything. It is everybody else who is addicted to a wrong perception of reality.”


Keep telling yourself that. It may come true one day.


“I see. I see. So you actually did help them lay off the stuff?”

“Of course. The real usage one has to master is different. I shift my perception, then compare it to the other shifts I had. I blank out everything but the overlapping points between the altered states of mind. And thus, reality is born from a consensus of a hundred different perceptions.” She answers as if she truly believed her hypocrisy.


Okay, I could actually see that part making sense. Kind of. At least from the perspective of a mental woman.


“So why the yakuza? Why did you target them?”


“They corrupt the ideal. They cut with dangerous substances to increase profits, their monopoly drives up prices further. They exploit people that are barely adults to run the substances for them. And they have the audacity to present the substances they sell as something as banal as a mood enhancer or weight losing powder. There is nobody that can go up against them in this city. The police is completely in their hand. And whoever crosses them has to face terror and murder. They corrupt the beauty of something perfect, tainting it.”


“Mhm...” I looked around the bathroom. Not like she'd move anyway. But I found nothing out of the ordinary. Just a few bottles of shampoo and shower gel lying around.


“I have an ideal. I want everyone to see it as I see. But I have an advantage. I took a lot of ether. A lot of it. So much that I should be knocked out twice over. But here I am, talking to you. Then I started sampling a few other things. I mixed all that I had completely at random. Because I just had to test it. I had to make sure. And I was right. I am chosen. There is nothing that is poisonous to me anymore. They call it a sickness, because they are ignorant. Just as they call the substances dangerous they call my state of mind and body wrong. But here am I, one small step away from completing my magnum opus. But not yet. First there is something I have to take care of. And I need you for it.”


There was nothing that I liked more than to get involved in the plans of AD sufferers. Of course. Well, at least I could establish a false sense of security that way.


“Why me?”

“The way you said it. When you were at the center. I saw you could be enlightened. You had a mission. Exorcism you called it. I want you to help me excise the most dangerous cancer from this city. The Nanase group. I want to distribute what I looted from them, fairly. So that everyone can experience what I did.” White lies and hidden self interests could really change how people perceive you. I should be more careful in the future.

“Oh, drug lord. That would certainly allow me a nicer condo. But I am not interested.”

These people with their idiotic delusions. As if the possession had not been their own fault in the first place. They were all weak to temptation.

But weak minds really were underestimated by society. Everybody raved about how a strictly disciplined disposition could accomplish anything. Mind over matter and all that. But Agonist Disorder proved this wrong more than anything. If you thought about it, wasn't it always this way? A disciplined man could endure a cut until it became too much for him to bear, but a truly mentally sick person, some cutter, would derive pleasure from the same pain. What exhausts the strong fuels the weak. The people that truly surpass our expectations of what we are capable of are always called
“crazy”.


Not that that insanity was an admirable state of being. But it had to be considered when taking on an Agonist.


And after all “crazy” had been a word that had been used to describe me too.

“That is a problem.” She said, now finally moving. Her knees were pulled closer to her body, and soft ripples ran across the water.

“Yes. As you said I am an exorcist. And I am here to deal with your sickness tonight.” I started concentrating on the foreign arm I carried as my own tonight.

“That is just too bad isn't it.” Her hands now were over the water surface, and to my astonishment, not a single drop of water seemed to have actually managed to make her wet.

“Don't worry. It will all be over soon.”


“At least on that we can agree.”

The woman stood up out of the hot bath. She clinged to one of the rim of the bath tub, trying to stabilize herself.


It seemed she suffered from vertigo. Didn't her mom tell her that you should not bathe for too long or you will get sick?


But quickly I realized the problem with this.


Her feelings of vertigo affected the room that I was currently in.


The stool started to shake. Water started to drip out of the bathtub. Those were my only two warnings.

With a crashing sound followed by the splash of a wave the contents of the bathroom of Hitomi Ueda's apartment literally fell to the ceiling.


“I told you. Gravity. Shape. Color. Existence. They are as I see.”


A cacophony of clashing sounds. Despite it I focused on the only thing that mattered.


The sensation of everything faded from me. I didn't feel the hit on my head anymore as my body fell to the ceiling. I didn't feel the irritation of my skin after the burn marks.

All I felt was this fading, calming sensation.

Arika Ishizue had no way of fighting someone with Agonist Disorder. He had always just been a regular man with a missing arm. In his fights against the possessed, his only function was that of a leash.


And like a leash, people would only get hurt if Arika Ishizue did not exist.


His conscience faded completely

All that was left was the arm, or rather a black, spindly dog, stepping out into the night.


Hello, Hatred.


I am sorry for the wait.


It's time for dinner.



__________________________________________________ _



The black dog looked at her. Not that it had eyes to see her with. Its status as a dog itself was not even that firm. Like a strange seaweed sculpture its spindly body walked across the ceiling of her bathroom.


She understood that if it bit her, it was over. No matter if she felt the pain of its bite or not, the wounds made by this beast were incomprehensible.


Understanding was but one of the many blessings she had received.


She needed to create distance between her and the dog.
Stamping. Stamping on the ceiling, or the floor, however one would like to look at it. A crack formed. A crack that she could feel.


No, that was not right. It was the part she could not feel.


The dog gnashed its teeth. It was a sound unlike any other, amplified by her being freed from mortal perception. It caught a whiff of her scent.


And contorting like a spring, it prepared for a lunge.


She concentrated all her energy into the simple crack.

It was a human creation, shaped by human will, designed by human imagination born from human perception.


As a master of this force it was hers to command.


And with the power of her mind the crack tore open, the dog lunging past her as she fell in the middle of another, unused bath.


She had to reach the living room. Smashing the door open without touching it she exited the bathroom.


A window. That's what she needed.


The dog landed on its feet. The impact had not changed its tenacity.


She had reached it. An outlook over Shikura City. The clay out of which she would form perfection.


A new scar could be felt. A hole that drilled itself through the bathroom wall. The dog chased her relentlessly.


As the dog broke through it she finally established a line of sight again.


And then she ripped it apart.


The floor panels, the tiles of the bathroom, dust, carpets, every loose part of the living room that she could see floated and shot straight at the dog.


Nonexistant, but yet it had to affect the material plane.

Indestructible, but not inaffectable.


As tight as she could she compressed all the matter she had gathered, encasing the dog in a sarcophagus.


And with all her might she threw it as far as she could.


I won.

Now she had to escape as fast as possible. She ran towards the window. With a crashing the shards of glass accompanied her fall to the ground from the 7th floor.


A feeling of total freedom. Overlooking the city once more, this time not through glass, she had been overcome by pure bliss. She even saw a single human stand rather close to her predicted point of impact.


The wind blew through her clothes and hair as she fell deeper and deeper.


Somehow she had to survive the impact.


Gathering her concentration she broke bits and pieces from the facade of the building, breaking them down, grinding them to a gigantic pile of sand.


Only a second later with a numbed thud she made contact with the ground.



__________________________________________________ _



Stinging pain, just for a bit. Broken ribs mostly, but nothing that the painkillers would not take care of in a second.


The wind had been gone.


It felt that she had been out for only a second, seeing that she had no direct memory of the impact.

“Are you hurt?”

“No I am fine, thanks for asking.” She slowly turned around, unburying her face from the sand.

Her ribs already felt fine again.


But there had been an uncomfortable feeling in her thigh.


Her hand slowly went along it, and found the culprit.


Something had been stuck in there.


“You can remove it.” The voice said. “It's already empty.”


She pulled the object out of her thigh and held it to her face.


An empty hypodermic syringe dart.


“If that's tranquilizer, it's not going to work.” She said with a sigh.

“I know.” Replied the voice.

“Who are you anyway?” She sat up. It was time to finish a job.


Looking at her was a woman in a fashionable, expensive suit and a stern facial expression. She held a gun in her hand, one that looked more like a toy than the real thing. A pressure canister attached to its bottom and its overly long barrel confirmed her lingering suspicion.

Dart gun.


“Touma Mato. Public Security.”


And just like that, the woman dropped it and reached for a holster at her waist.


This one was not a toy. In her small hands it looked almost grotesquely huge. Not exactly a standard service weapon. No, this was a gun for action heroes and people with inferiority complexes. Its metallic sheen reflected the light of a nearby street lamp to an almost blinding degree.


She didn't know anything about guns, but this one was easy to identify even for her.


Israeli Military Industries Desert Eagle chambered with .50 Action Express.


“Don't move.” It was a commanding tone. She had seen the distance she had fallen. She knew that she could not kill her with that thing.


Lucky for her that there were still some unanswered questions.


“Why do you defend them?” Slowly she stood up. The gun of the policewoman followed the center of her body, thus rising with her.


“I don't. I never did.” An expression that had been frozen solid. Her eyes penetrated her skull, her gaze piercing even through the darkest night.


“So why do you say I should not move? I have to clean up a city.” But it was not time to lose sight of the objective.

“So do I. I won't let any possessed run rampant in it.” An instant retort.


“Running rampant?” A bit of anger could be heard in her voice, hurt by the accusation.

“You murdered them in cold blood.”

“Murder? No. No. You don't get it. They don't speak Japanese. I tried to talk to them and tried to reason with them so often that I lost count. But they don't understand me. All they can communicate in is violence and terror. So don't call it murder. It's just a reluctant attempt to articulate myself in the only language they understand.”


“Justify it any way you want. You will not get past me.” There were roughly three meters of distance between the two.


“Your tranq doesn't seem to work.” A taunting smile was shot towards Touma Mato.

“That wasn't a tranquilizer.” But she did not react to it.

“Then what was it?”


The woman paused for a bit as if recollecting her own thoughts, then proceeded to answer in a matter of fact tone.


“It was strange. Why would anybody take strong painkillers when they just lost copious amounts of blood? Common sense would tell one that the consumption of a painkiller in such a situation could potentially lead to death.”
“Hm?” Now she was curious.


“Blood trails at two scenes. At both they just suddenly stopped. A report of an attacker taking pills at the first. An empty bottle of painkillers at the second. And neither wounds nor painkiller consumption at the third.”

Now she felt slightly nervous. Scratching. Scratching below her skin.


“What...did you give me.”


“When do you think you got that injection? Five minutes ago? Six? It should start working right about now.” Still she did not break her ice cold facade. “I'll take you to a safer place.”


A woman that had only contempt for the possessed.


“What..was that..” Her tone changed to a more demanding one.

“A bit of water...”

The suited up woman took a step forward.


“...a pinch of salt...”


Another one. There was only an arm's reach of distance between them.


“And a very big dose of Naloxone.”


A gunshot so loud that it felt like it would rip her eardrums. But the pain had reached her sooner. A bleeding hole had been struck through her shoulder, almost knocking her off her feet.


A howl of pure agony.


The painkillers should have patched up the hole in a few seconds. Nobody was able to harm her permanently. Especially not someone as mundane as Touma Mato.


To an extent it was true. Humans were not meant to fight monsters. It was an impossible divide that kept them apart. The sheer strength and tenacity of a monster such as herself was an obstacle that could not be surmounted.


On the other hand there was no worse match-up for a junkie than a police officer.

Another bang, quickly followed by another. A close miss as she dodged her aim to the side. The woman was not aiming for her head at least, so she might have been able to take another hit.


She tried to focus her thoughts on the building behind her again. She tried to pry out a piece of it.


But just as she mustered up the concentration to do so another shot was heard. Second shoulder hit.


The warm streams of blood informed her that she did not have a lot of time left.

She had to do this in a much more crude manner.
She tried to close the distance between the two of them. Mato had stepped back a bit, so now there was a five meter divide between them.


Another shot was fired. Aimed for her leg. A lucky dash to the side allowed her to avoid it by a hairs breadth.

Perception was still enhanced at least.


Three meters. A lunge directly at her.


Another shot. The last one in the magazine. And it was fired up in the air.


She had managed to grab her wrist. Just in time she managed to push her arms up in the air.


“Haaah...haaah...I got you.”

But Touma Mato's face showed the same cold emotionless expression it had before.


“No.”

With a quick spinning motion of her wrist she managed to free herself from the grab, and quickly unlocked the magazine with the other.


As Ueda's hand tried to reach for the pistol directly, Mato took advantage of her greedy maneuver, leading a punch along her arm.


With a crack Ueda's nosebone gave in.


Another shriek of pain.


Her second hand had not been idle in the meantime, grabbing another magazine from her belt.


The gun still lay on her opponent's face. Who tried her best to hit her with wild flailing.


The woman aligned the magazine with the grip of the pistol.


The sights had been aligned like a chisel on the face of the demon possessed.


And in a maneuver that without a doubt had to be left out of gun safety education, Touma Mato rammed the magazine in her handgun, breaking the rest of Hitomi Ueda's face into a bloody pulp.


“AAAAARRRRRRRRRRGHHHHHHHHHHHHH”


She covered the bloody, bubbling mess with both of her hands, remaining stationary.


Big mistake. After cocking and ejecting the first, unfired round from the magazine Mato once again readied her gun.


She did not even have to aim to shoot the woman right in her knee.


Another bloody hole in her body and now unable to stand, the girl started a last desperate attempt to claw at Touma.


She returned the favor with the last strike of the battle.


With the impact of the grip to her temple, Hitomi Ueda lost consciousness.


Touma Mato wasted not a single second and pulled out her cellphone.


“Mato here. I need an ambulance and forensics.”



__________________________________________________ _



“So what did you think of her?”

I poured Kaie a glass of the disgusting yellow softdrink, but he still had to ask me these questions.

“Completely insane druggie.” I replied honestly, but he still chuckled at my response.


“See, that is why I like you Arika. You are so simple.”


“She wanted a cheaper fix. Good quality stuff. And she wrapped it all in great speeches, but in the end she was just a junkie.” I shrugged. Maybe I was simple, but so were these people.


“Being a junkie would be a loss of control right? When you become a slave to your cravings, wouldn't you say?” Kaie seemed to enjoy this talk very much. Possession was his favorite topic after all.


“I guess so”


“Do you think she ever truly lost sight of what she was doing? Her high ambitions of creating a new order I mean.” His eyes became all dreamy as he said this. As dreamy as eyes straight out of the maws of hell could get anyway.

“I think what she thought she had to do was just an excuse for doing what she wanted.”

“Hmmm...” For a second he seemed to ponder.

“But what if the changed order she wanted also appeased her cravings? If she had her cake and ate it too, would she still be a junkie to you, or a revolutionary? Would she be in control or did she lose it?”


My answer came quick and firm. “Do you want me to feel guilty or something? Mato got her in the end, so it's not like this would even affect me.”

“No Arika. It's alright.” He smiled at me. I didn't like it one bit.


“Creep.”



__________________________________________________ _



A few months later.


In a safer place.


0,2 seconds.


The match had ended before it even truly began. The highly anticipated fight of “Brainless” Ishizue versus “Pharma Shift” Ueda had ended decisively.


The teenage girl pulled her hand out of the defeated woman's chest.


It was kind of sad to her. She had been told that this one was one of the more dangerous ones. Gave her brother trouble, they said. Almost knocked down an entire building, they said. Got shot at fifty times and lived, they said.


But the sad truth about Ueda's ability had been that she needed medication for it to work. That was, in the interest of a fair and doping-free fight, simply not acceptable and could not be granted on those grounds alone.

Not to mention the inmates of Ward D of Origa Memorial Hospital were medicated only in case of a riot. And even then only with lead-based depressants, coming in the variety of the brand-name .45 ACP or its generic, 9mm Parabellum.


A disappointment. But it was not a reason to feel down forever. There was the next fight just waiting around the corner. What would her brother say if he could see her like this, she wondered.


She gave Ueda's corpse one last glance as she wiped her blood off with a towel.


“Hm...it really shows...” She thought aloud.


“Winners don't do drugs.”

SeiKeo
March 4th, 2014, 03:39 PM
So I take it that Devil's Thrills is an extended metaphor about the morality of banks in modern society???

Polly
March 4th, 2014, 05:26 PM
Sasuga Deep-Insight-Leo. :p

ItsaRandomUsername
March 4th, 2014, 05:28 PM
Penalty. Inappropriate meme usage. Do not pass Go. Do not even think about collecting $200, missy.

Polly
March 4th, 2014, 05:30 PM
Eh? I wasn't really using a meme...

ItsaRandomUsername
March 4th, 2014, 05:31 PM
Tell it to the judge.

- - - Updated - - -

Nevermind, I see your hyphens. You'll walk this time.

Polly
March 4th, 2014, 05:32 PM
I should sue you for libel.

Maybe I'll be collecting those 200 bucks after all.

ItsaRandomUsername
March 4th, 2014, 05:36 PM
Sorry, but the law is above the law. :p

- - - Updated - - -

Fuck it. If'm going to post here any more I'll leave some proper reviews. Next time for sure.

V- A typical victim complex. Think the rules are tailored to intentionally persecute them. You're being fairly let free and your repayment is backbiting. Civs these days don't know how good they got it, uh-uh.

Polly
March 4th, 2014, 05:38 PM
I think you just want to put me in jail in order to eliminate your competition!

Bloble
March 4th, 2014, 06:10 PM
Gotta say, I'm digging Afterlife Return. It feels like one of the novels, except without all the infodumps and whole 'translated from Japanese' business.

Neir
March 4th, 2014, 06:22 PM
Afterlife Return was easily my favorite for similar reasons.

Laith
March 4th, 2014, 06:42 PM
Is DDD all like that? 'cause I love substance_Depend(Dance)

I'm having a tough time deciding between Monsters and Afterlife Return for third place. Clipped Wings is pretty cool so that goes second so far.

Devil's Thrill is a big block of text and I'll have a hard time making out what it says so I'll wait before reading it.

Rafflesiac
March 4th, 2014, 06:50 PM
Devil's Thrill was a really fun read; especially the interaction between Narbareck and Kirei. But it had some awkwardly childish phrasing that left Afterlife Return in first.
Clipped Wings was a solid third. Monsters was nice, but short. I couldn't finish the DDD one, both from formatting errors and it lacking something that would normally pull me in.

Leftovers
March 4th, 2014, 07:01 PM
Agreed with Bloble and Neir on AR.

From the rest, I assume the Enhance fic is IRUN, and his rustiness kinda shows, especially in Ortenrosse's characterisation. Its action was good, and the vampire melons got a laugh out of me simply from how out of left field they came.

Monsters kinda got outshined by the monstrous size of the other entries, but the premise wasn't bad. The use of Ascalon and its double advantage was a very clever twist, but the story's scope, an isolated incident, just doesn't compare to the other entries. I guess I'd say it could have been somewhat more expansive?

Devil's Thrill was prolly the most action-filled entry, but it seemed to me that a lot of it boils down to Narbareck smirking and snarking from place to place while everybody else is afraid of her. Obviously she's notorious, but that stems from her being absolutely batshit insane, and also having built her reputation quite a bit with the DAA scalps under her belt, neither of which are quite there in the story. HOWEVER, Kirei's inclusion was a good decision, providing much-needed actual character interaction, while also breaking the one-person focus that would get quite monotonous in such a long fic.

Gotta say though, the rushed writing near the end strikes the eye, especially Gransurg's dialogue that seems to come from an 80s B-movie villain rather that an ancient DAA (something also present in the Enhancefic too), and Lorelei barging in, losing a staring contest and walking out.

All in all, these are all great candidates for the second place. It's gonna be close.

Dantalion
March 4th, 2014, 07:06 PM
I see Arashi's fic has been well-received yet again.

Highwayman
March 5th, 2014, 07:44 PM
Edit: moved this from the judging thread.

Positive thoughts on Afterlife Return:

Shiki, with her bored indifference, occasional insight, and brusqueness--all tinged with a consciousness of loss--is not particularly easy to write. Hats off to the author (Arashi, judging by the quantity of Japanese cultural nuggets) for nailing her characterization not only during the initial conversation scenes but also during the fight itself.

The descriptions of the fic's three main locations (the temple, its graveyard, and Garan no Dou) contained enough detail to evoke a sense of place without becoming tiresome. The objects on Touko's desk amused me; the graveyard was suitably eerie. Loved the atmosphere created by these two sentences.


In the dim twilight, it made for a strange maze of monolithic shapes and masses, varied in height and regularity like the remains of a child’s building block playground. Despite Azaka waving her light between the stonework, it seemed the kind of place where something could lurk just between gaps and one would never know even if the light passed right over them.

Minor complaints:

Some of Azaka's lines (like her complaint about the 5000 yen flashlight) seemed a bit cheesy, but then again,
it's not as though Azaka didn't supply her share of levity in the source material.

Also, the foreshadowed catastrophe in the first two paragraphs could have been a bit more subtle. Opening with an idyllic but doomed festival works, but I'm not sure that "Irony laughed" was necessary.

Verdict: The events of this story could have plausibly ocurred between Overlooking View and Paradox Spiral, and the characterization was quite good. I'm a sucker for versimilitude in fanfiction, so I'd give this high marks.

Elf
March 6th, 2014, 09:37 AM
Dude, what's up with the formatting for "Devil's Thrill?"

Milbunk
March 6th, 2014, 10:16 AM
Looks pretty similar to the one on the doc see for yourself: http://www.mediafire.com/download/rgtcabgnxx6c64w/Judge+Version.zip