View Full Version : Secret Santa Contest (2017) Entries

December 25th, 2017, 01:51 PM
Herein lies all the submitted fics. Voting will begin in a day or two. Each fic will have the prompt at the end, in a spoiler tag. Both the prompts and fics will remaind anonymous, for now.

Look upon the Wall of Shame, ye Mighty, and despair:
Overmaster: (0/1)
Christemo: (0/1)
Sesto: (0/1)
Polly: (0/1)

Table of Contents:

Blood for Beasts (http://forums.nrvnqsr.com/showthread.php/7814-Secret-Santa-Contest-%282017%29-Entries?p=2781796&viewfull=1#post2781796)
I'm Gomenasorry (http://forums.nrvnqsr.com/showthread.php/7814-Secret-Santa-Contest-%282017%29-Entries?p=2781800&viewfull=1#post2781800)
Horny Pole Dancer Seeks Big Black Stripper's Veiny Throbbing Spear (18+) (http://forums.nrvnqsr.com/showthread.php/7814-Secret-Santa-Contest-%282017%29-Entries?p=2781806&viewfull=1#post2781806)
昇華潜熱 Shouka Sen'netsu (http://forums.nrvnqsr.com/showthread.php/7814-Secret-Santa-Contest-%282017%29-Entries?p=2781824&viewfull=1#post2781824)
The Great Beauty (http://forums.nrvnqsr.com/showthread.php/7814-Secret-Santa-Contest-%282017%29-Entries?p=2781863&viewfull=1#post2781863)
Untitled 1 (http://forums.nrvnqsr.com/showthread.php/7814-Secret-Santa-Contest-%282017%29-Entries?p=2781869&viewfull=1#post2781869)
Infinity Gear (http://forums.nrvnqsr.com/showthread.php/7814-Secret-Santa-Contest-%282017%29-Entries?p=2781872&viewfull=1#post2781872)
Yours|Mine (http://forums.nrvnqsr.com/showthread.php/7814-Secret-Santa-Contest-%282017%29-Entries?p=2781878&viewfull=1#post2781878)
Find Me (part 1 (http://forums.nrvnqsr.com/showthread.php/7814-Secret-Santa-Contest-%282017%29-Entries?p=2781885&viewfull=1#post2781885)/part 2 (http://forums.nrvnqsr.com/showthread.php/7814-Secret-Santa-Contest-%282017%29-Entries?p=2781888&viewfull=1#post2781888))
God rest ye Mary gentle (http://forums.nrvnqsr.com/showthread.php/7814-Secret-Santa-Contest-%282017%29-Entries?p=2781892&viewfull=1#post2781892)
The Answer Found/At The Heart of the World (Incomplete) (http://forums.nrvnqsr.com/showthread.php/7814-Secret-Santa-Contest-%282017%29-Entries?p=2781896&viewfull=1#post2781896)
Jeanne Can’t Make Any Friends!

December 25th, 2017, 01:56 PM
What separates man from beast?

When is a war a "noble" one?

What would drive humans to work together?

The soldiers upon the field thought that they had the answers to those questions. Crusaders and Saracens. Christians and Muslims, both faiths borne upon the middle eastern sands, and both destined to forever draw the blood and ire of the other.

What separates man from beast? The answer should have been obvious. They were chosen by Him to have dominion over all of His creation. Everything that was of the Earth was to be inherited by man, conquered by man. For they bore intelligence. For they bore faith. For they were blessed. For they had Him. For they had Allah.

When is a war a "noble" one? The answer should have been obvious. A noble war was one fought for redemption. A noble war was one fought for reclamation. A noble war honored one's ancestors. A noble war righted wrongs. A noble war defended one's property. A noble war defended one's people. A noble war defended one's way of life.

What would drive humans to work together? The answer should have been obvious. A clear, present, common threat is all it takes to unify a people. What was needed was an enemy. The prospect of reclaiming the holy land brought Christendom together to form an invasion force. The prospect of an invasion from the west brought Muslims together to form a repellent force. Us versus them. Culture versus culture.

The answers should have been obvious.

So, why had it stopped mattering?

That was because the essence of those questions, and their answers, dealt with human matters.

Therein lay the flaw.

Human reasoning had no bearing on the monstrous.

What separates man and beast? The answer should have been obvious. An intelligent mind, the usage of tactics should have been the crucial element. But, the black beasts that swarmed the battlefield, moved as if they were guided by the hand of a brilliant commander. Clouds of dark insects crawled through the visor-holes of the crusader's helmets, crawled past the necklines of the Saracens to get at the vulnerable flesh they had hidden beneath their combat wear. Robbed of their sight, or distracted by mandibles that tore and skittering legs that tickled, the ranks of both armies opened themselves up to deadly charges from the bestial, supernatural force. A squadron of crustaceans as large as horses scuttled over, crushed apart soldiers like ripe fruit with a single snapping of their claws. A platoon of man-wolves kept tight formation as they plowed into a fractured score of soldiers. Their fangs bit through armor and tore off limbs with the ease that any one of those soldiers, Christian or Muslim alike, could have plucked a scrap of meat off of a well-done roast.

When is a war a "noble" one? The answer should have been obvious. They all knew now, in the depths of their fearful hearts. What mattered more than anything else, more than creed, or ideals, or the machinations of powerful men, was simple survival. Survival was the quintessence of human victory. Hopes and dreams and prayers had their place, but the most animalistic, base parts of their brains thirsted to merely live to see one more moment, let alone past the end of the battle.

What would drive humans to work together? The answer should have been obvious. "An enemy" was indeed the correct answer. But, the application of said answer differed slightly from those of the values largely held by the rest of modern civilization. Culture X versus Culture Y was one thing -- but only as long as the conflicted was contained between populations of humans.

The game changed as soon as monsters became involved.

The rules changed as soon as Dead Apostles decided to interfere.

Not a single man here upon the battlefield cared that they fought alongside what their respective faith considered to be heathens. Some thing interfered with their battle and threatened all of them. As if a spell, or a curse, or a miracle of alchemical transmutation were cast upon the battlefield, the feelings of conflict that they felt for each other was dispelled -- transformed into a unified want for survival.

The feel of the beast's flesh beneath their blades felt like nothing the soldiers of either creed had ever felt before. The crusader knight, a volunteer soldier from French pastures, swung his sword, and it felt like he was trying to drive the blade through a mass of boggish mud. The texture was viscous, slow to be hacked. Even when he bashed the crested wyrm with his shield he broke none of its bones, cracked no scales. The mythical serpent hissed, swung its head, and tore through the knight's armor with raw strength rather than sharpness of its horn. A nearby Saracen took advantage of the death of his newfound ally to toss aside his shield, grasp his scimitar with both hands, and swing down with all of his might upon the neck of the black beast.

The Middle-Eastern weapon had as little effect on the reptile as the European weapon had. He did not have to be disappointed long; a moment later he was gored from behind upon the tusk of a mastodon that had welled up from an inky pool of sludge. As he screamed to his death, birds-of-paradise alighted upon him and plucked out his eyes and tongue.

Similar scenes of carnage repeated again and again and again and again and again. Glowing red eyes pierced the darkness of night. Reindeer, looking like graceful silhouettes backlit against the full moon, lapped from pools of blood. Giant wasps the size of a man's palm stung directly through armor, brought down men enough to have their heads broken by wildcats. Sharks swam the through the sand, breached the surface, dragged men to the crushing depths.

There was no doubt that it was a one-sided slaughter. With no survivors to speak of, nor any witnesses the battle was buried beneath the sands of time, and the sands of that desert.

Nrvnqsr Chaos considered that a good meal for his beasts, and, having taken a pit stop smack dab in the middle of this holy war, set off to the lands of the east, in search of rarer and rarer still specimens to add to his collection of animals.

The Crusades were gruesome campaigns, full of slaughter and extermination from all sides. But the real horrors of the Crusades were not committed by the hands of men, but by creatures of the night. The Beasts of Chaos, and the field of blood; the monsters who rampaged for three days and three nights; the blood-sucker who forced two rivals to set aside differences. Using context provided by Strange Fake, write something about Dead Apostles and the Crusades. (You can focus on one specific event; you don’t need to do all three)

December 25th, 2017, 01:58 PM
“Huh? What do I think of the Old Men of the Mountain?”


“Why would cut your face off if your skull mask still emotes for you? Pretty silly imo.”

“That one tall one always follows us around. Maybe he wants to join us for hide-and-seek?”

“Aren’t we in the middle of a mountain range? How would 17-year-sleepers be around?”

“The younger one never watches where she’s going, she’s a real pain. Eight times this week we’ve had to rush Lancer to the ER.”

“Wait, that rickety old guy who looks like a stiff breeze would shred him is an Assassin? I thought Assassins were flashy strippers! I mean, I guess he counts as a stripper, but he’s definitely not flashy.”

“I could kill a 100 of them without a hitch! Now listen to my song, ‘Pumpkin Plump King Witch!’ HOEEEH~~~”

“Assassins? Actually killing people? In a stealthy fashion? Are you sure these so-called ‘Assassins’ aren’t Lancers or something?”

“I feel kinda bad for them. I mean, just look at how skint they are in the fabric department; they’re as penniless as they sound, hahaha!”



Hassan-I-Sabbah’s mask rattled. Technically, this wasn’t an unheard of occurence; it tended to shake during combat after one too many blows, or during meals when he loosened its bonds to allow meat to slide down his gullet. But for his mask to rattle on its own was near unheard of - save one circumstance. He was being summoned. Groaning, Hassan fumbled with his mask until it stopped shaking and stepped out of the darkness of his room. The door hissed shut behind him as he padded down the once-polished corridors of the Chaldea Security Organization’s main complex, now marked and scuffed by the passage of countless people. Pale lights shone overhead, weakly illuminating the white walls and flooring; the dawn lighting was still in effect. Hassan yawned into his non-scoring-three-pointers-from-across-the-court hand. Certainly, the Great Founder required promptness and readiness from the Assassins of the Order at all times, but couldn’t he have picked a meeting time that wasn’t so early? Now that he was a famous movie star, he needed his beauty sleep. Sighing, he continued on his way.

How curious; there were footsteps coming from ahead. Generally, the only people awake at this time would still be in their rooms, but there was a more odd facet to the situation. The main complex was a sleek building of rounded corridors, with the only crossroads being the entrances to rooms lining the main thoroughfare or the elevators leading to different floors. For footsteps to be coming ahead of him would mean that either some else had awoken before the sun had even begun to rise, or that someone had been stealthy enough to pass him and was now making their presence known. The latter would be a shame to his status as an Assassin; completely unacceptable to one bearing the name of the Old Man of the Mountain. And the former?

How troublesome. It seemed he still had a ways to go as an Assassin. Hassan accelerated, homing in on the sounds of footsteps until he reached the source - a large group of people in ragged black robes, all wearing masks.

“Well, if it isn’t a senior Head. Summoned as well, I take it?”

Hassan waved. “And greetings to you as well, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, Hassan, and Hassan. It seems the Great Founder has business with all of us.”

“Yeah, you know how it is. The big man says jump, you touch the sky or die.”

Hassan blanched. “To speak so flippantly of the Great Founder is unwise. We should make haste to his summons at once.”

“Yes, I agree! We’ll be on our way, then.” The various Assassins hurried down the corridor, haste evident in the sound of their footfalls; and in the 43rd Face’s case, extra-loud footfalls. They ran like the wind, black robes billowing behind them as their masks flashed in the dim light. Together, they were a veritable force of death, inexorable in their approach, impossible to deter from their mission. The Hassans slid to a stop, a single black clot in the dull white of the corridor, and one of them pushed a worn silver button. The 67th Face impatiently tapped her foot. With a ding, the elevator doors opened, and the Assassins walked inside.

“19th Head, could you possibly do me the favor of compressing, as this elevator is rather cra-”

“Suck it, Faphand.”

“This hand is not for personal vengeance. This hand is the instrument of God’s will, meant for striking down those who would profane His unsullied hands. This hand is not for personal...”

With a cheery ding, the elevator opened onto the third floor, and the Assassins burst from it like a couple of horny teenagers from a magic chest; or more relevantly, a man of unparalleled style and handsomeness arising from the earthly shackles of an unwashed farmer’s ribcage - straight into the path of a young woman with a falafel dangling from her mouth. She dodged and wove through the flood of Hassans before vaulting off one to land on the corridor, and then continued to run.

“What a flawless superhero landing,” said Hassan.

The 13th Face tapped him on the shoulder. “You linger too long in the Abyss, Right Hand of the Devil. He Who Walks Through The Valley Of Shadows awaits.” The older Hassan smiled. While the lad’s existence pained him on a fundamental level, his heart was considerate. They ran down the corridor as the 5th Face writhed on the floor in agony, froth erupting from his mouth. At long last, they arrived at room 316 - the chambers of the first of the Old Men of the Mountain, the Great Founder himself. King Hassan. Cursed Arm reached out toward the doorbell, and froze as the sound of great church bells echoed through the air. The silver door slid open with a hiss, and a chill fog blew out from the pitch-black doorway. With a gulp, he stepped inside. The other Hassans filed in behind him - including the Hassan of Serenity, he noted - and the door slammed shut with a rumbling boom. He peered into the darkness, searching for a hint of the Great Founder. Where was he? Where was he? Where was he?

A broadsword careened past his head and slammed into the skull of the 40th Face, pinning her corpse to the wall.


Hassan slid to the floor in a flawless crouch of prostration, his face flush with the ground thanks to his lack of a nose.

“We got here as quickly as we could, Great Founder! It hasn’t even been five min- AAAAAAAAAGGGHHHHHHHH!” King Hassan’s eyes flashed, and the 77th Face ignited into azure flame.


A lone gulp broke the silence, echoing through the scores of prostrating Hassans.


Aside from the death throes of the 48th Face, who was unlucky enough to be downwind of a nervously sweating Hassan of Serenity, the chamber was silent.

“I SEE. IN THAT CASE,” King Hassan’s grip tightened on his broadsword.

“W-Wait! You summoned us for, well... that is... it was for... Umm... Wait WAIT WAIT I’LL REMEMBER I SWEAR SO NO, PLEASE, STOP, AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAGGGGHHHHHHH!” The 56th Face screamed as King Hassan lifted them by his skull, and then crushed it like a raw egg.


The 33rd Face shakily raised a hand. “I-If I may, Great Founder, isn’t the whole point of an Assassin to not have any glory or recognition? So really, I think we’re all doing a great jo-” King Hassan affixed him with a fiery glare. “Okay I was wrong I’ll be leaving now I’m sorry PLEASE DON’T KILL ME!” He ran for the doorway, nearly stumbling in his haste, but it was fine, as he was the infiltration and escape specialist of the Hassan of Hundred Faces, so he’d absolutely be able to escape! King Hassan grabbed the 29th Face by the waist and slid a leg back as he cocked his arm. “Great Founder, please! I’ll do better, I swear!” she yelled.


He hurled the 29th Face like a javelin, impaling the 33rd Face and killing them both.


He slammed his sword into the stone floor, bisecting the 14th Face from the pate down.


The door slid open, sending ominous fog rippling into the hallway.




One day. Under 24 hours. That was all he had to perform a successful assassination against a Servant. Normally assassinations were undertaken only after weeks of surveillance and reconnaissance, carefully identifying weakness and routines. For the Great Founder to expect an assassination from him on such short notice was folly. The schedules for recovering supplies, investigating sub-singularities, training in the simulators, and using Chaldea’s other facilities were carefully determined weeks in advance, accounting for the abilities and personalities of the eclectic Servants that served as Chaldea’s primary force. Besides, it wasn’t as though an Assassin would just appear out of thin air or something.

“Morning, C.A.!” Yan Qing walked toward him before leaning in conspiratorily. “Looking a little wobbly there, aren’t you? You skip leg day?”

Surely, Chads were against God’s will, right?

“Greetings, Yan Qing. What do you have planned for the day?” asked Hassan, his left hand reaching for the bandages on his right arm.

“My plans, huh?” He pushed off from the wall, sending his luxurious hair - that Hassan lacked - waving. “Right, yeah, now I remember! That short girl with the common face and the big tits, Nero Claudius, right? Yeah, she wanted a model for a painting, so I was headed over to the second floor to meet her. I think I can turn it into something more, you know?”

As someone who’d abandoned his childhood friend to study the dirk, Hassan did not, in fact, know.

“I’m certain that you’ll have an unforgettable time.” He plopped his dragon-killing arm on Yan Qing’s shoulders and smiled. “If I recall correctly, don’t you sing?”

“Singing, composing, dancing, I do it all! I’m a regular Renaissance man, if I say so myself! And I do say so.”

“Then you’re in luck! I hear that Nero’s an unrivaled singer! I’m sure the two of you would make a killer duet.

Yan Qing grinned. “Thanks for the tip C.A.! Tell you what, the next round of drinks at the La Pucelle are on me!” He ran around the curve of the corridor and out of sight. Hassan chortled, rattling his skull mask as laughs rasped from his mouth. That foolish braggart of an Assassin would finally get his due! Wait. Assassin?

“Shit!” Hassan facepalmed, knocking himself over as his grabbing-the-cookie-jar-from-the-top-of-the-cabinet hand crashed into his head. “I should’ve offed him when I had the chance!” He rose to his feet and tightened the loosened bands holding his mask in place. Perhaps the Great Founder would still consider that Chad’s impending death as his own credit? Hassan sighed, and began walking toward the cafeteria. No, that wouldn’t happen. For all of his lectures on the nature of an Assassin, he ultimately only accepted reaping done with one’s own hands and one’s own blade. He’d have to find another Assassin to assassinate. Before even seeing the door of the cafeteria, he heard the usual hubbub punctuated by the complaints of the overworked chefs.

“What happened to all of the rice, Raikou!”

“Eh? I gave it all to Kintoki. You know how he’s a growing boy.”

“What? Then what are we going to do for the lunch rush!? Ahh, forget it; Boudicca, do we still have enough flour for bread?”

“We’ll have to dip into next week’s stock, but it should work out!”

“Alright then! I don’t know where Tamamo Cat disappeared to, but it’s just the three of us for this one! I’ll be working you both to the bone!”


Yes, it was just another day as usual - save the lurker peering in through the doorway as other Servants passed her by. Judging by the heroic scarf, the jauntily angled baseball cap, and the out-of-season physical education garb, that was the Servant known as Mysterious Heroine X. Hassan smiled as he approached her. The first step would be to lead her to a secluded area.

“Greetings, miss X. How are you doing?”

X jumped with a yelp, cracked her head on the ceiling and crashed to the floor. “Geez, you really spooked me there, whoever you are...” She looked up at Hassan, and her eyes went wide. “Wait, I recognize you!”

“You do?” Hassan rubbed the back of his head with his non-turning-off-the-light-after-already-walking-out-of-the-room-and-down-the-hall hand. “Well, I have been here for nearly a year now, so it’d be stranger if you didn’t know who I was really.”

“No no no, not with this humanity-saving stuff! From your movie!” X’s eyes were practically sparkling. “You’re my Saber-killing senpai!”

“That’s, um... Wow, I’m flattered! Did you like it?”

X’s ahoge waved like a puppy’s tail. “Yeah, I really loved the part where you tricked Saber into getting caught by the Shadow and then got her eliminated! The part where you completely countered her Dustbuster was great too! Though it was pretty sad when you had to kill Lancer. Did you know that Lancers are an extinct species where I’m from? They used to run in huge herds, and even though they were completely defenseless against Sabers, there were so many of them that their population stayed stable. But then the growth rate of Sabers sharply increased, and they hunted Lancers so much! Like, it wasn’t even for food most of the time, they’d just run out into the fields and the forests and slaughter every Lancer they could find for fun! In the end, the Lancers were so few in number that even a wild Caster could threaten them. A few Riders tried to breed more of them in captivity, but in the end the last Lancer was killed when a dragster crashed into the rehabilitation facility, killing it instantly.”

“That’s... uhhhh, that’s really sad.”

“I know, right? I had to do a group project on them with my roommate, Ecchan - she’s a terrible partner by the way; she had no consideration at all for my Saberball meet and my super-demanding course load, I’m in the Science track BTW, and tried to get me to write, like all of the project, and writing is not my strong suit - I’m a numbers girl, you know? - and anyways Lancers are just a really tragic subject, you know?”

“Uh huh.”

“Anyways, now that you’re here, and it’s really great that you’re here, do you think I could ask you something? You see, I was staking out the cafeteria looking for a sign of Saber Prime - the Original Saber - you know, the blue and silver one? Anyways, I was watching here for her since she eats like a black hole, not to be racist or anything, but it’s true, and I’ve tried taking out some of the other Sabers too but they’re always next to Master, so I obviously can’t do too much there, and then there was this one Saber in a kimono I tried eliminating because I heard she was super weak, but she was not weak AT ALL, and frankly that was a really terrifying experience that I never ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever ever want to go through again, so I figured that if I eliminate the source of all of the Sabers, then the rest of them should go poof into the ether, right? Sort of like how human history got torched from the seventh singularity onward, but for eradicating the cancer of Sabers instead. Where was I again? Right! Anyways, do you think you could help me with that?”

“Well, actua-”

“You can’t?” X pouted, her ahoge drooping. She stared up at him, eyes moist with nascent sorrow as she gripped his ring-someone-else’s-door-bell-from-around-the-corner hand. Hassan gulped.

“Oh, alright then. I can help a fan of mine.”

“YES!” yelled X, pumping her fists. “I knew a fellow Saberslayer wouldn’t let me down!” She grabbed him and ran down the hall, sending staff members and other Servants diving to the side as Hassan waved through the air. “So first we have to find her, which is usually pretty simple since the only things Saber does here are eat and laze around her room all day, which is pretty different from her movie role, so I guess she’s the type that gives it her all for the job? Anyways, I didn’t see her in the cafeteria, so she must be in her room, so that solves the finding her problem. Next would be infiltrating her room, which would also be pretty easy except for the part where she uses Excalibur on anyone who opens the door, which is apparently to stop telemarketers and roaming Hero Kings - which, let’s be fair, is pretty smart - but is also a pain in the ass to deal with if you want to kill her, you know? So I was thinking, how would I get past that, and that’s why I came to you, since you did so well against her before! So what do you think, Assassin?”

Hassan framed his chin with his non-grab-the-last-slice-of-cake-before-anyone-else hand. “If the problem is that she attacks when you open the door, then perhaps we shouldn’t open the door at all.” X slowed to a stop, allowing Hassan to catch his bearings. She’d manage to run them all the way to the fifth floor; if nothing else, X certainly had stamina.

“Teleportation, huh? Yeah, I like that! That should work!” X’s smile went 180. “Except I don’t have any tech like that. If Dun Stallion II was up and running I could work something out, but after that crashlanding I had back in March and then all of the shooting Ishtar did back in Summer it’ll be a while before she’s back in action. How about you, Assassin? You have anything teleporty?”

“Unfortunately not. We may have to obtain the services of some other Servant. Though I struggle to think of one who is not thoroughly detrimental to one’s well being to work with.”

“Perhaps I can help with that.”

The Assassins jumped in shock, and Hassan turned around to see Enkidu standing behind him. “You’re not looking well there, assassin. Did you skip face day?”

“Oh, it’s you. We had a pretty bad scare recently, did you make sure not to skip Not Dying From The Common Cold Day?”

Enkidu smiled beatifically. Hassan smiled back. X thrashed about, her legs and arms swinging wildly as she hung with her head buried in the ceiling.

“Hahahahaha, that’s why I like you, little Middle Eastern Jumping Bean! Always so amusing underneath that mask of yours. Still, you needed something, no?”

Hassan sighed. “I was looking for a teleporter.”

“Ah, so that’s why you were wriggling around up here.” He turned around and strode down the hallway, bare feet padding down the polished tile. “Come along now, I’ll show you the way.” X pushed herself out of the ceiling and followed after him along with Hassan. As Hassan picked chunks of plaster off of her cap with his non-selfie-stick hand, she questioned him.

“So who is this guy anyways? He reminds me of the Great Galactic Emperor, who was a real loon.”

“You may refer to me as Enkidu, Chain of the Heavens.”

X snapped in understanding. “You’re a space elevator!?”

Enkidu tripped, splashed to the floor as a pool of mud and then reformed as his usual form, walking as placidly as before. “Your friend, assassin, she is amusing. She can stay.”

“Truly, I am honored by your words.”

The floor rumbled briefly as energy sparked along its surface, and the sound of rattling chains shook the air. Hassan lowered his non-holding-a-bunch-of-hung-clothing-that-needs-to-air-dry arm from the bandages sealing his put-the-moves-on-an-entire-theater-row’s-worth-of-people arm, and the three continued walking.

“So, are you guys friends or something?”


Hassan frowned. “He’s the kind of guy who wears crappy clothes that cost twenty times more than what crappy clothes actually cost just for kicks.”

“And this assassin is the sort who handed away his humanity to become a weapon in service to his god, but broke in the end thanks to the humanity he failed to cast away.”

“Uhhh... Okay, that’s a little heavy for me.”

Enkidu rapped his head. “Ah, my mistake. I meant to say ‘Because it’s funny watching him run around.’” He stopped and waved at a door to his left. “Take this elevator to the fourth floor. Your teleporter will be in room 428. But before you go, do either of you have something fairly replaceable, preferably sharp and painful?”

Hassan shrugged and proffered a dirk. “Well, I do have one of these, but they’re kind of important to me, so-”

“Oh that’ll work splendidly, thank you,” said Enkidu as he grabbed the dirk and hurled it down the hallway with a flick of his wrist, sending it twisting out of sight. “Now, down you go! Your teleporter won’t be there much longer.”

The elevator door opened with a ding, and X dragged a sighing Hassan into it as the doors closed. A few seconds of Muzak later and they exited,


Grand Assassin is angry at the other Hassans! It used to be, only those belonging to the Order of Hassan could hold the rank of Servant Assassin, but now everyone who has even attempted an assassination and botched it, like that Chinese drunkard, can belong to the class! Grand C gives his followers an ultimatum, either bring him those pretenders' heads or he'll have theirs instead! After all, if that X madwoman can go around attempting to kill all Sabers... A comedic story, obviously.

December 25th, 2017, 01:59 PM
It was a rather nice day, she supposed. There was the sun, shining ever so brightly in a cloudless sky, cheerily bringing warmth and light and life to the myriad creatures that roamed and grazed and hunted on these great plains. It had stubbornly chased her throughout the day, and in the end she had yielded, lying back against an aged oak tree as it took her without mercy. Above her, the tree’s branches rattled, shaking off deep green leaves and sending them tumbling haphazardly toward the grass-coated ground. That would be the breeze, she thought. It was a gentle and unobtrusive thing, only there to cool you down and bring you relief if the heat was too much for you - the caring caresses to the sun’s heavy thrusts. There it was, lightly tugging at strands of hair and the few loose frills of fabric on her like a puppy begging for a meal. She patted down its efforts and sent it on its way. She glanced forward, lazily panning her gaze across familiar scenery; there was the orchard of apples that shone like freshly spilled blood and crunched like broken bone, their sweet fragrance recognizable in the air even from her great distance, and there was the brook that provided the orchard with sustenance, its surface sparkling with the occasional flash of that fop’s favored fish. Presumably, it babbled. And over there was a slight buzzing, inaudible save to those with her superior senses. It was a bee. The insect was an ungainly one, with its puffy striped body wobbling through the air on fragile wings. It fluttered briefly before sinking into a field of flowers - asphodels, how fitting - and then buzzed onward, carrying its canary cargo on black bristles as it dutifully traced a path in the sky for its fellows before returning to its hive. How upstanding the bee was, faithfully performing its tasks to its queen and brethren without a hint of hesitation. Alas, she thought, its efforts were for naught. A bear ravaged the hive, thick and sturdy claws tearing at its fragile membranes. With each slash, sticky fluid leaked out as the bear penetrated deeply, greedily licking at the results of its exertions. The bee flew forward, joining its buzzing brethren as they pressed against the bear futilely, meeting only thick fur in their quest to puncture tender meat. Perhaps fatigued from eating out the hive, the bear came up for air - and in that slight moment, the bee zipped upward toward the bear’s vulnerable snout and plunged itself into it up to the hilt. Howling in pain at the sudden penetration, the bear swiped madly at its face, leaving the stinger embedded deep in its defenseless tissue. The bee died. How lucky it was, she thought, to have died in battle against a superior opponent. At some point a cloud had passed overhead, but it had gone, and the sun resumed its pounding. How interesting; the bear had looked toward her. What sort of challenge would it bring after slaking its desire upon the helpless hive? She met its gaze, and it fled. Sighing at its impotence, she returned to her stupor. Buzzards soared overhead, lazily wheeling in wide circles as they searched for fresh prey. It wasn’t fresh meat that they desired, she thought, correcting herself. They merely sought out the last fading remnants of life to snuff out for their own sustenance. How very familiar. At the sound of approaching chatter, she crossed cold arms and looked down to see two children - humanity’s final Master and his loyal Servant.

“So you’ve finished then, youth?”

Ritsuka started, a practiced hand ruffling unkempt hair into further chaos as he composed himself. “Yeah, I came up with our formation. Everyone else’s back at camp, so I figured I’d let you know.”

“That is, if you weren’t too busy, Scathach,” interjected Matthew. “By any chance, umm... Were you thinking about Cu Chulainn, who you trained? Since we’ll be fighting him, it might be a bit difficult for you to, well...” She yelped as Scathach patted her on the head.

“You’re a kind girl, aren’t you? But you don’t have to worry.” She brushed past Ritsuka as she walked toward camp, and he jumped at the sudden warmth. “He may have lost himself as the lapdog of that flighty fool, but as his teacher, I’ll bring him to heel.”

Ritsuka watched her stalk away, crimson mane waving in the air like a lion’s tail. His suit was far too tight all of a sudden, had the internal temperature regulation system failed? Da Vinci had said nothing barring the heat values of a holy sword or -273.15°C would disable it, but it didn’t seem to be working at all given how all of the sweat on his body was crawling at random like an agitated swarm of Argentinian army ants, assuming there even were army ants in Argentina, that was where that story he’d had to read for that one class was set, right, no, it was in Brazil, not that he’d been to either place, and not that it really mattered currently since he was busy melting into incoherent gravy inside a monochrome tureen and ah, I’m being touched. There’s something cool on my hand.

“Master? Ritsuka? Are you alright?” He blinked, and moved his head down to see Matthew holding his hand, her palm on its exposed back. “Ah, um, yeah. Sorry for worrying you. Let’s head back to camp.” They walked after Scathach, now little more than a silhouette on the horizon. The trademark - and trademarked - spires of Edison’s prefabricated Neo White House™ rose into sight as they crested the final hill before their destination, and a refurbished robot in patriotic colors rolled up to greet them.

“Greetings, interloper. What is the password?”

“DC is the best, Tesla is a pest.”

The robot’s LEDs flashed green. “Correct. Access to the Edison Defense Force for the United States of America is approved.” It rolled around them, sensors beeping and servos whirring. “Identities confirmed as Ritsuka Fujimaru and Matthew Kyrielight. Please proceed.” The duo walked into the castle, shoes clacking on the polished stone floors.

“I’m surprised at how naturally you can say that, Ritsuka. Even Robin Hood still winces after saying each code phrase.”

Ritsuka sighed. “After saying ‘For twelve years, you have been asking: Who is Thomas Edison?’ and so on, nothing can possibly faze me as a code phrase now. Though I really wish Nightingale had forced him to change it before I had to say the whole thing. She nearly pulled my tongue out when I bit it...”

“I’m sure she meant well.” Matthew turned to smile at him. “Besides, it’s like you say, right? Let bygones be bygones, and look at the future.”

“It feels like you know me better than I do. You always remember the little things I say.”

“But of course, Ritsuka! You’re my Master and my Senior, so I always make sure to watch you and pay attention to everything you’re doing, and even in my dreams you’re... that is, um...” The two stopped walking, faces emulating human history.

“A-Anyways, the meeting room’s around the corner so let’s go there quickly, I’m sure everyone else is waiting.” Ritsuka strode toward the room, any stiffness in his gait most definitely caused by his battlesuit not being broken in yet. “Right!” Matthew followed him, any stiffness in her gait most definitely caused by rust in her armor. They entered the meeting room, once Edison’s billiards hall before being repurposed into what he insistently referred to as the Situation Room. The center of the room held a massive table displaying a holographic map of the United States. Various units moved across it real time, causing the lines of the various fronts to slowly shift back and forth. Every so often green and red arrows would draw across the map as Edison adjusted predicted troop patterns before he erased them and started again, his lion’s head set in a grimace. At the sound of the door opening, he looked up. “Excellent! Our Vice-President has returned! Come, sit, and tell us your decision!” Ritsuka approached the table as the various other Servants made their greetings. “Thanks, Edison. I thought it over, and I’ve decided that for the northern group we should sen- wait, Nightingale what are you doing?” He squirmed as the Berserker lifted his arm and squatted to peer at his side.

“You have a contusion on the external oblique muscle. It requires treatment.”

“It’s a little bit sore I guess, but it’s not that- wait, hang on, you’re going to rip my suit! Just let me-” Ritsuka fumbled with his chest buckle as his battlesuit strained from Nightingale’s grasp; with an audible click, it opened, and the suddenly loose fabric slid off him to expose a vibrant bruise on his side. He winced as she applied a poultice and strapped it on. “I have told you before to be more careful with your health, Master of Chaldea.”

“I try; really, I swear. But I just tend to pick up nicks and scratches without even trying. Anyways, weren’t you the one who said that it was only natural to incur injuries while saving others?”

“Perhaps. However, I have a medical license,” Nightingale tightened the last bandage and continued, “and you do not.” She stood and patted Ritsuka’s shoulder before returning to her seat. “Therefore, you remain my patient, and as such must prioritize your own health. Now, what is the operation plan?”

He cleared his throat, gaze panning across the various Servants in the room. Some sat in the chairs at the table, while others, like Scathach, leaned against the wall. As he spoke, Scathach rested her gaze on Edison’s display table. Without Edison’s ministrations, the table merely displayed the battlefield as it was. Green and red dots swarmed across the country, crashing into each other along the vivid blue of the Mississippi; a grand improvement from the prior frontline of the Black Plains. Their defeat of Caladbolg’s holder and the Fenian Lancers hadn’t been in vain. Still, such victories wouldn’t end this war. And ultimately, they didn’t make much difference to those in the thick of battle; the Celts birthed from plundered seed had naught but muscle in their skulls, while the robots mass-produced in Chicago moved solely on orders transmitted through the whirring of gears. They were born to die, so they had no need of thought. A shame, one might think. Incorrectly. They achieve their purpose, singlemindedly and admirably, and even die in battle at the climax of their life. A tool’s greatest shame is rusting away before it breaks.

“Any complaints?”

Karna stood, sliding off his perch in a window’s alcove. “I have none, Master of Chaldea. To have the opportunity to settle my score with that man... Once again, I am truly blessed.” He strode toward the door, and the other Servants trailed in his wake. Scathach snapped a hand out, grasping Rama’s arm.

“Stay, King of Kosara. I require your attentions.”

“I already have Sita, so I’ll have to decline!”

Scathach frowned. “How unfortunate. I’d thought that the men of Indian legend were sturdy, strong, and never failed to rise to the occasion, but it seems I was mistaken. As I feared, I can’t leave the youth to a flaccid man like you.”

“Change of plans, Master!” yelled Rama, his face as red as his flowing hair. He pulled himself free from Scathach’s clutches and grabbed Ritsuka’s shoulders. “Allow me to uphold my wife’s faith in my strength!”

“Alright then. You wanted to warm up before we left anyways, right Scathach?” She blinked. “You know me well, youth.”

“Well, observing Servants is one of a Master’s duties. I’d be remiss if I didn’t even do that, you know?” As Nightingale pulled a protesting Rama away, he walked toward the door. “Will the nearby hills work, Scathach?” One of Rama’s gauntlets clattered onto the table as Nightingale wrapped bandages around his arm. “Yes, that will suffice. And you, Rama?”

“I’ll be right with you, so - that’s too many bandages, I won’t be able to hold Brahmastra at this rate! This is unnecessary, I can heal it in a few moments; look, it’s healed already!”

As Rama struggled, Scathach walked into the hills. Long strands of grass snapped and swung aside as she strode, and Ritsuka followed in her wake until she stopped atop the largest of the hills - the one that blocked Edison’s ego from sight before, Ritsuka noted. Scathach stood, looking out into the distance, wine-purple tresses rippling in the wind as the stalks of grass bowed and broke. The sun was setting, desperately clinging to the earth with rays of light as it was inexorably tugged below the horizon; within the golden glow of wheat stood a lone blotch of dusk, alien yet thoroughly commanding, asserting its presence through its mere existence. He was right next to her, thought Ritsuka, and yet he’d never felt farther away. It had been a while, hadn’t it? He’d expected Rama to tear himself free from his doctor’s ministrations by now; at this rate he’d miss the battle. After all, the sun had already set this fa-. Ritsuka rubbed his eyes. Once dull from impending shadow, the wheat had grown bright, shining like the treasures of a capricious king; the wind, once chill, was hot, near uncomfortably so, to the point where sweat began to trickle down his face. Ritsuka turned around.

Behind him was a second sun. Fire rippled in the wind, brightening the evening into day through its dance. Its red was the crimson of fresh blood, the wet hue of ochre, the passionate shine of poppies, and the brilliant blaze of mankind’s primordial declaration of life. It shone off blindingly white cloth and steel, and fabric rose and rippled, carried by the heat that stirred the air and announced the presence of a great power. The King of Kosara, the Seventh Avatar of the Preserver, Rama, had arrived. The Queen of the Land of Shadows turned from her contemplation to meet his gaze, blood-red spear in hand. Brahmastra fell into golden gauntlets, its vermillion blade alight with the sun’s glow. Was it the rustle of fabric on steel and bone, the tightening of a grip that signalled the beginning of the clash? Was it the scrape of heel against earth, the assumption of a stance as decades of experience was brought to the fore? Was it the cessation of the wind as even the earth held its anticipation? Was it the meeting of crimson and ruby without a single saccade? No, it was nothing so trivial. From the moment they had each grasped weapons for the first time, they were destined to fight.

Rama erupted forward, a shining comet snuffing out the oncoming dusk. He swung his blade, and Scathach stepped forward to answer him in kind, her spear slicing through the air to crash into his sword with a heavy clang - that didn’t come, as he’d ridden the force of her return to spin around her, perfectly poised to ram into her defenseless flank. He thrusted forward to see the butt of Scathach’s spear lunging for his eye and ducked into a crouch, warding off her weapon with his own; he wouldn’t be able to stab her at this angle, but with his pommel he could shatter her ribs - and his skull rattled as Scathach drove her knee into his jaw. Clods of earth exploded to the side as Rama kicked at the ground, flinging himself aside as Scathach’s elbow howled past his exposed neck. He raked furrows into the earth with a hand, his other already holding his blade to receive her next attack as he looked up to see Scathach’s steel heel slam Brahmastra into the ground as her spear shot toward his skull. The crimson shaft shot forward - and pierced empty air as Rama vaulted off the ground, pivoting on his sword hand to kick Scathach’s unarmored chest. She flew back with a clang, and Rama clicked his tongue as he landed and ripped his sword from the earth to see Scathach land on the other side of the hilltop, a spear in each hand. Grass seeds floated in the air, glowing like embers in the sun’s dying light.

“Is that all you can bring to bear?”

“I’m surprised a gloomy woman like you can tell such a joke!”

Scathach’s eyes narrowed. Evidently, the good king required a more elaborate reception the next time he called upon he- She crossed her spears as a blast of fire rammed into them, sending her sliding back. Fire? Rama was not of solar divinity, so he should not have possessed the mana burst that Karna did - and yet his sword was ablaze all the same, crashing against her at all sides as she swung and twirled spears to block the constant blows. The impacts rattled through her, sending her legs quivering as she moaned. Ahh, that was it. Scathach pounced through the makeshift firewheel, twin spears clashing against Rama’s blazing sword. It wasn’t magical energy creating the flames; merely the friction between his sword and the dust in the air. He shoved against her with a roar, sending her skidding through the scorched earth, and she strained against him, pulling dark fabric and corded muscles taut. She stood against him, legs shaking as they slowly slid through the earth and breath coming in pants as their weapons locked, sparks flying from the tension - and then the flames on Rama’s sword flickered and died, and he pulled back for another swing. Scathach sighed. Rama wove through her slashes and stepped forward to thrust at her chest, and then jumped back as a barrage of spears impaled the earth in front of him, blasting dirt and grass into the air that Scathach blew aside as she pursued him. With each step he attempted to find purchase, to repair his stance, and with each step he was denied as Scathach fired more shafts, blasting his footing to pieces the moment his feet touched the ground. Rama’s hand tightened around his shaft. The next spear flew toward him, set to destroy the earth anew - and Rama plunged his sword into the earth, vaulting off it to land atop the spear and run along its length before leaping to the next; it was no bridge of arrows, but it would have to suffice. Scathach ran toward him as he leaped through the air like a salmon spawning up a river of its own skewers, his blade more a thunderstorm than a tool of parrying. Her summoned spears were remnants of the great sea beast Coinchenn, mighty enough that no spear could pierce its hide and no mace could crush its skull; ultimately, only its own kin could reap its life. And yet, each of Rama’s swings shattered them like twigs. With a final leap he slammed his sword down, pressing against Scathach as she brought her weapons to bear to block. Divine blade clashed with demonic spears once more, yet Scathach remained impassive even as Rama glared into her eyes, seeing only his own reflection and several lines- He glanced to the sides - spears were flying at him from all directions - and slid Brahmastra to the side as he forced his body into a spin, whirling into a tornado of sparks that sent vermillion shrapnel flying like buckshot, and cursed. Three booms resounded.

The first came from Scathach. The moment Rama had relented on his attack, she slid a leg back, coiling every muscle in her body like lightning forced into springs, and then thrusted forward, from heeled boots and ankles through trained calves and experienced thighs to her perfectly sculpted ass, sending force rippling through chiseled obliques and abdominals up to sturdy shoulders and lithe arms that shot her spear with such power that sound itself howled like a deflowered virgin. The second came from their weapons, as Rama hastily brought Brahmastra to bear to meet Scathach’s thrust. The third came from Rama puncturing the sound barrier, and continued as he crashed through hill after hill, the land and air breaking countless times before his fall.

Scathach strode down the remains of the hill, fingers drumming along the ribbed shaft rubbing against her. “He’ll suffice.” She passed Ritsuka, crouched with Matthew behind her shield. “For you.” As she melted into the dusk, Ritsuka yelled. “Where are you going?” Scathach smiled, and licked her lips. “To hunt a man.”

The sun had set entirely, abandoning the land and its inhabitants to the darkness of night. It was an oily, inky night, not meant to refresh or relieve, but to consume, and without the moon’s glow to police the earth, there was nothing to stop any depravities from the denizens of the dark. A chill wind blew as Scathach raced over plains, eyes wide and nostrils flared. Just where was he? A bicorn stood in her path and she barreled through it, sundering its prized horn into ivory dust. Was he ravaging an army as he had so long ago, she wondered, spear tearing through the ebony mane and torso of a Soul Eater, sending half-digested tallow congealed from scorched spirits flying into her wake. Or perhaps, and she gripped her spear hard enough to shatter a full-grown oak, he was lapping away at his owner’s lap? A troop of Celts flung themselves at her like suicidal meat into a grinder, and dyed the grass red. Where was he? Plains, forests, mountains ricocheted across her view. Where was he? The grass burned underneath her. Where was he? The midnight offered no answer. Scathach slid to a stop, ripping into the violated earth, her nose twitching. There it was; thick and deep, like a leg ripped from a giant and slammed into the earth of a battlefield until it was sodden with mud and blood. With another boom she was off. It was darker, heavier, filthier than she was used to, but that was fine, after all - she reached a mighty river; she could tell by the flow, visible and audible even through the night’s thick curtain, yet it was pinched and restrained by stones in its bed, yoked to allow the passage of inferior beings - he was here.

A towering man stood before her. Blood, fresh and caked, his own and his conquests’, dyed his pale skin mud-brown. His garb, once as blue as the fords he made his battlefields, was an oily, filthy black, and his armor, once simplistic to the point of foolhardy skimpiness was a gaudy affair of tarry pitch and garish carmine. And yet she could still see the corded muscles tensed underneath his trappings and feel the lust roiling under the curses snaking along him as if he was pressing against her, skin against skin and blade against blade. He may have been wearing an absurdly ill-fitting collar, but without a doubt, this was the only man who could satisfy her - Cu Chulainn.

“What’s a tamed puppy like you doing out here? There’s no moon to yap at, whelp.”

“Heard a bitch was tearing up my kingdom. Came to put her down.”

A heated breath shuddered out. “Sending a lapdog to put down a bitch? That’s in poor taste, isn’t it?” She could see his spear throbbing, feel it like the pounding beat that pulsed through her body, sending her shivering against garb that was far too tight. His gaze struck her as she walked forward, curves swaying, and she smiled. “What if the good little puppy ends up lying with her instead?” He crouched, talons rending the riverbank as he grabbed his spear with both hands. “Doesn’t matter. Bitch ain’t getting up after.” And with that, Scathach flung herself at him, spear outstretched to take his heart. He batted it aside, sparks and then blood flying as her weapon snaked up his gauntlet to lunge into his forearm, and thrusted at her, his rod primed to plunge into her. She lunged into the thrust, her cheek slicing open as she leapt at his chest, her other spear at the ready - and lurched to a stop as her right arm tugged on the rest of her body. Cu Chulainn had tensed his bicep to lock the spear impaling it in place, and her instinctive grip on the shaft had stopped her as well, and in the moment that she’d looked up to confirm it, he had caught her second spear with the spikes on his knee and his weapon was tearing through the air on a collision course with her skull, so Scathach rose, kneeing him in the gut as his spear slammed into her side, sending her flying into the river. Impromptu rain pelted Scathach as she watched Cu Chulainn rip the spear from his forearm with his teeth and bite it in half, but it didn’t matter. She was already wet. Mud squelched as she pounced at him, summoned spears flying at him like a swarm of hornets. They carved notches into flesh and bone that he ignored as he plunged at Scathach, shoving her back as she danced around him, twirling around spears as his stabs nipped at her arms, her thighs, her neck, her breasts; she spun around a blow that bounced off a rib, ripping away muscle and fat in a gout of warmth and thrusted at his neck only for his tail to slam into her torso, sending her crashing into a cypress tree and sliding into the water. Scathach stood, body shaking as her muscles knitted and skin stuck shut, and ogled Cu Chulainn as his wounds did the same. “You need to do better than that!” Her breath steamed, sliding off her tongue and dropping into the air. “What’s with the scratches? You playing with your food, boy?” He stared at her, watching each breath tug at fraying and sodden cloth. “The hell you complaining for? Dressed like that, you’re asking for it.” He ran forward, and she leaped to meet him as he tore at her anew. Her spears twirled and flew as she came at him, flying into trees and blasting craters in the swamp bed as he denied her token rebuffs, his thick, veiny spear plunging into her again and again, dragging out deep moans along with blood and meat; she strained against her shredded bodysuit, breasts heaving with each pant as pert peaks pushed past purple patches. Another blow slid against her taut ass, sending lust spraying onto sodden thighs that thrummed against each other as Scathach threw herself at him again, each peck of his a bloom of heat and a precursor to the fire that was boiling within her that had first been lit when he’d first spilled her blood, all those years ago. His next thrust caught her nipple, scratching the erect nub before ripping it off, and Scathach gasped as she saw white, the ravaged swamp and even the clairvoyance she’d gained through her conquering of the Land of Shadows fading away, before clinging to Cu Chulainn’s thick spear and mounting it, sliding up its throbbing length, feeling each vein rub against her flesh and each spike piercing her, scratching at an itch that refused to abate as he spilled her blood once more. She reached out to him, ruby eyes moist and crimson lips lush and wet with desire - and he headbutted her, sending her flying off of him with a groan pregnant with the twins of lust and disappointment. He was playing hard to get, so she needed to make him move faster, hit harder, thrust deeper. She slid spears through the air, tracing runes with their tips to invoke ice, and acceleration, and death - and flew back as Cu Chulainn howled a bestial roar, sending motes of light spiralling up from the ruined swamp; no, those weren’t lights, they were fairies, and the spirits shattered the runes in blasts of power, rattling Scathach from coccyx to skull and dragging blood from her stomach to her teeth to splatter on the scorched ground. “What’s with the protection?” he spat. “We’re doing this raw.” Scathach grinned, her lips tearing from her face to reveal her teeth, and grabbed her spears. Cu Chulainn gripped his own, and it pulsed under his touch as blood-red energy howled along its length. She panted, steaming breaths the mere vestiges of the burning blood, magical energy, and raw desire that roiled within her core, forming a white-hot sun that sent her body throbbing at each breath and heartbeat until she could take it no more and flung herself at him and his erect shaft, each vein pulsing with barely restrained lust that ached to be released, and with a final shake of his hands it was, firing at her with the heat of life and the force of death. His thrust shot onto her as a torrent of heat and unbridled energy, snaking and forging through the fragile hymen of causality between it and bringing her to a climax, and she embraced it, pushing against him with everything she had, meeting him thrust for thrust and blow for blow, dancing in the eruption even as her hips threatened to give away from the intensity of his assault until with a final surge it was over and she stood panting, sending breasts long since exposed by his attentions heaving in the torrid air even as drenched legs wobbled on curled toes. Scathach gazed at Cu Chulainn. “Come more for me, boy! That can’t be all that you’ve got; I’m not satisfied yet!” He grimaced. “Always complaining. Why’s a slut like you picky about how she gets it?” He waved an arm at the ruined swamp, its water evaporated and its trees aflame from the intensity of their tryst. “You already got hot to trot to get here.”

“That collar of yours choking off your brain, boy?” Scathach frowned. “You think I’m a blushing maiden who wants to be taken in her sleep?” She gripped a shaft in each hand and glared at him. “Come! You can’t be flaccid already!”

She pounced once more - and Cu Chulainn retreated, clawed feet digging into the earth as he leaped back. “Can’t help it; missus called. Got a job to do, after all.” He continued his retreat, the barest shift of his muscles sending summoned spears flying aside as his inborn protection yielded its boons. She was yapping something, but it didn’t really matter; the last thing he wanted was to hear some chick’s sob story after he’d finished with her, so he slammed his tail into the desiccated earth, blasting up a shroud of dust, and turned to leave in earnest - and then lurched back as something sucked at every fiber of his being. He looked back to see a massive gate of runes surrounding a desolate land of inky night, and a lone clump of sunset at its center.

“Tch. Always closing your legs when a guy wants to pull out.”

Scathach strode toward Cu Chulainn, firing spears at the ground beneath him to deny him footing as he struggled against her embrace. She wasn’t letting him go. She wasn’t done with him yet. She hadn’t reached her climax! As her grasp ripped him from the ground she launched forward, flying to lock bodies once again - and gasped. Gone was the thick, veiny spear that had brought her so much pleasure, and in its place was a massive black beast that throbbed with power; his shaft was repressed, yet he was hornier than ever. Yes, this would work! Scathach brought forth two spears, her body tensing anew as she locked space and then gasping as he ripped through it like he would a virgin, but this was fine, her other spear was already charged and ready and his massive claws were outstretched and ready to plunge into her to the hilt, splitting her from head to hips as she aimed for his heart and their simultaneous climax!


There was pain. Four blades slammed into her, tracing bloody streaks across the air’s canvas. Liver, spleen, duodenum, small intestines, large intestines, ninth through twelfth pairs of ribs, stomach, lumbar vertebrae: destroyed. But. But!

“You... YOU!!!!”

He’d forcibly adjusted his trajectory by grabbing a tree with his tail - and changed a certain climax into a halfhearted spurt. Freed from her grasp, Cu Chulainn walked into the sunrise. As Scathach flew into the Land of Shadows, cold and alone, just one thing came to mind.

Once again, he’d failed to satisfy her.

Georges Bataille defines eroticism as "the joy of life pushed to the point of death". The union of eros and thanatos. The conjunction of 'big' and 'little' deaths, so to speak. Take inspiration from this concept and apply it to one of the Nasuverse's many immortal or pseudo-immortal characters. For those removed by whatever means from the conventional order of mortality that characterises humankind as such, there can be no more transgressive pleasure than that of drawing as close as can be to the unthinking nihility - the abyss of death - that is denied them, and for this denial all the more deeply enticing. A character must find excessive, fetishistic pleasure - excessive to the point of being indistinguishable from pain - in the experience of coming close to their own death. The means and method are subject to your discretion. Likewise the scenario. Warfare, lust murder, experimentation. Whatever.

December 25th, 2017, 02:04 PM

...and nothing hea[]t.

26ºC / 79ºF

My room. There was a dark shape in the ceiling that spoke to you. You saw it on waking, you couldn't avoid it. The liminal state between sleeping and waking sustained by the unwillingness to rise was architectured around that shape. Point zero, for the coordinates of your dreams. And likewise, lying awake you saw it too. At night, whatever night was. Trying to sleep. The shape – you could turn to either side, bury your face in the sheets, but it would still be there and you would see it all the same. A break in the seamless, vacant plane up there which otherwise admitted no detail to the eye at middle distance. White like chalk, or the whiteness of a powdered face. The makeup of a geisha. Strip the face of all contingent content to attain a pure faciality, a cartoon caricature, dots for eyes and mouth; strip that of all redundancy and what is left is a hole. Simple, porous, opening. Strip that of all depth, of the geometry that invites shade into light, and what is left is – a shape. Some kind of stain. Some kind of mould, slime, scummy organicity. It was water damage, wasn't it. Just the size of a coin. How, you would ask. How is that. What does this. This whole last year, two years, however...when had it ever rained? No time that you remembered. Not even to remember the absence of such a memory. Memory dribbled in reverse back to a dim antecedent and it did not rain, not ever. There was the ocean, and the sand, and there was the heat. And it did not seem – it wasn't a question of probability, but rather of the conditions of possibility. The shape spoke to you. What did it say?

I open my eyes and see nothing. Closer examination – you stood on the bedtop as sunlight fell in across it, mattress indenting beneath bare feet, linen sheets swallowing the ankles like curved space near an object of extreme mass – understood the ceiling to be chalk or a similar calciferous material. Coated in it at least. Formed of the fossil skeletons of micro-organisms. These had been, really, the barest of bare life. Inoffensive machines that once photosynthesised in the heart of the sea. Then they had died, i.e. they had as if in one monumental breath clawed through the veil of the absolute and abolished their meagre individuality, abolished history, abolished suffering, senescence and death. Beyond the horizon of extinction they became naked matter without name or number or particularity. Thus, thereafter, raw material. For the ceiling. The stain lived – if it lived – on the 2D ossuary, the flattened charnel-house of its distant relations. The boneyard. Life endured as an island on the sheer surface of death, however pitifully. A perfect negative of the skull-in-pampas-grass, a familiar theme in artwork inspired by the tenets of Zen. It was not, "remember you will die," but rather "remember you will [continue to] live," in the sense that consciousness is karmically bound to be reborn indefinitely until it is liberated. Where the former anticipates impermanence [無常], the latter invokes the ineffable [幽玄] in that, contrary to intuition, it is not strange or unnatural at all that life should persist after death. There is nothing inexplicable about the phenomenon of rebirth. Rather it is the world of the living, the realm of form and desire and therefore mortality, that is strange and in need of explanation.

I only remember there was some accident. The makeup of a geisha. Its obscene corollary: eliminating the contingencies of the face only permitted their restoration from out of a glossary of perversions. With eyes closed, powdered lids – how delicately they are held closed, not at all fluttering, so like the jaws of a carnivorous plant – attaining fusion with the plane surface of the face, and the mouth opened to a pleasantly rounded O. To feed her something cold! An icecream or sorbet, held on a chilled silver spoon. Expectant breath would condense on the underside. The little shock that would run through her when it first passed her lips. She'd hold the metal fast and deep inside her mouth, accustom to the cold, toy with it, with a curling of the tongue, and how her features would soften as the contents liquefied inside her. With girlish delight. As if there lingered between skin and skull the girl, mother of the woman. Later you collapsed back onto the sheets. The spongy mattress impressed – with subtle oscillations damped. Your thoughts wandered this way. The brightness of the sun cut against your eye. Light flooded through the windows and the heat it brought was uncomfortable. Denied any recourse to sleep. Moreover you had a headache, or something brought about by dehydration, some kind of electrolyte imbalance in a sensitive place. Staring up at the stain on the ceiling a sudden twinge of arousal led you to contemplate it – no longer as mouth, nor sex nor anus but rather as the Platonised pure Hole devoid of particularities, the oceanic [w]hole, the bestial ur-orifice surmounted by a shimmering & amorphous figure...some kind of animated cubist portrait, sample after biased sample of pullulating thighs and arse and lower back not so much stitched together as interlaced like the fingers of siblings still young enough to sleep together. Head pressing back deeper into the pillow you arched up, heard a faint crack, some knot from poor posture unwinding at the base of the spine. Stretched like an animal. Ran a pale hand up under your shirt to the opposite shoulder and yawned like that, then down alongside to the ridge of the iliac crest. It was in some way compounded by the impossible character of this instantiation, the stain's flatness viz. high degree of conformity with the plane geometry of the ceiling. You spent about fifteen minutes lazily kneading your dick through boxer shorts. Pulse quickening, somatic fever. Affect squeezed like a moist rag. In arousal the perceptual field shrinks to the scale of an induced delusion. Reality unveils itself in a different way.

Everyone ran for safety as best they could. The stain was a void, you thought, in the total cartography of the world. You had come to the bathroom. There was a profusion of slate tiles around him, a skylit jigsaw of ceramics, hard and soft angles, with a stainless steel faucet. And soap untouched, still in its paper wrapping. The cabinet beneath the sink held neatly folded towels and nothing more. Not a bathroom you could imagine living with for long. Its comforts were anonymous. Luxury without history. You had come to a place without memories. To a resort hotel. After finishing you stood blearily watching the phlegmy filaments of semen that hung in the basin of the toilet like the white of a half-cooked egg. As if there was some method of divination. You flushed and a feeble spit of water came down and tried its best to take them away. You washed up, but the tap at the sink gave only a trickle and soon drained out, the pressure gone entirely. Drying hands, you found yourself in the mirror. That boyish shock of dark and messy hair. Bloodshot eyes. Mouth fallen slightly open. Squinting as if to present the dark strokes of skin beneath your eyes where the epidermis pulled oily and translucent over tiny purple capillaries webbing out faintly as the river systems of a fantasy kingdom. You were sweating, though the air was cooler. There was something here that – a faint click of the tongue – failed to correlate. It was minutes before you found it. There. Hanging from somewhere above the hairline, draped over the eye, caught in lashes like a delicate petal snatched by an insect. Was a hair. Dark in colour, straight, and long. Far longer than your own. And it had been there. Far, far longer. Without your knowing. And you and you shuddered. And again you asked, the mirror mouthing lines back like a disinterested understudy: did she 「 」 you? And the answer, again, was yes. But this was trivial. A prerequisite of the question's being asked. It was an equation with multiple unknowns. Given that she did 「 」 you – yes, indeed, the dash here should be longer than the radius of the Earth's orbit – solve for (a) she, (b) you, and (c) 「 」. If you could. You turned away from the mirror, and the mirror turned away as well. Solve, if that was possible.

I just can't remember what happened to me. Now to slip into the kitchen or what passed for the kitchen, your leaden limbs staggering downrange. You yawned once again. A miniature fridge, a compact assembly palpably suffixed -ette at the rim of an unlived-in lounge room. Rattan furniture, a long couch on sanded tiles framed before French windows opening onto a sunlit terrace beyond which was only the beach. Saw a glimmer off the sea. Something like the distant flash of a camera. You turned away. You found the sink and tried the faucet there. The result was similar to that in the bathroom. With water dry...the endorphins from earlier peeled away to expose a mounting paranoia. As if a message was relayed here, just for you, a sign channelled from somewhere far away, written in absence, ideograms of unbeing, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea. The mini-fridge was silent and when you opened the door a crack there was no light inside, and you quickly closed it. And power amiss. Inevitably the failure of basic technological systems could not be accepted for what it was: it would be perceived as a metaphor. These systems were constitutive of the lived environment to such a point that their absence entailed a deficit in the world itself. An evil curse or bane placed over the situation. As if blotting out the sun. In the eyes of the wise man nothing is itself, everything is a symptom of something else. You understood then that the stain was not a phenomenon that existed as an uncommon application of general rules – of physics, biology, interior design – but rather a suspension of the general rules that underpinned all other phenomena. A pure yet not constitutive exception. Not a requisite vacuum without which the world could not be seemingly whole, perfect, and consistent. The universe could have existed without it, and had done. Then there came the stain. So utterly insubstantial, inconsequential, yet impossible, and for these all the more miraculous. The stain was an uncaused gap in the order of creation. Like a bubble of air spontaneously formed in a deep-sea trench: an impossibility the abyss somehow did not crush. You came to the window, pressed forehead against it, felt a certain coolness on your skin. Your breath fogged the glass. And you closed your eyes, and listened. Outside there were the liquid sounds of trees in wind, and there were cicadas in the trees, and other insects, and now and then the cries of sea birds shot through. And behind all that, distant waves breaking on the edge of the reef. And you opened your eyes. And you and you and you and you and you

And though it may have been a shadow trapped out there among the coral, the scuttling crabs and barnacles and iridescent shells and matted weeds and eyeless molluscs under rocks and echinoderms dumbly safe in their immortality

and though

it might be

you It saw flickered something in that the was eye. not

And it was gone. there.

28ºC / 82ºF

Deja vu. Her[e] bleached coral had been crushed, compacted and laid out in unsealed paths onto which overspilled ferns and palms and others wracked by vines you couldn't name. Between the path and the beach were the villas, the bungalows, modular materialisations of a fantasy way of life, simulacra of something that had never really existed, entailing all the comforts of home, indeed greater comforts, impossibly sustaining itself on the surface of an island, a beautiful desolation – all kept at intervals rendered opaque in flora so as to lift from tenants the burden of acknowledging the existence of other guests. This was a place like that. There ensued procedural investigations along the bungalow axis parallel with the path, gliding wordlessly through identical, isolated holiday-homes – none was locked, your passage could nowhere be denied – not to check but rather as if to confirm that there was nobody there. Or perhaps you were simply entering and exiting the same house over and again. At the end of the line you found the main complex of the resort, a split-level structure in wood cladding and tinted glass doors, an ordered set of ice-cream colours too large to be seen entirely. Certainly modern, to within certain tolerances, though displaying indications of a decade or more of half-hearted maintenance. The terrace surrounding it on every side was from the lanterned extremities inward strewn with abandoned plant matter and the sweet smells of rot from fallen seed pods – failed fruit – and plumeria flowers, some so pristine as to have not yet begun to wilt, all five cupped petals persisting in the sheer moon-like whiteness that shaded to gold at the core. There were insects fluttering – pale white butterflies or cabbage-moths – fleeting low and silent across the ground. You saw these things as if in false-colour – as if film sensitive to spectra ordinarily invisible had transposed impossible shades to something you could understand. Warm air rose from the earth. It seemed that the heat of the day now first began to make its proper introduction: sunlight pressed down on your head, a warmth gathering at the roots of the hair. At the skin of the scalp.

Alone. Nearby you found a tennis court hemmed in by tall chain-link fences. The net had been cleared away, probably into the locked outbuilding adjacent, and the field was left bare. Painted white lines described the territories of the game, but now the game was all over and these demarcations had no clear meaning. The whole thing seemed washed-out in the light. Standing in the centre, equidistant between the two solitary posts at the midpoints of either side of the court, you felt the pressure of the hard, abrasive surface – returning to your feet the equal and opposite force implied by your own weight. Your footsteps did not echo here. The sky opened above you, blue and white and bright and infinite. The wind whipped through the trees. To be alone in an empty universe, you thought. To be totally free and unconstrained by the presence of others – for a constraint their presence certainly was. Here the pressure imposed by other minds was removed and your own consciousness was thereby evacuated, vomited out like the stomach of a feeding starfish, expanding to fill its container. Reality and fantasy attained to a one-to-one correspondence. Yet in the absence of the perspective of others which so constricted you, the solitary perspective you could bring to bear was partial and incomplete from the outset. The gaps in your vision, like vacancies in the resort, were populated thereafter by anxieties which were ineradicable contingents of consciousness. They flickered in the eye. In the shade of trees, the gaps at the corner of vision. Blind spots. Even if this place was burnt and utterly levelled to a desert plane upon which no form could endure and nothing could hide – even then you would not be free of the fear of the point directly behind your head. You yourself were incomplete. The void was in you from the start. Under the shaded eaves of the outbuilding a chalkboard was strung up for scoring matches. It had been erased and written over. The number [2 1 0 1], in a flowing hand that was not your own. Two one zero one. Two thousand one hundred and one. Twenty-one oh one. You knew it was a message, but you could not understand it.

30ºC / 86ºF

Familiar estate. Incorporated behind the dark windows of the main building was something quite ancillary. A shop, a sales desk, an empty register. And there they were, suspended from the ceiling of this inset kiosk like so many coloured wind chimes, strung out on racks like the preserved skins of predatory animals, fitted seamlessly to the wax-like carapaces of headless, limbless mannequins. These were bathing suits of many and varied designs. Sarongs, you noted. Side-ties. One-pieces. Others you could less easily name but knew from sight from where? Complexes of overlapping thongs of material, knots, fasteners, cut-away sections specified by precise mathematical descriptions. A whole topology of concealment here exhibited its possibilities in some teeth-grit attempt to exhaust – as it was the exhaust of an industry incentivised to seek the novel yet hemmed in by the very formal constraints of its product. What appearance of novelty it attained to was rather an artefact of combinatorics. You saw this in the colours and shapes alike. Arabesques, tilings, gradients, motifs animal and vegetable and thoroughly abstract, ideograms, solid shades, variant textures, microfashions set to scatter as soon as they blossomed. As if the whole archive of patterns accreted by humans over millennia was here recycled, remixed, cut up and rearranged, transposed into flattened, waterproof textiles. As accessories. The past like a flower pressed onto the vitreous slab of the present. You saw all this. This embarrassment of riches. Hazukashii. How to choose among these? How could anyone? And she 「 」 to you, her hand in yours, voice fondling at the ear: that you were mistaken, that their purpose was not to conceal what ought to be concealed but rather to create the desire for that concealed 'something'. Did you understand? The bikini was not there [Sha-ri-shi] to prevent you from seeing her nipples and her cunt &c. but rather to incite in you the idea that there was anything [particularly interesting, attractive, arousing] to see beneath it. She sanitised her appearance to inv[ent/ite] the dirty minds of others. What about this one, she 「 」 to you. Do you like it? How do I look? And you and you and you realised the choice was in the last analysis arbitrary. There was one to suit every taste.

In pursuit of [a][more] littoral hermeneutics. You were later on the boardwalk, the curving promenade dividing the resort from the beach proper. The lingering scent of chlorine was caught on the breeze here. The adjacent swimming pool had been drained, its internal steps descending only to a pale dry surface where salt had lightly crusted. Like fine ash or milled bone. What few distended shadows troubled that interior were cast down vertically – the sun was directly above, radiance extending its sheen across half the sky or more. From the edge of the boardwalk, your feet pausing arched on varnished decking, you were able to look down to the beach. Across soft sand strewn with shells and shards of charcoal sloping down gently to the waterline. Here the reef began. Beneath air glazed the acrid blue of bathroom tiles. From this vantage point geography impressed itself upon you: you felt its teeth at your back, its fingers at your spine. This was an island, you realised – a realisation came to you, all at once, an aerial photograph cast immediately to the base of the brain. Such that you could see it. This island was, by estimation, about eight hundred metres on the long axis, the vegetated and architectured protrusion above water of the larger coral plateau upthrust from the ocean floor within which it sat like a gentrified pupil embedded inside a vast blue-green iris. The tide had gone out substantially and the slope of the beach no longer perfected itself in lapping waves that did not so much break as crumble – now instead it merged into a terrain of appreciably higher complexity. Neither fully land nor water, but – you manoeuvred your body (and was it not so strange to do this, to be a thing that had a body, after all?) over the edge of the boardwalk and walked across fine white sand that folded in like silk at the impression of your bare feet and soon came down to the shoreline to cross over into – a shallow, liminal, tidal surface of densely interconnected rockpools set among exposed stones thickly embraced by barnacles and shellfish. The water was ankle depth and you found it pleasantly temperate, even cool, though sweat began to run from your forehead anyway, and it seemed as the island receded that traversing these flats was like returning to the earliest beginnings of life on this planet. To the primaeval pools in which the first proteins folded, the first algae bloomed. There were no fish about, not even the little darting silvers you might have expected. Just passive life, mute immortals, specialised plants and reclusive shelled scavengers. You walked for a while. Out and out. As if led by the hand. Smiling wryly to humour her, you told yourself - she who wanted to show you something good. Caustics played on your feet. Crabs drew back into crevices at your passing. The tide, you noted, was still going out. In fact the further one went the more the chaotic mutual interference of the tidal pools coalesced into a unidirectional flow. A palpable drainage. The water was fleeing the island, fleeing the tidal plateau. As you drew near the edge of the reef, sharp coral paining your feet at the touch, a reeking profusion of slime adhering to this surface, detailing it as might the brush of an inhuman artist with colour gradings suggestive of an oil slick or false-colour image captured in deep space...you began to see, as it were, the dimensions of the problem. The reef terminated in an uprush of noise, burbling water overtopping the brim and pouring out from the organic perimeter, and you and you and you and you and you looked [down] from there. Where the shelf of land dropped away. Sloping down and away, gently – barely hundreds of metres over kilometres horizontally. The path [down] to the abyssal plain. Now drying in the sun. Exposed. 「...and there was no more sea.」 The sea was draining away. Alluvial tracks still carved down the irregular slope, of sand and mud and matted seaweed already beginning to rot in the sun. But the waterline was now miles away. Had moved miles away, since this when? morning. And you and you and you looked [out] from there. And in the far distance, you saw emerging from what was left of the shimmering sea [as if] exposed above water for the first time things structures of steel or husks artifice gleaming in the light.

32ºC / 90ºF

[I]Stochastic path. That wasn't it, so you tried again. At a kiosk half-lost in the gloom of the inner building, there stood amid bottled tanning lotion and sun hats and novelty shades and unsold souvenirs a revolving rack of picture postcards. You were turning it slowly to see what would be delivered. And it rolled out before your eyes, this carousel of fantasies, of lies. Their arrangement suggested an obscure ordering principle. Each paper gravid with scenarios. You could not help but look around as you lifted one gingerly off the rack, as it seemed more glaringly obvious, more somatically apparent [real in the gut], now than ever, that you were being watched. From where? It didn't matter. From anywhere and everywhere, and therefore from nowhere. From the point directly behind your head. You looked at the postcard you'd taken – taken without paying attention, even, your groping fingers forming unconsciously an element in a machine geared toward the production of a certain randomness or pseudo-randomness. A roulette wheel, basically. On the card she was depicted reclining in the shade of trees, on a towel thrown down over perfect sand, bone-white, reaching down in the picture's perspective to a sun-drenched sea. In a swimsuit, one you'd seen before. In fact you'd seen everything before. Every element brought together to constitute this picture, from the arc of the bay to the narrow incised horizon to the unblemished blue sky to the aquamarine refractivity of the water - & this is to say nothing of the various entailments of her body, the pose, the splined curvature of hip and bust and thigh, the outfit, the hair so wilfully arranged, the impassive look in the eyes, the lips upturned in amusement so faint as to defy verbal expression &c. - all this you had seen before. You could not say precisely where in each case, but you were exceedingly certain of this overarching conclusion. Each individual element you had seen. It was only this precise synthesis of those elements that was hitherto unseen. The question – of whether there was something additional here, some supplement that allowed the image to be greater than the sum of its parts by dint of their very conjoinment – did not however arise. For it was at the very moment you registered the non-uniqueness of every specific component of the image that you also found yourself enjoying. Enjoying nothing other than the registering itself. You, or part of you, took note as the musculature of your face slowly contorted into a light smile, strangely knowing. You were, perversely, able to observe yourself in the act of enjoyment. And yet – that wasn't it. That, that, wasn't what you [wanted?] were looking for. You replaced the card on the rack, still smiling, dumbly, and you spun the rack again. And you tried again, you picked another. What did you have this time? View across the table, one of those out on the terrace, yes. Night scene, candlelight inflected in the glass of wine, yes. The ornate traditional gown, yes. She was 「 」 directly at you, in the picture. This too – all of this, every highlight, caustic, reflection, every fine cut of colour, the shades in her elegant confusion of hair, the outstretched hand, inviting, indeed the coolness of the evening breeze and the wash of breaking waves heard at the edge of the reef, subjective components merely implied by the image borne by the card – all this, all these, you had already seen or knew from elsewhere. Broken down into atomic constituents, it could be proven that each one resolved as a reference to a hidden antecedent. Somewhere, somehow. Only the arrangement was new – and even then, was it? This ordering principle, this pose, this camera angle, this perspective – this was not new. Rather a combination of pre-existing elements in such a way as to...your thoughts trailed off. Once again you were caught unawares by the dissociated perception of your own enjoyment, and at the same time, with precisely the same intensity, the intuition that you were being watched. A slight tremor had gathered in your fingertips when you replaced this postcard. You gave the rack another turn. Another, another. Why not? Your hand shot out while the rack was still moving. This one – and here your mind could barely begin to apprehend the details – depicted her from behind, wading naked on the reef, porcelain skin cast pearl-white under moonlight, hands outlaid at the level of waist-deep water, the head crooked ever so slightly as to admit a portion of the gaze. And yes, all this, all these – you could no longer perceive the image as a totality, so deep now went the instinct to find in it an interlacing complex of contingent, referential parts – you had seen elsewhere, and before. At this precise moment, in the midst of your wordless enjoyment, you ascertained the function of the notional gaze observing you. Through its observation it froze you, it conscripted you functionally into the servo-mechanism of a stochastic system: yourself plus the postcard rack, entangled. The enjoyment you experienced in the course of this functioning – as if second-hand – was therefore performative in that its outward signs were produced, as it were, for the benefit of the gaze observing you. You disassembled the images into their parts and connected those parts to their referents, and you enjoyed this – because this ability to participate in reference connected you to the gaze that observed you. 「You did it to fit in.」 Your grip released. The postcard tumbled through the air and landed upside-down on the floor. The number so elegantly written on the reverse was [2 1 0 1].

34ºC / 93ºF

Anisotropy. Now through the the restaurant, the tables all packed away, through a forest of inverted chairs adjoining a gleaming silver buffet table...you staggered through in what was not so much a single continuous motion but rather a choppy progression of still frames, jilting from one pose to a next with no in-betweening. You saw yourself as if from behind, as silhouette passing further into the lightless interior. Through a door and darker still. To a place of stillness and surfaces faintly gleaming of stainless steel. The refrigerators in the resort's kitchen had failed along with all other electrical devices, which was no big surprise. Checking them briefly you found that a certain coolness lingered inside. Perhaps no more than a few degrees, but palpable in relative terms. That part of you which was still rational seized upon the obvious deduction, that the amount of time which had passed since the generalised power failure could be calculated from this. But all other signs, occult and unsubtle, hinted at the utter futility of any such calculation. If you were trying to make sense of this, you had already lost.

Persistence of the beach. The decision to leave the island i.e. to traverse beyond the reef and the defunct structures that had emerged from the receding sea, in pursuit of that sea – had been made primarily according to impersonal dictates of thermodynamics. When water evaporated it took in a large amount of heat from its surrounding environment, such that its component molecules could overcome vapour pressure and undergo a change in phase from liquid to gas. This quantity was expressed as the latent heat of vaporisation. Here equal to a little over two thousand joules per gram. It therefore followed that as the water receded into the haze at the base of the horizon it would leave behind countless pools of evaporand, in the vicinity of which would be found local because ephemeral minima of ambient temperature. As if the earth itself was perspiring. Your behaviour in this place – whether or not it was known to you was ultimately irrelevant, as it was not the kind of action whose direct elevation into consciousness would shatter the unconscious purity thereof nor raise the analogue of a muscular twitch into a nervous compulsion – exhibited all the properties of a contour that traversed the generalised field of temperature in pursuit of differentials. Against the same, you looked for difference, for exceptions. Under these conditions, under the tyranny of a solar presence imposing a rapidly accelerating uniform temperature increase, you were a motile agent set loose on an obscure attractor field. Your path from here on out could be modelled quite accurately by a straightforward mathematical description of these dynamics.

42ºC / 108ºF

The inventory of the young woman. Returning to your room, and your bed – though since the villas were identical in every respect this could arguably have been any one of an indefinite number of [your] rooms and [your] beds – you became aware of something that had eluded you earlier. The bed was so constructed as to leave a small space underneath, by no means large enough for a person to conceal themselves but certainly capable of hiding a range of small items or containers. Some hitherto unrecognised irregularity in the order of your room led you to the suspicion of an instant that there was something under the bed. It was perhaps a subtle discolouration of the floor, or disturbance of the sheets that did it. You did not truly expect to find anything, and were faintly – though not visibly – surprised when you did. Carefully drawing it out from beneath the bed, where it had lain for who knew how long, you retrieved a broad, thin suitcase, jet-black in colouration and locked with a four-digit combination. Sat it on the bed while you kneeled at floor level. After some introspection you were able to open the case.

Death kit. It contained the following items: (1) A patch of excised skin the size of a CD case, preserved in a sterilised plastic sleeve, (2) samples of hair labelled by site of origin, (3) six detachable index fingers, (4) high-resolution photographs of a human iris, (5) three sets of breasts, paired at distinct size thresholds, (6) a 500ml bottle of commercial lubricant, (7) square samples of high-quality kimono fabric, (8) a set of sprites commissioned from a niche illustrator, (9) captioned photographs of everyday situations, (10) charts showing the growth of unit statistics in proportion to selected variables, (11) an itemised list of upgrade materials, (12) a dossier of lines to be spoken aloud when specific flags were raised, including possible variations and instructions on cadence and intonation, (13) a cross-section of thickness not exceeding 1mm taken from the blade of a Japanese sword, (14) the text of several pornographic short stories with all proper nouns removed and replaced with quoted empty space, (15) an invoice for dialect coaching in a formal register, unpaid, (16) a chart displaying variations in body temperature, axillary, buccal, and rectal, over a twenty-four hour period, (17) a set of blood pressures, systolic 120, diastolic 70 rising to 200/150 at onset of orgasm, (18) a flowchart for her route, and (19) a slip of paper, hastily typewritten, bearing the words lemon, tags: swimsuit, ice cream, sweat.

54ºC / 129ºF

S[u,i]mmer. Delirium. You were lying face-up on the cracked-mud floor of the waterless ocean, vision obliterating itself in the incandescence above, afterimages bleeding as if the gentle capillaries of the eyelids were bursting one-by-one. At such a temperature all action, physical or mental, became an intolerable burden. That action proceeded in spite of this took on the character of a natural law, gyrations like the inexorable movement of tides. In the midst – though what could the midst be, in a uniform haze with no centre? – of uninterrupted and torturous warmth the mass of her body atop yours was pure rancidity, decay-heat, skin attaining to the slickness of butter. Groaned, hand shifting to cover eyes. The tongue drew a contrail of saliva down your chest, curling within the navel before lazily caressing the pubic mound. Heatstroke infiltrated the channelled confines of your skull. The skin of your thighs, sunburnt raw, registered dimly the envelopment of your cock. She she 「 」 to you. The anterior triangle of her neck translucent skin [illegible] barely hiding scenarios of nerve and blood vessel. ORDER TO YOUR HEART. WHAT WE'RE MADE OF. INTERNAL SILENCE. CINDER THEOLOGY. 72 DEMONS. YOU ALONE REMAINED. [illegible] The feeling of hollowness that followed orgasm could not effect a decisive difference in the crushing uniformity of the heat. It was




58ºC / 136ºF

All that is solid melts into air. Your entry into the post-historical crash space was gradual. On reaching the base of the island shelf you entered into a desert and desolate landscape – waterless seascape, rather – in which affect and geometry exhibited not indifferent orthogonality but rather a cruel complicity and mutual malevolence. The surface of this terrain formed a manifold in obeisance to a curious metric: the shortest path between any two points in space seemed to be both invariant and non-finite. Only once distance had been effectively abolished were you able to pass into the outer suburbs of this new conurbation, raised from the silence of the sea. Here, in the outskirts, you found remnants of a technological civilisation. The structures exposed by the receding waves were here represented as crumbled, salt-rusted assemblies – what had once been, perhaps, the anonymous cityscape of the twenty-first century. Through its humid byways you pursued the ocean; through offices caked in sediment, ruined passages beneath collapsed towers choked with yellowing kelp, through sunken parking lots, their floors tilted at abnormal angles and strewn with the wreckage of the age. At the end of all this the ocean had yet to be found; there was more, still more. You came to a narrow precipice where an open-air cinema once stood and looked out – rather, deeper into the abyss. Into the place where all this converged. Beyond the ruins of your age were those of every other. A profusion of rubble as far as the horizon, infinite distance. The glories of antiquity and medievality – the fortresses and palaces, temples, treasures and votive artefacts, monuments and steles, laws, armies, mausoleums and harbours, armaments and trades, natural mountains,

all the saints and kings

and and the vast gods

and the universe.


It's summer, but instead of the "fun and swimsuits" kind of summer it's the "incinerate your AC like Goetia did human history" summer. Languid from the sweltering sun and alone in a familiar estate, Gudao and 「 」姉さん find themselves desperate to find a way to cool down, or at least, to release the heat that's built up between them... (lemon, tags: swimsuit, ice cream, sweat)

December 25th, 2017, 02:32 PM
‘You are late.’

A voice like birdsong, he heard her before he saw her. The bright sunlight of the late autumn morning cut shadows sharp as knives, her dark figure obscured by them in the quiet courtyard, leaning onto the thick corner pillars as if she were one with the stonework.

He was not quite late, and she was not angry. He could see that in the way her eyes crinkled. She was glad to see him. And he was glad to see her.

‘I couldn’t let a day this beautiful pass me by, my lady. My eyes might be getting old but they can still seek out beauty wherever it might be hiding,’ he paused for a small bow in her direction. ‘Dark courtyards included.’

And the day truly was shaping up into something beautiful. He wore thicker stockings than usual, and the lingering cold of the night made him cling to his cloak, but the soft sunlight felt good on his skin, as if it were seeping into his old bones, invigorating him. Along the smooth, gradually climbing road to the hilltop palace, he stopped at few points to close his eyes and turn his face towards the sun. It struck him how much of his life was spent moving away from the light, filtering it, shading it, understanding it. Something about meeting her tinged his day with nostalgia, and he was not a man prone to bouts of nostalgia.

‘Age dulled the edge off of many of our gifts, but I am delighted to see that your gift for simultaneously insulting and complimenting me is not one of them.’ She moved to him, light on her feet, and, returned the bow, dark hair cascading past her shoulders. ’It’s good to see you, old friend.’

She looked happy, at peace. A woman of the world. Her smile seemed to come to her easier than ever, tensing her features just slightly before stretching them. He was awash with pride, and the nostalgia he felt before diffused into the crisp, clean air, like a warm backing sound of a lute following a pleasant conversation.

‘It is good to see you too, Lisa.’

A swallow streamed across the courtyard-framed patch of blue above.

* * *

He remembered that summer quite clearly. It was an unbearably hot one, so much that the city council passed restrictions on water from the city’s many fountains, and lines had formed across piazzas and through streets, people queueing up with buckets and barrels. He had to push his way through them on his way to the workshop, and on busy days he’d forgo washing his hands after work entirely, making his way from one errand to another with rolled up sleeves and arms covered up the the elbows in marble dust and plaster. The sight made the bored and sheltered city girls swoon.

He was a young man then. Young, handsome, ambitious. It had been two years since he’d arrived to Florence to work and study in old man Andrea’s workshop. Eleven years since his mother died, and he appeared with nothing but a trunk of peasant clothes and a sketchbook to the doors of a stranger - his father.

His father was not a bad man. He’d always remember the childlike amazement in the old man’s eyes when he first sifted through that sketchbook. He was a lover of the arts, and quickly set him up with an apprentice spot in one of the city’s most respected workshops, where he’d learn to see, and measure, and paint, and sculpt. He let him stay in his home, among his trueborn children. He provided, sometimes even affection in the form of an awkward pat on the head when he’d draw something beautiful, or was notified that he was making good progress in his studies. He had, in all things, been treated fairly by the man.

But all the same, he preferred it here. A stranger once is a stranger always, and he never felt at home there, not truly. The humble servant quarters where he and the other apprentice boys lived were closer to the memories he had of the house of his mother than the lavish rooms of his father’s house could ever be, closer to home. It was also here that he first met her, returning from doling out samples around the city on a hot afternoon. Or was it getting pigments? He’d just become senior enough to be allowed to buy those for the shop.

The neighborhood had recently experienced an influx of new citizenry, mostly the newly rich traders or the newly impoverished nobles from the province. The family that had taken up residence not long ago in the house next to the workshop was, he suspected, of the latter sort, if the sad state of disrepair the house remained in was any indication. The building was a small, unremarkable thing, a story shorter than the handsome townhouse that housed his master’s residence and workshop, its layout unfortunately orienting the best rooms to Master Andrea’s service courtyard, no doubt bringing the rent price even further down. He’d expected it to be torn down and replaced with something more becoming before they had moved in, bringing with them a throng of tiny, loud children. At least the street’s atmosphere was more lively now.

The voice he heard calling his name from the shaded balcony belonged to a young woman, likely a less tiny and less loud older sibling to those children. She had something of his, she said. She was veiled, dressed too darkly and too thickly for the weather, and all he could see of her was a glint of the setting sun reflecting in her eyes and a mane of coal black hair streamed along by the hot afternoon breeze. In her hands she held a bird, a clockwork toy he had made for practice on his off hours and left for the neighboring children to play with.

‘My little brother took it,’ She explained in an apologetic tone. ‘Stuffed it into his pocket and broke it.’

She stringed one apology after another. Her family was a poor, he’d gathered, but honest lot. He insisted it was all well and good, the birds were just tin, something he made for practice to train his hands and sharpen his eyes, but she insisted paying off the damages. He couldn’t, wouldn’t take her money, and after some back-and-forth their conversation turned into a full-blown argument, even drawing out some servants and apprentice boys into the courtyard to witness the spectacle when she started to yell at him for trying to walk away. And she could yell. Like the fishwives by the river, uncaring of how appropriate it was or how she’ll be seen. Not a sheltered noble daughter at all. He was impressed, even. There was no polite way of getting out of this.

‘I don’t want your money, I don’t need it.’ He said, barely hiding the mix of amusement and annoyance in his voice. ‘What could you have then that I could possibly want?’

He heard a small huff of air, imagining the grin breaking up under her veil rather than seeing it.

‘Water? This house’s well is not rationed, and we have more than enough to spare. You look like you need it.’ She said, alluding to his dusty hands.Unless you prefer to walk around like that, young master. Since you artists are so eager to disregard rules of society and politeness and...not stinking in public. If that is the case I shall desist at once, and run back indoors before the stench rises up to me.’


‘A pitcher of water will suffice.’

The glint in her eyes was that of gloating over his defeat. ‘I’ll send a servant with it to you post haste then, Master...Oh, I didn’t ask for your name.’

He bowed, the way he’d seen dancers do. ‘Just Leonardo is fine. I am messere Verocchio’s apprentice here, before I am my father’s son.’

‘I am but my father’s daughter here. He is Gherardini, and I am Lisa.’


It became a ritual of theirs. For the remainder of that summer, he would return to the workshop, and she would be up in the loggia, robed and veiled, and they’d trade some pleasant barbs, she’d send a servant to him with a pitcher of water, rinse and repeat. They soon started talking afterwards too, longer and longer. She impressed him with her ability to follow his mind and carry herself admirably in almost every bout of verbal sparring they had, at least until he began to actually try, of course. He impressed her with his fresh and direct wit, so unlike the perfumed and starched up noble youth she was usually exposed to. The wide-eyed, healthy soul of a peasant boy tempered with the elegance of Florentine intellectual gentry. They became odd, but fast friends.

But she’d never leave her perch up in the loggia, he’d never ask to be invited up, and for a long time both were fine keeping the composition just as it was. Until the day came that the Gherardini could no longer afford the last of their servants.

That day was particularly hellish. He spent it chiseling, and was up to his neck in fine dust and sweat and God knows what else. He spent the entire day relishing in the thought of getting up wash up, maybe even have a drink of the cold water from the Gherardini well, but when he rushed to meet her at the usual spot and time, she seemed almost dejected to lay eyes on him.

‘Forgive me, but something came up, and I cannot send a pitcher for you today.’

‘Is something not right with the well?’

‘Not...exactly,’ She said grimly. ‘It just happens that I have no way to send it to you. Throwing it down doesn’t seem like an option.’

He was not a rude person, and he knew when to not push persist, usually. But he really needed that water.

‘Your ladyship, I might actually stink right now, but if you let me get to your well and wash myself not only will I no longer stink, but will also be forever in your debt. I can even fix that bird for your little brother, if you’ll allow.’

She relented. He was let in by one of her younger sisters, led into the courtyard and the well and, when he was done, into the pleasant shade of the loggia. She was there, sitting in an armchair facing the almond trees. The bird was on a stool next to her. She was no longer wearing her veil.

‘I trust that you now see exactly why I kept our meetings at a distance.’ She said, mirthless.

Her face was covered in puckered scarring, the skin of her cheeks and neck bearing evidence of many rips and lesions, cuts and sutures. The eyes that reflected sunlight so brightly were clouded over with cataracts. Her legs, tucked away under a thin blanket, looked limp and lifeless, like a ragdoll’s.

‘You’ll understand that I’d hide being a leper.’ She said, confirming his suspicions. ‘The doctors say the worst is over, but I’d still appreciate if you kept your distance. I cannot guarantee I’m safe to be around.’

He was mistaken. There was no evidence of any sort of emotion in her voice. As she went on to talk about her affliction all he could hear was concise, cold laying out of facts, as if she were a physician herself, and talking about a patient she had no more than a professional concern for. She was afflicted as a child, and barely survived. She could barely see, and had to avoid direct sunlight, so dusk was the only time of day she was allowed to sit outside, and even then only in the shaded loggia. The chair she sat in was wheeled, as her legs were of little use in standing without support and of no use for walking. Her family had to move to the city for the doctors, and funds were not good. He could deduce the rest himself.

‘It doesn’t hurt. Nothing does, to be exact, so I have to be very careful with everything I do.’

He didn’t know what to say. Instead he sat on the bench by the door and started working on the bird that was waiting for him there. She watched him work.

‘I understand if you no longer want to associate with me. I’ll only ask...no, beg of you to keep this to yourself. Me being inside the city walls is against the law.’

‘It’s an illness, not a curse, Lisa. It has nothing to do with our friendship.’

‘Thank you.’ He heard the surprise and relief in her voice, and her attempt to hide them. She had to do this many times before, he could tell.

The break was simple enough to fix. A quick analysis of the inner structure revealed gear had bent and fallen out of alignment. There was no way any amount of rough handling could have caused such an internal deformity, it was most likely due his own oversight. He quickly and discretely conjured up a small field of intense heat inside the toy, adjusted the gear shape, and pushed everything back into place. The tiny automaton instantly whirred into life and jumped onto it’s small filigree feet in his lap.

‘Good news,’ Se announced, and placed the bird on the floor. ‘It was an internal break, and unless your brother is a genius artificer as well, there is no way he could’ve caused such a tiny deformity.’

She watched in marvel as the tin animal waddled its way diagonally across the loggia and to a spot by her feet. She picked it up and put it into her lap, where it instantly settled and started going through the motions of preening its metal feathers.

‘Then you have to pay me back all that water, young master.’ She said with a smile. ‘How do you do this? It has no spring to wind, or at least none I can see.’

‘Secrets of the trade, my lady.’

‘It’s a kingfisher, right? I only ever saw one, when I was a child.’

‘Enamel is still above my income level, so this one didn’t get the essential blue. But yes, good eye.’

The bird in her lap had tucked its head under a wing, as if to sleep, but a sound of children’s playful screaming and laughter coming from the courtyards below kicked it back into its default state of alert. The minuscule glass beads of its eyes darted around, and its beak opened a few times to form soundless calls.

‘You really like birds, don’t you, Leonardo? It’s all you ever make.’ She said, stoking the creature’s tiny head with a gloved fingertip.

‘I cannot imagine not being obsessed with all of God’s flying creatures. And unlike insects, birds are the children of both worlds.’

‘Both worlds?’

‘The earth and the sky. A creature like a butterfly, or a bee, even seeing them resting on a leaf is like seeing a piece of the sky forcefully grounded. But until a bird takes flight, it belongs to the ground. What makes it fly is not the ethereal fluttering of winds but some precise, robust mechanism within them. One day I will crack that mechanism.’

‘And what? Make yourself fly?’

‘Not just myself, but the whole of humanity. There is so much of the world we have yet to see.’

She pondered for a moment. ‘The gods cast their rage onto Daedalus and his son, for the insolence of wanting to get near them. Maybe man cannot fly for good reason - he is not meant for the sky.’

‘Man is destined to have everything, as long as he can imagine it and draw it into existence. That is what I believe.’

‘You truly are something, young master Leonardo. You will do the house of your father very proud one day.’

‘If I don’t do the house of humankind proud, I will know that I have wasted my potential.’

She laughed, but there was no malice in it. The sound of playing children and the bustle of the city evening came to his ears, as if filtered by the almonds and sleepy air of the loggia. This was her life, her vantage point. The hands that played with the bird were thin as twigs, tremors going through them at the slightest exertion. He looked down on his own, strong and nimble, aching for work and challenge.

‘I know you will. Maybe my purpose here is scolding you if I ever see you squandering that god-given potential like you young country boys apprenticing in the big city are wont to do. Well, at least as much as I can from this chair right here.’

‘I have no doubt in my mind that you’ll perform that duty like no one else could.’ He said, smiling.

‘My legacy will be making sure these mechanical wings keep soaring into the skies, huh.’ She said, idly examining the birds artificial feathers. ‘ It has a good ring to it, almost theatrical.’

He couldn’t help but think how unfair it was. That fate had taken two bright, kindred spirits, and put them in such disparate vessels.

‘My birds can’t fly. Yet.’

‘They can walk. That’s already something to envy, isn’t it?’

They could walk, he thought.

The kingfisher adjusted its wings and hopped onto the balustrade. The whirring sound of the movement lodged a thought into his mind, in that corner where foolish ideas usually go, never to leave until they make themselves a reality.


Making a body isn’t difficult, when one knows what they’re doing. And if sleepless nights spent in mortuaries and physician offices taught him anything, it was how the precise and robust groundwalking mechanism of the human body came together and functioned. Many more nights like that were next, sneaking into monastery libraries and poring over tomes and grimoires. The techniques of it were nothing that wasn’t used before, if mostly only in much cruder forms.

He read about the throne menagerie of Solomon, the timekeeping gears and steam machines of Archimedes, the wind machine of Hero. A mechanism is always, at its core, simple, and needs fuel. To mock Daedalus, he chose the sun. The sketches left by de Honnecourt taught him how to attune the machine’s inner workings to utilize nourishment from it.

A single nail ruined the bronze giant of Crete. Might attracts resistance, delicacy distributes weaknesses evenly. Forces must be distributed with that delicacy in mind, so no move is ever overdone or wasted. Like a finely crafted musical instrument, everything has to sing in harmony.

He made several dolls to practice the mechanisms of movement. He clad them in Sforza armor and sold them to entertain nobles, the funds helping him to acquire tomes from faraway lands. It’d usually take him a day or two to master the various foreign tongues in which they were written.

He discovered that the orientals long ago removed the need for gears and springs; their dolls given life by flux of opposing forces through simple elements, the principles thereupon established similar to the flow of humors. Similar but not alike. He devised a special diet to stabilize and clean the system by encouraging select alchemical processes.

The voice was another mechanism, for which he had to turn to the same Daedalus he mocked for guidance. The pure quicksilver the ancient master had used for his soldiers gave them voices strong like howling winds, but tempered with silver and quartz dust the sound became bright and clear, like the tinkling of silver bells on a housecat’s collar.

The work, of course, took years. During which he moved out of his master’s workshop and into his own, became more and more sought after, was hounded by commissions.They gave him the funds he needed, and his work in turn gave him insight into mysteries higher than the reach of any other artisan available. And higher mysteries paid well. Even the works he went over absentmindedly and left unfinished made his name respected and revered. It’s not that he didn’t enjoy them. He just cared too much about what he was trying to make for Lisa.

They continued their friendship, although their meetings became less and less frequent as time went on. Two of her siblings had married, and her family entered more prosperous times. She was happy for them, he knew, but as the world around her grew and became less insular, so did her pain.They’d talk about everything and anything, but he hesitated in telling her what he was doing.

He asked her one day, in some unrelated conversations, if she truly believed only humans had souls.

‘God gives souls, doesn’t he? If he chose to give it to a mouse or a turtledove, who are men to say that he did not, and single themselves out?’

The doll moved, danced, ran, obeyed simple commands. It was functioning perfectly. The only thing, and the most important thing that remained was making it beautiful. A vessel fitting for the mind that will, hopefully, soon inhabit it. He’d make it look like she would, were she given the chance to become a young woman in full health, but there was not much to go by but scars. Giving her a fashionable face of the day felt indescribably crass. He tried, looked everywhere, tried to capture an image of her spirit, from the way she talked, how she laughed, from the faces of her mother and her brothers and sisters, from the birds and the petals of the blooming almond trees, the colour of the sky at dusk. Nothing felt fitting or appropriate.

The answer to that last question came to him unexpectedly, at a banquet he was invited to by some trade guild or other. There had been a young man there, a sculptor he knew to be of some renown, but would only later commit the name of to his memory. Someone asked the sculptor, perhaps deliberately within his earshot, some trivial question about sculpture and painting. It was clear he held the latter to great contempt, and as his mood visibly darkened and his curt tirade went on, he said something. There is no process of creating beauty, merely giving the chance for what is already there to expose itself to the world.

The Saracen grimoires said something along those lines, he remembered. That the body is merely a vessel, given shape by the breath of divine life within, and men do not only see what exists but also the essence that the spirit gives to form. The riddle should answer itself, and the final piece clicked into place.

That night he wrote her about the doll. He’d decided that it would be best that way, to lay out the facts and let her take her time deciding. And take her time she did, as the answer arrived a month later. It was affirmative, and he didn’t think it appropriate to question it beyond that.

Scholars of the Kabbalah gave life to men of clay through words: truth and the name of God. But the Maharal explained (and the secretive alchemists of the north, who specialised in forming artificial men and women of their own, seemed to confirm) that these words, and similar ritual practices of lifegiving, were merely a representation. What truly gives life to the lifeless is the suggestion of purpose that they impart - like the echo in a mountain valley, the meaning bounces off the metal and clay and glass, and becomes its own purpose.

The Maharal also gives insight into the transplantation of souls. It had been attempted, and succeeded, but the holy man saw it as a heresy and chose not to elaborate beyond giving nods to scriptures of dark magic that explain more. He also warned that the one who brings life ties a part of his soul with his creation with a bond that cannot be severed, but this was nothing new. All magic carried a price, and the greater the miracle it accomplished is the greater the penalty is on the one bringing it into the world. It was an acceptable price, for getting this far.

In his old age now, he forgot the exact process of migrating her spirit into the doll. It was one of the very few episodes of his youth that he couldn’t remember in vivid detail, as if he was not meant to, and what he did was not to be repeated. Maybe he could recall it if he tried, but everything paled at the light of life entering the doll’s lifeless eyes.

It took days, and was a gradual process. There was no sudden change, but instead a feeling of watching a tiny kitten growing into a cat day after day, as opposed to seeing it small and then grown. The simulacrum became the real thing with every infinitesimal particle of her essence, tiny miracles stringed one after the other. Everything sat into place, and when she woke up, it was as if she was only now waking up to her own body after a lifetime of dreaming. Still in that dreamlike haze, she thanked him with a few words. No tears. He would not be there when she finally, truly realized what was done. The first thing she did was walk along the riverbank. He was told she arrived at her father’s house the evening of the next day, and although he never asked he amused himself by imagining what that return looked like. He thought of her outyelling the fishwives by the river and a deep feeling of satisfaction washed over him. It was to be, he’d later notice looking back at his life’s work, the only one he ever truly finished.

As per their agreement and the instructions given by records of a certain African shaman he managed to get a hold of, he burned her old body and kept the ashes. For many years to follow, he’d carry the urn in which it resided with him wherever he went. Fate willed it that life carried them in separate directions from that point onward, him to the thrones of the world’s powerful and her to the house of her husband. But the dog days of every summer letters were exchanged between them without fail, sometimes on feather wings and other times mechanical ones.

Her last one invited him to meet her at Urbino. To his surprise, it was a commission request.


‘You know I don’t do this as often as I used to? I might have gotten a little rusty.’

‘You can still refuse.’

‘No. It was a surprise, that’s all.’

He laid out the brushes on a piece of cloth. She was sitting opposite to him, already set to pose before he got the chance to direct her himself. She knew how fussy he was about composition, and this was her idea of a practical joke. He was too old now to get upset over something like that the way he used to, though.

As she led him through the rooms he caught sight of himself in a mirror, walking after her. He looked old enough to be her grandfather now, even though she was his elder by two years. Her footsteps were a light dance next to the weary march of his. Turns out, the body he made for her was a perfect machine, perfect to the point of being an imperfect human being.

Looking at her now, the expanse of the cultivated countryside a backdrop for her solemnly posed figure, he could see it more clearly than ever before. It became obvious, after so many years, that her vessel was not a human body. Her eyes were the only thing that betrayed the age of her spirit. Knowing, motherly, tired.

‘This loggia here is much more impressive than that one, isn’t it?’

‘It is. Your friends have exceptional taste in picking locations.’

He gave a final look-over to the poplar panel he’d prepared, and secured it onto the easel.

‘I’m sorry, for not writing to you in a while. There was so much to do at home, with Francesco’s funeral, the inheritance, the children. It was all so exhausting.’

‘My condolences for your husband once again. I never met him, but you always spoke well of him.’

‘Thank you.’ She smiled faintly.

He began sizing her up, drawing a quick sketch with a piece of charcoal. The way she posed herself didn’t require any actual adjustments, to his surprise.

‘I realized I never asked you to paint anything for me before. I’d like my grandchildren to know what I looked like, at least. And to have a piece of your genius around, of course, at least one I can openly brag about.’

‘Your grandchildren will be exceptionally lucky to see how your youth looked like in person, won’t they?’

She paused, as if uncertain how to put something into words. Or at least, appropriate words.

‘That’s the...other thing I asked you to come here for.’ She started, carefully.

‘I truly am exhausted. I’m an old woman, friend, I might not look the part because of your gift to me but my spirit is old. I don’t think I have many more years left in me.’

He assumed that it might come to this. He could tell from the tone of her letters for years now, that she was getting fed up. Maybe the eternal youthfulness of her body made the burden of the years feel even heavier for her.

‘You said you could do it? End it?’

He understood it. But vanity got the better of him, as it often did. It didn’t feel right.

‘Are you certain, Lisa?’

‘Yes, completely. I watched my husband die, I watched two of my children die. In time, the rest will follow them. You will follow them. I won’t be able to handle that, I can’t.’

Never before had his death felt so close as at that moment. He couldn’t help but compare himself. His body was old and weak, but there was so much more he wanted to do in this life. It was if their positions from all those years ago had suddenly switched.

No, he reminded himself. They were switched from the moment she opened her eyes in her current body. There was nothing he could do now but respect her wish.

He put down the charcoal, reached into his pack, and produced the urn. He set it onto the stool next to him.

‘Scattering it on consecrated ground should sever the link. You’re the one who has to do it, though, so I’ll ask you to take this.’

She inspected the urn from afar, calmly enough for someone looking at their own ashes. She nodded her head with determination. Her eyes seemed to get a bit brighter, but it might have just been the light.

‘I’ll be moving into a convent soon, to be with one of my girls. I can do it there.’

Businesslike. Not unlike any interaction they had regarding her body. She was still every bit the ill young woman from long ago in that regard, reciting physician’s opinions as if they were someone else’s business.

He went on with his work, having to go slowly and methodically through the initial steps he used to do without thinking, to not forget anything. It happened a lot to him recently. She sat through everything patiently and without moving, save for stealing a glance at the urn on the stool next to him, like stealing a glance of a forbidden lover.

The bright day turned into a misty afternoon.

‘Do you remember when you asked me, all those years ago, if I believed all God’s creatures have a soul?’

‘I do, yes.’

He barely did.

‘I read something recently, in this one book my son brought from the orient. There are people there, a lot of them in fact, who believe that one’s soul simply migrates into some other form of life upon their death. Which new form one gets is determined by how virtuous he or she was in this life.’

‘Reincarnation. Do you believe in it?’

She paused to think before answering.

‘I’m not entirely sold on it. But it does have a poetry about it, doesn’t it? And when I think about it, didn’t something like that already happen to me?’

‘So I got the be the one to judge your virtue then? The old unmarried artist who kept such a close friendship with you, a married woman, for all these years?’

Her composure was broken by a bout of laughter, as she no doubt reminisced about the rumor and gossip they’d been target to ever since they started interacting.

‘I’m sure a lot of those idiots still think you never married just so you could cavort freely with married women.’ She said, suppressing a few vestigial giggles and adjusting her veil.

‘That would be among the most sensible rumors I’ve heard being spread about myself, actually. The most outrageous ones are all true.’

‘So you do cavort with demons?’

‘In a sense.’

‘If we truly are born again when we die, you’ll still manage to charm your way into whichever form you desire for your next life, the most beautiful one no doubt. Probably charm your way to a handsome husband to be insufferable with there while you’re at it, too.’

‘Well, you’re the most beautiful thing I made, and therefore the most beautiful thing that exists. I’ll just pick yours.’

‘You have my blessing for it, Master Leonardo.’ She said, hand raised to her heart.

‘I hope I get to become a bird in the sky and never be bothered by husbands or children again for a change.’ She said, her expression betraying her thoughts. She was probably thinking about her family now, and an odd sort of smile took over her features. It was joy, regret, satisfaction, annoyance, all at once. A part of him was jealous then, of the small and simple life she had led, that could make all those emotions coexist. Jealous then, and never again.

Such thoughts were a waste of time, and he couldn’t afford to regret now. Not when the late afternoon was this beautiful, and the view so beautifully wrapped in mist and bathed in the kind of enigmatic light that only the tentative early springtime sun could give off. Not when his best friend, his greatest masterpiece, was sitting in front of him, waiting for him to make a lasting memory of the eternal woman she had chosen to make ephemeral. She looked happy. And for a moment he didn’t feel as old and as mortal, looking at her.

It felt like a good end. He filled himself with determination to capture that expression perfectly, and started painting.

Historical fiction. Take a time period or historical event, like the French Revolution, or Showa or Meiji era Japan, or the War of the Roses, or the Roaring Twenties, and so on, and write about it with a Nasu-setting spin. Draw from what you know of the existing setting, like the magi or the Church or Apostles or demon hunters. Historical figures are fine so long as they appear as themselves, rather than as Heroic Spirits or within the context of a Grail War. OCs are fine too.

December 25th, 2017, 02:33 PM
Let us quickly set the stage: it has been a year since the end of Murder Speculation II. Presently, Ryougi Shiki and Kokutou Mikiya are happily in a relationship, as hard as that may be to believe. They had their first date recently, in fact. Mikiya turned up that day looking like he hadn’t slept a wink, and throughout the date even someone as dense as Shiki was able to infer how nervous he was. Even Kokutou has his moments of weakness, Shiki had remarked at the time.

The problem however, was how rare those moments were.

The boy had solid nerves of steel. He was always calm and composed, and knew how to handle and defuse Shiki’s mood swings perfectly. No matter how she acted he was there with his dimwitted smile, either calming her down or encouraging her in some way.

In that regard, he was the perfect boyfriend in a manner of speaking.

But he doesn’t ever take the initiative. Ever.

Shiki, although she would never admit it to his beautiful face, wanted him to be slightly pushier. In fact, she wanted him to just push her down to the ground already. And then hold her hands gently until she becomes pregnant with a young baby boy.

Hell, they had slept together in the same bed more than once, even before they began dating, and nothing happened. No hugging, no hand-holding, none of that stuff that a man and woman in love would do to procreate.

The morning after their uneventful first time sleeping together, Mikiya greeted her with the warmest, brightest smile she had ever seen. The sun’s rays shined weakly through the window and illuminated his features, and he had never looked more handsome. She wanted to stab him then and there.

Even worse, ever since they officially ‘became an item’ so to speak, those moments lessened. To put it simply, Shiki felt their relationship was becoming stale. Like a housewife waiting at home while her husband slaves away doing overtime trying to make enough to support both himself and his beloved wife in the face of upcoming economic stagnancy plaguing Japan at the time.

“Dumb French poet...” That night too, Shiki was alone in her empty, undecorated apartment room. For whatever reason, Mikiya had been busy the entire month so far. He wouldn’t say why exactly, and Shiki trusted him enough not to question him and pry in further.

Of course she was incredibly curious! She asked Akasaka to snoop around earlier and he’d report back in the morning, hopefully.

Until then she didn’t have anything to do to kill time. There was a huge pile of empty Haagen-Dazs containers nearby but the fridge itself was out of stock. Her room was bereft of anything else to consume, both food-wise and entertainment-wise, and she wasn’t in the mood to go outside. It seems that tonight too she will be going to bed alone and early, only so that she would spend even a single second less being awake without Mikiya by her side, and a second longer dreaming. Of her beloved Mikiya returning from the frontlines. Of apple and pear-trees a-blooming, mist creeping on a river, where Shiki would set out on the banks, on the steep and lofty banks...

Perhaps humming Russian folk songs to herself to sleep was the cause for her bizarre dream that night.


Ryougi Shiki found herself standing in a white void. It was large and filled with nothing in particular, just like the empty pages of a text document one hasn’t filled yet despite their authorly obligations. Not particularly menacing, but in a strange way intimidating.

“Welcome.” A voice rang out and filled the silent void. In front of Shiki, a woman wearing a kimono and a red leather jacket on top materialized into being. She looked just like Shiki, just younger.

“It is I, Ryougi SHIKI, Ryougi Shiki.” Indeed, it was her, or well, him. SHIKI was her male personality but it was a bit more complex than that. In the first place, pronouns were generally less of a thing in Japanese and so the few times she was confronted with the matter Shiki had put it off. Eventually she decided it was a HE, since he was just Shiki but capitalized. That made it less confusing to refer to HIM or herself with pronouns.

Before Shiki could verbalize the sudden shock, HE continued.

“Ah, stop right there. I’m not real. Then again, I suppose SHIKI was never real either, even back when he was still in your head. God, it gets weird to go into this and I’d rather not discuss existential philosophy...” HE began to ramble on, until he noticed Shiki’s confused expression and continued. “I am but a fragment of your subconscious, who has decided to manifest within your dreams in the form of an alternate personality you once had. There’s no particular reason why I decided on SHIKI, it was just easier than say, appearing as a fuzzy mosaic. I could’ve picked someone else you knew but your circle of acquaintances is pitifully small. Why, imagine if I took on Shirazumi Lio’s form, what would you do to me on first sighting...”

This was going weird for a dream, Shiki thought.

“So! Let’s get right to the point then.” HIS finger shot out at her, but not literally. “Ryougi Shiki, you are incompetent!”

What do you mean exactly, self-proclaimed figment of my imagination and subconscious? She inquired.

“I’ll explain, so listen well. You’ve been going out with Kokutou for like what, a while already?”

Shiki nodded.

“And you do love him, don’t you? Or do I need to say that in red text as well?”

Shiki perked up, about to object. But words failed her, her mouth hanged open and her cheeks bright red. Then she lowered herself down and grumpily nodded. HE ignored her and moved on.

“SO WHY HAVEN’T YOU ****’d HIM YET?! God, woman! You can’t just sit there like a prim and proper Yamato Nadeshiko and expect your man to do all the work. You have to leap at him! Leap!”

Upon seeing her blank expression however, HE stopped himself, then repeated the word. “****”

She asked HIM what that meant exactly.

“Ah...” HE was astonished. “Well, you know, when a man and woman love each other very much...”

Oh, handholding.

“Heavens no, that’s too lewd. C’mere.” SHIKI leaned into her ears and whispered. As the seconds passed by, Shiki’s facial hue drastically transformed from a light shade of red, to deep dark crimson, She was now three times more flustered than before this conversation began. How does that work exactly? How would it fit inside? How big would he be? You’re my subconscious, so how do you know this when I don’t? Questions like such floated around, although her words were reduced to a stuttering mess.

“Anyway, we got off track. The point is, you love him. And things have been stale lately. Why don’t you be more forward about that to him?”

After several moments of hesitation, Shiki told SHIKI why.

“Pfft! Hah! You’re too shy to talk to him? What are you, a grade schooler?”

There was little to no trace of the cold-blooded killer in the Shiki standing there at that moment. Could it be that her cold, silent demeanor towards her loved one is just a facade to hide her dere side underneath?

“Well, I knew that already. I am your subconscious after all, I came to help.” Those words lit excitement in Shiki. “We’re in a dream, right? Let’s practice then.”

SHIKI snapped HIS fingers and to his side, Mikiya materialized in. No, it was a boy who looked just like Mikiya, but a little younger. He wore an orange-collared blue shirt that was terrible on the eyes.

“Let’s make up a new alternate personality for you to play around with. This here, he’ll be a boy just like Kokutou, but he’ll also be you so you can basically talk to yourself. We’ll even give him the same eyes and all. Let’s call him uh... Tohno Shiki, you know, to be consistent.”

‘Tohno Shiki’ waved in response. Certainly, his mannerisms were similar to Mikiya. Shiki found herself looking away even though this was just a dream.

"Hey, hey, hey now, it’s your chance! Here’s a flesh doll that looks exactly like your boyfriend that you can do whatever you want to.” SHIKI goaded her from the sides. This prompted Shiki to face Shiki and look him in the eye. The boy in front of her had his glasses on, and his face was truly a perfect replica of that accursed French poet. It was by all means, the same face.

No, she couldn’t do it. Shiki’s face fell and she withdrew her hands from his shoulder. What’s with this random original character anyway? Tohno Shiki? Her subconscious sure had a weird way of encouraging people. She heard SHIKI sigh.

“You know, unless you seal the deal with Kokutou, you might wake up one day to find someone snatched him away. He’s quite popular after all.” SHIKI’s words trailed off. “Azaka, Seo, and maybe even Miss Touko... They’re all vying for him, I’m sure. Oh! I just remembered, there was also...”

Shiki heard another snap of the fingers and suddenly, a hand snatched Shiki’s shoulders and pulled the Mikiya clone away from Shiki. A new person had appeared. This time it was...

Shirazumi? No. It was Shirazumi, he had the same face, but his hair was white. It was like if he became an albino. Perhaps after turning blond in Murder Speculation II, the next step was to go white. Interrupting her thoughts however, the two dream figures in front of her began to hug each other, very intimately.

“A lot of guys like him too. You remember Shirazumi, right? Maybe another man like that’ll come and steal Kokutou’s heart, like how Tohno SHIKI’s snatching Tohno Shiki away from you right now. Maybe Kokutou’s into guys.”

Then, the two men began to kiss each other. But that’s forbidden love! Shiki immediately interjected. The sight before her was blasphemous, the debauchery moved her beyond words. Just what kind of heavenly scene is HE showing her?!

“Well, when you think about it, for a playboy he really is too passive. I can understand your frustration too, in a way.”

Another snap, and a third Shiki appeared. This time, he looked just like ‘Tohno Shiki’, but something about him was different. He didn’t have glasses. And he seemed wilder.

“Perhaps you want Kokutou to just embrace you like this...” As if obeying her words, this new Shiki slid his hand onto Shiki’s waist and gracefully drew her off the ground. Her heart began to swoon.

“See? Just imagine Kokutou acting like a prince! Or perhaps you prefer a rougher treatment from my Nanaya Shiki...”

The clone, Nanaya, drew his face in closer and closer. For a second, Shiki closed her eyes, unable to resist the allure. She felt a slight sense of pain on her collarbone, as she opened her eyes to see the Kokutou-lookalike biting her there. It left a kissmark.

“Oh god, this is kinda hot...” SHIKI looked at the two enviously. “Imagine Kokutou making love to you right now. I guess this’d count as a wet dream, huh.”

Nanaya pushed her to a wall, even though there wasn’t any to be seen in this void of white. His Cocteau-esque closed in again, slowly. His lips drew closer and Shiki’s head was filled with dirty, yet innocent what-ifs. His face was barely a centimeter away now. Shiki...


Woke up, Immediately, Shiki saw Mikiya’s face right next to her. Upon eye contact, he sighed in relief and withdrew back. He must’ve just come back, judging from how he was still fully dressed.

“Thank goodness. It seemed like you were having a bad dream, Shiki. I tried to wake you, but you wouldn’t respond.” Now that he pointed it out, he had his hand on her shoulder.

“A bad dream...” She uttered. And then immediately she remembered everything and blushed. “F-Forget it, that was...”

She cut herself off as she reflected upon what SHIKI told her in the dream. As much as she didn’t want to admit it, HE was right. Love is a battlefield and he who takes the initiative wins. Or rather, a switch had been flipped inside her. She realized she wanted his Kokutou. She wanted it now.

“Hey, Kokutou...”


Shiki gestured him to come closer. When he was within range, she suddenly leapt from the bed and pushed him to the ground, straddled herself on his stomach.

“What are you-?!”

“J-just relax... It’ll be over soon! I’ll make you feel good!” With uneven breaths she began to tear away Mikiya’s clothes. Having the Mystic Eyes of Death Perception sure was convenient for situations like these.

That day two fucked like rabbits.

In some bizarre reality-bending twist of fate, Shiki Tohno, SHIKI, and Shiki Ryougi all show up in the same place. How did they get here, and more importantly, will any of them get to go home?

December 25th, 2017, 02:35 PM
[CW: brief self-harm]

Green to green, red to red. It was meant to be simple;, something that Touko could do without needing a leyline or anything beyond a pair of forceps and raw material, something that she could put together anywhere. And she must have done so at least once, though she didn’t remember; her memory was fuzzy at the best of times on the spaces between bodies, which was before she accounted for the blanks she didn’t know were blank. 1989, she was in Inner Mongolia: what had she been doing? A bit of this, a bit of that… she just shrugged and let it fade away. That memory wasn’t going to return, and many others were already gone, so why start counting deaths now? It was enough to know that she could stand here over a red mat of the human body in parts - carbon, nitrogen, calcium, iron, zinc, in various forms - hemoglobin, phosphates, ethyl methane sulfonate, bones - stand here and let her hands work autonomously and her mind wander. Her hands were evidently practiced.

Practice implies repetition, drill, the transfiguration of the exotic to routine, making everything just another day at the office. Her hands had a week of life in them now after Ogawa and Araya had ruined the last body, and you couldn’t learn like that in a week. And she hadn’t been practicing, it had just come time to pick up the violin and play. So where did the practice come from? She caught her hand in a pocket, looking for her cigarettes. Like that, exactly; all week it had been bothering her that she hadn’t started on the puppet, scratching at the back of her brain like the instinct to smoke. Dying never made her want to quit, that addiction seemed to just spring from the body, and maybe that was just the same, that the design and being of her body demanded there always being another.

A cause for concern.

Somehow, there was learning involved, even though Touko couldn’t remember how the process changed and improved. Well, maybe not ‘improvement’: it was faster these days, but the end result was always the same - obviously.

But being easier and faster was something, sure. It wasn’t hard to miss the first process from the basement of her Soho apartment. There were two marble slabs there; she had been on her back on one of them, and placed on the other an ether clump the size of a sarcophagus. A puppet hand holding a scalpel hung from the ceiling, with the point of the scalpel slaved to her movements. As she drew one finger up and down her skin, it obediently followed, carving a Touko effigy out of the ether.

When there was a figure of her lying on the marble block, she got up and began cutting sections away, turning it into a shell. The internals were a bit of guesswork, but after that it was simply a matter of alchemy and transfiguration that the ether took to readily so that the raw sticky matter softened, paled - she saw the new skin that was growing tiny hairs like a dusting of snow.

It wasn’t something you could really compare, map to a blueprint, give a completion percentage, she put down her tools and suddenly realized that it wasn’t a doll lying on the slab, it was just Touko. With none of her wit, the touch of cruelty, sex appeal; and who was she to say that if she ran a current into her heart and she woke up that she wouldn’t only need the course of her life to figure out those things? She spent a while walking around it, looking for weaknesses, poking and prodding because the hands occupied the brain. Except, there was nothing to do. Manual examination at that point didn’t stave off thought, it invited it. Examination needed the mind for comparison and T = T.

She went out to the park that night, sitting on a bench to watch the frost come in on the lampposts. She crossed one leg over the top of her opposing knee and took the cigarette out of her mouth, grinding it into the medial malleolus. It hurt - hell, it hurt, even as she held it for as long as she could stand before it dropped onto the wet ground and she could bite down on her finger to keep from yelling. It hurt here! It hurt now, and she knew that it didn’t hurt back in her basement on that ankle, not until she went back down there. And by then she’d have iced her ankle, deadened the pain, and it would be gone and be hers. She could never do it again, to her other ankle or to her same ankle, magically healed or on the sure-to-grow scar; it would never mean the same. That’s what she figured must be true as she lit another cigarette for the walk home. Just another failed project that she told herself was fine and could just be stowed away.

Four to six bodies in, she started experimenting. The last body hadn’t ended its service intact - how much, she wasn’t quite sure, but the hazy nightmares that still drifted in from time to time suggested that it was a quite dramatic end, and yet she was perfectly fine and well in the next one with fingers, toes, limbs, eyes, tongue, everything intact that still made up ‘her’. So the world didn’t figure there was a one-to-one relationship - could she get a tattoo or piercing and then suddenly never pass herself on? Touko doubted it.

Print magenta on the page, and begin to overprint yellow. An equal mixture is red; sixty and forty percent, eighty and twenty… you could take a poll, end up with two bands of certainty in opinion and a statistical middleground of disagreement. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a helpful metaphor for her: what would be the middleground? At some point changing the body enough would pass from Touko to not-Touko, and since the difference was life and death…

So, experiments. She took a week, locking herself in her workshop to make ten dolls, dispensing with the usual care and precision. One through three were increasingly degraded versions of herself, seeming normal but twisted on the inside more and more as she went on that a doctor would have given the last one a few months to live. Four was a regression, a mirror of her high school days, black haired with a barely friendly glint in the eye; five was a tribute to how she’d been when she created the original doll, an ironic image of the starting gun; six was herself perfected for another’s eye, gone over her own body and retouching the image; seven was barely human, a real heart and real skin but pure mechanics underneath; eight was denatured, stripped of hair and pores and fingerprints and cheekbones and face ground down into averages; nine was all sharpened nails and teeth and hardened bones; ten was just herself.

As she finished each one she moved it to another room, setting them all in a line. Finished, the last one took its place, and she stood back, lighting up a cigarette where she could look at all of them before her heart sank because they all seemed exactly the same. Not that it was a similar appearance, her eye was too good to miss the differences she’d thrown in and the ones that had just been allowed to slip from a careless hand, but it was the same kind of feeling in her soul she remembered from the very first time she made a body, an odd thrumming in a high register - except now it was even more obvious with ten lined up next to each other that they were all the same underneath the difference, all her, the whole room was singing like a taught wire. Barely, she was grateful for it since she had the excuse of certainty not to do a practical test of sameness, which only happened one way. That was a small part compared to the whole confusion. The soul was supposed to mediate the differences between bodies - that even as your form changed growing older the same soul kept everything on an even keel, but Touko right now was quite clear on where her soul was, and it wasn’t lending identity to any of those other bodies. So what was it, some sort of sur- or sub-soul that tied everything together… but that made little sense. And she was forced to admit she had, frankly, no idea how it all worked.

Just a trap of another kind. There was nothing else for her to do but keep making herself. She doubled down holding her knees, suddenly light-headed because she realized there was no way she could ever stop. Her memory always slipped when she moved bodies, she always wanted to make a new body after waking up - and surely she must have done something like this before, made more than one in a go, so how many of her were there around the world waiting? There would be no way to get to the last one: somewhere in eliminating all those bodies herself she’d lose the memory of her conviction and slip back on the path because she could only ever be herself.

When she was free she went out to the beach, taking her shoes off, and sat down right at the edge and dug her toes into the sand and let the waves wash over. It was winter, and cold out; nobody else was on the beach. There was a cold breeze coming in from the ocean that felt like it soaked into her hair, and nothing about the moment was in any way pleasurable or sensible or called for.

An examination of self-reinvention with Touko as the story's subject- an exploration [though not necessarily through the lens of self-reflection] of both metaphorical and literal crafting of the self. (Suggested thematic jumping points: whether the process of external reinvention creates internal change; the toll, if any, that continual recreation of self takes on the psyche; the extent to which the sanity of an individual can be preserved in the extended dissociation from a permanent body; etc.)

December 25th, 2017, 02:39 PM
“The dream is nearing its end,
and the stardust will vanish soon.
Please, hold me tight enough
so that I can feel I'm alive.”


I'm Azaka Kokutou! Though if you're reading this, you probably know who I am already! If you are, please put my diary down and get out of my dorm room, you disgusting creeper. I mean it!

P.S. of course I don't mean you Seo! You're not that much of a creeper, even if maybe just sometimes you know a little bit more than you should! Just make sure Akira doesn't, like, eat this or anything, okay? I worry you know! Puppies do that sort of thing!

Anyway, let's assume no one who shouldn't be reading this is reading this... okay? This is my story... or, maybe it isn't; it's kind of another person's story too, but I'll get to that in a little bit. I've been delaying writing it here – I know, I know, I should jot down at least something everyday – but I've kind of been trying to process some feelings I had last week. Well, it's not really the feelings that're the source of the problem, if you understand? I think it's more like one of those events in your life that happens, but until you actually step back and give it a few thoughts, it doesn't seem like anything. But now with this, I try to sum up everything that's buried deep here in my heart, and... I suddenly understand how heavy it is. Like, 'whoa, this was a big deal.'

I'm making light of things when I shouldn't, I know! I'm sorry! I'm not even going to bother pretending anything anymore: I know you are probably reading this, and maybe it's tomorrow, or maybe it's a year from now, or maybe I'm actually the one re-reading all this and I'm crying my dumb girl eyes out because of everything I felt back then and it's all coming back and the pages are getting stained with tears. Let's hope that's not how this all goes, okay? Please? It'd really hurt if that was the case, and I think... we've both been hurt enough so far in our lives.

Okay, digression over, let's keep going. You can do it this time, Azaka. Got to write it all down in case some memory loss event happens, there's no telling with your luck!

It... was Thursday, specifically, and it was a completely ordinary day at first.

Is that too generic of an opening? Whatever, I'm not going to let my mind be too distracted from the task at hand. Continue!

It feels like something I'm remembering as a distant dream from months ago, but it was only last week, and the emotions are just that fresh. It was early evening (or late afternoon?) actually, and even though the day had started out really warm it ended up snowing at some point, so it was nice and chilly. It was just the right time of evening, too, the hour or so when the sun's low in the sky and everything is covered in shadows, but you just look to the horizon and you see a whole canvas painted in the most beautiful colors. I feel kind of bad, though, thinking that some people don't get to enjoy sights like that.

I couldn't really understand it at the time, but Fujino had stepped out into the snow – it was the first time it snowed this winter, almost Christmas – and just stood there, or so I heard. Not many people get along with her, but me, I – actually, that's complicated, I'll be getting into it later, okay?

So Fujino decides to stand out in the cold, no coat or anything, just in her uniform. I'm her unofficial caretaker, so I went down to take care of her after getting a call saying that she didn't feel so good. I remember going outside as the snow was just getting slow to a drifting little shower, with the school grounds drenched with the scent of winter. I never really liked cold weather and especially not rain as a kid, but I got used to it here, somehow. Maybe it's Fujino's influence on me?

At the same time, as I strolled over to Fujino's dorm, I had a vague, weighty feeling in my chest, like the one I have now. Like a big rock you stick in an aquarium, or a paperweight, holding things down. For the longest time that was my saving grace: some feelings were always held down when they were most important or most painful, so I could keep going no matter what. With everything between my brother and I, that was an emotional skill I had to learn, isn't it? Azaka, always expressive, but only 90%, never all the way. That's always been my problem and it took me until last week to actually deal with that. I'm sorry – things would probably be better if I'd done things differently, wouldn't they?

This is off-topic – or is there anything really off-topic when I'm writing off the cuff like this? Bad question – but I'm going to have to explain some stuff and I promise I'll try to be quick. This wasn't the point of why I had to write things today, but I want everything here to have the right context. It has to make sense, after all! If I'm writing this, even as personal as it may be, it's kind of a historical record, isn't it? And of all the things to record... well, what I'm getting to is pretty important, at least in my little corner of the world.

It was back when I was really young, at a funeral for a relative, that I fell in love with my brother Mikiya. It was very serious! I know I'm probably going to read this when I'm much older and laugh, but I dedicated my whole life to making that strange guy fall for me. I guess I just don't have the charms that I thought I did, huh?

That was only a year ago, too, but things always change more quickly than we'd like. I had the same paperweight on my emotions last year, too, when I was talking with him and walking with him. It kept my true feelings from rising up in my heart to the point that I couldn't help but articulate them clearly to him, but they didn't stop them from fluttering away. Everyone has to know when to give up even on things they've strived for year after year.

I gave up on my love for him when he became a daddy. And no, not in the kinky way. This isn't a story about him and I – it's not even a story about him. Once I saw him with his and Shiki's baby, that was it. I cried all night, right until the sun came up in the morning, and thank God Seo wasn't around because she deserves to at least get some sleep in spite of me.

If I kept things going as they were, it'd only mess everything up. He's got a family now. I love him, but the most important part of loving someone is know how not to hurt them even if it validates your feelings. You have to know when it's best just to let them be happy.

Mikiya's going to be a great dad to his Mana. She's energetic and full of attitude even as a little potato, just like her auntie! That's the happiness he has now, and that means I'm his... sister.

Believe me, that night if you asked me if the world had ended, I'd tell you yes it absolutely had. Then I'd grab my pillow and throw it at you and scream through tears for you to get the hell out of my dorm room and leave me in peace, because that's the mood I was in. I don't regret any of that. Being honest with your emotions, laying them all on the table – that's important, you know? You have to learn this, but trying to convince yourself otherwise will never make you happy. I'm glad I moved on, and I have my best friend and tissue buddy to thank for that. To this very day, I'm sorry: I didn't mean to get my icky, salty tears on that adorable nightie of yours, it was entirely my fault and I still mean to buy you a newer, even cuter one. Don't let me forget!

With my brother, it took me a long time to figure out when exactly it was, and why exactly it was, I fell in love with him. Maybe that was an exercise in pointlessness, a useless assignment.

Just like that, I don't know when or why it happened this time, either. I still don't know even after last week, but I had a very vivid and familiar feeling and events transpired and conspired to make those feelings not stay put in my heart. This time. Maybe after it's been a while – I get the idea it'll happen at Christmas, that'd be appropriate – I'll put everything in place, but I might as well start from a blank, honest slate:

I don't know when, or why, I fell in love with Fujino Asagami.

Was it this past spring, when she started wearing glasses now that her eyesight's gotten better? Was it at the wedding, when she was the only one I let see me fall apart before the ceremony, before she helped fix my makeup so I could go out in front of people like nothing had happened? I can't pinpoint the exact moment in my personal history when that lump in my heart started growing, and growing, and growing each time I saw her face. I can't tell you when it was that I started feeling little shivers every time she smiled, which tends to be whenever she knows I'm nearby.

Maybe it's just because morals are supposed to be so strict here and being public about being a girl loving another girl would... cause problems. But it's the sort of thing I'd shout from the rooftops, anyway! That's just how I am, and I'm never going to stop!

It was with that swaying, sliding, stony feeling that I went to take care of Fujino. If we were going to spend some time together, just us – because I couldn't say any of this in front of Seo and I hope to God you're not reading this before I tell you anything, I swear! – I could tell her the depths of my feelings.

There was a skip in my step as I crossed by tiny snowdrifts off to Fujino's dorm, into the toasty building. I gave the door a few courtesy taps, and her soft voice graced my unworthy ears.

“Please, come in, Azaka.”

She sounded just like normal, not even a cute little sniffle to make me want to cuddle up to her and keep her warm. Now that I think of it, actually – I've never once heard her sneeze. I know she's... not like everybody, but she's got to sneeze sometime, right? I hope I'm there for that. She's very serious and straightforward, exactly the type of girl to have a super adorable 'achoo!' when she's down with a cold.

Her dorm was dark, cut off from the gleaming sunset: the blinds were closed and the ceiling light was off, but I could see the glint of a lamp on the desk by her bunk bed.

I lightly pushed open the door, being extra careful to minimize its old-hinge-squeak in case she was trying to get rest, then shut it with a sliding click of the lock behind me.

“Hey Fujino,” I said in a half-whisper as I stepped in and shuffled off my shoes, “I heard you got caught in the snow. You okay?”

She just hummed as I walked in, and looked up at me curiously from her low bed.

On account of her being temporarily blind for quite a while – she's gotten better now though, way better! – she sleeps on the bottom bunk. The top one with its ladder would be understandably bad for a blind girl, even if she got help most mornings with that and everything else. It was always really sad to see her like that, fumbling around, trying to get used to her sight stick. She still has it leaned up in the corner of her dorm, just in case things get worse again.

I hope with all my heart they don't. She's been through enough, hasn't she?

“It was refreshing. Last time it snowed... I could only feel it, not see it. Forgive me for making you walk all the way over here for my sake, though.”

“No, no, it's fine, I promise. Don't worry about it!”

Sitting up, she picked up her slim glasses from the desk and put them on, sliding an errant lock of hair behind her ear as she did. Every movement came with grace and even maybe a little nobility. She's really beautiful, and no matter how many times I see her, that's always what I think. Fujino is a very pretty lady, and 'lady' is the only appropriate term for someone like her. I'd be jealous, if I didn't feel the way I do towards her.

Even her glasses are fashionable and real haute couture: she bought them on a trip out to Mifune, and yours truly helped her pick them out. That was one of the times she smiled brightest.

I'm glad we didn't follow up on Touko's offer. She showed me a box in her office with some special glasses she'd intended for Shiki, but they were kind of dorky looking, to be honest with you – and for Lady Fujino, dorky will not do! Not at all.

She patted by the bedside by her, shuffling over to make room for me just as I pulled a chair out from the desk to sit down in. I guess this was better. Positioning is key, that's what they say!

Naturally, I obliged her. Who wouldn't? Not Azaka Kokutou, of course.

I felt the coolness of her pale skin through the sleeve of my uniform as her arm pressed against mine. She had a white bath towel wrapped about her shoulders like a cute woolly shawl, and under that nothing more than her black slip. Yes, the same one I sobbed into that one time I confessed all my brother problems to her. There's nothing she doesn't know about me now, after all the talks we've had since then.

Well... there's that one thing. But I'll get to that later. In just a little bit, I promise!

“I'm, uh, sorry again about that!” I say, drawing my finger along a discoloration in the fabric of her clothes. It definitely was a genuine apology, and not a clever ploy to put my hand ever briefly on her soft belly. I'm definitely not going to admit that she looks incredibly sexy in her satin nightie, not at all.

Eye candy it may be sure but first of all, it makes things harder for me, don't you understand? Fujino is beautiful and kind and smart and thinking about all these things kind of makes me feel inadequate. Is this normal? I don't know if I felt this way with Mikiya. Actually, no – I'm sure I didn't, I definitely didn't. This is something weird and unique to Fujino, but, I guess it makes sense.

She's a weird and unique person, after all.

“Clothes can be replaced, but not the heart. I'm glad you opened yours up to me.”

She said this to me with a smile on her lips, the special, curled little expression she only ever directs at me. I don't know if it's intentional or not, but she has a way of making me feel special.

“My heart, or my clothes?” I said the first thing that came to my mind and immediately regretted it. I wanted to keep the conversation ongoing and lively, but that was too forward, right?

Fujino softly laughed it all away, playing with her long, straight hair. I laughed, too.

“I wish I could have been less of a burden to you, Azaka, but thank you for all the time you spent watching over me. You've been a good friend.”

I felt a little tiny twinge of pain in my heart after that. It took some effort to convince myself that my chances hadn't gone down the sink. I'm only realizing now as I write this that I never considered until this point that maybe Fujino isn't into girls, because I know once she kind of off-handed made a remark about how she used to be interested in my brother.

“Well I like spending time with you, silly,” I told her, shoving my shoulder lightly against hers. “And I like seeing you happy, more than anything else.”

At this point I was resorting to my usual tactic. Readers who have kept up with this tragic shoujo manga for this long will know that, in earlier chapters, our heroine Azaka did this exact same thing with her brother: she'd act really nice and say how much she loved spending time with him, and how she wanted him to be only hers, and got mad at her love rival for those same things. As aggressive as she was with her affections, she let her behaviour of being forward and infatuated with him turn into an excuse. If he didn't understand her feelings, it was his fault, right? He didn't understand her advances, but eventually he would, and then he'd tell her. That was Azaka's subconscious strategy, which she relied on so much that she let herself believe that she was giving her all to win him over.

When, in the end, all she should have done was be straightforward with him. At least she'd get closure from that. He still doesn't know, and now that's for the best.

“I feel fortunate, too,” she said. “Our two souls just happened to meet here in this school when we did. I'd like to think that has some meaning to it, more than random chance.”

Now, I went to Reien as part of my strategy to get my brother to love me as a beautiful and refined young woman who definitely wasn't his little sister. So, the irony I faced in that moment was palpable, but also a bit appreciated.

“Yeah, I think so too. Life's funny like that.”

Every ounce of my desire for self-preservation – and yes that's a desire I have, which might be a big surprise – begged me to just keep it up like this. If we made light, casual conversation, all will be good. She and I could be good friends. What's love anyway? Just a bunch of weird chemicals firing off in your brain making you feel things that sometimes don't make sense. I don't even know why I'm so in love with her! None of it makes sense!

Sometimes I'm glad for the reasonable part of my brain, even if I've treated it so badly most of my life. This could have been a moment of redemption for that, but no. I can't let it.

I needed to put an end to all this before our talk withered away into awkwardness. The broken beams of sunset had waned, no longer slipping through the cracks in the blinds to dance across our bare feet. Already I could see her making tired faces, ready to lay down, the signal for me to go back to my dorm. I know she doesn't ever want to trouble me more than she thinks she has (which isn't at all, by the way).

Fujino, I love you.

Fujino Asagami, I want you to know, that I love you.

Fujinon, you're ridiculously cute and pretty, please be my girlfriend...?

God, even reciting it in my head like a mantra Touko taught me felt weird. So weird, there's no way to just magically make it not-weird, and that's the worst part.

I started making things more complex, as if tacking on a big explanation would soften the blow, so to speak – but why call it a 'blow'? It's not supposed to be a bad thing, right? It's supposed to be good and happy for us both. I was trying to sow the seeds of happiness, and make a nice big garden of happiness there between the both of us.

I made sure to cross out that particular metaphor while giving her my schoolgirl confession.

That good, rational Azaka begged the emotional and sentimental Azaka, who was at that point about to burst from emotion, to just stop. Rational Azaka thought about how badly things could go, and how nice things were now, and how tired Fujino was, and how hungry I was, and how maybe this wasn't worth it now, but it could maybe happen another day, if I got another opportunity? There would always be more, after all. Giving up this time wouldn't be so bad. That was what that part of my mind kept telling me, and it was truistically convincing.

It wasn't enough.

And, I'm glad.

“Fujino, I know this is unexpected, but it's something I really want you to hear: even though a while ago I really had feelings for my brother, and I told you about that, and thank you for being there with me while I cried and cried and cried so much over him and you bought me the cheesecake I really like as a surprise even though you were still using your sight stick to get around – what I'm saying is, what I'm trying to get at, is, for a long time actually but only after we became close friends I've been going in the direction of starting to think about... things, and now that I've thought a lot, I think it's important that I tell you right now that I love you.”

Some of the things I'm recalling here tonight as I write are broadly true, but not exact. I don't remember exactly every word Fujino or I said last week, of course. But, my confession... that's different. I remember without fail every single letter of that avalanche of words that built up to its deadly point, and I really don't think that I can ever forget.

I could tell from the look in her eyes that she was trying to process all the things I said, as if they were full of contradictions. She wouldn't be wrong.

Then I felt her soft, cold fingers on mine, and she looked intently at me with those big, red eyes of hers behind her stately glasses. A vague little smile played on her lips, and I could see the very beginning of a word on them, unsure, not yet spoken, but there.

“Thank you.”

Thank... you? I was puzzled. She caressed my hand, thought for a few minutes, and thanked me? Okay, I'd never actually confessed to anyone like this before (or like anything, before, ever) but I don't think 'thank you' is the expected response. Then again, what was I expecting really? For her to fall into my arms, cry out my name, and declare her own undying love for me right then and there and we live happily ever after?

I decided to break the silence, even if it made things awkward, by asking her to kind of clarify what she meant by that. I didn't want to, right? But I had to, I was confused!

“Thank you? Um...”

She smiled more broadly, and drew herself away from me on her bed. Her eyes closed tight, and it was like she was giving me an answer with her smile alone.

“Yes, that's right. Thank you, Azaka... for making my wish come true.”

Her wish... her wish! Oh my God, I felt a shiver of embarrassment run down my spine just then. I knew all along what she was talking about but I didn't realize it, and when it came to me finally I felt awful.

I scratched at my neck, fidgeting without a certain idea of what to say in response. I had a whole well of emotions built up like they were behind a dam, stuck unable to be transmuted into practical words. My heart was pounding so much it hurt.

“Are you sure about this?” I asked her instead. “If we're... together, there's definitely going to be happy times, but it won't always be perfect, and I don't want to make you sad. And we can't tell anyone either, because, well... I don't know how your family might take it if you... with another girl and all...”

I looked at her with pleading eyes. If I laid everything down for her, and she wasn't okay with that everything, then I would have to live with that. I tried to steel myself and prepare for anything but I really couldn't. If she said no, I think my heart would shrivel up and die.


“Really, even with...”

She squeezed my hand affirmatively. “Yes. Experiencing joy and sorrow is what it means to be alive. Without some sadness, what does happiness really mean to anyone? I want this, Azaka, because you make me know that I'm alive.”

That was the moment the river broke through.

I collapsed into her, tears streaming from my eyes like drops of silver. She pressed her towel against my cheeks, smiling with endless kindness as she wiped my face dry. Her bare, slender arm wrapped around my back, holding me close, and then I could feel her her forehead against my hair. I could hear her quiet breaths, and the calmness of all that settled my emotions at least for a little bit as she drew me further into her.

Gulping in a deep breath of air I hugged her as tightly as I dared: my arms slipped under hers with enough force to nearly knock her right onto the bed.

“I can't believe one little three-letter word turns me into a bawling mess, ahhhhh...”

“But you're crying because this means a lot to you. Does that make it a bad thing?”

She stroked my hair, not running her fingers through or it anything, just supportive, gentle, maybe even loving pets. It was more than enough to make me feel comfortable and happy and okay and that maybe everything wasn't always destined to go badly for me.

“No, I'm happy... and also – please keep petting my hair, that feels... really nice.”

I felt the brush of a soft laugh against the top of my head, and then she continue to do exactly as I had asked her to. If we're going to score this already after maybe five minutes or so, I'd say she's already a 10/10 girlfriend, so don't tell me I don't know when I've got something good.

But, this also gave me a chance to do something of my own. It's Christmas after all, right?

I grasped the handle of the desk drawer by the bedside, pulling it open so I could feel around with my hand to find a little something I'd sneaked in here not too long ago. This wasn't my original plan for confessing to Fujino, but as it turns out, I didn't even need to set things up like I'd originally thought. Still though, there was some things I could salvage, certain helpful things that really show the spirit of the season.

“Hey, Fujino?”

She sighed as she let me wriggle a bit out of her embrace. “Mm?”

“Could you... look up for just a second?”

She knit her eyebrows, but was happy to follow along with whatever I suggested. I watched with a leap in my heart, following her eyes up, up up, and then almost laughed when I saw her shoulders fall back a bit as she realized what trick I managed to play on her.

Above our faces, just under the top bunk, I dangled a leaf of mistletoe.

“Now, close your eyes,” I asked her, not hiding the coyness in my voice.

“I see, so you want me to remember what it's like to be blind, do you?” She said this flatly, staring back at me again.

I shivered a little, eyes darting away. “I meant, I just... wanted...”

“I'm not allowed to tease my girlfriend?”

Never mind, I thought, she's just awful, please take her back because I think this model of Fujino might be defective! But then I broke into a laugh and stared back at her with a really dumb smile, just happy: completely happy and basking in the moment that we were sharing together.

She didn't say a word, but the happy anticipation on her face from her lips to her eyes to the blush on her cheeks expressed everything I needed to know.

Letting the leaf flutter down from my fingers, I hugged her tight, her arms going around my neck to keep me snugly against her, too.

Our lips brushed casually against each other at first, not sure of how to get things right, but eventually we settled into a proper, full kiss. God, I'll never forget that, never, ever, ever: how her lips felt so incredibly soft like snow, like I'd make a permanent mark on them if I kissed her too roughly, so I was gentle and let us just rest in this feeling. As much as I wanted to drink this in and enjoy all of her as thoroughly as I could, this was okay too.

We exchanged little kitten-kisses, our noses sliding together, our smiles pressed together, the kiss breaking for just a second before we made it again, and I don't even remember how long that went on. Not long enough, I can tell you. It could never be long enough.

With my eyes and my kisses I gave her the proof of our love, and if I really wanted to, I could keep on writing about how incredible this was, but there are other things I want to record.

“Was that your first, Azaka?” Her voice was light and hazy, her face fully flushed.

I nodded, kissing her forehead. “Better than I could've imagined.”

Part of me couldn't not feel a little revulsion in my stomach, knowing it wasn't a first for her, that she didn't get that choice like I did. I didn't know what to say or if to bring anything up, even though she'd already told me everything like I told her everything about my troubles.

I just held her there, at arm's length, feeling the smoothness of her petite shoulders. Her towel had fallen off I don't know when, laying in a crumpled heap on the bed, because I guess she didn't need it any more. After all, she had me to keep her warm now, and I was doing a pretty good job of it if I say so myself.

My fingers casually – accidentally, maybe? – caught on the straps of her slip. Not how I intended on posing the question, but, you know, it had to be made somehow.

“Are you okay if we... you know...”

I didn't want to say it, and maybe I expected her to be unsure and pry it out of me and make me saw it no matter what, but that wasn't giving her enough credit. She knew what I meant and what I wanted, and reacted to my sheepish awkwardness with a smile and a stroke of my hand. Her glasses came off shortly afterwards onto the desk. Her eyes flashed brightly at me, unadorned.

“It's okay, you don't have to worry about me. I don't have anything to hide from you.”

There was a kick of determination in my soft, soft heart. “I want to make you feel good! I know you... don't have the best experiences with... these things, so-”

She shut me right up with another kiss, firmer than before, and that was my answer.

“Azaka Kokutou, I love you.”

“Is... that a yes?” I said with a shifty look in my eyes, fingering the straps of her slip.

“Do I need to kiss you again until you understand?”

“...please do.”

I learned quickly that Fujino is both a very obliging girlfriend and also one who really knows what she wants.

I think I understand: she wants to live life to the fullest, and the experiences we can have together are all dear to her. She isn't shy about it, because every experience we share is something that creates a permanent mark that proves she was alive, and that to at least one someone in the world, she really did matter. I want nothing less for her.

She reached up to my hands and moved them a little out of the way to take the straps off her shoulders, and from there it was only a little shuffle of her body to make the fabric all fall about her hips. There was nothing hiding her figure from me, and what a sight that was.

“I don't need a pillow any more,” I cried, burying my face in her chest, my hands feeling every inch of her amazingly delicate skin.

“Seo would be upset if I replaced her as your roommate, so enjoy this while you can.”

I didn't need to say anything, I just nodded as I kissed her boobs and felt the squish of them under my fingers. I brought my face down and kissed every inch of her from her soft, comfy belly up to her neck, smothering her with my love until I got tired of it.

As you can tell by now probably, I could never get tired of this.

“Azaka, that-”

I was running my tongue down her neck and across her collarbone, accentuated by my pouting lips until I came down to her boobs again. I licked at her nipple, wanting to show her every little thing I wanted to do with her. She breathed in heavily, her chest swelling, and I went in even harder, holding her nipple in my mouth and not letting go knowing how sensitive it was.

“Feels really good, right?” I flashed her a cutesy wink.

“Yeah, keep, going...”

My fingers danced around her belly button, and I sensed her own sliding down my back, undoing the buttons of my uniform. I was very very very eager to let it fall to the floor and leave me in nothing but what I wore underneath.

“We're equal now!” I exclaimed, giving her a kinda wet but very loving kiss on the lips.

I was fully into this now: there was no going back. Not that I'd want to, of course! I just couldn't stop even if I tried, with how my skin all felt hot and my heart was racing and my mind couldn't even keep up, that's how intense it all felt, and we hadn't even gone all the way yet.

That thought never left me: I was doing this, with my girlfriend, my girlfriend Fujino, who I loved, and who loved me. Even writing about it now I can't help but feel a rush go to my head and I wish she was here right right now so I could squeeze her tight and shower her with kisses. If I knew people would be okay with it, I'd shout it from the tallest tower of the school!

I love Fujino Asagami! I love her more than cats, I love her more than Swiss chocolates, I love her more than Christmas itself!

“You wore this on purpose, didn't you?” Fujino was fingering the front of my pink bra, which had a little white bow on it between the cups, along with subtle lace trim all around the edges. It's super cute, and yes I did wear it on purpose, thank you.

“I don't think I could seduce you in a sports bra and plain panties, could I?”

I forgot too quickly that Fujino really, really knows what she wants when she wants it.

She didn't waste any time in reaching behind my back and getting off said cute bra, unhooking it and letting it slide off the bed onto my uniform, and my panties went tumbling after.

“You can seduce me even better wearing nothing at all, you should have known this.”

At this point I really did want to just lie back and tell her, 'Take me now, Fujino!' but I decided not to, because I wanted to make this very special for her. And anyway, Catholic school or not, I know we'll be sleeping together more than this once, I can promise you that, dear reader. And if you're reading this as I think you are right now, Fujino, then I hope I made you happy and also please try not to wake me up while you laugh at my diary with me sleeping beside you.

I finally went for it and pushed her down, laying her head on the pillow and drawing a barrage of kisses straight down her body, from her pale and slender neck down through her big, gorgeous boobs to her teardrop of a belly button and beyond.

I didn't ask this time before I pulled her slip and her fallen panties down her long, long, long legs, getting a nice feel of her thighs as I did so because of course I would, I'm not going to pass up on that opportunity given the curves she's got.

She had a bit of hair down there, not unlike me, but it didn't make a difference to me. I kissed her where I knew she'd be most sensitive, my hands sliding past her curvy hips and along the sheets to get behind her at her behind, squeezing her big butt as I placed kiss after kiss right between her thighs, not even hesitating once.

“Azaka, more... however you like it,” she gasped just before I got my tongue involved. I was a lot more passionate with my lips here than I was with the rest of her body.

Fujino stroked my hair against as it fell over my shoulders, her fingers combing through it, her grip tighter whenever I licked at her. I let a hand escape away from her butt across her waist back to her boobs, because I just couldn't leave them alone for too long.

My other hand though, I brought between my legs. I felt around with my middle finger, slipping it in me, rocking my wrist back and forth to try to get into a rhythm.

People talk about it like it's nothing, but it's actually really hard to coordinate this.

My efforts didn't go unappreciated, though, of course. My lovely and amazingly pretty girlfriend sighed heavily, her whole body rising up as I did my absolute best to make her feel good, my lips and tongue not letting up even for a second. My jaw started getting sore – sorry, first time doing this, and I'm not exactly known for my stamina – but I didn't let up, for her sake.

“Your breath, it's so hot, I feel something...”

I'd respond, but I was so caught up in everything I could only focus on her pleasure and mine. Also, you know, my tongue was kind of very busy.

Her own breaths were getting quicker and sharper and she sounded really hot herself, and I could taste wetness soaking her thighs – I drank it all up, my head hazy and light both from this and my fingers, now two, working on myself, sliding in all the way deep, coming out slick and I could never be ashamed of something that felt this incredibly good.

“Azaka, ah-” she started, but then it seemed she couldn't find any more words.

Instead her legs tightened up, and she held my hair, pulling tight, the nails on her other hand digging deeply and sharply into my shoulder. My fingers worked harder and faster and I couldn't help myself, I couldn't pay attention to squishing her boobs anymore and had my face buried in her thighs, kissing away like there wasn't anything else in the whole world that mattered – and if you're wondering which you probably are, I'm writing this with two hands, thank you very much, I'm not going to distract myself like that... right now.

I don't actually remember the next while, it's kind of a blank. There was a shooting, pulsing sensation that shook through me, and my arms couldn't hold me up any more and I just collapsed onto Fujino, completely spent, and I'm half-aware that I probably passed out for a bit.

The next thing that's clear was Fujino stroking my hair again, and the slick and humid feeling of sweat across my whole body. Her skin was wet, too, and I absentmindedly drew myself up her figure, glistening in the lamplight, and kissed her panting lips.

“I'm really glad you don't have a roommate, this way we can cuddle for a while.”

She kissed my forehead gently. “You don't have to go back to your dorm, Azaka. Just stay here with me for the night... if that's okay with you?”

Sometimes, Fujino can be very strong and a bit scary – she got a little like that when we were flirting before I went down on her – but most of the time, especially in public, she's the usual, soft-hearted and politely-minded Fujino. Truth is, though, I love both sides of her.

“Yeah... that sounds nice.”

I couldn't think of much to say, so for a while I just kissed her and couldn't stop. Why fumble around with putting things to words when you can just express them physically?

“Thank you, Azaka. Thank you for everything.”

“You know you don't have to keep thanking me, right? I'll love you always no matter what.”

With a delicate swipe of her fingers she tucked a few loose locks of hair away from my eyes, and she let out a happy sigh, her eyes closed.

“I want to spend a very long time together with you,” she began, laying back to rest. “I knew that I felt this in springtime – do you remember what we did then? You took me to buy glasses in Mifune after the doctor told me my eyesight was healthy again. You were there with me. You were the first thing I saw when I put those glasses on and knew I could see again.”


I have another thought I need to write here, but, I'll put that later, I'll finish this first, okay?

“Happy or sad, sun or snow, I'll be here with you, I promise, Fujino. I love you and I'm proud of it, and I can't wait for someday when I don't have to hide it from anyone.”

“I remember you told just about everyone how you were in love with your brother, is it that different?”

She smiled, but couldn't hold back a little laugh as she felt my cheek with the back of her hand. Her touch was cool, but reassuring.

“I thought I was serious back then, but I didn't really consider things too deeply. I may have loved him, no doubt about that, but if we got together and made it public he'd be shunned. Me, too, but then I was always thinking about me in my world, not him and his feelings. I guess that's why things never could have worked out.”

I sighed then, too, a bit less happy than Fujino, but still content to lay in her arms.

There is nothing else more soothing or comfortable than to rest in the embrace of your love, without any clothing to get in the way, just completely naked and blissful and ready to sleep.

I traced my finger along her body lazily, and it was only then, in the light from the desk lamp and with my attention not fixated on her whole that I noticed lines across her otherwise unblemished skin. Little bumps here and there, ridges, some barely noticeable, others showing themselves readily in the orange-yellow glow. She had far too many scars all across her body, marks of the struggle her life had too often been, something that someone like her could never deserve.

I felt a pang in my heart. “I... never saw these before, you never showed them to me.”

Fujino had an inscrutable look on her face that even now, writing this, I can't quite figure out, but her words carried what she wanted to express.

“All of them are from the past. Please don't worry yourself about them.”

Her eyes lit up. “Though, one of them... you're responsible for.”

I watched her hand fall from my hair down to her chest, and she pressed her fingers there. I couldn't see any mark on her skin at that spot at all, but then I put everything together: her heart. The deepest, gentlest wound.

“As long as it never hurts you too much, it was worth it.” I smiled, just as brightly as she did when I told her my feelings.

“Azaka,” she asked, her words open-ended for a full question but asking for my response.

“Anything, you've got me when I'm weak, so nothing's off-limits.”

She took in a long and unsteady breath, her eyes gleaming in the low light. I stared at them intently, unable to look away, fully taken in by her.

“Azaka, is it... alright, for me to cry?”

My shoulders fell, but my smile stayed strong, and I kissed her one more time.


Tears trickled down her cheeks even as she wore an expression of unblemished happiness, and I stayed there, holding her, not drying those tears of hers. I let them fall, dripping down her chin onto her bare chest, my cheek against hers, heat against cold. No matter what, I would stay with her. I would show her all the love my heart could muster.

We stayed like that the rest of the night. I don't remember when we fell asleep exactly, but we did, and it was the most restful I'd had in a really long time. I didn't even feel bad about missing mass, despite the living irony of how we both missed it in a less-than-Christian way.

Now: back to that thought from earlier.

I know now, writing this, when it was that I fell in love with Fujino Asagami.

It wasn't on a particularly unusual day. It was Thursday, specifically, and completely ordinary, except for the fact that we were headed to Mifune, to pick up glasses for Fujino. Because she didn't have any lenses or anything yet, she was technically blind still despite the doctor's word, so she'd brought along her sight stick. Even now she still needs it – or me – at night away from building and street lights, but to be able to see is the important thing here: she got better.

I made sure to pick out the cutest glasses, the ones that shouted 'Fujino!' to me when I saw them. I remember the first pair she picked out were these vintage, tinted John Lennon style ones which were back in fashion, and while she looked totally stylish, they didn't quite fit her.

So, I found her ones with a narrow frame, dark but not too noticeable, that gave her a sharp look, very professional but not in an office lady kind of way. More like... a rich heiress, I guess? She looked really classy, and I was excited to see her try them on.

When she did, it surprised me that I was the one who started crying.

She looked amazing, and the smile she wore when she realized that she could see me? There's nothing more valuable than that in all the world. I should've realized it at the time, but back then I was still swooning over Mikiya, too deep in that troublesome feeling to figure out that the winds were blowing in a different direction now.

We had both made it through the night, and knew now what it meant to live and be alive. For all the sadness in the world, the beauty of it was far greater, and worth the pain.

When our eyes met after she put on those glasses, and I knew that my best friend could see me again, that expression, that feeling I couldn't put to words – that was love.

“With your eyes and your kisses,
Give me proof I once was loved;
Let me cry, struck through by life.”

Azaka and Fujino do it in the dorm when Fujino returns to Reien after Remaining Sense of Pain.

December 25th, 2017, 02:43 PM
Due to length, this entry will be split into two posts.

Keeping herself hidden as best as she could, the girl peeked around the corner of the building and into the city square.

The city around her was familiar. The dusty, off-white buildings. The cobblestone roads barely visible under the layer of dirt and sand kicked onto them from the dirt sideroads that fed into them. The painfully blue sky overhead, thirsting for even a single cloud to block out the scorching sunlight. A dusty, bustling desert city in the middle of nowhere. It was a place she had known all her life, each street as familiar as her own arms, each building like one of her own fingers.

So...why did it feel like this was the first time she had ever been here?

The square in front of her was rather small, but still quite busy. A small fountain in the center provided a good focal point for the locals to gather around, which several of them had. While the sound of people making themselves busy filled the morning air, there was still a good number of people relaxing by the fountain, sitting in the shade of the buildings on the edge of the square, chatting amicably before they took the yoke of another day's work on their shoulders.

Once again, a familiar, common sight, yet one that was different than always.

For some reason, every townsperson she saw - from the lumbering giants, the lanky ruffians, well-dressed noble women and bent-over old hags - wore a mask. A bone-white sheet, marked with eyes but otherwise completely concealing their faces. Even to a child like her, she couldn't see them as anything but skulls.

Feeling lost within what should have been her own territory, the fact everyone she saw was wearing a skull on their face didn't inspire much confidence in her safety. And so she hid, while she tried to think of what she should do. Where she should go.

Though she recognized all the buildings around her, though she knew where each street led and what she'd see if she followed them, she couldn't remember where her home was. Even before that, she wasn't entirely sure she had a home. Having "woken up" - she didn't really remember that event either - in the narrow alleyway she now hid in, she had no lead as to where "home" might be. Instinctively she felt like she must have had a home, or at the very least a place she commonly used as one, but as if there was a wall of fog in her mind she couldn't recall a single detail.


A gruff voice called out from behind her, causing her to jump. Spooked, she tried to sprint away, but as if each foot were trying to run in a different direction, all she managed to accomplish was tripping over herself and throwing herself to the ground.

"What d'you think you're doing to my wall?" The man continued, his voice slightly annoyed but not coming any closer. Pushing herself up to a seated position, the girl turned to face the source of the voice.

Glowering down at her was a thick, burly man. His clothes were plain and boring, and he wore a thick leather apron. While he was quite bulky, his rolled-back sleeves showed that that bulk came from muscle. And of course, like everyone else, a bone-white mask obscured his face, making his expression completely unreadable.

"...?" As she turned to face him, the man paused, cocking his head to the side. Looking over her, he dropped his head with a sigh before stepping towards her. "Dumb brat," he muttered under his breath as he leaned down, picking her up by the shoulders and forcibly returning her to a standing position.

With the initial spook over, her instinct to flee was rather dampened. While she was a little unnerved by the stranger that was easily twice her size, and while he handled her rather roughly, she felt much less intimidated by the man as he knelt down and started brushing the dirt from her clothes. As he knelt down in front of her, she saw over his shoulder the wall she had been hiding behind, noticing just now that it was covered in a series of deep, seemingly random gashes.

Suddenly realizing why the man was upset, she instinctively jumped back as she stammered. "I-it wasn't...! It wasn't me!"

"I know it wasn't you, stupid," the man's voice carrying enough emotion that she could easily guess the expression under the mask. "What, you think I'm dumb enough to accuse you of doing that with your fingernails?"

Blinking in surprise, the girl looked down at herself. Sure enough, she had nothing on her but the rags she was wearing, barely enough to be called clothes. They covered her well enough, but that was about it. Certainly, if she had been carving things into a stone brick wall, it would've been quite the feat with her lack of tools.

"What's a brat like you doing here anyways? Not shoppin', that's for sure."

Unconsciously taking another step back, she tried to get a read on the man in front of her. His voice was rough, but in stark contrast his actions were anything but hostile. He didn't seem to be particularly dangerous, but...

Seeing she wasn't going to reply, the man sighed again before standing up and returning to the scars on the wall.

"Geez, this'll be a pain to fix. D'you see who did this?" The man shook his head in disgust as he looked over the damage done to the wall of what she presumed was his home, or maybe his shop.

"N-no, I...?" Halfway through her answer she paused, attention caught by the deep grooves on the wall. She had thought they were just random but they seemed to actually spell something. But as she blinked again, they were once again random and meaningless.

"'Find me?'" she muttered under her breath, confused. That's what the words had said...she thought. Which was bizarre, since she didn't know how to read in the first place, but somehow she had understood regardless. Now, however, they were very clearly just random gouges, without any noticeable pattern.

The man once again stepped in front of her, kneeling down and tapping a finger roughly on her forehead as if to check if it was hollow.

"Hello? You mute and stupid in there?"

"...leave her alone, Blacksmith." As she stepped away from the man in front of her she was startled by a new voice, dry and raspy, coming from the shadows of the building beside her.

Completely unaware, she finally realized she had backed away so far she was now well into the square. While the majority of passers-by ignored her, there were a handful of curious eyes watching the exchange between her and the aproned man.

The new voice came from a huddled mass of dark cloth, sitting in the doorway of the building on the opposite side of the alley from the Blacksmith's shop. At first she wasn't sure it was even a person, but closer inspection revealed a stark white mask hidden deep beneath the folds of what she then recognized as a hood. Even though he was just casually sitting in front of the building, she likely wouldn't have noticed him if he hadn't spoken up.

"I hardly need advice from someone like you," the blacksmith sneered at the hidden man, though he almost certainly couldn't see him from where he was standing still partly in the alleyway.

The cloaked man snorted. "Fine. Your head."

Shaking his head, the blacksmith growled under his breath before turning back to the girl.

"Let's try one more time. What're you doing here?"

Shifting her eyes between the blacksmith and the cloaked man, she crossed her arms in front of her stomach as if embarassed to answer.

"I...don't know."

"You...don't know..." The blacksmith repeated her words slowly as the cloaked man snorted a laugh.

"Told you, she's trouble." The cloaked man spoke, mirth obvious in his voice.

"Shut your mouth," the blacksmith snapped back at him. Turning his attention back to the girl, he spoke in a flat tone. "Well if you've got no business here, then get. I don't need brats like you hangin' around my shop."

Stepping back again with a muttered apology, she made to leave before turning back towards him. Sure, his words were rude and hostile, but his actions seemed to belie a soft spot somewhere underneath the tough exterior. She wasn't sure if she could rely on him for help, but she felt that she could at least rely on him not to hurt her.

"Ummm...before I go, can I ask a question?"

The blacksmith crossed his arms in front of him and stared at her, but otherwise made no reply. Seeing he wasn't at least shooing her off, she continued.

"What's your name?" Maybe he wouldn't want her relying on him in the future, but at least having some sort of anchor point if she got desperate might prove useful as she tried to figure out where she was and what she was doing here. Or so she thought.

Though the blacksmith showed no reaction to her words from behind his mask, the dry, cackling laughter of the cloaked man filled the silence for him.

"You've got to be kidding me..." the blacksmith finally replied after an exaggerated sigh. "Why don't you tell me your name first?" Though she felt like it was a perfectly legitimate question, his tone showed he was clearly asking rhetorically.

But as she opened her mouth to answer, only dumb silence came out.

"I...I don't remember..." Just like she couldn't remember where her home was, just like she felt like she had never been to this city before despite clearly remembering every building in sight, she couldn't remember her own name either.

At that, even the cloaked man's laughter stopped.

"I see." The blacksmith replied flatly, his voice bearing a slight tint of confusion. "Well. Not that it'll do you any good, but the name's Hassan. Now get." With that, the blacksmith walked past her and into his shop, not sparing her even another glance as he went.

Hassan, she repeated quietly to herself, nodding. If nothing else, she at least knew where Hassan's blacksmith shop was. It wasn't much, but it was a name she could put to a place. Not too useful by itself, but hopefully it would come in handy later.

As she turned to look across the square, trying to decide where to go now that she wasn't welcome here, the cloaked man called out to her.

"Girl. Come here." Though his laughing had cut off abruptly when she revealed her lack of knowledge about her self, his rasping voice once more had an air of levity to it.

Stepping over towards him, she stopped a few strides away. While he hadn't so much as moved an inch since he first spoke up, she had no idea how far she could trust this stranger. While she could get the intuitive sense that the blacksmith was a decent person beneath his rough exterior, this cloaked individual was still an enigma.

Seeing her stop a few feet away from him, the cloaked man laughed again. "Good girl. Smart. Don't trust anyone." Though he didn't get up from his seat, she could see him shuffling beneath his cloak. Without any further warning, he tossed a small object from his cloak out at her, which she scrambled to catch. Looking down, she found she was now holding a small knife, blade about the length of her hand, in a snugly-fit black leather sheath.

"Dangerous world out there. Especially for you. Especially with no mask. Be safe." Even as he warned her, he couldn't keep the laughter from his voice. It made it difficult for her to trust his intentions, but either way a knife was a knife. She wasn't going to turn down the gift.

"Thank you," she said a little more forcefully than she had intended. The cloaked man's only response was a wordless chuckle.

With no belt or anything similar - and obviously no pockets, considering her clothes were little more than a sheet of fabric with holes roughly torn for her head and arms to fit through - she had no choice but to keep the knife in hand. Pulling her arms under her single piece of clothing to wear it like a poncho, she kept both her hands hidden, one hand on the hilt of the knife and the other on the sheath for easy removal.

Nodding to herself, satisfied it wasn't obvious she was armed, she stepped out into the square.


Though she was more than comfortable navigating around the city, she still didn't really have a goal. And without a goal, the question of "where to go next" became considerably more difficult.

At first she thought about searching for clues as to who she was - knowing that would hopefully solve a lot of the other problems she was facing all on its own. But she had no reason to believe anyone here knew who she was when she had no idea who they were. That could have been an effect of the same amnesia that obscured her name, but her intuition told her that wasn't the case. While she couldn't really bring to mind anyone she knew, something told her that if she did see someone she knew, she would recognize them - much in the same way she recognized the city despite feeling like she'd never been here.

She could work toward a more practical end, like finding a place she could stay for the night or something to eat. But even in the hours since she had "woken up," she didn't feel the least bit hungry. And as far as a place to sleep, that would depend more on where she could find empty space at night - something that might not be readily apparent during the day.

Lastly, she could just try to figure out where exactly she was. While knowing that might not have had any immediate practical benefit, it would at least be a piece of information she could make use of later. But it wasn't exactly obvious how she would go about doing that. She could always just ask the people of the city around her, but...

Looking out over the bustling square before her, she gave an anxious sigh. She had figured that anything she tried to accomplish would require interaction with people, so she had followed the side streets to the busiest part of town within a reasonable distance. But every person she saw along the way, as well as every person walking through the market square before her, all had that same skull mask on their face. While she had made it through her first encounter with the masked residents of the town without too much trouble, she was far from trusting them.

That put her in a bit of a bind, though. She wasn't going to learn much of anything about anything if she didn't interact with the people around her, but she didn't know that she could really trust them either. Having to rely on someone who could very possibly be dangerous to her was something that made her a little apprehensive, to say the least. But even so, staring at the crowds of people doing their business wouldn't help, so apprehensive as she was, she began looking for a place she could quietly slip in.

The various hawkers and shop keepers ignored her, as she obviously had no money to afford anything they had to offer. The other tradesmen making their way through the city were also rather focused on their individual tasks, and thus paid her little mind as they walked by. What she needed was someone who wasn't working, and didn't want money from her. Scanning the crowd, she found a few groups of men and women lounging here and there, chatting somewhat amicably. But approaching them would put her in a situation where she was outnumbered from the beginning, which wasn't ideal either.

As she weighed her options, a loud voice cut through the tumult of the crowds. After a few moments she was able to locate the voice's owner, a man standing in roughly the center of the square, shouting seemingly randomly at the passers-by. Dressed in what looked like simple yet fine long robes, and of course wearing the same mask as everyone else, he stood atop a wooden crate in the middle of the square and shouted at everyone around him.

Tightening her grip on her knife, she double checked that it draw smoothly before stepping into the main square. This was as good a start as any. She couldn't quite tell what he was shouting about from here, but she could get closer and listen without having to engage the man directly. If she was lucky, she could pick up some useful information without having to actually endanger herself with any of the strangers here.

As she approached closer, walking with the crowds and averting her gaze so as to hide her destination, she quickly realized that had been hoping for too much. The man's ramblings, while coherent and sane, were little more than religious exhortations and chastisements. Shaming the strangers that walked around him for sins he "knew" they had committed, appealing for them to beg for the forgiveness of God and turn from their evil ways, it quickly became apparent why the crowds were ignoring him.

Disappointed that he wasn't going to say anything useful, she stepped into another stream of people taking her away from the center of the square and out towards the shops lining it. As she did so, however, she noticed the man abruptly stop shouting. Curious, she turned to look at him out of the corner of her eye.

Immediately, she realized her mistake. As she turned to look, she saw the man staring directly at her. Though his face was covered, his previous monologue made it fairly easy to guess that whatever he thought of her was not going to be pleasant. And of course he would notice her, she was the only one in the entire city that was walking around without a mask. She thought she could get around without being noticed, but she probably stood out just as much as he did.

Just as she thought the man might ignore her after all, he lept down from his crate and started marching directly towards her, pushing the other people of the crowd out of his way. Immediately, she turned and tried to sprint off into the crowd - and immediately, she ran face first into someone, knocking her off her feet and onto her backside.

Wincing in pain, she looked up at the person she had run into. It didn't take long before she began to wonder if running into him had been a bigger mistake than attracting the attention of the preacher. Turning slowly to look at her was a monster of a man. Easily twice the size of any of the other adults in the crowd, nevermind a child like her, she was almost as astounded at his height alone as she was at how she had managed to miss someone of his stature walking through the crowd. As the enormous man turned to stare down at her, face unreadable behind his bone-white mask, she tried to scramble to her feet - a difficult task, seeing as she wasn't willing to let go of the knife in both of her hands to do so.

"Behold! This is the emblem of your sin!" Startled by the sudden shout behind her, she stumbled again, but this time rough hands grabbed her and yanked her to her feet. "Your weakness, your lack of faith has given birth to this wretch!"

Pulling away from the man's grasp, she drew her knife from its sheath as she spun to face him. Held at the ready, she kept the blade concealed within her clothes, watching warily as the man resumed his sermon. Though he was obviously keeping pace with her as she backed away, he was making no moves to grab her again, and his message was obviously intended for the crowds around them, not her.

"A child! Destitute, hungry, hopeless! This is a reflection of the brokenness of your hearts! Your twisted, vile minds have given birth to this filth!"

At that, she froze. 'Given birth to?'

"Another innocent soul...nay, not even a soul! Another innocent shadow forced to eke out a wretched, pitiful existence! Forced to suffer through a day of terror and loathing before being extinguished without mercy by the night!"

A chill ran down her spine. 'Extinguished?'

"Do you...do you know, who I am?" Still on edge, ready to lash out with her knife the instant he made a wrong move, she tentatively called out to the preacher.

Somehow, despite the mask, he was still able to look down on her with an air of contempt. "'Do I know who you are?'" he repeated, his tone mocking. "Of course! Even the wild dogs know you! Even the rats, crawling through the gutters of this forsaken city, know you for the abominable ghost that you are!"

Taken aback by his sudden aggression, his anger at the crowd suddenly and totally shifting to her, she unconsciously stepped backwards away from him. But even scared as she was, she did her best to swallow her fear and press him for information.

"...I don't understand. What do you mean?" He definitely spoke as if he knew something about her, and while it might all be nonsense, she wasn't going to pass up the chance at finding out something just because he might be crazy.

The preacher, however, just snorted at her. "Of course you don't. A lowly orphan, wandering aimlessly in the streets. I'm surprised your smart enough to speak. This world has no mercy, no quarter to give to the likes of you. But don't worry, I'm sure your death will be quick and painless."

"My death? Am I going to die?" She spoke hesitantly. Though the rough manner in which he spoke to her reminded her of Hassan, she could feel no warmth, no underlying humanity to this preacher. It was almost like he didn't even see her as a person.

"Why, of course! It's written on your face!" He leaned close to her, tapping the mask he wore with a finger. "You are an outcast. A failure. Worthless, useless, meaningless! Death is what you deserve!" As he spoke, he stepped closer and closer, and as he approached she began to feel more and more tense. Without being able to see his face, she couldn't read his intentions at all, but from what he was saying she couldn't imagine them being very good. And try as she might to maintain the distance between them, he continued to pursue her.

"In fact, why wait for nightfall? You might as well die right now! Spare yourself the trouble of suffering through an entire day!"

She froze. Nightfall? Was something going to happen at night?

But as she opened her mouth to ask, the man closed the last of the distance between them. Without hesitation or haste, he reached a hand towards her, as if to grab her by the neck.

For a split second, gripped by panic, she hesitated. Knife in hand, she was amply equipped to defend herself. And it would be easy to simply break and run. But if she attacked him or ran, she would lose her chance to get more information from him, and if what he was saying was true, she desperately needed that information. As the fear of losing her only lead to finding out anything about herself met against the fear of the threat to her life the man posed, she could do nothing more but stand wide-eyed as the man reached for her.

Just before the man's fingers closed around her neck, an enormous fist soared over her head, crashing into the masked preacher's face and sending him sprawling backwards. Looking up, just as wide-eyed in surprise as she had been in fear earlier, she saw the enormous figure of the man she had run into earlier. Though his face was still covered, the soft growling he was making while he watched the preacher pick himself up out of the dirt was enough to gauge his feelings.

"Some holy man you are," a woman's voice called out behind her, followed quickly by said woman walking up and putting a hand on her shoulder. "To not only threaten, but attack an innocent child in broad daylight. Have you no shame?"

The preacher stood up unsteadily, holding a hand to his face. Though his mask was undamaged, blood dribbled down from its edges where it dug into his face. "Ha!" the man spat, not even looking at the woman who had spoken. "She is no more a child than you are a mother! And innocent? Her existence here is sin enough to warrant judgement!"

The woman's grip tightened on the girl's shoulder as she replied, the only evidence the preacher's jab at her had hit the mark. "Since when was the crime of being punishable by torture and murder?" As she spoke, the girl looked up at the woman. Besides the skull mask, she looked like an ordinary mother. Her clothes were plain and utilitarian, but well kept. It was hard to tell through the mask, but she seemed old enough to have had a handful of children already.

"Torture?" the preacher chuckled as he looked up at the woman. "I am torturing her? Look at you! Ignoring her, content to leave her to her fate! Only stepping in because you are squeamish at the thought of seeing another little girl die!"

The woman's grip tightened again, this time to the point of being painful. This time, however, her anger seemed to rob her of her voice.

"But let me tell you. Keep lying to her, keep lying to yourself! Waste your breath 'protecting' her, and then watch her die with your own two eyes!" As the preacher spoke, he stepped closer, but this time his movements were mirrored by the enormous man who had punched him earlier. With a growl, the giant stepped between her and the preacher, the reminder of his presence threat enough to make the preacher back down.

All around them, the crowd had slowed to watch. A small audience of men and women were now circling them, watching the proceedings from behind their masks.

...no, that wasn't quite right. They weren't watching what was happening. They were watching the preacher specifically. And it was clear as he glanced around him that he knew this as well, as he slowly backed away from the girl and her self-appointed guardians.

"See? You see?! All of you are complicit in her torment! Even if she survives, what have you given her? A lifetime of destitution and misery! Death would be...death will be a mercy to her!" With a cackle, sounding slightly deranged thanks to the nerves now showing in his voice, he wiped the blood from the edges of his mask with his hands. Though he seemed poised to run, he turned back to the girl one last time before making his escape.

"...I don't want to die." Barely more than a whisper, the girl spoke, causing the preacher's words to catch in his throat.

She didn't want to die. She didn't know who she was, where she was, or why she was here. But if she knew one thing...


Her hands began to tremble, still clutching tightly to the knife concealed under her clothes. The only thing she knew about herself was that she was apparently destined to die, and that this man wanted it to happen.

"Just...tell me what I have to do..." If this man knew that she would die, he should know how she could avoid it. And though she had no reason to expect help from him, she had no one else she could ask.

"Don't worry sweet heart, you don't need to listen to what-" The woman at her shoulder spoke soothingly to her, but before she could finish what she was saying the preacher interrupted.

"Heed my words, ghost. There is no life for you in this city, nor in this world." His tone was serious, and though his words were still as vicious as always, they no longer dripped with hate as they had previously. "Your only salvation is in death. Have mercy on yourself, and end it before the sun sets and ends it for you." With that, the man turned away and strode off.

As the preacher disappeared, the rest of the impromptu audience slowly began to disperse as well, murmuring amongst themselves their general discontent with the man that had caused such a ruckus. Though it seemed they were more bothered by the commotion than by the man himself. As they all went their seperate ways, the woman at the girl's side knelt down beside her and put an arm around her shoulder.

"Now don't worry about a thing he said, honey. He's just an evil-hearted man, trying to hurt your feelings to make himself feel better. But you have nothing to worry about from him anymore."

"...so...I'm not going to die?" she asked, still watching the spot where the preacher had disappeared into the crowd.

The woman stiffened at the question, her voice faltering for a moment. "N-no...not if...not if we can...do something about it..." Even for a child like her, she could easily see through the lie in the woman's words.

Much more comforting, however, was the wordless encouragement of the gigantic man who had protected her earlier. With a soft grunt, he put an enormous hand on her head, nodding to her as she looked up at him.

At that, the woman chuckled briefly before sighing. "Well, if this gigantic oaf is going to take your side, I can't protest much can I?" Standing up and brushing the dirt off her skirt, the woman spoke with a bit more cheer. "Anyways, you must be starving. Would you like something to eat?"

Honestly, she still wasn't that hungry. But she figured these two had already stood up to protect her, so they were probably more trustworthy than any other random person, and judging by the woman's hesitation to tell her she was safe, she might know something about why her life was in danger.

Quietly sliding her still-bared knife back into its sheath, she nodded. As she opened her mouth to thank the woman, however, she instead ended up giving a shout of surprise as the giant grabbed her by the waist and hoisted her up, setting her firmly on his shoulder. Though his shoulders were broad enough she could easily sit on them, she had to hurriedly grab his bald head with her free hand to keep from tumbling off. With another nod and a satisfied grunt, he turned to the woman, who chuckled again.

"Alright, looks like we're all set. I know a great place, so just follow me!"


Sitting atop the shoulders of her new giant friend, the girl carefully watched the crowd as they cut through the busy streets. She had gotten used to seeing the faces of everyone else in town covered by those skull masks, but now she was beginning to feel self-conscious at the fact she lacked one. Evidently, there was something critical that mask symbolized, and the fact she was lacking it attracted more than a few looks from the people they walked by. But there was nothing she could do about that now, so she tried her best to push that into the back of her mind.

Before long, they had come to a stop in front of a small building. It appeared to be some sort of shop, or maybe an inn. There was a sign hanging above the door, but of course she couldn't read it so it didn't help much. The only memorable feature was among the scattered words, a picture of two knives crossed. One of the knives was plain, if a bit large, and looked like it was designed for cooking more than anything else. The other knife, however, looked very similar to the dagger she had received from the cloaked man earlier that day - definitely a weapon.

"Wait here a minute, okay?" The woman who had guided them there raised a hand to stop them from going inside before opening the door and heading in herself.

With no more than a grunt in warning, the giant lifted the girl off of his shoulders and placed her back on the ground.

"Thank you, mister...umm..." Now that she thought about it, she had no idea what his name was. She considered asking, but he didn't seem like he could talk, so that didn't seem like a particularly effective course of action. As she awkwardly tried to think of a way to find out his name, or at the very least what to call him for now, he simply grunted and patted her gently on the head.

She couldn't help but feel uneasy in the town full of skull-faced strangers, but like the blacksmith from earlier, she had a vague feeling this giant could be trusted. Of course, he had protected her from the raving preacher earlier, but even beyond that his mannerisms seemed to lend himself an air of reliability despite his concealed face.

Before long, the door opened again, and the woman popped her head out to beckon them inside. "Come on in, lots of space for us today!"

After exchanging a look with the giant, she followed the woman inside.

Much darker than the outside streets, it took a few moments for her eyes to adjust. Set up across the room were a series of tables, each with three or four chairs around. Along the back wall was a counter, behind which was a door that led to a room deeper in the building. There were a handful of windows on the walls to give a little bit of light to the room, but the various old lamps scattered around the tables were unlit, making the room quite dark, a welcome respite from the scorching sun she had spent most of the day in.

Aside from the three of them just entering, there were a man and a woman seated at one table further in, as well as another man standing arms crossed behind the counter. All of them turned to watch them enter, though as expected, their expressions were hidden behind the same bone-white masks as everyone else.

At the woman's guidance, she sat at the closest table to the door, followed shortly by the other two doing the same. While the giant exchanged tense stares with the two customers seated on the opposite side of the room, the woman gestured to the shopkeeper.

"I'm still not sure about this." Though his face was hidden, the suspicion in his voice more than made up for his invisible expression.

The woman sighed in response. "Listen, I already said I would pay, alright? What does it matter to you?"

"You know full well that's not the issue," he said, openly staring at the girl, prompting her to nervously tighten her grip on the knife still concealed under her clothes.

"It's fine isn't it?" The woman seated across the room spoke up, a faintly amused lilt in her voice. Without turning her gaze away from her partner, she gently swirled her drink around in its small wooden cup. "After all, the longer she wastes in here, the better for us, right?"

Though she didn't really understand what the woman meant, her amused tone mixed with the angry growl it elicited from her giant companion was enough to clue her in that it wasn't something pleasant.

Even looking at the woman across the room made the girl feel a little embarrassed, with how few clothes she was wearing. While the important bits were technically covered, the mask on her face probably required about the same amount of material as the rest of her outfit combined. She guessed she must have been some sort of exotic dancer, though she wasn't sure why she was in 'uniform' at a place like this, let alone in the middle of the day.

"Ah, leave th' poor gal 'lone," the dancer's companion grumbled at her, likewise not lifting his gaze from his drink. "Not like she'd do anythin t' ya." While the man was certainly well built, he was no where near the enormous size of the giant sitting beside her. His muscle had a leanness to it, speaking more of speed than it did of strength.

"Oh don't be so sure," the dancer replied, her teasing tone continuing. "Give her a bath, and I'm sure a girl like her could steal any number of my customers."

Her companion snorted. "Y' a sick gal, know?"

Unable to follow their conversation, the girl turned her attention back to the shopkeeper, who also seemed to be shaking his head at them. "Alright, whatever." With that, he turned around and headed into the back room.

The woman sitting across from her gave another sigh mixed with exasperation as much as it was relief. "Sorry about that," the mumbled as if not to let the other couple hear her. "I don't think we'd get any better service elsewhere though." While she didn't mind overly - she didn't know why the shopkeeper disliked her already, but at least he was nicer than that preacher from earlier - the giant gave an unsatisfied snort. Though if she had to guess, she would say his problem was more with the other customers rather than the shop itself.

"Umm...sorry..." As the conversation fell into a lull as they waited for food to come out, the girl hesitantly spoke. "I never said thank you for earlier..."

"Don't mention it," the woman replied with a small laugh. "Honestly, it was worth it just to see that stuck-up piece of work get slugged."

While it hadn't been that funny at the time, she had to stifle a grin at the way the woman talked about it. Turning to the giant beside her, craning her neck up to meet his gaze, she spoke again. "...yes. Thank you. Thank you for helping me." Turning away, he scratched his head, as if embarrassed by the thanks, but as usual hd said nothing. Looking back to the woman, she continued. "...actually, I forgot to ask. I still don't know your names."

At that, the already quiet room froze. Even the couple across the room stopped their conversation and turned to stare at her. Once again, she felt at a disadvantage, unable to see the expressions behind the masks to gauge their reaction.

"She doesn't know anything, does she?" the dancer muttered from across the room, this time her voice humourless.

"Know y' own name, gal?" the dancer's companion spoke up a little louder, concern obvious in his voice.

"...no..." she replied in almost a whisper, dropping her gaze.

At that, both the couple across the room and the woman sitting beside her let out a hum of recognition. "'xplains that, don' it?"

"Thinking about it now," the dancer replied, turning her attention back to her cup, "it's more surprising we haven't seen someone like her yet, isn't it?"

"Aye," her companion said, likewise returning his attention to his own table.

While it seemed they had figured something out, she was still completely in the dark. But before she could ask what they were talking about, she felt an enormous hand tap her on the shoulder. Turning to look at the giant, she saw him pull his hand back and tap himself on the chest before flicking his fingers into a few signs she didn't know the meaning of.

"He says his name is Hassan," the woman beside her interpreted, her voice still carrying a hint of hesitation.

"Eh? Your name is Hassan?" What were the chances that of the two people she had asked, both were named Hassan? Before she could voice her disbelief, the giant pointed across the table at the woman sitting with them, snapping off a handful of signs again.

"Ah...yes, my name...my name is Hassan as well." Raising a hand to stop the giant from continuing, she spoke again. "And those two over there as well. Hassan and Hassan."

The girl blinked in confusion. They were named Hassan too? Even the women? Was everyone here named-


Something clicked in her head. As the shopkeeper came out from the back room with a plate of food, she pointed at him. "Is his name Hassan too, then?"

"This girl stupid or something?" the shopkeeper said as he placed the food on the table between them.

"Looks like amnesia," the woman replied as she pushed the plate of food towards the girl, earning a curious grunt from the shopkeeper before he returned to his spot behind the counter. "Yes. He's Hassan too."

Though she still wasn't really all that hungry, she felt it rude not to eat after the shopkeeper had gone through the effort of preparing the food for them. The plate had a rather plain looking arrangement of bread and cheese, centered around a small selection of fruit. Hesitantly taking a piece of bread, she spoke again before taking a bite.

"Then...am I also Hassan?"

The woman exchanged a glance with the giant before replying in a faltering voice.

"W-well...maybe. Though maybe it would be more correct to say...not yet?"

"...I don't understand."

"Y-yeah..." the woman scratched her head, unsure of how to continue. As she had expected, the woman seemed to know something. She was hesitant to talk about it, but if she could get that out of her...

"Oh, why don't you just tell her?" the dancer called out from across the room, her voice regaining its mischievous slant. "You're not Hassan, girl. You're not even real."

"Would you leave us alone?!" her companion shouted angrily across the room. The dancer just laughed, waving a half-hearted apology before turning back to her table.

"I'm...not real?" The girl, meanwhile, was simply confused. Of course she was real, she was right here. She could think, she could feel the knife in her hand and taste the bread she had just eaten. How could she not be?

"W-well...to put it simply..." the woman stammered a little as she turned back, as if she didn't know how to word what she was saying. Eventually she dropped her head with a sigh, lifting her head a moment later to meet the girl's gaze. "I know this is going to be hard to hear, but this is the truth, okay? Try not to panic, okay?"

At that, the girl immediately perked up. Finally she felt like she was getting somewhere. With a vigorous nod, she prompted the woman Hassan to continue.

Folding her hands in front of herself, the woman sighed again. After another moment, she finally spoke up quietly. "You can tell, right? This city...this place is not normal. Everyone has these strange masks, everyone has the same name...I guess you maybe haven't seen them, but if you stick around long enough you'll find other odd things too. Like the words on signs changing, walls appearing and disappearing, streets suddenly filled with different shops..."

The woman hesitated again. Was she talking about things like she had seen with the scratches on the blacksmith shop?

"This city...this world is a place for Hassan-i Sabbah, the Old Man of the Mountain. Everything here was made for him...and no one but him can exist here."

The girl quietly chewed on a piece of cheese while she listened to the explanation. That certainly explained why everyone was named Hassan, but if that was the case, shouldn't there only be one of them? And if she wasn't Hassan, then how did she get here?

"Occasionally, people like you show up here. All of us were like you once, actually. Not the memory loss, just the showing up here one day without warning...without a mask, with only fake memories and fake names."

"Fake names? Did you have a different name before you became Hassan?"

"...no," the woman kept her gaze locked on the tabletop as she continued speaking. "No, we all came here with the name Hassan. Thinking we were the real one, thinking we were originally our own person. But that's not the case. Yes, all of us are Hassan, but not individually. All of us together are Hassan, each of us simply a fragment of the whole."

The girl stared blankly at the woman. She felt like she had just received a lot of important information, but it didn't make any sense. Everyone in town is one person? Everyone is named Hassan, but no one is actually Hassan? And she still didn't understand how she was here if she wasn't Hassan, or what the woman meant when she said 'not Hassan yet.'

"Say it li' that, she'll unde'stand no' of it." The dancer's companion grumbled, as if he couldn't help saying something even though he didn't want to help.

"It's not easy to explain!" the woman replied with a huff. "I'm doing the best I can!"

"If only Hassan can come here, then how did I get here?" Picking one of her points of confusion at random, pressed the woman for more information. After all, if that preacher was right that she was going to die, maybe it had something to do with the fact she wasn't allowed to be here...

"...right. As I said, this is a world only for Hassan-i Sabbah. You...you aren't Hassan, not yet anyway. You were born from his mind, like all of us were...but until he accepts you as part of himself, you are just an intruder." The woman tried to speak gently, but that didn't stop the girl from feeling anxious about it.

"So...is that why I'm going to die? Because I don't belong here?"

"Die...well, less like you'll die...more like you'll have never existed."

Once again, she was back to not understanding at all. She was alive already, wasn't she? She was sitting here eating, talking...what else could there be?

Seeing her confused expression, the dancer turned and spoke to them from across the room. "I said it earlier, didn't I? You're not real, girl. None of us are. Not right now."

"I am Hassan-i Sabbah...but I'm not real." This time it was the shopkeeper, who despite sounding like he was regretting speaking at all, continued to explain. "But when he needs us, when he needs the skills we possess, then we become real. We become the actual Hassan-i Sabbah. That is the only time we are really alive."

"Every person here has the same wish," the dancer spoke again. "To be real. To get out of this prison of a city, even if only for a moment. But only one of us can make it out at a time..."

"...and you've seen how many of us there are," the woman across from her spoke in a whisper.

As if the final piece of the puzzle had fallen into place, she suddenly understood. Why everyone but these two were so reluctant to help her. Why so many people seemed so openly hostile to her, despite the fact she had done nothing wrong. She didn't really understand the details, but the general message was loud and clear. They all wanted something that only one of them could have. And she was new competition.

...or rather, she might be new competition. And them helping her meant they were pushing their own wish farther away from their own grasp.

But still, here they were.


The room quietly watched her as she stared down at her lap, where her knife was still concealed. Even that cloaked man had given her this dagger to help her, to his own detriment. He would have been better off if he had stuck the dagger in her. So why?

"...then why are you all helping me? That just makes it harder for you, doesn't it?"

For a while, silence filled the room. With that one realization, she suddenly realized that to these people, she wasn't just a stranger. She was an enemy. Her death was in their best interests. So why were they helping her?

...or were they helping her?

A sinking feeling struck her as the dancer's words from when they had first arrived here rose back up in her mind.

After all, the longer she wastes in here, the better for us, right?

"...or are you just trying to keep me here until my time runs out?"

Standing up from her chair, the girl slowly began backing away towards the door, gripping her knife tightly with both hands. The room of masked faces made no reaction, except for the sad groan coming from the giant.

Good girl. Smart. Don't trust anyone.

It was just like the cloaked man had said. These people were all trying to trick her, weren't they? Like the preacher had said, she would die when the sun sets. So if they distracted her long enough, she wouldn't have enough time to do what she needed to survive, whatever that was.

"That's not...that's not what I was trying to do. I just..." Unable to even meet her gaze, the woman spoke in a weak voice, as if hurt by the accusation. Similarly, the giant had risen from his seat, trying to offer her a comforting hand. But she wasn't having any of it. She knew better now.

"Thank you for helping me," she spoke softly, voice quivering only slightly. "But I understand. I'll figure it out on my own."

"No, you don't understand! That's not-" Before the woman could finish her sentence, the girl turned and strode through the door.

Momentarily stunned by the sudden brightness outside, she rose a hand to cover her eyes.

That was dangerous. She had almost been tricked, but luckily she had managed to get out with the information she needed. She knew what was at stake, she knew her time limit. She didn't know exactly what she would have to do to survive, but she knew where to start. Looking up at the sign hanging outside the shop, for a brief moment, the words she couldn't read spoke to her.


Ignoring the sound of footsteps coming towards her from inside the shop, ignoring the tears welling up in her eyes, she clenched her fingers tightly around her knife and ran off into the crowded street.

December 25th, 2017, 02:45 PM
Find me.

As the girl made her way through the streets of the desert city, those two words echoed inside her head over and over.

Find Me!

While she had been uneasy traveling through the unfamiliar-yet-familiar city filled with skull-faced strangers before, that uneasiness was nothing compared to the apprehension she felt now. Now she knew that behind every expressionless mask was an enemy. Though she had done nothing to them, and they had done nothing to her, she knew that she was a threat to them. And while perhaps they would be satisfied to stand by and let her disappear, who knew which of them would be willing to be proactive about getting rid of her?


A combination of being unable to focus on her task, spending most of her energy watching to make sure she wasn't about to be attacked by the crowds around her, and not having any real idea of where she was supposed to go led her unease slowly but surely grow. And as if her encounter in the inn had broken some sort of barrier, every store sign she came across, every conversation she overheard, even the sound of her own footsteps were crying out at her to 'find me.' And as she wasted time wandering around, desperately searching for any clue at all, the sun sank ever lower in the sky.

Tears welled up in her eyes once again as a mix of panic and frustration pushed her towards becoming ever more frantic in her search. She needed to think. She needed to come up with an actual plan of action, rather than just wander blindly. All she was doing now was searching, without even knowing what she was looking for. But with the veiled eyes of countless enemies surrounding her, she could think of nothing else other than that everyone and everything was a threat. She needed somewhere quiet, somewhere she didn't have to worry about the hidden eyes watching her.

Turning off of the main street into a back alley once again, she quickened her pace to get away from the sounds of the street. Following the winding alley, she could feel the sounds of the city growing slightly more distant.

To some degree, it helped. While she couldn't say it made her feel any better, at least the illusion of being farther away from the city, and thus everyone in it, helped to curb her mounting panic.

After following the back alleys for a short time with no real destination in mind, she came across a collapsed wall.

Scanning the area quickly, she determined she was neither being followed, nor was anyone within the small clearing on the other side of the collapse. Confident the area was safe, she stepped inside.

The clearing seemed very out of place. Though the sun-scorched city was full of sand and dust, this place was actually green. Soft grass carpeted the ground, surrounding a small pond of crystal clear water. Closer inspection showed that the pond wasn't naturally formed, but rather was a small basin formed by stone bricks. Along the edges of the pool were a handful of clay planters, each containing flowers of varying vibrant colours.

The pond, the grass, the flowers...all of them seemed so fragile, like they would burn up in the heat of the day. Yet the heat of the day had passed already, and as the day pressed on into evening they remained here, colourful and beautiful.

The girl stepped softly, partly out of caution of the unknown place, and partly out of a sense of quiet reverence. There was nowhere in the clearing that someone could hide - even the water was so clear she could see straight to the bottom of the pool - and the surrounding buildings were so tightly squared up to the clearing that the only entrance was the one she had used to enter it. The place was so protected, so pristine, that she felt almost guilty for entering it without permission. But it was clearly safe, and a safe place was what she needed.

Walking to the far side of the clearing, she sat down with her back to a corner, facing the entrance. Placing her knife on the ground beside her, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. The sounds of the city were nothing but a distant whisper, almost drowned out by the sound of the wind passing over the nearby rooftops.

For the first time since she had woken up that morning, she felt...calm.

Here...here, she could think.

Find me.

"...I'm trying," she whispered back to the incessant voice. "But I don't even know who you are."

Had she not been quite so stressed, she might have laughed at that thought. Everyone in this city was Hassan-i Sabbah, were they not? So obviously she was looking for Hassan. That didn't help her very much though.

All of us together are Hassan, each of us simply a fragment of the whole.

The conversation she had had a few hours before resurfaced in her mind. Is that who she was supposed to find? The whole? How would she even go about doing that?

If she met every 'fragment,' perhaps that would be the same as meeting the whole. But she had no idea how many people there were in this city. Even just the people she had seen passing by on the street were too numerous to hope to meet in a single day. Surely no one could expect her to accomplish such an impossible task.

But when he needs us, when he needs the skills we possess, then we become real.

The shopkeeper had spoken like there was some greater Hassan, one who had authority over the people in this city. Whoever this 'he' was, he was the one who apparently chose who would become 'real.' Whatever that meant.

Perhaps that was who she needed to meet. It made sense, to some degree. If this 'greater Hassan' had some amount of authority over this world, perhaps he was the one who could protect her from dying. Not that she knew how or why she was supposed to die in the first place. For all she knew, it was that greater Hassan that was going to be the one to kill her.

You were born from his mind, like all of us were...but until he accepts you as part of himself, you are just an intruder.


Suddenly, something that hadn't made any sense before seemed crystal clear. She still didn't really get what 'being born from his mind' meant, but if what the others at the restaurant said was true, it seemed like this greater Hassan was the one she needed to pursue...or perhaps avoid. If the 'me' that she was supposed to find was indeed this greater Hassan though, it was almost certainly the former. Maybe it was like some sort of test, where he only accepted you as part of himself - and thus elects to spare your life - if you are capable of finding him before sunset.

The more she thought of it, the more likely it seemed. If what the others had said could be trusted, then her task for the day was to find the greater Hassan, the one who could make them real. If she could do that, she would survive.

...but that theory all hinged on one very unreliable fact.

That they had, in fact, been telling her the truth.

Certainly, it didn't seem like they were lying. But it didn't seem like they had ulterior motives to helping her either, and yet how much closer was she to failing now thanks to the time she wasted with them? How much could she really trust the words of people who would benefit from her failure - from her death?

While she couldn't put a finger on any particular thing that seemed to be wrong, it didn't have to be something big. If one small, crucial detail was wrong, it could spell the end for her, and she had no way of knowing what detail that was.

With a quivering sigh, she sank her head into her hands. She couldn't trust them. She couldn't trust what they had told her. She couldn't afford to be misled by them. But if she discounted what they had said, then she had nothing. Nothing but a pair of stupid words with no explanation.

Find me.

Slowly, the sense of panic she had finally managed to suppress was returning. She was back to square one. Back to being a small, lone child lost in a city that wanted her dead. Unconsciously, she reached out and grabbed her knife, pressing the sheathed blade tight against her stomach. Curling up tightly in her corner, she clenched her teeth hard, trying to contain a sob. But before she could even begin crying, she suddenly froze.


Snapping her eyes to the crumbled down wall that led into the clearing, she jumped to her feet and pulled her knife from its sheath. Coming from the alleyway outside were heavy, shuffling footsteps, easily audible in the quiet of the clearing. Eyes darting around the clearing, she quickly confirmed what she had discovered when she first arrived - there was nowhere to hide. The only way in or out of the clearing was through the crumbled wall, which would put her face to face with the coming threat.

Without waiting another moment, the girl sprinted for the corner opposite her and hunched down, making herself as small as possible. If she was lucky, the person would just walk by. Where she was now, they would have to step into the clearing to see her at all. And if they did step into the clearing, she would at least have the jump on them. Knife at the ready, she held her breath, not daring to even blink as she watched the entrance of the clearing.




Slowly, the heavy steps approached. For a moment they stopped, and the only thing she could hear was her own heart pounding in her ears. But then they started again...as the person stepped through the broken wall and into the clearing.

Her instincts screamed at her to act. To lunge forward and stab the intruder before they could react. To sprint out behind them and escape before they knew what was happening. To fight. To flee. To do anything.

But she didn't.

As she watched, an ancient, hunched over old man slowly shuffled his way into the clearing. Though he looked old and frail enough to have trouble even walking unencumbered, he carried in each hand a large wooden bucket filled nearly to the brim with water.

At what felt like a snail's pace, the old man made his way to the center of the clearing, where the stone pool awaited. Perhaps because the skull mask he wore impeded his peripheral vision, it didn't seem like he had noticed her crouching in the corner.

Once again, her body screamed at her to run, to attack, to move. But she didn't. As if entranced, she watched the old man slowly approach the pool of water, gently lowering the buckets of water he was carrying to the ground before dropping to his knees himself.

As unstable as he looked on his feet, his hands were undeniably steady. One at a time, he lifted the heavy buckets up and poured their contents into the pool. Not a single drop of water fell outside the pool as he moved. As the last of the water emptied into the pond, she felt herself let go of the breath she didn't realize she had been holding.

Pushing himself up with both hands on one of the now empty buckets, the man unsteadily rose to his feet. Once he had gained his footing, he reached around his back, pulling one of a few small metal ladles out from his belt. Then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, he turned to face the girl and held the ladle out to her, handle first.

"Would you like to help?"

For a moment she hesitated, not knowing how to respond. Even as she stood motionless, eyes fixed on him, knife held openly between them, he stood patiently waiting for her to move. It was almost as if he didn't see the knife she was holding.

After what felt like a small eternity to her, she rose to a standing position. Did he just not think she was a threat? Keeping her knife trained on the man, she slowly approached, watching careful for any movement he was going to make. Though she felt no hostility from him, that was little comfort. It was still to his advantage to hurt her.

That being said, either the man was an excellent actor, or he was hopelessly defenseless. With as much of a struggle as it was for him to just stand up, she doubted she would have any trouble if he tried anything. But even so she couldn't quite bring herself to trust him. Even as she thought that, as she approached weapon first, he didn't shy away. He showed no sign of aggressiveness, or even a sense of self-preservation.

As she approached within arms length of him, she swallowed nervously. Really, she had no reason to help him either. He was an enemy to her, a threat. But she had come, without permission, into what seemed to be his space. She was an intruder here, in more than one way. Even so, he seemed at least to be offering her some modicum of respect, some small bit of camaraderie. And because of that, she didn't have it in her to ignore his request.

With both of her hands full - one holding the knife, the other its sheath - she had no free hands to take the proffered ladle. But even as she was in striking distance with her weapon bared, the man didn't so much as step back. He just quietly, motionlessly, waited for her to accept the ladle.

After a long moment of hard thought, she slowly slid her knife back into its sheath. Seeing the man still hadn't moved, she reached out and took the ladle from his hand, quickly jumping back two steps once she had.

As if he hadn't noticed her paranoid behaviour, the man simply nodded in thanks before pulling a second ladle from his belt and turning back to the pool of water.

Wordlessly, she watched as the man hunched down and dipped the ladle into the pool. Struggling once again to his feet, he nevertheless managed to get up without spilling the water. He then stepped over to one of the clay planters and gently sprinkled the water on the flowers before turning back to the pool for more water.

As he went for his second round, the girl finally worked up the courage to follow suit. Not willing to let go of her weapon, she got down on her knees in front of the pool of water and filled her ladle with one hand. Trying to spill as little water as possible, she stood up and brought the ladle over to a planter on the opposite side of the pool from the old man. Just as she saw him do, she gently sprinkled the water among the flowers, watching it quickly seep into the soil beneath them.

Without a word passing between them, the two continued their work. Even with the fairly large number of planters, with two of them they were able to finish watering all of the flowers in a fairly short time.

The job finished, she handed the ladle back to the man who accepted it with a nod of thanks. Placing the ladles gently within one of the empty buckets, the man then sat down on the grass in front of the pool, looking out over the flowers. Some space away, the girl sat down as well, finally laying her knife down in the grass.

For a while, the two sat silently, looking out over the garden. Eventually, the man broke the silence, speaking quietly without turning to her.

"I don't mind you staying here, but it is getting late. Don't you have somewhere to be?"

Looking up at the sky, the girl grimaced. Sure enough, the sky was beginning to darken. It would likely be only an hour or so before sunset. Though she was still anxious about what that meant for her, she had at least calmed down enough that was wasn't panicking over it.

"...I guess. But I have no idea where to go."

"Ahh. No clues so far?"

"I think...I think I'm looking for the real Hassan. But that's all I know."

The man crossed his arms with a thoughtful hum. "The real Hassan. That sounds like quite the task. Is there anything I can do to help?"

Blinking in surprise, the girl turned to look at him. "...why?"

As if equally dumbfounded, the man replied. "Why not? You helped me, did you not?"

For a long moment, she stared at the man, but as usual his masked face gave no clues as to what he was thinking.

"Aren't...aren't I your enemy, though?" she asked softly, as if afraid just asking the question might provoke hostility.

Instead, however, it just prompted a laugh from the old man.

"Enemy? You came into my garden and didn't harm a single flower, did you not? You could have attacked me a dozen times and never did! You spent your time helping me when your life is on the line, and even when I mentioned it you are still here, talking with me. How could I think of you as an enemy?"

"Because...if I survive..." In all honesty, she wasn't really sure how it worked. All she knew was that her being here was bad for everyone else. That her being alive reduced everyone else's chances at reaching their dream.

But even so, the man only laughed at the thought of her being an enemy.

"No, little one. Anyone who sits with me in my sanctuary is a friend. And a friend is worth more than any such nonsense of being 'real.' I'm sure you've spoken with others. Perhaps they were not as honest with you about their feelings. But I'm sure they feel the same way as I do. Well, most of them."

Even without finishing her sentence, the old man saw right through to the heart of the problem...and promptly dismissed it as nothing.

"Besides," he continued, "doesn't it make more sense to make this place better, rather than just dream endlessly about some foreign world?"

Looking around the clearing, the man's sanctuary, she spoke with a bit more energy. "Is that why you take care of this place?"

The man laughed again. "Yes, of course! That's why I take care of this place. That's why I made this place. A small piece of paradise within a vast desert of discontented souls. Well, paradise for me at least. Most of the others seem more than happy in the city outside. They find their joy in each other, you see."

"And you don't?"

"Of course I do. But I also find joy in building something. Even as old and frail as I am, I can make something all of my own, that everyone can enjoy. Even if no one else does."

The girl rested her chin on her knees, looking at the pool of water in front of her. The surface was calm and silent, as if they had never disturbed it by drawing from it earlier. Building that pool must have been a task of tremendous difficulty for a single person, especially one as old and weak as he was. And it wasn't just the pool. How had he managed to find good soil for the plants in a desert like this? Nevermind the grass and flowers themselves. It must have been a nightmare just to acquire everything here. And keeping it alive in a city that was in the middle of the desert must have been even more difficult. And yet he persisted. He succeeded. He thought it was worth the effort, and seemed even happy just to share the result of that work with someone.

Even though she was supposed to be his enemy.

Even though he was supposed to be better off if she was dead.

...was that really true?

The way the man spoke, the way he acted made it seem like that was all a lie. Of course, it was possible he was just trying to trick her, to sabotage her efforts...but this whole conversation started because he was urging her to go and succeed, didn't it?

Maybe...maybe she could trust him.

And if she could trust him...maybe she could trust the others, too. Maybe they hadn't been trying to hinder her. Maybe she could trust what they said.

The girl sighed. Even if she could trust what they said, that didn't tell her what she needed to do. And with the rapidly darkening sky serving as a constant reminder of how limited her time was, it seemed like it might not matter even if she did know.

"Do you know where I'm supposed to look?" she asked, voice low. She doubted this man could help her at all, but he did offer. It seemed silly not to at least ask him.

For a long moment, the man remained silent. "Sorry, but I don't know. But I think you do."

"I do?" Confused the girl looked up at him again. Though he didn't meet her gaze, he continued.

"Yes. All of us are different. All of us had different paths to the truth. But there was one thing that all of us had in common." Though his face was invisible behind the mask, as he turned to face her, she couldn't help but feel like he was smiling. "All of us, every single one, had the answer. I have seen many people, many hundreds come through this world. Most fail to survive their first day. But everyone, even those who failed, had everything they needed to succeed. Not a single one failed because they 'didn't know.' So I'm sure you have the answer now as well. Even if you don't realize it."

She had the answer? Had she missed something? Had she made a mistake somewhere, or overlooked some critical detail?

You were born from his mind, like all of us were...

Suddenly, her eyes went wide.

Everyone in this world was born from the true Hassan. That meant she, too, came from him. That was who she came from...but where? Of course, that had to be the first place she remembered.

The place she had woken up.

The alley beside the blacksmith. The place she met the cloaked man, whose dagger was sitting on the ground beside her.

If she had come from the true Hassan, and she had started in the alley beside the blacksmith, then he had to be there.

Find me!

In an instant, she shot to her feet. It was a flimsy bet, at best. But for a reason she couldn't quite understand, she felt she could take that bet. She felt that had to be the answer. In any case, whether it was correct or not, she didn't have the time to think of anything else. Snatching up the dagger from where it lay on the ground, she ran to the exit of the clearing, the crumbled down wall that led to back into the desert city.

For a moment she stopped, turning back to face the old man. He, too, had turned to watch her go.

"It seems you figured something out," he spoke, the smile invisible on his face evident in his voice.

"Yes. Thanks to you." Looking out over the sanctuary one last time, she returned his smile, speaking with a confidence she knew was unfounded, and yet seemed so much more sure than anything else she had felt that day. "Do you mind if I come back to visit?"

The man laughed. "Please, do! I could always use a helping hand to tend the garden!"

The girl nodded. "Then I'll see you tomorrow."

"Tomorrow," the man chuckled with a nod of thanks.

Turning from the small fragment of peace, knife in hand, she sprinted off into the alley. She felt no need to hide the knife anymore, nor did she feel a need to hide from the people who she was soon to come across. She had no time to worry about them - all she could do was focus on getting back as soon as possible.


The city around her was a blur.

Dashing through crowds, cutting down alleyways, she didn't even stop to consider the masked faces she was speeding by.

The one blessing she had was that she knew her way around the city. Even cutting through different parts she had never seen, everything looked familiar to her. She didn't know why, but she didn't care either. Every step she took, her mind raced ahead and plotted out the next turn to take, the next landmark to look for, and how far she was from her objective.

The sun, creeping ever downward, had already reached the horizon. The orange light of dusk filled the city, casting wide shadows across the dusty streets.

Earlier, she might have been concerned with them. Maybe someone was hiding in the shadows, waiting to attack her. Or maybe she should stick to the shadows, use them as cover to avoid being seen. But now she didn't care either way. She had no time to hide, and if anyone attacked her...well, that's what the knife was for.

As her mind raced, mapping out the city ahead of her, she nervously bit her lip. It was going to be close. It was just a little too far. But as small as she was, she couldn't run any faster, nevermind her struggling lungs and aching legs. She needed another way to make up time.

She needed help.

Breathing heavily, she stopped. Where could she get help? Who could she get to help her?

Who would help her?

Shaking her head to dispel the doubts creeping in, she pushed down her exhaustion and broke off into a run again, this time heading for the closest main street. She had been taking side roads and back alleys before, both because they would be less crowded and because they were a more direct route. But now she needed a place full of people.

As she turned onto the main street, though, she was somewhat disappointed. The street was no where near as crowded as it had been earlier in the day. There were so few people, it almost seemed like the city had been abandoned. Like most of the denizens of the town had just disappeared.

Without stopping to complain, she took off down the main street. She didn't have time to catch her breath, nor would she make it if she doubled back and returned to her direct route. Her only chance at success was to find someone...anyone.

Before long, the street opened up into a square, slightly busier than the street she had come from. Even so, there was still only a handful of people.

As she ran into the square, she faltered, falling to her knees. She didn't know how long she had been running, but it was long enough that she was starting to get dizzy from the exertion. Her chest hurt, her lungs desperate for air. Her legs hurt, finding no relief even now that she was sitting on the ground. Her head spun, making it difficult for her to see anything going on around her.

She needed help. She needed a way to move faster, and a way to catch her breath. She wasn't really sure how anyone here was supposed to provide that for her, but it was her only chance at success.

Balling her fists in frustration, she pushed herself back up to her feet. She needed more time. She had taken too long. Memories of everything she had done that day raced through her mind, as if something inside her was pointing and laughing. 'Look, look at all the places you could have saved time. If you had only figured it out earlier. If only you had understood.'

She remembered the restaurant, everyone talking to her, where they told her everything they knew about the true Hassan.

'If only you had just listened.'

Looking around the market square, she rubbed the tears from her eyes. She had no time for this. She had no time to regret the mistakes she made earlier. She had no time to be exhausted. She had to move. She had to get back to the-

Just before she took off running again, she froze. Across the market square, her eyes landed on a giant of a man, startling mostly because she had almost missed him.

"Why are you...?" Through heaving breaths, she couldn't finish her thought out loud. But even as she spoke, the thoughts all clicked into place.

This was the place she had first met him. The square where she had come across that mad preacher, where she had first spoke to that motherly woman. Where that giant had saved her.

And now he was standing not twenty feet away, desperately searching through the crowd.

Was he looking for something?

...was he looking for her?

Without another thought, she stumbled her way through the thin crowd to stand in front of him. Now that she had come to a stop, she couldn't make even half the speed she had been running with before, but that didn't matter.

She needed help, and she had found it.

As she ran up to him, the giant jumped in surprise. As if unsure how to approach her, he crooned wordlessly at her, as if trying to be comforting and apologize at the same time.

"I'm...sorry..." Struggling to talk through her heaving breaths, she put her hands on her knees to stop herself from collapsing. "Sorry I...ran way...before..."

Kneeling down in front of her, the man grunted apologetically. Knowing he wasn't going to say anything, she looked up and met his gaze. Judging from his behaviour, it seemed he had in fact been looking for her.

"Sorry, but...I need help. Can you...help me?"

Without a moment's hesitation, the giant pounded his chest with a confident growl. Without waiting for any more confirmation, she leapt up on his shoulder, using his lowered knee as a springboard.

Pointing a finger towards one of the square's many exits, she took one more deep breath before shouting.


Slowly, the giant rose to his feet, as if taking care for his new charge. Confident that she was secure on his shoulder, lowered his body slightly, bracing himself.

And then he ran.

With shouts of surprise, the various other masked people of the city leapt out of the way of the charging giant. Like a wild beast that had broken free of its chains, he almost flew down the dusty city streets. With his enormous size, with legs longer than she was tall, he easily ran more than twice as fast as she could sprint. As if she was nothing but a feather on his back, he tore through the streets of the city, not slowing down for the other pedestrians, only briefly looking up when she called out a new direction.

It had taken the majority of the morning for her to make it to the market square from the blacksmith's shop, but that had been at a fairly slow pace. As small as she was, and as careful as she was being not to stand out - not to mention she had been more or less wandering aimlessly - she had been anything but quick. But with the speed they were going now, they would make it in no time at all. They had already passed dozens of buildings, and there was no doubt in her mind that her giant friend could bowl straight through any obstacle that might get in their way.

Looking over her shoulder at the setting sun, her breathing froze. Only a sliver of the sun remained above the horizon, the majority of the city now in darkness. Only the rooftops were still lit. Though they would certainly reach the blacksmith in record time, she had overestimated how much time she had left. She needed to go faster. But how could she move even faster than the tremendous speed they were traveling at now?

...no, faster wasn't the answer. She needed to make the route shorter. If they followed the winding road all the way there, they wouldn't make it in time. Her gigantic companion was too large to effectively race through the alleyways as he did the main streets, but even if he could, they were only slightly less winding and circuitous as the streets themselves. She needed a way to go straight there, and neither the streets nor the alleys would suffice.


At her sudden command, the giant lurched to a halt, looking up at her with a confused grunt.

They had only been running for a few minutes, but it was enough for her to catch her breath a little bit. It would have to be enough.

"Throw me! Up there!" she shouted, pointing up at a nearby roof. The street spent too much time winding around the buildings, and the alleys had too many twists and turns to make good time through. But if she were on top of the buildings, she could run in more or less a straight line.

Without hesitation, the giant walked up to the edge of the building. But as she moved to climb off his shoulder, he grabbed her hands and placed them back around his neck. Then, he kneeled down slightly, braced himself....and jumped.

Without any warning, he leapt into the air, grabbing the edge of the building's roof with one hand. Using his other hand to hold the girl steady on his shoulder, he swung himself up onto the roof in one smooth motion. In another moment he was back on his feet, and the two were looking over the rooftops.

Momentarily, the girl was startled by the sudden ascent. It hadn't even occurred to her that a man of his enormous size could be so agile, yet he seemed to have reached the roof almost effortlessly, all while she remained perched on his shoulder. But as she stared at him in awe, he looked up at her and grunted to pull her from her thoughts.

"Oh, right." Remembering the reason she had wanted to get on the roof, she quickly scanned the rooftops, looking for her destination. "That way!" Pointing off towards the blacksmith, she gave her instructions, and the giant answered them.

Just as fast as he had soared through the streets, he bounded off across the rooftops. Effortlessly, he sped over the city, crossing entire buildings in one or two strides, leaping across the gaps between them like they were nothing. And as the last sliver of sun gleamed over the horizon, the girl felt her heart soar.

They had made it.

"There! Right there!"

At her instruction, the giant leapt down from the rooftops, landing at the edge of the market square across from the blacksmith's shop. Without hesitating for a moment, the girl similarly leapt off of his shoulder, stumbling as she hit the ground.

Stumbling, but not falling.

"Thank you!" she shouted over her shoulder, stopping only a moment to pay respect for the giant that had enabled her to make it in time. But that was all the time she had for him - without waiting for a reply, she forced one final burst of speed from her exhausted legs.

Sprinting across the square, she ran into the alley beside the blacksmith, easily recognized by the strange scratch marks still evident in the stone wall.

She had done it. With a triumphant smile on her face, she looked down the alleyway. She had made it in time. She had found...


Slowly, the smile slipped from her face. Once again breathing heavily, her legs finally tapped of all they had to offer, gave out beneath her as she dropped to her knees.

In front of her was an empty alleyway. There was nothing there but stone and sand.

She had been so sure. This had to be the answer. There was no where else it could be. There was no way it could be anywhere else. And yet she couldn't deny that before her was nothing, just an empty alley with bare stone walls and an unkempt dirt path.


Had she missed something?

After all that confidence, after she had been so sure, had she really failed?

Pushing down her desire to cry out in frustration, she reached out to the nearest wall and pulled herself to her feet. She couldn't give up. Not now. This had to be it. Maybe he was just a little farther down. Maybe he was just around the next corner. She had to keep going.

But as she took her first step down the alleyway, she was interrupted by the sound of a bell.

Heavy and somber, deep and foreboding, the sound of the evening bell brought the whole city to a halt.

Time stopped.

Like a bucket of cold water had been dumped over her head, her thoughts came to a sudden stop. Her desperate determination, her panic, her frustration. Everything disappeared, swallowed up by a dread beyond words.

It wasn't a dread at having failed. She didn't feel like she had failed at all. Her drive to find the real Hassan-i Sabbah was still pushing at her even now to run down the alley. But even so, as the evening bell rang out across the city, terror beyond words froze her aching legs.

Even if she knew salvation lay just around the corner in front of her, it was of no help to her now. Without even looking, she could understand. Like some kind of bizarre sixth sense, she just knew that she was being watched. Behind her, watching her back, was death itself. And she knew she could do nothing to escape it.

As the sound of the last peal of the bell faded, a voice as deep as the night sky called out to her from behind.

"Step forward."

Even knowing it meant the end of her. Even knowing it was the voice of certain death calling out to her. Even knowing her only chance to survive was to run, run away as fast as her aching legs could carry her.

She turned around.

Afraid to look up, she slowly shuffled back towards the square, eyes locked on the ground in front of her feet.

She knew her only chance at survival was to run away, but even then, she knew disobeying this voice would be the end of her. No more sure an end than obeying would be, but certainly a much swifter one.

"Raise your head." The voice commanded her again. Though she was filled with dread, though she was so tired she could barely stand, though she was so afraid her desperate lungs could barely breathe, she complied. Lifting her head, she gazed at the source of the voice.

She could not call it a man or a woman. Neither its appearance nor its voice gave any impression of something human. Standing almost as tall her her giant companion from earlier, it stood clad in armour blacker than even the darkening evening sky. A tattered cloak hung from its shoulders, failing to cover the thing's imposing figure. Held in front, point resting on the ground, was an enormous greatsword. Its blade, longer than she was tall, was marred with blood stains, dry in some place while fresh and still dripping in others.

Not a single inch of skin was visible under its armour, not even on its face. Not that the figure was wearing a mask - indeed, the white skull mask characteristic of this city was no where to be seen on it. Instead, its entire head was itself a skull, etched and worn, as if a testament to the thing's mastery over this place. As if to say, it had been dead longer than this entire city had been alive.

And not even death could stop it.

Which made sense, she reasoned. After all, what could this figure be, other than death itself?

Where the figure had come from was beyond her imagination. She certainly wouldn't have missed it if it had been there when they first arrived. But no matter what objection she could raise, here it was, as if it had just materialized out of the air with the ring of the bell.

With eyes like blue fire, the figure looked down upon her. Its gaze held no emotion - neither warmth nor cold, neither compassion nor contempt. And though she knew with dreadful certainty that it had come with the sole intent of taking her life, it made no move towards her.

"You know you are an intruder in this world." The figure spoke again. It was not a question. The girl could only nod in response.

"You know you have no right to exist here." Once again, she could only nod. Of course she had no right to be here. She didn't even really know how she got here in the first place. But standing before this monster, she felt like she had no right to live at all. Just being in its presence, she could feel her life was forfeit.

"You know you are nothing but a weakness." Again, it was not a question. She didn't really understand what it meant by that, but nodded anyways. She was just a child, with no memories of who she was or where she came from. What could she be other than a burden? What could she do other than drag everyone around her down?

"And yet, you do not want to die." As if to prove his previous statement, tears began to run down her face as she nodded one last time. She was not crying out of fear, nor out of frustration. Really, she wasn't sure where the tears were coming from.

Tearing her eyes from the dark figure before her, she looked around the square, dozens of white masks staring back at her. Gathered in the square, silent and unmoving, were what must have been close to a hundred people, all watching the girl and the demon. None of them gave any indication as to what they were thinking, nor did they give any impression they would take her side if she resisted.

As she looked across the crowd, more than one familiar person looked back. The giant who had saved her twice. The woman, who had taken her in even if for a short while. The dancer and her companion, who in their own way had helped her learn more about her situation, whether they liked it or not. The shopkeeper who had given her food, despite not wanting to help her. The blacksmith who had found her first, and the cloaked man who had given her the dagger she was even know gripping tightly. The preacher who had threatened her life. Even the old man she had met at the garden, with his empty wooden buckets, was standing among dozens of others, watching quietly and motionlessly.

It felt like everyone in the city had gathered, as if to watch her trial. As if to see whether she had succeeded or failed.

Everyone was here.

All of us together are Hassan, each of us simply a fragment of the whole.

Somehow, through the overwhelming dread drowning out her thoughts, the woman's words resurfaced in her mind. And despite herself, the girl smiled ironically through her tears.

All of them together were Hassan. And now they were all here, all in front of her. The true Hassan was standing just in front of her. She had done it. She had found the true Hassan after all, with only this incarnation of death standing between them.

'Only.' That thought was almost enough to make her laugh.

Somewhere deep down, she felt like it was unfair. The thing she had been looking for so desperately was standing right in front of her, but now she had no way of reaching it.

"Then step forward," the skull-faced specter commanded, "and accept your judgment."

Reluctantly, she returned her gaze to the figure of death standing before her. The only thing standing between her and her goal. But as she made to comply, as her eyes returned to that terrifying visage, she stopped.

Quickly, she glanced out again at the crowd of masked faces, at the true Hassan, watching her.


Though she couldn't see their faces, she could tell from their posture. None of them were satisfied that she was about to meet her end. None of them were upset either. It was not even cold indifference - they were just waiting to see the result.

You aren't Hassan. Not yet anyway.

Returning her gaze to the figure before her, she used her free hand to wipe the tears from her face. Summoning every ounce of courage from the depths of her soul, she looked up at the monster and shook her head.


Even the sound of her heartbeat seemed to disappear in the wake of her declaration. Neither the onlooking Hassans nor the specter before her showed any reaction to her words.

The answer was here. Right in front of her was the true Hassan-i Sabbah, the one who she was looking for. The one who had the power to save her, to make her real. Even if death itself was standing before her, even if her end seemed inevitable, she couldn't give up when her goal was so close.

The moments stretched on, the last of the fading sunlight slowly leaving the city. As the city darkened, the figure finally spoke again.

"You would reject judgment?" There was no anger in its voice, no enmity. It was not an accusation, but only a simple question, the unspoken truth behind the words clear.

'You choose to die resisting, rather than with grace?'

You were born from his mind, like all of us were.

But the girl shook her head again. "No. I will accept judgment. But not from you."

The figure continued to stand motionless before her. The two of them were the only ones not wearing masks. Yes, she was an intruder here.

But so was the figure before her.

Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, gripping her knife so tightly it hurt her fingers, she stepped forward.

"I am Hassan-i Sabbah," she spoke, unable to keep the quiver from her voice. "I am the Old Man of the Mountain. This world belongs to me, and I belong to this world." Unlike her voice, she stepped confidently, walking up to and around the specter of death without sparing it another glance. Though she half-expected it to cut her down as she stepped by, it remained motionless.

But until he accepts you as part of himself, you are just an intruder.

"An outsider like you has no right to judge me," she continued as she came to a stop, now standing almost back to back with the figure. "If I am to be judged, it will be by them."

Though she heard the sound of armour clinking as the figure turned to face her, she did not move. Instead, facing the true Hassan, she spoke one more time.

"I am Hassan-i Sabbah. The Old Man of the Mountain. I am one of you, and together we are one. Will you accept me?"

If there was anyone that could judge her, it was not the incarnation of death behind her. It was the true Hassan. It was the culmination of every citizen of this world.

She had struggled for the entire day, and this collection of masked Hassans had watched her. They had seen her awake with no knowledge of who or where she was, saw her push herself to find out more. They saw her make friends and lose them, then accept that she had been the one who was in the wrong.

They had seen her struggle with every ounce of her strength to find the real Hassan in the final hours of the day, pushing herself to her absolute limit...and they had reached out to help her time and time again.

The blacksmith pushed her to go, to avoid staying in one place where she would learn nothing.

The cloaked man gave her a dagger, to protect her from the dangers he knew she would face.

The preacher had threatened her, pushing her just hard enough to prompt the others into acting in her defense.

So many others explained things to her that they didn't have to, even to their own detriment.

And in those last desperate moments, the giant had carried her on his own shoulders, closed the gap just enough that she could reach this place.

Perhaps she was a threat to them. Perhaps they would be better off if she disappeared, if this specter cut her down where she stood. But they had already reached out to help her so many times. Was it so much to ask that they help her one more time?

"Very well," the darkness spoke from behind her. "Hassan of a Hundred Faces," its voice rose, filling the square, "you have been called to pass judgment. From sunrise to sunset, you have beset this child with all manner of tests. What is your conclusion?"

Somehow, despite already shaking with fear, shock managed to punch through the curtain of fear.


They had been testing her?

Suddenly her entire view of the day's events shifted in perspective. Though she realized her error in thinking they saw her as an enemy, she had at least thought that she was a threat to the interests of the gathered Hassans. But that wasn't the case at all.

They weren't watching her as she ran past because she was a threat. They were watching her because they were evaluating her.

They weren't helping her so that she would survive. They were helping her to see how she would react to their help.

They weren't gathered here to see the results of her test. They were here to determine them.

For a time, nothing happened. Even if the days events had all been a test, if what they had told her was true, accepting her would still be against their best interest. If she was alive, she might steal their chance at reaching their dream. At becoming 'real.' But even so, in this world, there was no one who could pass judgment but them.

Only Hassan-i Sabbah could choose whether to accept or reject her.

Finally, one of the masked audience spoke.

"Even fearing her own death, she acted bravely and without error." The first to speak was the mad preacher. There was none of the hate that filled his voice the last time they had met, no contempt for her that he had shown before. In a flat, emotionless tone, he finished. "Pass."

"She has shown wise judgment, even while lost and afraid." The next to speak was the old man she had met in the garden sanctuary. There was no warmth in his voice, but neither was it cold. "She avoided unnecessary violence, and acted selflessly to help someone who could not hope to return the favour. Pass."

"Good instinct for danger. Pass." The cloaked man who had given her her knife, still wrapped in darkness, proclaimed his opinion curtly.

"She is a good judge of character, knowing who to avoid and who to stay with," the dancer from the inn spoke. "Pass."

"She showed an excellent ability to gather information, even under extremely limiting conditions. Pass." An old woman she didn't recognize spoke.

One by one, each of the masked men and women spoke up. People she had never seen didn't hesitate to comment, speaking with as much detail as those she had met. And every time one of them did, the dread inside her lifted slightly, like each masked person was lifting a chain from her heart as they spoke.

The procession of comments continued, first a dozen voices, then two dozen, then more. As they spoke, the final darkness of night enveloped the city, and the sky slowly but surely filled with stars, as if countless heavenly spectators were now looking down at the ceremony. On and on they continued, not a single person raising an objection. After what felt like hours, the voices finally started to dwindle off, the gaps between comments becoming longer and longer. Finally, after a long moment of silence, one last person spoke.

"She wasn't afraid to rely on others in her time of need," the woman who had stood up for her against the preacher spoke. "She never gave up, even at the last second, when everything seemed lost. Pass."

As she finished speaking, her giant friend, who had saved her twice already, stepped forward. Flicking his hands in signs again, the woman interpretted.

"'Even before the image of the Great Founder, she remained strong and courageous. She did not flee, nor did she submit herself to defeat against an impossible enemy. Pass.'"

With that, every Hassan...the true Hassan had spoken, and the last chain had been lifted. Turning to face the monster behind her, she looked up at it with a new confidence, almost enough to match the terror the black figure inspired.

Silently, the specter returned her resolute gaze. Though it wore no mask, its scarred face was no different from one, its thoughts unreadable.

"Do you understand," the figure finally spoke, its voice deep and imperious, yet void of hostility, "to be Hassan-i Sabbah means to put your neck beneath my blade, should you bring that name any disgrace?"

"I understand." The girl spoke clearly and without hesitation.

"Do you understand," the figure spoke again, "to be Hassan-i Sabbah means to walk a path soaked in blood for all your days?"

"I understand," she replied, not a declaration of her knowledge, but an acceptance of her responsibility. "No matter what path we take, I will follow it."

After a short pause, the figure spoke a third time. "Do you understand, to be Hassan-i Sabbah...to live here, means to forsake your own salvation for all eternity?"

At that, she hesitated. Though barely perceptible, she could tell the figure's voice had changed. Though it was still cold and emotionless, she could tell that within its words this time lay a hint of caution.

This is your last chance. Turn back now, or give up that chance forever.

It was an echo of what the preacher had said earlier that day. Death...dying here would be the closest thing to freedom she could ever know. She had no idea what to expect if she were to take up the name of Hassan-i Sabbah, but it was clear from the figure's words that she would almost certainly regret it.

After taking a deep breath, she replied with every ounce of confidence she could muster. "I understand."

But even so, if her options were life or death, then the answer was obvious.

A last long moment of silence passed between them.

"Very well." The figure spoke one last time, neither disappointment nor satisfaction in its voice. "Then carry out your duty with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength."

With that, the figure began to dissolve. As if carried away by a soft wind, though the air was still, the specter slowly disappeared into a cloud of black dust and sand. In silence, she watched with the rest of the Hassans as her certain death disappear before their eyes.

...before her eyes.

Finally, the figure had disappeared entirely. For a short moment, the blue fire in its eyes lingered after, but that too gently faded away, leaving the city cloaked in a darkness lit only by the stars above. Slowly, the girl - Hassan stepped forward, to the place where the figure had been standing. In its place lay a small, bone-white mask, somewhat reminiscent of a skull.

Picking it up from where it lay on the ground, she looked at it for a long moment. Though it was light as a feather, it felt heavier than anything she had ever held. Turning to face the crowd behind her, she held the mask up to her face. For a second she hesitated, the words of the specter vivid in her mind.

Could she protect the name of Hassan-i Sabbah from disgrace?

Could she survive, walking a path of bloodshed and violence for the rest of her life?

Could she persevere, knowing the only hope she had was the hope she created with her own two hands?

But after taking one last deep breath, she placed the mask over her face and stepped towards the crowd. Maybe she would fail, falter on the path, collapse under the weight of her new responsibility. But she had been tested and judged by the true Hassan-i Sabbah.

And she had been found worthy.

"I am Hassan-i Sabbah," she spoke with a hundred voices, "the Old Man of the Mountain."

She had passed their tests, and now she was one of them. Even if she didn't know what the future held, didn't know if she could survive the trials she would face, the true Hassan-i Sabbah believed she could. And that was enough for her.

Though none of them could see it under the mask, she smiled as she finished speaking alone.

"I hope we can all get along."

Master and servants have been known to share dreams. Yet, when this master enters the dream of a psyche utterly shattered, that of the Hundred Faced Hassan, the dream becomes real. Finding themselves in a city where everyone’s face is obscured, where everyone is hassan and no one is, they must find a way to awaken by finding the true Hassan, or be chased and destroyed by [something]. This fic can star either Kirei, or Gudao/ko, or an OC. What is chasing the dreamer is up to the writer, but it can be anything from a dream monster to a Hassan, and the being itself can be a representation of what keeps the mind shattered, or the mind’s way of exterminating unneeded personalities, or a defense mechanism. The “true hassan” is also up to you. It could be anyone, it could be everyone, it could not even be a person in the dream, but an object, or a concept. Get creative!

December 25th, 2017, 02:47 PM
He does not Speak.

He does not speak. He does. Not. nor even if did could be Heard above the noise of crowds not
speak nor even whisper nor faintest cries in deep frosted hours of night nor morning.
Quiet mind quiet dreams ; questions asked, unanswered, naught but silence fills the hours. always most
troubling His absence now and Yesterday and week, no month, no time and again before this moment

search sparkling sky of false Stars on swagged strings and find only

sounds of revelry roaring up in cheers and song from passerby and organized group a like.

Crunch. Crunch. Snow swirls and dance. Ahead, behind. Seeking ground. Seeking place to rest, holy
virgin snow on rooftops no room in the inn. Celebration of the Birth, approaching. Whisper wind
vainly seeks wise men ears, directions, Directions


Soul lament internal now— not His—

Silence. Noise. Silence. What to do , with Silence.

Angels we have heard on high fill instead in market Square. Jostle chorus unrehearsed, small booke of
song suggest up words; for dozen matching scarf stop few.

Silent Night, Holy Night O Holy Father I hear of Thee

but hear not from Thee

nor see Thee

but for in beauty of Creation


Possess, posses. Signs and banners proclaime And men women tiny toddles in tiny shoes bustle to heed
call so strong such calls packs carried full to brim heavy weight with Greed. Bundled coats brave cold
possess possess possess. And why not possess Think they where abundance clearly reign. Steal triumph
selfish when two wish for item one No serving nor love of neighbor Feet trampled ; not washed.

Deck the halls boughs Idolatry. Idolatry. All abundance idolatry. Find not Him in midst pagan
pageantry. Graven image to each compass point, sun rise and set to misdirect. Nature once to serve god
offer nourishment to Servants ,guiding star to swaddled manger snatched from heavens anointing not
Princely babe but fir.

Forgive them Father they know not what they do. Forgave already have must, must, peace on earth
good will to Men. Peace, stillness. Silence now even betray no softest tears.

Needled branches , pricking tree, softer thorns, sap drip like past future blood on Calvary they sell in
small patch lots with tented merchants Or in windows of large buildings of imposing faces covered with
false froste , adorn in ice crystal They say they boast Swarofvssi and beam proud to trees, so
proud of trees, trees to be gotten in all places and to any place can be brought. Trees to be wrapped
with tiny glass candles, stars on strings always strings, not yarn but something like so
many in these trees and other baubles blown of glass and material do know not what. At first so pretty,
but so many, everywhere. no Room for quiet, no room for Him. In all spaces, only trees, trees.
And Boxes. And Boughs. And Bows.

False stars flicker but do not extinguish. Colored clear. False, as Lucifer. in Eden. Fallen Lucifer in Eden
tempting to Eve with promise knowing between good and evil, yet here

Where now the voice that weeps?

Good and evil, evil becomes good, they are images of the same, flushed face and happy friend but
hearts eaten away, moth-eaten by good -evil , evil good ,sin,- become beauty and light become dark.
much light, all around such light and bright but driving further, further from Him to darkest night.

patterne stars dotted stars tree stars

stars illuminate wares, wares of all kinds, man and man in markets wares, some baubles some not -
Know some, many others so strange so new, never seen in all travels and life,

Chocolates, pretty mamselle? Hand-crafted, you see.

Choc-cholettes? Tiny child near partake, and exclaime- Ah, there, see see, sweets. No, no no, unright, it
Still the hour of fasting, Advent not yet the Nativity, not now, no , indulginses later, not yet.
But so many food all around, so many smells Temptations designed for man’s great weakness of body ,
Fragrance wearing on soul resolve,

Apple. Spice. Bread. Sweets. Cheese.

Sleigh bells ring, are you listening? I am listening, I seek Thee still. But where.

Not yet the Nativity. Not yet, not yet.



Bow head. Fold hands. Has not this world gone asunder? Kingdom come thy will be done
on Earth as it is


Coin. Coin passes. Coin passes hand to. Hand. All around community is naught but coin and where coin
lives in pocket to hand to hand to purse between. This man, that woman, some coin, some small
agreeing pass presentment stiff small card. Give, buy, take. Merry face, yes, merry soul—do not No.
ring a ling a ling ting a ling coins bells bells for coin for bells for trinket.

Not gift of heart but gift of thing. Mother, father, friend; sack in hand. Paper money paper bonds paper
bags hold tightly; gift, ribbon, string.

Seen againe the glutton man of red, beard of whitest white. Againe, still—still, againe? Another,
another, another. All the same, all differing. Actors without stage, spilling over in robe and girth of
excess. Boom, Laugh- Ho Ho Holly jolly comes just once a year. Disciples green. Crowds to see, Crowds
around , crowd around Suffer the little children come unto-

Soft hand on arm of nearby mother. No, do not. Madame. Do not. But she look upon then away and
hustle faster to the man they say He sees you when you’re sleeping He knows when you’re awake This
man of claws and push push, go child.

No, little one. Only God sees.

Plea is lost.

Mistletoe! Young man just there, grins he, puckered lips and motion to sprig. Green leaf red ribbon hang
in hand twixt thumb, index, white berry ball contrast

Irreverent lad, hand swat hastily away, to think it, how could- no, not this nor other maiden, offer freely
lips formed for prayer. Yet girlish giggle from gaggle behind, chitter chatter shiver in cold and delight.
Blush on face though all wave ‘way, coy and coquettes they,

unseemly and unchaste,


Lost childe. Lost souls.

They’re taking Christ from Christmas, you know. to left Fine Lady points. A sign in shop. ‘X-Mas’, see.
Christ. From Christmas. Gone.


Was this Paris? Is this France?

wrong wrong wrong

His Country, won for Him, holy war to put home heaven aright but They had disappeared Him still into
pathways of twinkled lights and boxes in beribboned paper adored with trees and foils and candies.
They have Disappeared him He is Gone He is Silent. And silence perhaps they deserved for They
sought not further in quiet but increased in noises of all types, distraction of all shape and color and
speed. Wheels that spin and bells that do not cease and devices that gaily congratulate men of snow for
Witchcrafts. They have transgressed against the Lord our God and are left to damning revelry awaiting
the desert as Israelites awaiting , abandon thought of Moses. Yes silence was Theirs to earn and keep,
but mine, why also mine?

How also this Silence brought down upon this head?

as with Job, am I also?

Am again in a cell, a cell .erected in Godlessness. Cell, this time, dignity lacking, solemn reflection lost.
Gilded cell with veneer of cheer kept warm with bags, bags of things of toys of food of plenty, JOY to the
WORLD but for those needing while in corners, off hidden or plain sight unseen, poor and pious shiver in
cold nights, forgotten as the babe in straw and manger. A cell destroying Light with light that would not
cease but was not Holy. Cold. Outside, inside, outside-in. Watch breath bloom in puffs ahead; froste,
also, from within.

dost Thou not lament?

As Issac now bound stone and rope As Ruth go unto Boaz, Hold fast to The Word .
Constant is The Word ; It is the Divine. To Adam, To Abraham, to Joseph, to Mary Chosen see
Him first. Counsel for the Lost. He does not Forsake; The Word provides the way. Fortify in
times of doubt and pain for the LORD Thy God is with thee. Remember it now Come to thought say Paul-

“To the pure, all things are pure; but to those who are defiled and unbelieving, nothing is pure, but both
their mind and their conscience are defiled."

Instructed, we, lean not.

Perhaps not They but I am lost.

Angel’s chorus. Follow. Seek out our new-born king to see pahrumpahpumpum follow as did
shepherds on the hill kneel to Him O Holy Shepherd all the sheep have gone astray do you hear me
O King of Kings hollowed Church bells dimly echo O holy nite, the starres are too brightly shining.

Candles. flicker



which of us shall Burn?


Ice step stumble forward Cushioned, knee on snow. Up, through panelled doors of oak.

Cathedral. Spires exalting towards the Maker filt’red rainbows dance in candle-light. Consecrated
ground upon which to stand, petition mercy mild - upon whose soul, unsure. Father in Heaven. Soon.

Walk slow, just so. Past pew to pew down gentle foot falls to craftman color tile way. Silver bells herald


Nativity. There. Blessed Virgin, Sweetest Childe.

Kneel, palms up, beseeching.


Jeanne d'Arc, Paris, the present day. Christmastime is here, but Jeanne finds that the strange time she's in cannot compromise with her beliefs and ideals, and she suffers a deep crisis of faith trying to understand the modern world. A serious story - either one of redemption and faith, or of a fall from grace and descent into godlessness.

December 25th, 2017, 02:53 PM
"Why did you fight?"
"Because I didn't want to die, of course"
"Why didn't you want to die?"
"Because I want to live, of course"
"...Then, why did you want to live?"
That's obvious. It's because------
At the farthest limit of my memory.
Only that answer was different from before.

- Gun God, Notes.

Comet 1983 VII IRAS-Araki-Alcock was first detected on April 25 in 1983 by IRAS as a fast moving object. On May 3.6 UT, G. Araki identified this object as a new comet, and G.E.D. Alcock found it on May 3.9 UT independently. Total visual magnitude of this comet was about 9 on April 25, and Araki reported it as 6.5 on May 3.6 UT. The comet brightened rapidly due to its straightforward approach to the Earth, and reached the minimum distance of 0.0313 AU on May 11.5 UT. In recent years, such a close approach is an event of rare occurrence.

- Watanabe, J.-I., The rotation of Comet 1983 VII IRAS-Araki-Alcock

Begin transmission.
Retrieving archived memory from CE 3927.
The last records of the Gaian Terminal’s observation
Of the departure of our Gods.

The Answer Found
At The Heart of the World


The sky on this planet is covered with scars.

Red like blood. Look closely and you can see them, where gashes had been torn into the heavens, where his blade had once clashed and tore apart that redness like skin and flesh. See there the true sky above revealed like an open wound, a crimson moon peeking through against the faintest trace of blue. It stares down, an eye in the heavens. Lights shimmer, an iris. A comet passes, like it blinks.

It’s here I wake up. Just a fragment of I, but just enough. Lying here, among snow and stardust. Conscious or unconscious for how long.

Few places remain on this planet, wrapped up in clouds and darkness, where one could see such a thing. This was one of them. A crumbling monolith cleft in two, its halves jut out from the earth, a gravestone weathered by wind and time and a millennium-past death. Like its descent had torn a hole through the cloud barriers like a blade through cloth, a gap in the pierced cumuliform layer exposing the sky that lies above, it rests in this crater, among fissures and glassed sands and broken earth. The corpse of the Cross.

It had died long before my homecoming, but I know of it all the same.

I, too, once died here.

Crumbling towers line the edge of the crater, bare pinpricks glowing faint on the horizon, the ruins of cities that once been my kingdom that lay crumbling from millennia of neglect. The War had long ended, but its scars on the earth remained. The children of Man who had once fought to protect it had long since left this dead earth. Left for the stars.

So I had thought, anyway. So you can understand my confusion as of now. It was what had always been expected of them, but I must have been wrong. Something else lives on this surface just yet.

I raise myself up from the crumbling pillars that once had been the Cross, now forming a plateau of sorts, making my way to its edge. Light filters down in pinks and golds and reds, casting a glow on the earth like a haze of heat. Something up in the sky illuminates the clouds, a river of shining lights like an aurora, blinking and flickering and flowing, as lights like distant stars ascend to join them, or descend to break away. I reach the precipice, overlooking an earth marked by strange ridges like veins. Standing here, kilometers above the ground, I see it. What remained of those who had stayed.

Fire and steel. There, far above in a distant city, two figures clash, one black, one white, the surface of their humanoid bodies metallic and crystalline, shearing sparks and steel each off the other with crashing blades. Grain suffuses the air. The earth trembles at each strike. Arcs of lightning, waves of heat, they draw scars across the sky as the earth crumbles and breaks apart like dissolving bone, taken into the blades at their hands.

A curious sight. It piques my interest; it draws my body towards them. I lean over the edge, weight little-by-little pulling at my body, until I descend into free-fall into the heart of the crater.

Wind bites into my body.

Cold seeps into my core.

And I fall.

As the dust settles from my landing, I notice the ground is littered with the corpses of angels.


A doll-like body. Pristine white to the point of colorlessness, it nearly glows. It lies, eyes closed, hands folded across its breast, as if settled a serene sleep. It’s missing a wing and half its head.

Innumerable bodies lay scattered across the earth among fallen leaves and trees of stone, what once had been a forest. They lie, motionless and almost pristine— save for their various stages of disfigurement. Crumpled wings, broken bodies, scattered limbs; their interiors lie exposed to the elements, revealing nothing at all. Bodies devoid of true organs or internal structure. Crystalline figures like shattered statues. Weathering away, more like stone than rot. Thin layers of snow have gathered on their surfaces.

The ridges that had looked like veins up on the plateau had been the roots of an enormous tree, kilometers in size, its trunk split down the middle from the impact of the Cross, folded out like a pair of wings. Fragments of what had been its body, shattered and broken, jut out of the ground like blades planted in the earth, monuments to a long-past battle. They cast long shadows, towering above the forest.

A forest of stone and ice. No wind. No life. No sound.

Nothing stirred. Nothing at all.

The sun sets, and rises, and sets again. I make my way through the trees, silent as the forest itself, leaving no footsteps. As if a phantom in the land of the dead. Fragments of angels, though unmoving, watch me with glassy stares. Who is this stranger, who disturbs our grave of a thousand years?

On the second sunrise, I begin to hear sounds in the distance in the direction of the city. Louder, and louder. Thunderclaps like a distant storm. Eruptions and shockwaves. Tremors into the distance, vibrations visible in the air. The forest begins to thin as the path begins to incline, and the bodies and fragments of trees show signs of warping as if they had once suddenly melted and cooled. The snow at my feet becomes ice.

On the third sunset, I reach the edge, at the ruins of a former city.

Abandoned skyscrapers, monoliths of steel and concrete lined up in rows, some toppled over onto their sides, that seems to continue without end, extending beyond the horizon. What little else would have been left in a living city had long since rusted and rotted and weathered away. Nothing remained but decaying foundations, the fossilized skeletons of a lost civilization. Tombstones that reach the sky.

Waves of heat emanate from the heart of the city; through the rows of towers I see fire and lightning. Even after three days and three nights, they still fight.

They clash. Blade against blade, bone against bone, they each strike against the other with swords of ether, each swing sending up a shockwave, a gale, blotting out the sky in dust and smoke and sparks. The earth melts. Towers crumble. The ground at their feet glows red-hot with heat. There, in the eye of the storm, two figures lie locked into combat. Destroying everything about themselves but each other, neither can get the upper hand, a stalemate.

The figure in white whips up a firestorm with each swing, leveling skyscrapers, sending molten stone flying like rain. The figure in black rips apart skyscrapers with arcs of lightning, electromagnetic force sending beams of steel shrieking through the air like missiles. They gouge out scars into the earth through fire and steel.

Again and again, they clash. The air screams, rent apart with each swing of their blades. They dash across the sides of the buildings, sending each other smashing through the towers. Their skins of steel hold, scratched and battered and glowing from the heat, but still unbroken.

Until they break.

It happens in an instant. A bare moment of weakness, of lowered guard. The figure in black pierces the figure in white, its blade penetrating straight through its center. They freeze in the air, as if to contemplate each other, something silver dripping from its body and evaporating as it falls.

And then it falls, burning up like a comet.

Among smoke and dust and storms of flame, I see an angel.

The sun had risen and victor had left by the time I reach the crater, the site of their battle, a deep hole in the surface, molten rock starting to blacken and cool into glass, gorges carved into the earth still faintly glowing from the heat. Inside, labyrinthine webs of steel now lie exposed to the elements, the remains of an underground city. It was built around a river, as water rush into the gorges and flood into the hole in the earth. Blood red waterfalls trail into steam and mist. Broken beams and rubble form a pathway, a spiral downward into the darkness below.

I head down. I know not why I do so. I wander this earth aimlessly, without purpose, driven only by curiosity of this planet I’ve awakened to, and something that gnaws at me, and sense of hollowness, that something is missing.

I’m searching for something. Something here that once was mine.

Like webs, beams interlocking and protruding from each other like stalactites, with each step deeper into the city the light of the sun disappears, obscured by a mess of tangled concrete and steel. There is no logic to the labyrinthine architecture, as if it had all been built by random— stairs that loop into themselves, lifts that do not move, buildings with no floors or ceilings, halls and tunnels that lead to nowhere. I descend further, an endlessly repeating spiral staircase, the light of a surface just a bare pinprick, a single beam that shines down through its center as if an axis.

The underground structure expands, from a single shaft punched in the earth into a massive cavern, the remains of the city hanging as if the ceiling was the earth, and the abyss below was the sky. Echoing below from the darkness, I hear the distant footsteps of something massive, the groaning of mechanical joints, sending tremors in the earth.

I stand among ruins, among broken machinery and rusted steel, under a roof that stretches up to the cavern ceiling. A single ray of light shines down from the surface, illuminating a pile of rubble.

An angel sits there playing a guitar.


The guitar is blue, its paint faded from wear and time, a stray wire dangling off the side. With it, it plays a song. I know neither its name or its tune, but it hums along with the melody. Neither overly fast nor overly slow, neither happy nor sad, it plays, eyes closed, metallic twangs and faint buzzing, plucking along at the strings with the notes it sings. Occasionally, it fumbles a chord and pauses in its humming, and tries again. Sometimes it gets it right. Sometimes it gives up, and sighs. And picks up where it left off.

A simple song.

It’s not particularly pleasant to listen to.

Well. That’s a bit rude, don’t you think?

It frowns as it says this, fingers pausing mid-strum, as it looks at me with a tilted head.

It doesn’t look like the angels from the forest. Whereas those had looked as if they were made of stone or crystal, this one looks more like flesh and blood, the form of a woman. Red haired, fair skinned. She has only a single wing.

A strange sight. A splash of color in a colorless land. She watches me with a tilted head.

Good morning, stranger.

I simply watch her in turn, scrutinizing her form. She seems unperturbed by such a thing.

You’re not a face I recognize around here.

Should I be?

Perhaps. Perhaps not. I’d thought I already knew of everyone left alive in this world. I’ve had a bit to get to know them, after all, but I suppose there’s always something left to surprise me. Unusual— that’s what it is. Unusual that I’d run into someone like you here.

Unusual like an angel who plays guitar?

She laughs. As if I could call it playing. I’ve had a thousand years to learn how, but I must say, I’m still quite shoddy. A overly dramatic sigh, a shrug of her shoulders. She half-heartedly plucks at another string. So why persist, on this fruitless endeavour? This futility? This struggle? She laughs. Well. Shoddy as my guitar skills may be, she seems to appreciate it all the same.


The angel nods to her right, to a figure sitting in the shadows.

It sits there, hidden, tucked away under a small enclave in the rubble. Sleeping. Pale golden hair. A white dress, and the body of a child. A figure like that of a doll.

The angel hops down from her spot, and gently nudges the doll’s shoulder. It stirs, eyes blearily opening, revealing blood-red eyes. The doll yawns and rubs its eyes. She takes its hand as she approaches. Go on. Say hi.

The doll only stares at me from behind the angel’s legs.

The angel laughs. She’s a bit shy around strangers.

I only stare. The doll stares back at me.

A sense of unease. Anticipation. Irritation. Something swims in the depths of my memories. Like a reflection in water, quicksilver in hand; it slips through my grasp, between the fingers, dissolving into nothingness.

I remember nothing.

I ask. What are you doing, down here?

She laughs. I could ask the same of you. Well, Perun and Týr had finally had their fight, and I’m sure anyone on this half of the planet could see it. But, seen them once, seen them all. I’d come down here for some peace and quiet. Too noisy. Can’t even hear my own thoughts, or my guitar. She laughs again. Ah, am I getting old? Complaining about youngsters making a ruckus outside, ruining my beauty sleep? I won’t stand for it. They’re just as old as I am!

But yes. I thought I’d get away from the War, for little while.

The War?

Do you not know of it?

I know of nothing.


I’ve had a long time to sleep.

Strange. She frowns, and stares at me for a while. Curiosity, suspicion. She drums her fingers across the base of her guitar. Everything within this star system must have been touched by Edem’s call. Even you, stranger.

I say nothing.

She seems to think over this for a while, and then laughs. Well, maybe you’re just a deep sleeper, and forgot about it within your dream. It has been a thousand years, after all. A shrug, at that, and she seems to think no more of it. The War is what it is. A continuation of the wars that came before, and every other war that ever was, after Edem felled the final TYPE one thousand years ago. The culmination of the efforts of our species. Waged not against armies or nations or horrors beyond the stars, but by Knights against fellow Knights.

‘I saved the world; thus it is mine.’

Thus was his declaration. Thus the world was reborn in his vision— a world of endless War.

A dramatic pause. And then she laughs. Well, that’s the dramatic way to put it. But in the end, his world was one where the War came not to us, but us to the War.

She ends it there, opting to instead fiddle with the pegs of her guitar. She frowns. Hey. Got any clue on how to tune a guitar?

I don’t, it turns out, but don’t respond.

Thus it is mine, Edem had said. A world that belonged to him. And what belongs to him belongs not to me.

Something stirs within me. Something like disgust.

The angel frowns. A slight tilt of the head.

I’m guessing that’s a no, then?


Eventually, she decides to leave, having waited out the entirety of the battle on the surface. She takes the doll by the hand and invites me to follow.

And so we walk. She says she doesn’t feel like flying, as the passages and corridors are too cramped, and it’s just too awkward flying with a single wing. A pain in the ass, she says. The doll and I do not speak, while she chatters along in spite of our silence, her spirit seemingly lifted at finally having encountered another in this labyrinth of a city. She admits, that while she’d come in here because the noise and the racket had gotten on her nerves, she’d also forgotten the way out. Not that it matters, she says. She’ll take her time. Not like we can starve, anyway.

The corridor opens up into a vast open space, its ceiling stretching kilometers to the surface, with no floor in sight, its space empty and the cross-sections of the architecture exposed as if the city had abruptly stopped here, and large chunk of the city had simply been spirited away. A single strip connects the two sections across the gap, a bridge into the abyss.

Apparently unfazed, she walks along the bridge. As do I. And as we cross the gap surrounded by nothing but blackness and the steel beneath my feet I see something lurking within that abyss, some mammoth being walking along below us, metallic creaks and distant rumbling and the groans of something like a slumbering beast.

A Builder, she explains. You can watch it, if you like. I don’t think it’ll take much notice of you.

I peer over the edge. It looks like a crab, walking along the ocean floor on six spider-like legs, the size of skyscrapers, in slow-motion as if submerged underwater. It has a single limb that protrudes from its top, something like an eye swiveling about its base as claws at buildings and the cavern walls not yet hollowed, something within it glowing in the distance of molten metal, weaving steel beams and city structures like a spider weaves a web. There is no logic to its construction. Towers upon towers, in every direction, a chaotic web of steel and concrete. It simply builds, endlessly.

Once upon a time, our cities were destroyed faster than our human hands could rebuild them. Repurposed from our war machines, in the war against TYPES and their spawn, these colossi were created, autonomous machines that ate up the dead Earth and weaved it into cityscape. But the War ended, and these machines were no longer of any use to us. Vestigial. Extraneous. So I guess we just swept them underground, like sweeping your dirty laundry under the bed and calling it housekeeping. She laughs.

You didn’t shut them down?

We had long lost the method. Or the interest. Well, I was never an engineer. It’s quite silly, honestly. Like we just lost the keys to our house, or something. Ah, she says, a finger to her mouth, that doesn’t bode well for us, doesn’t it? Eventually, they’ll eat up the rest of the dead Earth, until nothing but the City remains, won’t they? It’s something we’ll have to deal with down the line. However many millennia it may take. Another laugh. I suppose foresight isn’t our strong suit. But who cares for the future, anyway?

Do you not?

Should I?

Humans once looked to the future. Lived for it.

We did. But I suppose all that passion has gone to waste. Maybe it’s that we’ve expended all our drive. Or maybe it’s that we’ve changed. Beyond appearance, the adaptations to Land of Steel, the Hundred Species that came out of the whole mess. Those have come and gone. Only one species matters now.

She plops down onto the edge of the bridge, legs swinging lazily over the abyss. The doll peers over her shoulder. She picks up a pebble from the rubble and tosses it, as it disappears into the blackness.

Those who answered Edem’s call. The Warrists.

Something inhuman?

Nay. The most human of all. It is only they who have any hope for the future, but it’s not the future of humanity. It’s of theirs. She throws another pebble down. An ordinary human has no more fear nor hope of death. When Edem felled the final TYPE that day, nothing remained to challenge him. The ultimate one that remained of this solar system. His vision of the world shadowed the light of the sun, until all the solar system became of his domain. And this was the world he created. He robbed us of our death.

A world of the undying. Eternal life, unchanging. A world there was always a tomorrow, whether you wanted it or not.

I ask her. And what does he want?

To return it to us. When we reach the same answer he did.

For in this world, she says, a wistful expression, True death is only for the Warrists.

I watch the Builder in the distance, watching it weave its web. The doll hides behind the angel’s back, like she’s afraid of the thing. And I, too, as I stare into the colossi lurking just beyond the darkness, feel a sense of unease. A sense of disgust and revulsion and a desire to see the thing a reduced to scrap and rubble. Hatred, one could call it. A strong emotion. An unfamiliar feeling.

It sees me.

The angel’s eyes go wide, as a beam of molten metal is sent screaming through the air hurtling towards us.

The explosion lights up the entire cavern, like another sun, a blinding white-hot light that illuminates the abyss as the bridge disintegrates into vapor and plasma, as a hole is pierced through the ceiling and the surface begins to cave in. We fall, the angel slowing her descent through her wings, maneuvering herself through burning rubble and molten metal. The wind answers my call and wraps me in a gale, breaking my fall into a float. A look down below, the underground city now light as day, and I see the doll falling into a blood-red sea.

I speed my descent. A reflexive decision. No thought or deliberation. Above me, Grain crystallizes about the angel’s body into enormous metallic wings, armor forming over her skin, the bones in her palm twisting into something like a cannon, as she sends beams of pure ether right back. Each site of impact subsequent explosion sends distant mushroom clouds rising from the floor of the abyss, vaporizing the blood sea, illuminating the cavern even further, light refracting through the vaporized water. My wind sends the doll up flying back into my arms, as I catch it and fly back up, as the angel maneuvers herself through the streams of screaming molten metal the Builder sends up at us. She yells over the noise, and I somehow hear her.

Well, shit. They’ve never attacked us like this before!

Arcs of molten metal and pure ether surge forth, each streaming by the other or clashing like novas, carving up the cavern and cleaving through buildings and blasting through the surface, as the city about us crumbles into dust and flame. The angel fires back, her batteries breaking and piercing its body, yet each blast looks to be but a bare pinprick in the far distance.

It refuses to fall. For each blast it takes, shearing and melting and vaporizing its armor, it takes up more of the earth, the surrounding cavern and constructed buildings, reforming itself anew. Something is keeping it alive. The angel recognizes this, and focuses fire, barrages intensifying tenfold, a hundredfold, a thousandfold, but the sheer distance it takes for her blasts to reach their target give it just the time it needs to build itself anew. She clucks her tongue. Have I gotten rusty? Even former Number Three never gave me this trouble.

The city begins to collapse into itself, as we weave through falling debris and broken buildings, the light of the surface blotted out by the rubble and dust. A skyscraper falls, swatting us out of the sky, crashing into one of her wings, as she blasts and reduces it to cinders in retaliation. And, doll in arms, we fall.

At this rate, we might die for real, won’t we?

She laughs. No despair or sorrow or ironic mirth, but real, genuine amusement.

And something about it makes me sick.

Blood laces through my arm.

Grain seeps into my palm.

I fall. Deliberately. Faster, now, I fall toward the colossus, friction of the air beginning to burn my body. At some point I must have let go of the doll, entrusted it to the wind at my command, as in my hand I hold a blade of bone, my arm warped and twisted, a grotesque form.

There lies the axis. The intersection of our trajectories. I fly alongside the ether beams the angel fires, residual heat causing my skin to blacken and char, past melting concrete and crumbling cities and at the very moment of impact, through flame and blinding light and craters of liquid metal sent crashing like ocean waves, I see its core and I cut—


It’s warm. Hot, even.

I wake up under a tree in a field of ashes, the angel sitting on a stump, idly playing her guitar. The sun beats down, somehow intense even through the haze of the blood cloud barrier, casting a dull red glow on a gray, desolate wasteland. The earth is dry and cracked, and littered with the shapes of fallen trees, though they look like they’re made of stone, and the wreckage of machinery that stand like monoliths. The sunlight stings my eyes. Irritating.

Good morning, stranger.

I feel something touching my arm, and look down. The doll sleeps beside me, her head rested against my shoulder. The angel laughs.

Looks like she likes you. Almost didn’t want to wake you up. You looked like sisters.

I frown, and move to get up. My limbs barely move, as if I’d lost control of them. They only twitch in response, vaguely responsive. Like circuitry that’d gone faulty.

I wouldn’t, if I were you. You took a nasty fall. I actually had to carry you all the way up here, and with only one wing, too! She laughs. I must say, though, I was surprised to see that you were a Knight, too.

‘A Knight’, she says.

I don’t understand. She frowns as I say this, looking at my arm.

I follow her gaze. It looks like a hunk of chiseled rock painted over with soot, as something like crystal protrudes out from underneath, breaking blackened skin in several places. As I look at it, the crystal slowly begins to retreat into itself, forming the shape of an arm, pale skin forming back over its surface.

And then it’s gone. Just a normal arm. I notice now, that I can move again.

I raise myself, stretching my legs. Its headrest gone, the doll slumps over and falls on her face, and only frowns at me as it wakes up. It looks at me with something akin to disappointment.

Where are we?

Outside. Nearest city’s not too far from here.

A city like this one?

Sort of. A little. Not really. The city I’m talking about actually has people living in it. Maybe a day or three of walking to get there.

And so we walk. She chatters on we do so, like she’d been doing in the city, somehow continuing her train of thought from before as if nothing had happened. I walk a bit behind her carrying the doll on my back, initially with difficulty, but eventually regaining in my strength, as I feel my body repair itself with each step.

We walk through ruins, among machines of war long dead or dormant, casting strange shadows on the landscape. The earth at our feet is mottled and blotchy, like shattered mosaic glass, with craters and gorges pooled up and lined with crystallized obsidian and silica. As we walk, I hear things like cries, low warbles and clicks that echo throughout the haze. Strange metallic creatures shift and scuttle as we pass, making crystalline nests in the barrels of cannons long rusted from disuse, or among steel webs on the frames of the tanks and colossi. They watch us as we pass, and I watch them, too, some with single glass-like eyes, or spider-like bodies, or humanoid or caninoid forms, and I realize that they, too, are machines, yet they litter and inhabit the landscape like beasts.

She ignores all of it as if it were nothing, and instead rambles on about her escapade to the abandoned city, of how noisy all the Warrists and their battles all are, of how you could probably hear their racket all the way from the moon or Mars, of how she hadn’t expected to find another Knight down in the ruins, of how happy she is that the doll had made a new friend.

But really now. You didn’t know you were a Knight? She clicks her tongue. You really don’t remember anything, do you?

A thousand years is a long time to sleep, after all.

She just laughs, again. What a world to wake up to. You remember anything from before then?

I shake my head. We reach a cliff, revealing the cracked flatlands we’d been walking along to be the surface of a plateau. Colossi like the Builders litter the landscape, each the size of a city, their unmoving bodies stretching to far beyond the horizon. The angel begins to descend the cliff, taking careful steps along a winding path that leads to its bottom.

Can we not just fly?

She frowns. Eh. I mean, we could. But it’s kind of a pain in the ass. Fly too low, and you have to dodge through all these ruins, or crash into a pillar. I only have one wing, you know! Can’t fly as well as I used to. Fly too high, and… I dunno. It’s just kinda chilly all the way up there in the sky.

We’re walking all this way because you don’t like the cold?

Huh? Are you worried or something? Oh, come on, don’t worry your pretty little head over it. Even if it’s slower, that’s no problem. We can take as long as we like. We have all the time in the world. She takes out a bar of something greyish and begins to munch on it.

At the bottom of the basin, more machines litter the landscape, living among the corpses of the Builders. Strange crystalline trees and flowers cover the bodies of colossi, like an overgrown city. They, too, watch us.

These machines…


I don’t remember these.

You don’t remember anything though, right?

These in particular. I don’t recall ever even seeing things like these.

Hmm. I suppose. I guess you might have some faint recollection before the War’s end, for whatever reason you got put to sleep. Yeah, as you said, they’re machines. But we lost control of these too.

Like the Builders?

That’s right. Well, I make it sound as if they rebelled, but we had just made these, or at least things like these, a long time ago. Machinery for menial tasks, and all that. And eventually, in Edem’s new world, we no longer had any need for them. But they didn’t just disappear. They fell into disuse, scattered across the landscape, and we forgot about them, until one day they came back. They’re all just a pale shadow of what we had before, barely capable of the functions they were built for, but they’ve changed. And they continue to change, and grow, and spread. Like… wild animals.

She laughs. Well, not that I’d know what those are like. But I’ve read the records about the Old World, back when Gaia was still alive and kicking. Apparently, before we had just a hundred descendant species of humans, we had millions of species of others. They covered the entire surface of the planet, in every nook and cranny. The waters, the lands, the sky. And they lived outside the cities we built for ourselves, or sometimes inside them, aside us, or sometimes those cities crushed their homes and drove them out. Other things, not human, that we shared this earth with.

Well, they’ve all died by the time I came around, so I guess this is all just in theory.

Yes. I’d say they’re a lot like animals.

She looks shocked. You know what animals are like?

I remember them, yes.

Her face nearly lights up, in excitement or wonder or surprise or some amalgamation of the three. Hey, she says, jogging to my side and pulling my arm. She points to something perching on a beam. What’s that one like?

I suppose that resembles a bird.

And that one?

A dog, perhaps.

And what about that?

A… I frown, furrowing my brow. She points to a strange looking creature, now. Kind of like a crab, I suppose. Crossed with a… clam. And a tree.

It’s at this point I notice her staring, with a strange expression. I’m sorry, she says, laughing again. It was silly of me to ask. I just realized I don’t really know what any of those things are.

We walk along, watched on all sides by the strange machines. None approach us. They seem timid, almost scared of our presence.

They’re not hostile?

No. You saw Perun and Týr’s fight, did you not? Even if we may be the last beings left on this planet capable of dying, these machines know they cannot match us. It’d be like an ordinary human facing a god. See that one? she asks, pointing to the bird-like machine. Those things used to deliver supply packages, during the War. And that one? Simple attack drones to hunt down the seeds of Yggdrasil when they’d started to become a pest problem. And that… she frowns. Okay, I don’t know what that one was supposed to be.

And the Builders?

Well, that was kind of embarrassing of me. Usually they don’t pose much of a problem for us, but I didn’t want to bring the whole surface crashing down on our heads. She sighs. In my top form, I could’ve just blown the dumb thing up, no problem. Wouldn’t even have been able to touch me, if it weren’t for the buildings everywhere. Come to think of it, she says, finger on her lip, I’m not sure why it attacked you in the first place.

They fear us.

Do they? Who knows what a machine thinks. Maybe they do; maybe they can’t. I don’t know. But the doll seems to like you well enough.

She falls silent at this, looking at the doll. It had fallen asleep.

The sun sets by the time we reach the center of the basin, disappearing behind the plateau, the reds and pinks of the setting sky giving way to an inky black. Above us, a river of lights flows, blues and greens and whites all twinkling and blinking, as if forming an orbit about the earth. Some descend from the sky like falling stars.

I don’t remember those, either.

A laugh. You wouldn’t have, if you don’t remember anything after Edem’s call. Come on now, let’s get you a better view of the thing. She hops up onto a Builder’s severed leg, climbing up its body as the machines scuttle out of the way like animals taking flight.

The Builder itself resembles an enormous factory, and she walks along assembly lines, balances off derelict catwalks creaking with each step, climbs up the chimneys of blast furnaces— Don’t worry about it, I don’t think these are still active.

As we ascend its body I see more and more machines that hide as we approach, watching us just beyond where we can see, huddled together, unblinking, unmoving. They wait in the shadows, in abandoned shipping containers and holes in the walls, like dens, and the angel pays them no mind.

We reach the top of one of the Builder’s bodies, a large flat like a hangar with a caved-in roof, exposed to the heavens, the rusted remains of flight units lying scattered across the flats. The wind here is cold, stinging our skins, and the doll shifts on my back, mumbling or groaning something in slight discomfort, an expression almost as if grimacing. It blearily opens its eyes, and holds on tighter. Its body is cold.

Outside, a lone crane stands, towering above the landscape, its ropes swinging in the wind. The angel begins to climb up the mast, the beams creaking and swaying under the biting winds, and we make it to the very top. She balances on one of the beams on the arm, her own arms spread out like an acrobat walking across a tightrope, tiptoeing across to the very edge. I can’t hear it over the howling winds, but she throws her head back and laughs.

Nice view, yeah?

I stand up too, nearly losing my balance, and follow just behind her.

And in the sky, a thousand, a million lights shine, each rushing past the other, all a blur, all the more vivid beyond the tears in the sky, likes stars shooting into space or falling from the heavens, their shine reflected across the steel-gray surface, refracting among cracks and fissure and irregular formations of rusted and decaying colossi the size of cities, where faint pinpricks glow in the distance, the eyes of the machine in the dark, scattered across the wastes. Even among a colorless landscape, it paints it vivid, blues and red and pinks.

Nice view.

She grins. I know, right? You know, you’re probably the first in maybe a few centuries to care for this sorta thing— well, not like you’re dripping enthusiasm or anything. Most people’ve gotten bored. Won’t even blink at it all. Seen it every day, every night, until it’s become just another mundane thing. Same with the blood-cloud skies, or the crimson seas or the steel-gray earth. Like they’d forgotten what our old Earth was like.

Once upon a time, our sky was blue, and stars shined in the night. I’ve never seen it myself, but I know that world once existed. But you know what? I’ll never get tired of this view.

Peeking from beyond the blood-red clouds, there lies a crimson moon.


By the next afternoon, we had left the basin, and arrived at the city.

Towers that stretch to the sky. A mammoth structure of steel and glass and light and stone. A living human city. How had they changed, these thousands of years?

They eat. They drink. They sleep. They wake. They love, they hate, they lust, they scorn, they get anxious, annoyed, excited, exasperated with work, bored over small-talk, riled up over petty, insignificant things that will disappear before the next day begins. They, in many ways, had not changed. Despite it all. Despite that they live, and die, and live again, in an endless cycle. A world where death had been robbed of its meaning.

I’d been living in this city for the past month, in that angel’s apartment.

This body of mine carries similar memories. Living in a human city, wandering about parks and commercial districts, for some reason or another, chasing after a human for motivations only that body could have understood. A vestigial thing that lends this experience some sort of familiarity. I live here, aimlessly, without purpose or meaning, as the angel sits on the bed trying and failing to teach the doll how to play guitar. The blind leading the blind, so it goes.

Why had I returned to this world?

To reclaim what belongs to me. So I tell myself. Yet here I am, lazing on the floor, listening to two amateurs work out one end of a guitar from the other.

I exit the apartment, heading out to the city. The angel waves back as I walk out the door.

Neither the sky nor the earth can be seen from here. The city is built in tiers, streets and transit lines criss-crossing the other, above and below, a chaotic, jumbled web of steel, interspersed with billboards and flashing screens, neon lights and constant sound, a city of unending, sleepless night. I disappear into the crowd.

Humans may have stayed the same in some ways, but in others, they quite clearly changed. Their appearances, for one. A side-effect of their mechanisms developed to adapt with a hostile world. I had watched as it happened, as they changed themselves, though it’s another thing to see it up close. Figures with wings, or claws, or exoskeletons, or inhumanly metallic or crystalline bodies, mechanical parts integrated into their frames, all strange and alien but remarkably human, how they hold themselves, or how they move or speak or act— I don’t know. Some element of humanity remaining in their appearance I couldn’t pin down. Even the ones that resemble little more than amorphous blobs of gas. Funnily enough, of everything that lives in this city, my appearance must look the most human of them all.

Despite it all, something else too had changed.

They live forever now. Every man and woman in this crowd, every other I pass, I see, I hear, has been alive for a thousand years, maybe more. Since the end of the War. Everything they could possibly hope to do, every sight left to see, every activity, every interest, every experience— everything they could experience, they have done so already. Given how long Man had been chasing immortality, I’m almost curious as to how they attained it. And given that they now attained such a thing, I’m more curious if they understand, now, what it means to be immortal.

I remember the angel’s words. That this immortality was not their choice. That they could answer Edem’s call, and return to a life in fear of death. An absurd proposal. The humanity I remembered would never have taken such a choice.

And yet…

I look up to a flashing screen on a building up above, two figures clashing over an abandoned city, one black, one white. The last thing humanity lived for.

The continuation of the War.

It had never been very clear to me before why humans existed, or decided to exist, or decided thus to continue their existence. I never thought about it too hard, other than the times I found them immensely irritating. They, too, seemed to struggle with such a question, and had sought an answer in anything they could get their hands on. Love. Fear. God. The perpetuation of their blood. The accumulation of wealth. The extermination of their enemies. The search for the Truth of the world.

War, on the other hand, had long been a side-effect of such a struggle. The hated means to the end. For Man once warred to protect their own existence, against others that would threaten it, against Gods or other men.

In War they found their answer— or, an answer.

The means became the end. The only end. War, once a desperate struggle, has been reduced to a game, a game in which every remaining human has a stake. Prospectors, investors, armorers, all in part spectator in part participant to the spectacle that is the War. Monitoring market values, signing contracts, war has become a commercialized thing.

Nominally they were contractors, hired out to builders or businesses scattered about this stellar system, on-world or off-world to protect their interests, securing and competing for mining sites, for Grain or metals or whatever other resources they could hack off this dead rock. Businesses compete, interests conflict— just like the Old World. And agents of violence were needed to secure those interests.

Knight against Knight. The only mortal things left in this world. What they lost in mortality, they gained in power.

A Warrist’s market value is determined by their victories. As some emerged victorious over others, time and time again, they became ranked in terms of their market value. This ranking itself became the game. All eyes on the Warrists, as they fought and fought again, to rise to the top. And they soon began to invest in weaponry and armor and the engineering of each Warrist, to create the ultimate victor of this game— for what end?

To be the Number One.

Overall, I’d say, humans remained very much the same.

I watch the fight projected on the screen, watch clashing steel bodies amid storms of fire and lightning. A replay of the fight from before, though I had only seen the tail end of it from afar. Now, a closer view. Their bodies resemble armored machines, like the flight units we found abandoned in the basin, soaring through a blood-red sky, firing upon each other with linear cannons, vaporizing and glassing the landscape, striking up storms with each swing of their blades. As I had remembered them. I listen to the commentary of other bystanders, watching the fight projected on the screen.

—So what’s this make, now. Perun’s taken down Rank Twelve? Rose maybe ten, twenty spots in market values. Speculators going ballistic. You see that shit, where he starts just fucking chucking the skyscrapers at him—

—How many Deathless does this make in the top twenty, now—

—Over half, at this point. Told you they’re good. Statistics don’t lie. In the game of War, Deathless reign supreme—

—You’d think that Warrists who’ve died before would be better at this sort of thing. More experienced. The Deathless fear death. It makes them irrational—

—That’s the point, yeah? Irrationality, doing the unexpected. It’s ‘cause of that shit they win. Hell, even the number one, Belus, is a Deathless like him, yeah?

And the other humans had been watching. Speculating on the odds, moving about the flow of money and sponsorships, buying and bidding for future contracts, playing about the future market of war. For the sake of the stakes in these battles— the death and ultimate end of their enemy— such became the ultimate meaning around which human existence revolved.

I enter a lift, taking me down the city, a view that overlooks a steel-grey landscape, jumbled steel and cracked stone. And I wander. I still don’t know why. The answer to me seems as distant as the sun hidden beyond the sea of clouds, even moreso than before.

But I need to know— what had happened to this world, after its death?

Beneath the city, I arrive at an empty facility. Rows upon rows of computer systems circularly arranged in rings, gently humming and blinking in the dark, like pillars that stretch to an invisible ceiling. A facility for archival purposes. It’s immaculately clean and well-kept, though without a single presence, human or machine, throughout the entire thing.

Within the center of the circle is a lone terminal, a podium mounted with a screen. It activates on my approach.

A youthful voice greets me, coming from the terminal. Good afternoon, stranger.

I bring up a catalogue of its archives, and skim most of it. Seventeen million and a half sequenced genomes, preserved from Old World species before their extinction. Activity logs of Builder-class machines, and timeline maps of the transformed and then-destroyed territories. Analyses of material salvaged from the alien lifeforms of the TYPEs. Records of research projects, regarding the terraforming and space exploration, whose progress seems to have steadily waned until coming to a standstill approximately eight hundred years ago. Of these, only one appears of any interest to me.

Gaian Terminal Restoration Project.

I read into its history. This facility was once a research facility dedicated to the study of the Old Earth, and its preservation and restoration. Interest and funds waned over time, as such a prospect came to seem further and further out of reach, until it disbanded completely. This grave of a data center still stands today, repurposed partially for archival purposes, but mostly to support the city’s network.

In other words, nothing I really understand.

Are you in need of any assistance?

The terminal speaks at me. An image like that of an eye projects from the screen.

And you are?

I am Adam. The overseer artificial intelligence that maintains this facility. It is not often we get any visitors.

I frown. So you’re a machine?

In a sense. In that a machine is a body, but what I am is a mind. Though, I suppose, such a difference is not much of an important one in this context.

I nod absently, and continue to pull up files. Words I don’t understand too well pop out at me. Planetary Terminal. Lunar Migration. Weltseele. I frown.

Tell me about this project.

Begin playback.

Before the descent of the Aristoteles, humans had further advanced their capacity for space exploration, in part of a program to develop weaponry in their conflict against the A-RAYs. As they experienced steadily increasing losses in said conflict, the Moon had been considered as a possible refuge for the Liner subspecies should they lose, and methods were researched to make such a habitat inhabitable. In Common Year 2798 it had been discovered that the Moon, too, possessed a weltseele— the soul of a world— similar in nature to Gaia, which had begun to deteriorate 823 years prior Common Year 1975, until its true death 621 years prior Common Year 2177.

The weltseele discovered on the Moon, however, was incomplete in its nature and dormant, and became the object of human study, which developed into the Lunar Terminal Development Project. In Common Year 2809, the project eventually replicated said soul, and contained it within a silicon vessel. Through interfacing with this machine, they discovered they could manipulate the lunar surface: creating seas and water, or encasing the atmosphere in ice, or shaping the landscape to their will.

Now provided a means to survive on the lunar surface, the committee behind the Project began to enact a plan to migrate the rest of the unaltered humans to the surface of the Moon in order to escape annihilation. However, before the migration could be completed, the Aristoteles descended to Earth, and all contact with off-world sites had been lost. Thus the Project had been disbanded.

In Common Year 3012, all Aristoteles threatening the Gaian atmosphere had been eliminated, the remaining one hundred subspecies were merged into one, and space exploration resumed. A lunar colony was no longer needed, as the human subspecies were no longer in conflict and under threat of extinction. Priorities were focused on research effort, and the scientific community developed a hypothesis: that the Aristoteles that invaded the Gaian atmosphere were intimately linked to other hypothetical worldsouls, and that the dormant soul found on the moon could be used to reverse engineer such an Aristoteles.

Such a hypothesis had been contested, however, as no corresponding Aristoteles had been discovered for the only two observed weltseelen. While there were fears that the hypothetical last surviving Aristoteles— the TYPE-MOON— would one day reveal itself as the others had done, such a day never came.

Regardless, the proposal of such a link spurred an effort to further develop their Planetary Terminals, reverse engineering from the data and alien material gathered from the Aristoteles’ corpses, and utilizing the data gathered during the development of the Lunar Terminal for the creation of a similar replacement for the Gaian weltseele. This became the Gaian Terminal Restoration Project.

End playback.

It falls silent, and I stare at it, expecting it to say more, as the image lazily rotates floating above the screen. The humans have a word for this sort of feeling. Impatience, they call it. It says nothing, apparently content with its silence.


Does this user have another query?

What happened to the project?

A long silence.

Would you like to see?


Beyond the server room, there lies a lift, a large open platform carried by a belt, set in a vast tunnel that leads deep underground, into a space that opens up like a large cavern like a manufacturing facility— storage towers like pillars stretching to the heavens, intricate webs of pipelines and transport lines, dried-up pools and fluid tanks, all rusting and wasting away from age and neglect. Compared to the server rooms up above, this structure seems a lot less maintained, strewn with rubble, abandoned for perhaps hundreds of years.

I walk along the catwalk that runs between the towers, that hangs above vast empty pools stretching on beyond what I can see, the overseer intelligence illuminating the way light by light, guiding me to our destination.

At the end of the room, it leads to a corridor, a claustrophobic and dark and winding thing, progressingly greater states of disrepair. It opens up into a vast room stretching on so far that the other walls cannot be seen, cast in a faint bluish glow from what light filters in far above, plain and featureless save for one thing.

The floor is strewn with broken dolls.

Pale golden hair. Deep red eyes. Bodies like that of a child. They lie, crumpled and discarded and scattered across the room, some missing limbs, or halves of their body, upper or lower, internal wiring lying exposed and rusting away. And in the room’s center, bodies and spare things like arms or heads are gathered, forming a pile around a pillar, a stasis tank with its glass face smashed in and its piping broken, spare cables left hanging, strewn across the floor.

And on the very top of that pile sits a figure, the form of a young man, short colorless hair and piercing red eyes and nude body covered in strange marks, sitting with a knee propped up resting his arm on it, holding what looks to be an apple in his hand. On his chest and all across his arm, through broken skin, circuitry and steel sinews lie exposed.

And it smiles.

Hello, Stranger.

Archetype, Angel Notes setting. Wide discretion into how this works - depowered but still alive, her death along with the world, the last world-bearer, so on so forth. Bonus points for some other non-Notes TM character showing up with reasonable justification. Feel free to go Dullahan on it.

December 25th, 2017, 02:56 PM
Side A


An organization, a place, a purpose: to save the future. Here, great heroes and villains from the past are summoned as Servants, powerful magical beings with the sole purpose of serving a master. Their master is a young man named Gudao, who travels in time to fix the past, and change the future.

This place housed such great heroes as Arthur Pendragon, The King of Knights, Herakles, the hero of the great twelve labors, Hassan-I-Sabbah, the leader of the assassins, and Jeanne d’Arc, the maid of Orleans.

Jeanne, in this place, was filled with the same zeal and clarity of purpose as she was in history. To save the world, save humanity and change the future, she was determined to aid Gudao in his quest. And yet, Jeanne had a troubled look on her face as she braided her hair.

She was plagued with troubles. First of all, despite the look of joy on her master’s face when she’d been summoned, she barely ever got to talk to the youth or his companion, the eager shielder. They’d shared an adventure in France but had only had passing talk since, ranging from a hello in the halls to instructions in battle. While this was a minor trouble at worst, it was doubled when her second trouble came to mind.

Chaldea, a gathering of heroes… Charisma was supposed to be a word oft used to describe heroes, and yet…

Chaldea was filled with standoffish people. The Hassans were professional, curt, and devoid of needless chatter. Herakles, the most famous hero, could not speak due to his class. The King of Knights was oddly blackened, and had no friendly words to share. Leonidas, proud leader of the Spartans, kept his peace on most matters not related to training or battle. The list went on until you found those too insane to comprehend, or so degenerate and twisted you’d rather not comprehend them, like Kiyohime or Blackbeard. There was no camaraderie, no charismatic servants, no boisterous self-styled idols, or cheerful queens or well-mannered knights.

Chaldea had not been so lucky as to summon friendliness.

Finishing her braid, Jeanne left her room to find the last of her problems walking towards her.

Clad in red, black and darkened silver, wearing a frayed fur-trimmed cape and carrying a tied flagpole, was the spitting image of Jeanne herself. The only two differences were her eyes, changed to an eerie gold, and her hair, turned more ashen than Jeanne’s pleasant blonde.

Jeanne d’Arc was her name. Not the Jeanne who had just finished braiding her hair, but a completely different one, borne of the maddened psyche of the man standing behind her, clad in robes and wearing the expression of a madman.

They had crossed paths before, during the events of the France Singularity, where Jeanne confronted herself and Gilles, learning of the fate of the knight that once stood at her side.

“You’ve been called for a mission,” the Jeanne in black said, immediately turning away and leaving, not spending a second more in the saint’s presence. Gilles however, stayed a bit longer, taking a good long look at Jeanne, before speaking.

“You look, oh… to look at you is a blessing by itself, Jeanne.” He raised his head as if in prayer and closed his eyes. “You look as radiant as the day I first saw you.”

Jeanne smiled nervously, guiltily, uncomfortably. To see her knight fallen so far, yet obsess over her so much.

“Thank you, Gilles. Your kind words are, as always, wasted on myself,” she said, forcing her words to come out as naturally as possible.

Gilles had a strange bodily convulsion and a little moan of joy, and seemed about to say more until the other Jeanne spoke up.

“Enough, Gilles! We must go,” she said, barely turning her head to do so, refusing to observe the saint directly.

“Of course! Of course, I come. May your mission be successful, my dearest Jeanne,” he said, before hurrying off after the darker of Jeannes.

“Thank you,” she mumbled, seeing him leave. She immediately headed to the gathering hall.

The gathering hall was a name given to the airlock-like room in front of the rayshift room. No one knows when people started calling it as such, only that it was fitting. When Jeanne arrived, most of her common allies had shown themselves as well.

Herakles, standing near to three meters tall, wielding a massive axe. Cu Chulainn, a strange, blackened monstrosity that once was Ireland’s child of light. Carmilla, a dominatrix-looking woman renowned for the murder of young maidens.

Truly, no one approachable.

“You’re here.” A third person was in the hall, holding a clipboard and standing where the master stood until a week ago. The King of Knights, Arturia Pendragon, wearing a black dress, her sword propped up on the wall behind her, the corrupt Excalibur. “Slow.”

“I apologize,” Jeanne responded. The dark king grunted in response, and Jeanne approached the group, standing close enough to hear the King of Knight’s instruction. An awkward moment passed, with no sound other than the breathing of Herakles, until Jeanne noticed the lack of a fifth member. “Is someone still coming?”

“Yes.” Arturia didn’t look at her, instead looking down at her clipboard, or at the small electronic machine rested on it, or turning her eyes at the door.

Dissatisfied by the short answer, Jeanne asked another question.

“Is the master absent from duty today as well?”


“Why has the master been absent?”

Arturia didn’t answer her, and Jeanne forced another question to die in her throat. She knew that the king would not respond to any question she did not feel was necessary to answer. She did hear the faint sound of a giggle, and turned to look at Carmilla, who had a smile on her face.

They stared at each other for a second, until the door opened once again, introducing a new person to the room. One Jeanne had never met before.

“Oh, I must apologize for my lateness. This place is so new, its people so fresh, I was enraptured and lost myself.” The short woman took slow, quiet steps towards the group. She was wearing an open, eastern dress, and under she wore a strange set of undergarments. She was wearing a strange set of sandals, and on one leg was a cutely tied bow.

Most curiously, on her head, parting her dark hair were two horns, sharing the light color of her skin.

“Your lateness is unbecoming.” Arturia’s warning was present in her tone, filled with rigidity. “We will start right away.”

“Now, now, that seems inappropriate. When a new face enters a room, it should be introduced, should it not? I haven’t been in this place for more than a week.” The lady kept her slow pace, walking in circles around everybody, giving them a deep look, a thorough analysis. “And these faces are new to me, as well. I would love an introduction.”

She gave Jeanne a little friendly wink, as Arturia’s face twitched angrily.

“You are Shuten Douji. From the left, your comrades are Jeanne D’arc, Herakles, Carmilla and Cu Chulainn. Your mission is the collection of materials for strengthening purposes.” Arturia put her clipboard and device in one hand, and picked up her sword, leaning it over her shoulder. “You know where the rayshift is, and its coordinates are set. Begone.”

“Begone I shall, then. Thank you for the introduction.” The petite woman walked off, followed by the rest. Jeanne however, stood on the spot, stunned by the apparent friendliness the woman displayed.

Perhaps, a friend?

= = = = = = = = = = =

It was the next day, and Jeanne and not only steeled her resolve to talk to Shuten, she had come up with a convenient excuse to talk to her. Jeanne was lacking training against opponents who fought from the shadows, and Shuten Douji, as an assassin, was well positioned to help rectify this situation. A perfect plan.

However, Shuten was hard to find as she preferred to wander, and did not keep to her room. Jeanne was therefore left aimless. After an hour of walking Chaldea’s halls, dropping by places such as the mess hall and the gymnasium to no avail, Jeanne bumped into someone who might be of help.

One of the few magi left who worked in Chaldea after the Fuyuki incident, keeping the place running smoothly, was walking down the hall. Jeanne called out to him, a common looking man in uniform.

“Excuse me, sir?” The man turned immediately, startled and visibly a little afraid, until he saw who was speaking to him.

“Ah, oh, hello there. Jeanne D’Arc, isn’t it?” He had an awkward smile on his face, despite looking a little more relaxed than he originally was.

“Yes, I’m honored you remember me. May I ask for your help?” Jeanne tried to keep her back straight, words slow and clear and smile present, to keep him calm.

“So long as I can, yes. What do you need?” He adjusted his glasses.

“I’m looking for Shuten Douji, an assassin class servant,” She started, and immediately the man looked a little worried. Amongst these hardboiled servants, it must have happened more than once that they were looking for a fight when they sought another servant. “Ah, please don’t be worried. I was looking for an assassin class servant to help me better understand how to face an enemy from the shadows. I hold no animosity towards her.”

“Ah yes, well… uh,” He started, before looking slightly beyond Jeanne. Jeanne looked behind her, and saw the remnant of a black cape pass the corner. “Ah, sorry. I’m too easily distracted. I haven’t seen her, but if I do, I’ll absolutely let her know. Is there, uh, somewhere you can be found?”

“Yes, I spend most of my time in my room, praying for success to our mission, or tending to my studies,” she said, her mastery of writing far from complete. “Ah, my room number is B seventy-two.”

“Alright, I see. I will let the other staff know too, so they can let her know.” He adjusted his glasses again, visibly more comfortable.

“Thank you very much, for this and your efforts in Chaldea’s continued functionality. We would be lost without the staff.” She bowed her head in respect to the man, who seemed slightly flustered in result.

“Ah, well, you know, we do what we can, because we have to, otherwise humanity’s done and all, ha ha…” He arranged his hair, now uncomfortable again but for different reasons.

“Indeed. Thank you again, and farewell,” she said, raising her head and turning away, returning to her room, the prospect of friendship blaring in her mind.

Later that day, as she was deep in prayer, her thoughts nothing but communion with the lord, her door was knocked upon. She slowly opened her eyes and went to open it. Her earlier excitement, died down and replaced with religious sentiment, was reawakened by the sounds. Eagerly she opened the door, but instead of the horned woman was a Hassan, an arm wrapped in black cloth, his body hunched over.

“Greetings, saint of Orleans.” He bowed his head respectfully.

“Yes, to you as well, honored Old Man of the Mountain…” She said, slightly confused, but remembering her manners.

“If I may cut the pleasantries short, I have heard that you required to speak to an assassin to learn to better yourself. Is this the case?”

“Ah,” Jeanne stumbled, before catching herself. “Yes, that is the case. My experience fighting those who use the shadows is verily lacking, as I never truly had to do so in life. Therefore, I was hoping for some guidance, to better aid the master.”

“Hm.” The white mask seemed to judge her quietly. “It’d be remiss of me to allow one of the lord magus’s servants to remain unlearned in the ways of fending off shadows. For our Master’s sake, I will gladly aid you.”

“I thank you,” Jeanne said, rather surprised. Surely one of Chaldea’s staff had told him about her, despite the fact she said she was seeking Shuten Douji, and not another. Still, the saint’s so-called excuse for calling out the oni was not a false one, her experience truly lacking, therefore she could not disregard Hassan.

“Then, let us get to it immediately. One of the simulation rooms will likely be deserted at this time.” The man turned away and walked out of the open door, steps filled with professional purpose. Jeanne followed suit.

= = = = = = = = = = =

The simulation was long, but very in-depth. Hassan brought her through all the basics, through more advanced methods of fighting from the shadows, and conversely how to deal with an opponent who assaulted from the shadows, specifically with the idea that she’d be protecting another, the master.

After an amount of time unknown to Jeanne herself, they left the simulation room.

“Thank you greatly for this lesson, master Hassan,” she said, looking slightly worse for wear. Her cloak was riddled with holes, and hair stuck out of place all across her braid. Hassan meanwhile, looked the same as he did going in.

“It does not bear mentioning. For we who share a purpose as simple protecting the lord magus, bettering each other is a matter of course.”

Jeanne was slightly surprised by his words.

“I’d thought your purpose was the salvation of this world, or the annihilation of the enemy, not the protection of our master,” Jeanne admitted. “Pardon my bluntness, if you would.”

“No, communication is a necessary tool. To speak your mind is nothing to apologize for, so long as it is required.” The man brought his hand to his chin. “To save this world, or annihilate my enemy… do you think such a thing is possible, by the hands of this assassin alone?”

Jeanne said nothing, unsure of how to respond.

“The answer is simple. It is not. I have just spent hours showing you how I avoid directly facing enemies, as it would be my utter undoing. Yet the lord magus faces his enemies directly, followed by his army. His army that, may I say, we are part of. Yet unlike an army where if the general is slain, another rises, no general will rise to take control of this army. Therefore, my greatest way of slaying our enemy, of saving this world, of achieving our purpose, is to protect our master. It is well suited for me, who can be there to protect the lord magus without the enemy acknowledging my presence, as greater heroes rampage through the frontline.”

“I see…I certainly understand your logic. Yet you just taught me all about protecting the master from the shadows, during this lesson. Are your actions implying you and Mash may one day be inadequate for the task?”

The man said nothing for a while.

“No, I do not believe we will ever fully be inadequate. We must also consider, me and the young shielder are not the only protectors of the lord magus. And yet, for all the servants that protect him, some of us may fall. Some of us may never be able to protect the lord magus again. Therefore, it is important to make sure others can fulfill the tasks needed of them.”

His words were serious, professional, and solemn. Just as Jeanne had come to expect of him and the two other Hassan who called Chaldea home, the one of a hundred faces and the founder of their order. And yet, this time, his words were a little more foreboding.

“I understand. I will hold this lesson to heart, heavy as it is. Thank you for your guidance.”

“I am simply doing what is expected of me.” Jeanne nodded at his words and turned away, until his voice caught her attention one last time. “May I ask, why now, of all times, to seek the knowledge of an assassin?”

“Ah, I was on a mission seeking materials with this new assassin, Shuten Douji. Seeing her fight reminded me of my inadequacies in fending off an assassin’s way of fighting. I sought to ask her to teach me, but it seemed you were told before she was,” Jeanne admitted.

“Perhaps for the best,” Hassan muttered. “It is just a feeling, but I would not place trust in that being. There is something about her that is a little too familiar.”

As he said so, the cloth covering his other arm shifted, as if something underneath had just come to life.

“I will take your words into consideration, master Hassan,” Jeanne said, putting a hand to her chest in salute before moving off.

“That is all I can ask you to do, and I do hope it comes to nothing.” Hassan himself gave a short nod to Jeanne, and seeing her turn away, walked off on his own path.

= = = = = = = = = = =

The next day, Jeanne’s door was once again knocked while she prayed. With no real expectations, she opened the door, to see a small horned woman.

“Fine greetings to you, lady Jeanne D’Arc.” The oni gave a deep bow.

“Ah, welcome, Miss Shuten. Please, just call me Jeanne.” Jeanne smiled to the friendly salutations.

“Just Jeanne it shall be, then. May I intrude? I’ve been travelling this entire domain in the last week, and my legs demand I seat myself, lest they give out.”

“Of course, please come in.” Jeanne stepped away from the doorway to let her into the room.

“Oh… As expected of a saint, this place is completely lacking in worldly possessions.” Shuten walked around the completely undecorated room, until she eventually settled on the bed, her dress sprawling around her.

“It is simply the way I’ve settled myself. I need nothing, so long as I may pray to the lord.” Jeanne walked forward a bit, earning a stare from Shuten. She then remembered something she’d heard about Japan’s culture. “Ah, yes, should I make you some tea?”

“Oh? Would you truly have possession of tea leaves, in such an empty place?” Shuten smiled, bringing a hand to her face, a finger to her mouth.

“I must admit, I do not. I would have to go find some first.”

“No, that is quite fine. I do not thirst for tea at the moment.” Shuten lay herself completely down on the bed, her legs dangling off the edge.

“I see. Then, I suppose the reason you are here is that you heard from the staff…?” Jeanne lost her smile and her face took a more serious look.

“Oh, indeed!” Shuten contorted, bringing her legs up on the bed and lying on her stomach, looking up at Jeanne, laying her jaw on her hand. Her kimono barely followed, leaving most of her back exposed. “I heard you were searching quite thoroughly for me, yet I was nowhere to be found. May I ask why?”

“Yes, my apologies. The truth is…” Jeanne told her the reason she was looking for her, omitting the part where she’d singled her out for her friendly demeanor.

“Hm, I see…” Shuten hummed thoughtfully, her smile gone for a mix between a pensive frown and a pout. “Hm…. Hmmmmmm…”

Jeanne squirmed on the spot, unsure how to take this overly long humming.

“Dearest Jeanne, would you be interested in eating lunch with me?” Shuten finally asked, a smile returned to her face.

“…Yes?” Jeanne answered, unsure of how the conversation went there.

“Ah, I must sound like a fool. You see, I am currently lacking a good friend of mine, my dear Ibaraki… and well, no one in this place seems overly charitable. But I feel like I could have an enjoyable time, were I to spend it with you.” As she said all this, one hand upheld her head, while the other seemed to draw on the bedsheets. “And nothing makes for better friendships than eating a meal?”

“Ah, yes, of course, I’d be glad to accompany you for a meal!” Jeanne said, overly eager, a smile from ear to ear.

“Wonderful!” Shuten immediately climbed off the bed, and rearranged her kimono slightly, that it at least fell on her shoulders. “There is no time like the present is a saying, is it not? We should waste no time discarding our appetites.”

“Right now?” Jeanne asked, before immediately realizing she was not busy. “Of course, yes! I’ll lead the way to the mess hall!”

So, Jeanne, with a new friend in tow, headed to the mess hall. Tamamo Cat was making food, incomprehensible as always, and a feast already waited for them.

“I must admit, I did not have high expectations of this place. Chaldea…” Shuten said, between bites. “It is definitely interesting, and yet, such a hostile environment. And the master is nowhere to be seen.”

“Ah, I wouldn’t worry. The master is usually much more present. He must have fallen ill recently.” Jeanne made excuses, while wishing to know the reasons herself.

“Hm… Well, when I first saw our master, he did seem quite tired. Fatigue and worries, perhaps.” Shuten shrugged, and took a sip out of what looked like a little bowl. “Would you like a glass of wine, dear?”

“Ah,” Jeanne smiled reservedly. “No more than a glass, please.”

Shuten looked at her a second too long, before pouring her a glass from her massive gourd.

“Here it is, although,” Shuten started, giving the bowl to Jeanne. “You seem to restrict yourself an awfully overlarge amount.”

Jeanne accepted the glass, a doubtful look on her face. “You think so? I simply believe in stopping myself from excess. I try not to drink too much, as to not lose myself.”

“Not just the drinking, dear. During the mission, your way of fighting… seemed like it wasn’t truly meant for you.” Shuten produced another bowl out of somewhere, pouring herself some of her gourd. “Battle is a great bloody dance, where all let loose. Of course, a commander must keep a clear head, and soldiers cannot fight their allies. Yet now we are soldiers, and you fight too carefully, stopping yourself from truly joining the fray, keeping an eye not just on all of us, but on yourself.

“You fight a battle like a commander, and it makes you feel stiff, darling.”

Jeanne listened in between bites of assorted odd-looking things Tamamo Cat had made, as more servants came into the mess hall.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it. But I suppose where others enjoy battle, or bask in it, I do try to keep in mind that battle is a means to an end, one that benefits us all.”

“Now, please hold a moment, I’m not suggesting you need to enjoy battle. I’m suggesting you immerse yourself in it. Your mind is elsewhere, thinking of the battle as a whole, thinking of our master, or our purpose, or whatever it is goes through your darling head. While this is a quality on a commander, on a soldier it is a weakness.”

Jeanne set down her spoon and wiped her mouth clean.

“Perhaps, but the way I fight is something I believe I hold choice in. I choose to try and see everything I can, rather than just being a mindless soldier. When I was a commander, having thoughtless subordinates would have been a curse rather than a boon. So, I will keep fighting in a way I would approve of, were I the commander.”

“Wonderfully said. Then I shall keep basking in the battles forward on, and you may think for the both of us. May I ask that of you?” Shuten raised her glass.

Jeanne raised her own, half empty, and they gently bumped.

“Of course, Shuten.”

They both took a sip, and the meal ended. They went their different ways, Jeanne back to her room, Shuten to wherever Shuten went to. Jeanne’s trip, however, was not without obstacle.

“I’m surprised,” Jeanne said, blocking the hallway from the saintly version of herself. “You hold odd company.”

“Is there a problem,” Jeanne said, looking herself straight in the eyes longer than she ever had, ever since coming here. “With the people I choose to befriend?”

“Ha!” The dark Jeanne walked forward, going head to head with the Saint. “You befriend quite a wretched being.”

Jeanne didn’t reply, and eventually, a tongue clicked in distaste. Having enough of the entire interaction, Jeanne walk past the other, leaving herself behind.

= = = = = = = = = = =


The towering Hassan-I-Sabbah, known otherwise as King Hassan, spoke to Jeanne in the gathering hall, before a mission.

“May I help you, lord Hassan?” She answered, keeping her worry inward.

“Your dedication to the contractor is impressive. May your loyalty to our master last until your head is undone.”

Jeanne flinched at the choice of words, but understood the basic sentiment underneath.

“Of course it will,” she answered, her voice a little too hard.

King Hassan observed her with empty eye sockets for a moment too long.

“Very well.” He turned away, as Arturia started to tell them their assignment, and as Jeanne’s belief that only Shuten was capable of any kind of amiable behavior was strengthened.

Later that day, they ate together again, and once again Jeanne refused a second glass of wine.

And once again, Shuten asked about the master, and Jeanne still could give no answer.

= = = = = = = = = = =

“The master can’t see you now.”

Arturia was standing in the hallway, near the master’s room, denying Jeanne any passage.

“I understand, as you’ve said it before. But many of the servants are asking questions, and no answers are coming. Please, at least tell me what’s become of the master.”

Jeanne was worried, as she’d overheard some of the other servants talk about their master earlier in the morning, and along with her own questions, Shuten’s inquisitiveness and the ominous attitudes the Hassans held, she felt the need to finally ask.

“You do not need to know any more than you do.” Arturia persisted, simply holding her ground. Jeanne however, did not take the statement very well.

As a servant, they were all connected to their master. They all received energy from him, so any servant could answer that the master was alive. But, other than that, no one knew anything else.

“I believe we do need to know more than we do. While we are tools of our master, we deserve to know the state of the one wielding us.” Jeanne’s voice raised in volume as she said this.

Artoria, however, said nothing.

“Do not treat me as if I am not here!” Jeanne put a hand to her chest.

“Perhaps you should take it as a hint and not be here.” The dark king’s eyes narrowed as her hands gripped her sword tighter.

The conflict would have escalated, but a door behind Artoria opened. The first to react was Artoria herself, rushing to the door, not making it in time before someone collapsed onto the hallway.

The master, Gudao, was not a very good color, patches of reddening skin visible across his chest, as he was only wearing pants. On uncovered skin, one could see fresh scars. On his face, his eyes blackened, his cheeks sunken in and his nose settling from a break.

“Ah, Artoria, I was looking for you,” He said as she came up, followed by Jeanne. “The dailies for today, I had a list. I thought I could walk, my bad on that. Haha, ha…”

He was smiling, putting up a good front. He turned his head slightly, and saw Jeanne.

“Oh, hey there. Sorry you have to see me like this, I told Artoria not to show me to anyone. Don’t be worried, I’m just a little sick. We’ll be right back to saving the world in no time.” He lifted a clenched fist to show her his spirit was fine.

Meanwhile, she only felt terrible. Her master was in such a state, and she didn’t know anything about it, she could do nothing about it and she didn’t do anything to stop it from happening.

“Master, let’s get you back in your room.”

The King of Knights lifted him in her arms and brought him back to his room, settling him on the bed. The room was kept surprisingly clean, Jeanne noticed as Artoria tucked him in. On a table close to the wall was a tray with a half-eaten burger on it, and a clipboard at its side.

“Who knows about this?” Jeanne’s question wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular.

“The servants who were out with him at the time. Me, the Hassan of the cursed arm, King Hassan, the other Jeanne and Mash. And I’d rather keep it that way.”

“Ah, if I’m worrying everyone, you can tell them. I already feel a lot-” Gudao started, ended by a coughing fit.

“Master, shut up.” Artoria walked over to a cabinet, grabbed a glass and went to fill it at a small sink in the corner of the room.

“What’s happening?” Jeanne asked, remembering the real question.

“He’s wounded, and then he got sick.” Artoria propped her master up and gave him the glass of water. “Mash is hurt too. Some noble phantasm is affecting her healing, it’s slow. Her being weakened is probably why master could even get sick.”

“She is healing though, right? Mash…” Gudao started, looking concerned.

“Yes, and stop talking. Her healing is going fine, she could wake any minute.” The king, obviously concerned despite her steely face, went to go rinse the cup. “Well, maid of Orleans, are you satisfied?”

“I… Yes, I am. I apologize for being so brusque about the affair.” Jeanne bowed her head in apology.

“Ah, no, It’s fine. I understand that you’d get frustrated wondering where I went.” Gudao kept on smiling as if he were healthy. “Geez, Artoria, I told you that you should tell them.”

“Enough. Give me the list for the team composition of the dailies, and go back to sleep.”

Jeanne walked out of the room, a deep, uncomfortable feeling inside of her. She walked away, her eyes glued to the floor, her mind in turmoil, until finally she saw a dark pair of boots, tickled by a cape.

“What’s this, kicked out by that overprotective woman, were you?”

A darkened Jeanne looked down at Jeanne, a smirk on her face. Superiority was drawn all over her, a fantasy deciding she was greater than the history she was imagined from.

Jeanne did not need to deal with her right now. She looked away, and started walking past her, until a hand grasped her arm. She looked up once again to see a displeased grimace.

“What the hell is this?” The golden-eyed woman said, not even pretending to hide her distaste.

“What?” Jeanne said, her voice sounding unlike herself. “I want nothing to do with you. So, I’m leaving.”

“Like shit you are. What’s wrong with that damn look on your face?”

“It has nothing to do with you.” Jeanne said, weakly trying to shake her arm free.

“Of course it does, you-“ The dark Jeanne started, before being interrupted.

“No, it has nothing to do with you! We aren’t the same person!” Jeanne looked up to see herself in the eyes, a confused look on her dark self. “I want nothing to do with you. You are not me, you are just a shade that imitates my shape, that twists it into a vengeful fantasy for the sake of one of my knights, one of my dear friends gone horribly, horribly mad. And I can’t help him, I can’t help that you exist, but can I at least ask you to stop bringing me grief?”

Her voice has almost turned into a whisper at the end. A dark gauntlet released its grip on her arm, its owner stone-faced, giving no answer. The dark silhouette moved first, past Jeanne, towards the master’s room.

Jeanne, meanwhile, resumed her slow walk away, to her own room.

= = = = = = = = = = =

“Oh dear, oh my, you look worse for wear,” Shuten said, as Jeanne opened her door. She was sprawled on the bed naturally, as if it was her own. “What’s happened, dearest?”

“Did I lose faith, I wonder?” Words left Jeanne’s mouth, directionless. She walked to the bed, sitting down next to it. “Not in the lord, I can still feel him, feel that this cause, this purpose is just, and given to me by him. But, have I lost faith in my fellow man?”

“Oh dear, dearest Jeanne D’Arc, please tell me of your woes, perhaps I may give guidance to you, who looks so lost. Perhaps I may give you warmth, when you look so cold. Perhaps I could give you company, a partner on this bed, when you look so alone. But first, drink some warm wine, and tell me your sorrows.”

Jeanne, missing the innuendo, hummed in approval. Coming from out of sight, Shuten had her bowl-like glass ready, filled with liquid. She handed it to her, from over her shoulder. Jean grasped it, and immediately Shuten’s head was over a shoulder, her arms reaching down around Jeanne.

“I was worried for the master. I can say that much, for certain. And yet, I… did I not trust that the King of Knights would tell us, were our master in a life-threatening situation?” She took a large gulp of the wine.

“Ah, perhaps it’s what we spoke of. You think too much like a commander, that you must be aware of everything.” Shuten whispered into her ear. Jeanne barely heard it. Her eyes closed as the wine burned a way down her throat. When they opened, her glass was as full as it was before.

“And yet, was I afraid to know? Both the Hassans, they alluded to it, that the master was always in danger, that perhaps his shield would die. Mash… Mash is hurt, and if she is hurt, then she could have died. Both were present, both would know that the possibility existed. And yet, when they said such foreboding words, I shied away instead of confronting them. Did I not have faith in them? In their words, their meaning? Did I simply think, ah, the assassins are being dark again?”

Jeanne took another big gulp, emptying the glass, yet when she looked again, it was full.

“You worry too much, about everyone, about what they’re doing. You are hesitating. You choose to keep yourself aware, but now, your awareness, your alertness is harming you. Just close your eyes, your ears, and free yourself from this situation. There is no doubt here.”

“Perhaps…” Jeanne drank again. “Or perhaps, I have failed, I wasn’t aware enough, I wasn’t alert enough…” She drank again. “Or perhaps… I had failed beforehand, that others only thought to see me as a possible shield after Mash was hurt.” Jeanne drank again. “Perhaps I was never truly a consideration until now, while she… she was always out saving the world, fulfilling her purpose, our purpose.

“I wonder, do I hate her? Do I say these words from spite?”

Jeanne drank again.

“Do not mind it at all. Just forget it all, let it all pass.” Shuten’s face seemed closed and closer.

“Ah, maybe I… uh…” Jeanne grasped her head. Something was wrong. “Wait, no, I shouldn’t.”

She tried to get up, but no strength came to her legs. Her arm, that she thought was grasping her head, was numb, with no feeling.

“Oh dear, this wine truly is strong. A little too strong for a servant based on a human.” Shuten let go of Jeanne, instead getting off the bed and walking in front of her, lowering herself to look Jeanne in the eyes, both looking listless. “Alley oop.”

Shuten lifted Jeanne as a knight would a princess, and put her up on the bed.

“No…” Jeanne mumbled weakly, but her body wouldn’t answer.

“Now now, the wine could keep an oni like myself drunk. I’m honestly surprised you’re even aware at all. But now, dearest Jeanne…” Shuten ran a finger across Jeanne’s body, before resting on her breast. “Let me help you. You’re confused, lost, and now I’ll help you just, let it all go.”

Jeanne made another sound that sounded like denial.

“Come now, dearest. Allow me to be your company, your warmth. Allow your sorrows to seep away, as I send them to the sky.” Shuten gently caressed her breasts, as the girl climbed on top of Jeanne, straddling the weakened servant. She loomed downwards, threatened to give Jeanne a kiss, but instead took a long lick on her nape, pulling at her breasts as she did so.

Jeanne flinched, trying to mount any resistance, but it came in vain. Shuten noticed, smirking down at the saint.

“Resisting this hard… will only happen once. By the end of tonight, you won’t be reserved any more.” Shuten moved back, spreading Jeanne’s legs, exposing her crotch. “You won’t be frightened of letting loose anymore.” She pulled aside her underwear. “You won’t-“

She didn’t have time to continue. In an instant, the room had gotten hot. The door started glowing red, and Shuten rose immediately.

The door melted inwards, black smoke fuming off of it, causing the silhouette of the person responsible to look like a wraith, dark flames writhing around their hands and feet, glowing in her eyes, a fire filled with an intense desire to burn away life.

“Oh dear,” Shuten said, almost uncaringly, right before she was engulfed in flame. She’d covered part of herself with her kimono, but her leg was set aflame regardless. She immediately tried suffocating the flame with the cloth she wore as she reached for her gourd, but the assailant would have none of it.

As Jeanne’s awareness started to fade, the last thing she saw was a dark, burning gauntlet smashing Shuten’s face into the wall.

= = = = = = = = = = =

Jeanne slowly came awake, in an unfamiliar room. The room itself was unspectacular, looking exactly like her own, except for a plush of a dragon sitting down the bed.

“Awake, are you?”

The voice was filled with contempt, and it was easily recognizable.

“You... helped me.” Jeanne could barely speak, but she turned her neck to face the person talking to her.

“Don’t flatter yourself. That shitty master would be upset if a servant got hurt.” The dark Jeanne leaned against the wall.

“I said such horrible things to you. I ignored you and Hassan when you tried to warn me. I…”

“By the Lord himself in heaven, who cares?!”

Jeanne was stunned for a moment.

“You made a mistake, after you made your own decision about who you’d befriend. Congratulations, you made a bad acquaintance and got bit for it. Don’t you have more important shit to care about?” Jeanne got closer, leaned in to look her brighter self in the eye. “If you spend all day looking behind you, you’ll never look in front of you. So, shut up, brighten up, and look ahead. Mash woke up, that damn brat’s getting better, and we have more singularities to fix. So be ready to save the world by tomorrow or everyone else will save it while you’re in bed.”

Jeanne straightened up, looking down at her.

“Artoria doesn’t care about what happened yesterday, that brat doesn’t, and that damn bitch Shuten doesn’t either. Why should you?”

With that, she left the room, leaving Jeanne alone, smiling.

“Of course, of course…” Jeanne said, almost happily, a tear falling down her face. “Of all people, of course she’d set me straight.

End of Side A

Side B

The master’s been in bed for about a week. Mash is almost fully recovered, but that kid won’t wake up yet.

Which left Jeanne in an uncomfortable position. She hasn’t had anything to vent her anger on in a while, with the kid asleep and Gilles being no fun to beat up on.

To top it all off, every time the bitch Artoria needs the saintly Jeanne, she sends the angrier one.

So of course, Jeanne was caught grinding her teeth angrily across Chaldea again today.

“I’m looking for Shuten douji, an assassin class servant.”

Angrily taking a walk, a set of words pulled her away. She looked, and of course, the saintly Jeanne was bothering a chaldea aid with something or other about training against assassins. The aid noticed her, and Jeanne started to turn her head, prompting the dark Jeanne to go around the corner.

She kept her ear out, listening to the rest of her conversation, almost puking when Jeanne starts heaping praise on some random nobody who was probably sent here because nobody in his family loves him.

What a pain.

Still, Shuten Douji. The name ran through her head, along with words she’d associate with her.

Hedonistic. Sadistic. Whore. Slut. Bitch. Short. Weird horns. Slutty. Sluuuutty. Eats humans.

“Yeah, no, that’s a bad idea.” Jeanne walked off to the simulation hall, where she knew two of the Hassan were training. She burst in mid-simulation, introducing herself to the forest-like environment the room had become.

“Come out, Hassan, before I burn this entire forest to the ground!” Jeanne bellowed, hoping he wouldn’t appear, so she could let loose some steam.

Of course, someone with a stick up their ass wouldn’t ignore a “comrade”. She grimaced as soon as he appeared, accompanied by twelve of the hundred face.

“Jeanne. Is there something we were needed for?” One of the hundred faces spoke up, with the body of a man.

“Yeah, actually. That dumb other Jeanne is looking for an assassin class servant to help her.” Jeanne crossed her arms impatiently.

“Oh? Do you know what for?” The cursed arm spoke up.

“Training or something, why should I know the specifics? Just go give her a hand, would you?” Jeanne rolled her eyes.

“That is no way to ask for a favor,” all twelve of the hundred faces all said at the same time, their voices betraying the passive expression their masks always wore.

“No, that is quite alright,” the cursed arm spoke up, before Jeanne could retaliate. “If a comrade requires assistance, I shall answer. Thank you for informing me, Jeanne.”

Without waiting for an answer, the cursed arm left the room, the simulation ending. Jeanne herself didn’t want to stick around to deal with the hundred faces, so left immediately and wordlessly.

As she returned to her room, she groaned to herself.

“Maybe that’ll keep that dumbass out of trouble.”

= = = = = = = = = = =

Of course, that wouldn’t be enough to keep that dumbass out of trouble.

Such a thought, along with other obscenities, crossed Jeanne’s mind as she saw them eating together.

“Hm, what is it, my dearest Jeanne?” Gilles said, at her side.

“Tell me, Gilles de Rais, my trusted companion,” Jeanne said, immediately regretting it, as he made an odd humming sound. “Am I a fool?”

“Why, no, of course not! There is not a single Jeanne in the entire world I’d be blind enough to call a fool!” Gilles said, reaching his hand up to the sky. “Not a single one! Not at all, no!”

“Then please explain what I’m doing over there.” Jeanne pointed at a table filled with all sorts of disgusting-looking “food”, the kind Tamamo Cat makes that looks ridiculous but ends up delicious for no real reason.

“Hm, yes… it seems to be that you’re eating a meal with Shuten Douji.” He put a hand to his chin. “Truly a saint, giving such a killer the opportunity to dine with them.”

“Truly, truly… a saint, a saintly fool! An idiot! Being burned alive must have burnt away her brain!” Jeanne said, punching the wall hard enough to leave cracks.

“Oh, Jeanne, no, please, do not be upset!” Gille said, holding back her arm from destroying the wall further. “I know your values are different to hers, but you are a true saint, an angel in my eyes as well!”

“That’s not my point!” Jeanne barked, calmed despite herself. “Enough, Gilles. Poison that man-eater’s next meal. Give her a serious bout of diarrhea, despite her monstrous physiology.”

“Oh, wonderful, a challenge… perhaps, if I were to insert a parasite in her food…” Gilles arched his fingers together, deep in thought.

“Meanwhile, I’ll confront myself and tell her to leave that wretch alone.” Jeanne said, angry but filled with purpose.

Gilles went off, and Jeanne stayed, waiting for the two to separate.

She waited and waited, until Jeanne came face to face with herself. There was a moment of awkward silence.

“I’m surprised. You hold odd company.” Jeanne said, deciding to break the ice.

“Is there a problem with the people I choose to befriend?” Jeanne said, holding her ground, looking herself dead in the eye.

“Ha!” Jeanne took a few ominous steps forward, to respond to her own defiant attitude. “You befriend quite a wretched being.”

The saintly Jeanne looked at her, head to head. Someone’s tongue clicked in distaste. Finally, the saint just walked past her.

Meanwhile, the darker Jeanne stood there, feeling somewhat cheated. She was prepared to tell her all about Shuten’s killing, raping and man-eating sprees as soon as the other Jeanne went “kyaa, what could you ever mean”, but instead she just walked off.

Jeanne wobbled over to the wall, resting her head on it with a sigh.

“Maybe I am an idiot…”

Gilles decided this was the best time to return.

“Ah, sweet Jeanne, I’ve created a powerful parasite that will undoubtedly survive that beast’s intestinal track, and cause it to have horrible, unpleasant bouts of diarrhea!”

“Ah…” Jeanne said, her head still on the wall. “I don’t think that’ll be enough. Think you can like, make a parasite that’ll grow inside of her and start raping her out of her ass, or something?”

“Hm… you certainly know how to raise the bar. But then, a challenge is what I live for!” Gilles started cackling evilly, and Jeanne merely sighed again. “I will create the ultimate piece of art that will satisfy your desires, Jeanne!”

“It’s not for me, fool…” She said, finally pushing herself off the wall.

= = = = = = = = = = =


“Yeah, eat shit, take Shuten off the team. Send the grandpa instead or something.”

Artoria and Jeanne were having a standoff outside the master’s room. Both were barely a notch above whispering, as to not disturb their master.

“We need an assassin with the ability to affect many people at once. The time efficiency will greatly-“

“I don’t care. Shuten is a bad idea, and I don’t want her with teams that have that stupid saint on them.”

Artoria’s eyes narrowed slowly, before relaxing.

“I’m surprised you’re so protective of her,” she said, with a smug smile, losing it almost immediately when Jeanne didn’t react.

“I’m asking you a favor here, for real. Please, do this for me.” Jeanne looked directly at the King of Knights, uncharacteristic sincerity in her voice.

A silence hung in the air for a few moments, until finally Artoria sighed, closing her eyes.

“Fine. Only this once.” Artoria made to move away, before approaching once again in hushed tones. “And no avoiding it when I call in this favor. Not this time.”

“Fine.” Jeanne had a sigh of her own. “And thank you.”

Jeanne walked off, satisfied she’d made distance between the two. She returned to her room, dissolving the magic that her cape was made out of to sit on her bed. She looked at the dragon on the end of the bed. It looked fine from afar, but once she grabbed it and took it close, she could see all the mistakes made in the stitching. A shoddy creation from beginning to end.

A year after she was summoned, her master had made it for her. He’d asked if there was anything she wanted, and she told him to get Fafnir if anything, but instead he handmade the plush.

An unskilled fool. A fool through and through, without any doubt.

“But right now, I need you to wake up, you fool. Looking after your servants isn’t my job.”

She tossed the plush aside, restless. She got up off her bed again, and prepared to set out, another walk to calm the nerves. Instead, a sound came from her door, a knock. She opened it up, to see Gilles.

“Oh, did you already finish the parasite?” She said, not terribly surprised. Gilles could work miracles when he was well motivated.

“Oh, well, yes, although it will take a couple days before being ready. The real reason I bother you, sweet Jeanne, is well…” He wrung his hands in dread, and Jeanne could feel herself disappointed already.

“No, don’t even tell me. She’s having dinner with Shuten again.” Jeanne’s face was resting in both of her palms. “No, of course she is. Of course! Why wouldn’t she be.”

Jeanne left her room, materializing her cape as she did. Gilles stayed behind, either afraid of her wroth or unwilling to see what she’d do next.

Jeanne went to the dining hall, and was unsurprised by who she met along the way.

“Odds were I’d run into you again soon.” Jeanne’s face was already a portrait of dislike.

“Now, this seems an undeserved welcome. I’ve yet to cause you grief, have I not?” Shuten said, smiling at Jeanne radiantly.

“Yet being the keyword.” Jeanne approached, looming over the oni. “Let me be clear: piss off. The next time I see you eating dinner with Jeanne in the mess hall, I’ll burn your gourd into ash.”

“Now, why would you do that, and grieve poor Jeanne? I have no ill intentions of my own, and we are quite comfortable in our new friendship.” Shuten shrugged slowly, almost comically.

“That’s funny, because I do have ill intentions. Specifically, I’m thinking about how well cooked I can make an oni before serving it to Herakles.” A black fire started dancing at her feet, making her cape come alive, shaking furiously, trying to stop itself from being lit.

“Scary, scary… but I assure you, I have no misdeeds in mind. Anything I do with that sweetheart, Jeanne, is something I would only do to, do with someone I truly consider a friend.”

And with that, Shuten hopped away, fearlessly.

Jeanne stayed on the spot, alone and fuming, until Herakles walked by. Looking down at her, and past her, the colossus walked up to Jeanne and put a gigantic hand on her head.

Jeanne put a tiny hand on his, and asked the gentle giant a simple question.

“If he were to mess with Jeanne, you’d help me rip her apart, right?” She asked, trusting the titan not only for his inability to speak, but for the time they’d fought together.

Herakles, without even an instant of thought, howled a war cry that explained his feelings on the matter in a second.

= = = = = = = = = = =

The next day, Jeanne was on another walk. She was tired of everything. She simultaneously hoped that nothing would happen at all across chaldea, and yet at the same time something would happen to distract her from Jeanne and Shuten and her master and Mash and everything, really.

It was an annoying feeling, she intelligently decided.

As she thought of synonyms for annoying, Jeanne walked towards her, looking at the floor. She simultaneously got annoyed and smiled.

“What’s this, kicked out by that overprotective woman, were you?” Jeanne said, almost cheerfully.

Meanwhile, the saint reacted by looking up at her, looking incredibly tired. Something about her look annoyed Jeanne beyond belief. She waited for her to say something, but instead, she looked back down, and started walking past her.

As she walked by, Jeanne threw out a dark gauntlet and grabbed her arm.

“What the hell is this?” The golden-eyed woman said, worried about what had happened to her, thoughts of Shuten’s smile going across her mind.

“What?” The holy woman said, her voice sounding tired and raspy. “I want nothing to do with you. So, I’m leaving.”

“Like shit you are. What’s wrong with that damn look on your face?” Jeanne said, intent on getting to the bottom of this.

“It has nothing to do with you.”

“Of course it does, you-“ She couldn’t even finish her sentence before she was cut off.

“No, it has nothing to do with you! We aren’t the same person!” The holy woman, looking shaken and damaged, looked up directly at Jeanne.

“I want nothing to do with you.” Jeanne’s fist clenched.

“You are not me, you are just a shade that imitates my shape, that twists it into a revenge fantasy for the sake of one of my knights, one of my dear friends gone horribly, horribly mad.” Jeanne’s teeth started grinding, her breathing getting heavy.

“And I can’t help him, I can’t help that you exist, but can I at least ask you to stop bringing me grief?” Finally, everything piled up, more and more, rage building up inside of Jeanne until…

Until nothing. Jeanne saw the look on her face, on the face of who she was, and couldn’t bring herself to lash out. She just wanted all of this to be over.

She didn’t even spare herself another look. Her hand let go, and she started walking away. Before she’d even noticed, she was running.

She ran past her master’s room, causing Artoria to look startled for just a moment.

She ran past everything else until she got to a room in the medical ward. She opened the door, revealing a girl with pale purple hair in bed, covered in bandages.

“E-excuse me?” One of the chaldea aids was there, in a doctor’s garb. She walked directly to him.

“She’s mostly healed, right?” She asked, and the aid blubbered for a moment. “I asked you a question!”

“Y-yes! The noble phantasm that harmed her didn’t seem like it could completely halt her healing, just make it more difficult. She’s mostly healed, s-she could wake up any second!”

Jeanne looked away from the aid, to the girl in bed, sleeping like she didn’t even care.

She clicked her tongue.

She walked straight to the bed, climbed on and in one fell swoop, straddled the girl. She grabbed her by the medical robes and started shaking.

“Wake up, you dumb brat! You have to wake up, so that idiot can get back to running this place and I can stop worrying my ass off about everything going on around here!”

“M-ma’am,” the aid said, trying to soothe her somehow.

“Come on, wake up! I need you awake yesterday, I need you awake last week, I need you awake all the damn time! I’m not a babysitter, I don’t want to be a babysitter! That’s your job! That’s his job! So get up, so he can get up, and I can go back to my job of telling you how awful you all are!”

She stopped shaking, slightly out of breath, and looked down at the shielder. No response for one second, two seconds, three seconds…

“Ma’am, I really need you to not shake the patients…” the aid attempted, once again.

“Shut it. She’s a servant, a little shake in a state like this isn’t going to do anything.” Jeanne looked down, and finally…

Finally, Mash stirred.

“I’m a demi servant…” She mumbled, before looking up and seeing Jeanne. “H-hello.”

Jeanne hugged the eggplant-color-schemed demi-servant tightly.

“Thank the Lord you’re awake, thank the Lord you’re alive,” Jeanne whispered in her ear, before letting go and jumping off the bed. “And I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

Jeanne left without giving her time to respond, back to a full sprint. As she passed the master’s room to see Artoria leaving, she yelled something at her.

“Mash is awake! Tell him!”

She didn’t stop to see what the King of Knights did. She just kept running to someone she had to talk to. Running all the way to room B seventy-two.

She almost knocked on the door, until she heard the sound coming from within.

“Resisting this hard… will only happen once. By the end of tonight, you won’t be reserved any more,” a muffled voice said from within.

Instantly, Jeanne acted. Her fury rose to peaks she didn’t even know existed, and she brought a terrible, dark flame to her hands, letting it loose on the door. She didn’t even check whether it was locked or not, she just melted right through it, her dark flame spreading from her hands, enveloping her body.

Then she saw, Jeanne helpless, her eyes listless and her mouth unable to form words. And on top of her, the source, the reason.

Shuten Douji.

Were she less angry, she’d have shouted the name.

“Oh dear,” Shuten said, as Jeanne waved an arm, engulfing her in flame. She covered her upper body, but her leg was covered in a flame of spite, hatred and murder. Immediately, her expression changed ever so slightly, as she tried to suffocate the flame with her kimono.

“Futile.” Jeanne dashed towards the oni, whose other hand was withdrawing her weapon. Too slow, as Jeanne had already put a hand on the monster’s face, pushing her skull straight into the wall, flame burning at it, searing the skin.

Shuten’s arm swung her sword anyway, causing Jeanne to let go. Softly, despite the fact her face was on fire, the oni started giggling. Displaying reckless abandon, the oni dashed at Jeanne, and Jeanne drew her own sword to parry her.

“You and her are the same, you should enjoy this a little more,” Shuten whispered.

“Trust me, I will enjoy this.” Jeanne waved her free arm, causing flame to spout from underneath Shuten, making her howl in both pain and pleasure. Her flagpole then materialized in that arm, and she speared Shuten with it, hurtling her outside of the room, into the hall.

Despite being on fire, Shuten could still be heard, no longer giggling but outright laughing.

“Come, come! What is next, I wonder? All your hate, the anger you put into every flame… blow that load into me. Or,” Shuten’s gourd appeared beside her. “If you can’t satisfy me, I’ll lay waste to that sweet Jeanne we both hold so dearly… to truly see the extent of your rage.”

“Tu parles trop, sale pute.”Jeanne pulled her sword up, her face set in stone, as the fire that engulfed her died down, becoming a vortex at her feet. “Ceci est le hurlement d’haine qui a été poli dans mon âme!”

Shuten quieted down at the sudden use of French, before once again smiling and uttering the same words as before.

“Oh dear.”

“Le Grondement De Ma Haine!”

The room exploded in fire, reaching into the hall and concentrating its raw essence on Shuten herself, followed by a dark shadow, a line, a pike perhaps, a stake, piercing the outline of the oni. One stake, two stakes, three, four and five, until a finally one came from straight below, impaling the human-shaped shadow directly into the ceiling with a screech.

“Oni are tough, and I was holding back. I’m sure you’ll live, but let me be perfectly clear: I will kill you if you ever as pretend to get near Jeanne again.”

No answer came through the sound of the roaring fire and Shuten’s pained scream. Jeanne turned around, and walked to the bed where the saint lay unconscious. She and the bed she lay on were the only parts of the entire wing not consumed with flame.

He tossed her over her shoulder and walked off through the fire, to return to her room.

Along the way, various members of Chaldea staff, along with some servants, stopped to stare at the blackened saint. She ignored them.

Jeanne kept walking on, and on, and on until she reached her destination. Gilles, as if on cue, was there to meet her.

“I heard the commotion, and I was oh, so worried, that you would slay your opponent and earn the ire of our master, and yet, once again, ah! Mercy like the touch of god himself! A never-ending charity! The saintly light that flows from you, despite the dark fires… sublime!”

“Enough, Gilles. She’s been poisoned, I need you to take a look at her. Maybe make a concoction or something.” Jeanne walked past him, into her room, and set the saint on the bed. Her face was flush, but her limbs pale and lacking any kind of response.

“Hmmm, yes… I will need to examine you closely to see what I can do. May I?” Gilles asked Jeanne, for permission to view Jeanne’s body.

“Do what you have to, Gilles. I trust you with my body.” Jeanne sighed. “For now, I have to go explain myself.”

“Oh? Oh, yes, I see. I’ll prove to be worthy of your trust, I assure you. Please do your own business, as well.” With that, Gilles loomed over Jeanne and opened his book, as the other left the room to face Artoria.


“Well what,” Jeanne grumbled. “Shuten needed to be taught to behave. She’ll live, I think.”

“You’ve made a mess of the B wing. Where will Jeanne live, I wonder?” Artoria put a hand on her hip, her eyes opening slightly wider, accusing Jeanne.

“Well, I have a room. She can have it.” Jeanne started taping her foot.

“And where will you live, I wonder? Hm?” Her accusatory tone got even worse. “The empty rooms are for future servants, which, you aren’t. Every servant has a room, unless it’s burnt to the ground.”

“Well, uh, since you’ve taken up some kind of role as a secretary servant, I know that you have a room closer to the master, with a couch.” Jeanne looked up somewhere, not meeting the king’s eyes.

“Planning on mooching, are you? Should we start referring to you as Bum Jeanne to tell you apart?”

“How about you take that attitude and stick it up your ass? I had to resolve a situation while the master was out, and I did. If you have complaints, I have a list of complaints about the stupid servants around here I’d like to share, too.”

Artoria sighed, and Jeanne chuckled.

“You can stay in my room during repairs. But you will help keep the place clean. And you will clean up from this past week where I was barely in there.” Her eye seemed to sparkle as she said the second half.

“Ugh, deal.”

“And that’s two you owe me,” the black king showed a smug smile, before her expression became more serious. “Jeanne, why do you care so much about her? If I were to appear in Chaldea, a version of me that wasn’t blackened… I probably wouldn’t care for her at all.”

Jeanne looked at her, then looked up, then scratched her head, made a grimace, scratched her head with both hands, made a loud noise and finally sighed.

“I was created by Gilles to be a continuation of the story. I was a piece of fiction he forced to life using a grail. To me, that Jeanne in there, is like… it isn’t an alternate version of me. I’m not just her who’s been altered. In Gilles’s mind, in my mind, the person in there is the person I used to be, before becoming what I am. I’m not her! No, I’m not her anymore or maybe I never truly was, and I’m just going to look forward, to the rest of my existence, but… just because you look forward, doesn’t mean what’s behind you stops existing. So, she’s me, in a really weird, really annoying way.

“And if I let myself get violated and raped by every passerby, I’d feel like an utter tool. So, I take care of her to take care of myself. And that’s the reason I’ve decided to tell people.”

Artoria looked at her, her eyes narrowing, until finally she sighed.

“So long as you can sleep at night.”

With that, she walked off. Jeanne shrugged and headed back into her room, to watch over Jeanne until she awoke.

= = = = = = = = = = =

A few days later, an incident occurred.

Shuten Douji, still recovering from her burns, could be heard loudly throughout Chaldea, moaning pleasurably.

“Say, Gilles…” Jeanne said to him, as a small army of servants converged on the bathroom where Shuten had gone minutes ago. “Did you end up putting that weird rape tentacle parasite in her food?”

“Well, of course! You never told me not to!” He said with a chuckle.

“Heh,” Jeanne smirked, reasoning that if it were Shuten, she’d probably be enjoying herself. “Serves her right.”

Once again, Chaldea is peaceful.