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Thread: Fanfic Contest 2016 Entries - Never gonna give it up!

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    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    Fanfic Contest 2016 Entries - Never gonna give it up!

    This is the collection of one shots for the 2016 edition of my very own fanfic contest, below is a table of contents followed by each fic in alphabetical order. Fics are anonymous at first until the judging is concluded, with that said enjoy!

    Entries:

    A Last Request
    A Magnificent Feast
    Build a City and Call it Babylon
    Defibrillator
    Disorder
    Hands.
    I'LL MURDER YOUR CAT
    Moon's Corral
    PSEUDOMONARCHIA
    Sigma Zero (1) (2)
    True Apocrypha (1) (2)
    Last edited by ItsaRandomUsername; March 16th, 2016 at 03:05 AM.

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    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    A Last Request


    This is the story of a witch’s final battle, of a wish long since fulfilled, and a story lost to time. This is the story of three, and their stand against the inevitable.

    High atop her temple, the witch could see all. As the war progressed into it’s final stages a hopeless dread began to befall her. Through reasons outside her own control the one chance she had, Saber, had been killed in a mutual death against the surprise appearance of the golden Archer.

    That left one final threat, the Servant that the witch feared the most, Berserker. As if a barrier on her own conscious had been released she began to gather magical energy with reckless abandon without regards to the ones she was taking from.


    Yet, deep down, she knew it would not be enough. A monster known as the Berserker was closer to a force of nature than a Servant. Even if she drained the entire city dry the odds were stacked against her. Were she like her old self, she likely would have given up in defeat cursing the gods who put her in this situation.

    But things were different this time. Now, unlike what felt like so many years ago, she had a reason to fight. Even if the cost was her life, she would stand and fight. And as such, when the beast’s howls echoed up the great stone steps of the temple, she braced herself; ready to take action.

    Her defensive position was greater than any other in this war. With the bounded fields surrounding the forest keeping her safe on almost all sides she knew exactly where he would charge. She only had to take a single glance to see that the beast’s Master was not around, a wise decision on her part and yet another penalty stacked against her. Even so, she would not falter, she would never falter again, and it was all for his sake.

    The stone steps began to shake loose as the deafening pounding of the beast’s charge grew ever closer. With a few words, the False Servant was forced from his post at the gate and into the far more open temple grounds as the witch readied her offensive.

    She flew high into the air and readied her most powerful magic circle, a circle that could perhaps only be rivaled by the one underneath her stone fortress. After all, she was a magic user from the age of the gods, with a single wave of her finger she could cast magic that had not been seen in a millennium's time. As such, the very fact she had to concentrate and chant was proof that this was truly her greatest spell. Larger and larger an aura of sheer magical power grew as she sucked the very life energy out of the surrounding area itself, turning the leaves from vibrant spring green to bitter autumn hues. The mystic circle had collected so much raw magical energy that the air around both her and the ritual itself began to spark and ripple as space-time began to bend and tear from the sheer force.

    All of her fury, her frustration, and her desire to grant his wish above all others was focused into a single source. And with an enraged chant that more closely resembled a scream she targeted it directly at the Beast just as he emerged from the shadow of the gate above.

    It was an unavoidable attack, the hero Heracles received the almighty blast of magical energy head on. And with a horrendous roar he was consumed by fire and bright blue plasma. It was an attack that lasted only an instant. The Beast’s body had been completely incinerated down to his knees from an attack that rivaled the Noble Phantasms of other Servants.

    Had the Monster been killed by the Caster’s greatest spell?

    The answer was obvious.

    Seconds after the dust had begun to settle, the feet of the Berserker began to move once more as his Noble Phantasm saved his life yet again.

    From the witch’s prior calculations the Berserker only had five lives remaining. Yet with a mocking feminine tone that echoed directly from the Berserker’s mouth as he regenerated, her greatest attack, something that could be bested only by the most powerful of holy swords had only managed to take three.

    The witch was quickly becoming desperate, she was aware of how the beast’s Noble Phantasm operated. The more he was hit with an attack the more resistant he became.

    Yet she refused to give up, she could never give up.

    Mustering all the magic at her disposal she rallied her own Servant and began to engage the Berserker head on. The Beast was an unstoppable force of chaos, but her own Servant had skills of his own. With every swing of the giant’s axe-like sword he smashed through the stone floor like it was paper.

    He could crush skulls with the sheer shockwaves of his attacks, yet the nameless samurai was unfazed even in the face of such adversity. Rather, he reveled in it.

    Every brutal swing of the axe was expertly parried by the thin elegant katana. By all logic it should have been impossible for either the False Assassin or his blade to continue halting the force of nature that was Heracles, yet he did.

    Though he was by far an impressive swordsman able to hold off a Demigod, even the nameless farmer had little hope to defeat this monster. Yet stand he would, stronger still. The Monohoshizao that had been reinforced by ancient magic further strengthened its already impressive durability for a normal blade.

    With the two’s strength, a combination of spell and sword, they were holding back the beast. It shouldn’t have been possible, yet they were succeeding in their task.

    But another problem was already beginning to arise. As talented as the Caster and the Nameless Farmer were, they lacked the necessary firepower to deal any further damage to the beast in their current condition. If they were going to win, they would have to take things one step further.

    As legendary as Heracles was, he was still held back by his class as a Berserker. And there lay his weakness. It was their best shot, rather it was their only shot.

    Dodging blow after earth-shattering blow, the Assassin carefully began to maneuver the beast into the right location. The False one lacked both the strength and the endurance to go toe to toe to force his foe back. Yet what should have been impossible, was within his grasp.

    With an elegant swipe of his incredibly long blade the beast attacked with all his might. It was a horrid charge and one that pushed the Assassin back.

    Or so the beast thought.

    Before he could even react he was frozen in space, it was a barrier trap designed by the witch to immobilize the Berserker and it would only last for a split second. Something the witch was very well aware of.

    Yet it would be all she needed, with another swirl of magical circles the energy was fired forth once more. The air screamed, the ground trembled, and the very space around the beast distorted from the sheer force or yet another magical blast of energy.

    Unlike before however, the beast had grown even stronger. For he too was a hero of legend, the skin that had so easily melted away before was proving more resistant than ever. Before it could even finish melting the attack had ended and the blast had died down. There he stood, Heracles, nearly unharmed from such a deadly attack, his skin had only begun to burn off and he had lost no lives in the process.

    But that was all she needed. As with yet another cry of desperation she screamed her command with her outstretched hand. There was a flash of light as a Command Seal was used, and False Assassin sprung to action.

    By all means down to his very core, the man who went by the name Sasaki Kojirou was a fraud. He bore no true class, no true Noble Phantasm to call his own, even his own technique was an illusion of the actual users. Yet at this very moment, for just one fleeting second, as the false Command Seal flushed through his veins he felt more true than anyone else, he was determined.

    Taking his unique stance, he readied his blade as the giant began to recover. And with all of his might he swung his blade; breaking reality in the process.

    A shining flash of steel that split into three wrecked the Berserker’s body, it was the technique he had honed above all else. The skill known as Tsubame Gaeshi was truly the mark of a hero no matter how fake, and in just one shining mode the Assassin had made his name known.

    With a howl of fury the Berserker’s body was ripped to shreds by the attack as it pierced through his steel-like skin. He had done it, the Assassin with no rank of his own had proven his might against the strongest of heroes and come out on top. He had taken the Berserker’s last two lives.

    Unable to move with his limbs and torso separated into many pieces, the Berserker fell, Silent and unmoving. The witch breathed a sigh of relief and relaxed her shoulders. She had done it, she had slain the one she had once thought was unslayable.

    But something began to stir. The beast which had surely died was moving yet again. It should have been impossible, his twelve labors had been completely depleted. But then how? How was he still alive?

    Before either her or the farmer could make a move, the beast struck with a rage more furious than any before. With speed far greater than the Assassin the brute force of his charge sent the False Servant flying towards one of the exterior walls. The horrid sound of crunching bone and blood spraying echoed throughout the courtyard as the man who called himself Sasaki Kojirou took the hit full on.

    Almost simultaneously, before she could react to the danger, the rock-blade that the maddened warrior once held so dear was thrown straight at the stunned witch.

    Perhaps it was her inexperience as a fighter, or perhaps she was simply too shocked to react. But before she had realized the danger, the axe reached her body and tore through her body inflicting grave wounds and sending her once more careening towards the earth.

    This was the end for her, no matter how much she struggled, no matter how much she resisted, it appeared that there was no escaping from fate. Like so many times before she would be lost to time, cursed as nothing more than a witch who had failed yet again in her duty. With a horrid crunching squeal her body slammed against the stone pavement.

    Her wounds were severe but they were not quite fatal. Yet as the Berserker charged towards her she knew there would be no escape this time. No spell, no matter how strong would be able to save her from that iron grip of death. Her own Servant had been paralyzed, and her magic was already weakened from before.

    And so the witch thought, that perhaps it was best this way. After all, if she died here and now, perhaps that little girl would forget about her Master. Yes, perhaps there was still a chance he could yet live, and in the end would that not be enough for her? This way she could die satisfied, and ‘he’ could live on.

    As her vision faded in and out a thin but proud smile stretched across her face. The Berserker was growing ever closer, in mere moments her life would be over and all would be well. She truly believed this.

    Yet she couldn’t help but feel it was somewhat funny. If she was so satisfied with her death, then why was she crying? Just what was so sad?

    Glancing once more at the beast who was nearly upon her crashed corpse she couldn’t help but let out a pitiful laugh.

    Perhaps it was inevitable for this to happen. He had been there for her so many times before regardless of her own feelings. So it only made sense that he stood there yet again.

    With hands outstretched as if to block her body from his rage, the man she adored above all else stood before the madman and her beaten corpse. Like a guardian angel he stood ready as ever, the magical enchantments glinting off his steel knuckles. Even with such powerful magic cast on himself there was truly no way an ordinary human could stand against one of the greatest legends of old.

    Yet with a steely gaze he stared down the monster and spoke. “Berserker, I will now be your opponent. You will not harm my Servant any further.”

    Though his voice was as monotone as ever he bore emotion than ever before. Even without his axe, the beast was still as unstoppable as a hurricane. He would surely die if he stood in the monster’s path, didn’t he realize this?

    Seeing her Master in danger just to protect her own folly, threw the helpless witch in a frenzy. Screaming his name at the top of her lungs she desperately tried to repair the severe damage that had echoed throughout her body.

    Yet no matter how fast she was, she knew deep down that what was about to happen next was inevitable.

    With another animal like roar, the beast charged the man head on. As if accepting him as a worthy foe he held nothing back colliding with the human at full force.

    No matter how skilled he was, no matter how many magical enchantments were sketched across his body, one fact remained. Kuzuki Souchirou was a human, and as such it was a miracle that he managed to withstand three attacks. But that was his limit.

    In just three short strikes, the teacher had been completely exhausted of all fighting ability and with another terrifying howl mixed with the shrieking of the witch, his body had been pushed to its limits and thrown toward the nearby building’s wall. Another bone-crushing sound as his body lay there lifelessly.

    The witch’s quiet acceptance of death had now changed into a panicked fury. The one thing she had held above all else now lay lifelessly before her. The very man who had only recently brought her hope was lying there. She couldn’t even tell if he had died.

    Perhaps in a cruel mockery of the man’s hopeless last stand, the monster had now fully turned his attention towards the man yet again. With a third roar he began to walk over to the man’s body, perhaps intending to ensure that his life had actually ceased.

    It was about to happen yet again. The worst case scenario that the witch dreaded the instant she had fallen for that man. And here he was about to die while she lay there unable to help.

    Just another tragic trail for the witch of betrayal she sarcastically thought to herself. Was this truly how it was going to end? Would she be happy knowing this was how the life of the man she loved died?


    No. She couldn’t let it happen again. She refused with her very being to accept this!

    The healing magic she had been operating at full force was finally giving the results she so desperately clawed at. Her body screamed in pain as she pushed herself to her feet and using the magic she had sewed through the temple grounds teleported herself between her beloved Master the howling Heracles.

    Perhaps she was blinded by love, or perhaps she was as arrogant as ever, yet there she stood, in the face of an unstoppable onslaught, she, the weakest Servant would defeat the maddened warrior.

    “You will not harm Souichirou-sama!!!”

    It was a desperate gamble, her very last tactic, and one that would ensure their mutual destruction. But so long as he lived, even she would be satisfied with this. For just one fleeting moment, even if the result was the same, she would cast aside her name, she would become a true hero.

    And so, she began to gather everything, the souls of those who had given her the strength to live for so long in this world, would be the ones who would grant her victory. Her vision blurred and her body screamed at her to stop, but she could not.

    Pushing the very foundation of her core past its limit she gathered more and more magical energy into herself. Her skin began to tear at itself as light from the entire cities blessings leaked through the cracks in her torn robes.

    But she stood firm. Even as the beast raged, even as he charged once more, she continued to stand firm. She knew above all else that there was none who could overcome the Legend of Heracles. And as such if she could not overcome it with her old legend, she would create one that could!

    Her body was beginning to collapse from the sheer amount of magical energy that she was now holding within her. Any other Servant would have surely perished from holding so much magical energy. But she was no ordinary Servant. She was a Caster, the master of magic, greater than any other when it came to the field of magic. And with her knowledge she snapped her finger a final time and as her staff fell once more into her hands she held it with both hands and charged the hurricane head on.


    What happened next couldn’t even be described as a fight. In a final blinding flash of light the Magus who had worked all her life had ended the maddened warrior at the cost of her own life, it was a victory for neither but a loss to them both.

    By the time the human Master had regained his sense she was long gone, yet not all was lost. For in her final moments the man known as the Master of Caster could hear her final words and her final command as both Master and Servant.

    “Live.”

    The remnants of his story and the journey with his newfound Servant the False Assassin are but a faint glimmer of a memory. Perhaps he found a way to revive the one who had sacrificed everything for his sake, or perhaps he died a meaningless death. Yet in the end it would have mattered little to either of them.

    For their wish and her last request had already been granted, long ago...
    Last edited by Milbunk; March 16th, 2016 at 02:17 AM.

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    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    A Magnificent Feast




    It all started with a phone call.

    A few rings, a click and an answer, as simple as that.

    “Hello?” A voice answered on the other side of world. Fitting a call in the middle of the day, he sounded groggy and tired.

    “Hello, Alexander,” the white-haired man said into the phone. “The matter of the artifact in Egypt has been-“

    “Shirou?!” He was suddenly cut off by a cry. “Damn, boy, are you alright?”

    “What?” Shirou shifted to face the phone box. “I’m fine. What’s happened?”

    “It was one of the people after the artifact you destroyed. They’ve gone and hired every available mercenary to hunt you down and bring you to him.” The voice on the other side took a short pause and clamoring could be heard, as if he was looking for something. “There are… at least twelve people I’ve become certain of, but my network doesn’t spread itself as far as his.”

    Shirou took a moment to process it all, and released a heavy sigh.

    “A reaction like this is a little excessive, but not unexpected. Destroying the artifact wasn’t the best solution, but it was the only one available at the time. It can’t be helped if this is the result.” Shirou took a short pause before continuing. “Is there anyone I know on the list?”

    “Hold on…” The man said, as papers were shifted around. “There is one man whom I hired along with you for that one debacle in Mexico. Roger the, uh…”

    Shirou noticed the hesitation to say the man’s last name, and understood.

    “Anyone else?”

    “No, but… the more I look through the list, the less it makes sense. At least three of these people only take jobs for the right reasons, a bit like yourself. There’s one who only takes jobs in the areas close to her daytime job, but who for some reason is running all the way over to hunt you down. The rest are simpler, but… I can’t help but wonder how he got those people to help.”

    Shirou knitted his white brows together, hearing the confusion and curiosity behind his employer’s voice. In any case, now that he knew what was coming, he needed to change location as quickly as possible.

    “Thank you for the warning,” he said into the phone, and hung up over the sound of his former employer trying to tell him more useless trivia about those chasing him.

    Their reasons didn’t matter, the only thing that did was that they were out to get him.

    Shirou stepped away from the phone box, and looked at the rest of the Athens International Airport. At least he was in the right place to be leaving town.

    He walked over to the seats, waiting for a flight to bring him back to Thailand. He still has around an hour and a half to go, but the young magus had nothing to distract him. With him was only a duffel bag full of clothes, travelling supplies and money.

    At the thought of the final object, he sighed again. He’d have to wait before getting his most recent payment, yet it was required for him to go travelling to find more people in need of saving, more dangers in need of being stopped.

    He was snapped out of his train of thought by the sound of raised voices.

    “Sir! You’re not allowed to be here until you’ve passed through customs!” A man said in English, sporting a heavy accent. “Sir! Please!”

    Shirou looked to the side just in time to see a security guard be pushed aside by a man that all mercenaries, freelancers and men of danger knew.

    Standing there, like a sculpture created by a great renaissance artist, was a man made of muscle, power and confidence. Instead of wearing his coat, he simply had it draped over his shoulders, allowing all to observe his perfect, chiseled abdominals, covered in a winding tattoo. Of course this excluded his legs, for he wore fine dress pants, and leather shoes at the ends.

    That man’s name was Azarel, better known as the mad hound of the magus world. He was a freelancer who took only jobs that interested him, and left nothing but bodies in his wake.

    Also a rumored cannibal.

    Shirou immediately grabbed his baggage and tucked out of sight. He took out a tuque and quickly covered his white hair with it. Spotting a large group of people exiting a nearby plane, he casually walked over to the crowd and forced his way in, eager to blend.

    Shirou was not so a callous a man to leave the security guards to a sure death, but he also knew that Azarel was not the kind of man to destroy those too weak to consider. Their lives were secure.

    He walked along with the travelers away from the man, no doubt one of those sent after him. He ignored all noises around while seeking out the best way to leave.

    “Excuse me!” Someone said in Japanese, but he ignored it to sneak another look at Azarel.

    He was quickly shaken out of it by someone grabbing his arm. He reacted by turning around a bit too quickly and forcing his circuits awake.

    Instead, he saw an old face, one he hasn’t seen in many years. Despite being recognizable, it had also changed with time, going from a young adult’s to a grown woman’s face.

    “Ah!” She said, showing him a clear smile. “I knew it was you, Emiya!”

    Shirou started sweating. This was possibly the worst time to be meeting someone he knew, mostly someone so… unrelated to the world he lived in. He needed to push her away as soon as possible.

    “Sorry, you have the wrong person…” He tried to mumble, pushing down his tuque and attempting to disengage, but she held onto him.

    “Wait, you’re definitely Shirou Emiya,” she said, her voice certain. “Do you not recognize me? We went to high school together.”

    Shirou made to shake her off more solidly, but before he’d noticed, the crowd had left them behind.

    “Well, well, well…” A deep, baritone voice resounded from behind him, the very sound of it exuding pressure. “I’ve found you… Mister Hero.”

    Shirou turned around, slowly but surely, to see Azarel stand before him, hands in his pockets, without a care in the world.

    “Mitsuzuri-san,” he said to the woman holding on to his arm. “Get out of here.”

    “What? But…” she answered, before looking at the man before them. She let go of his arm, silently, and ran off.

    An expected reaction, when faced by such a man like Azarel. Even to the non-magus, he exuded such power, such a massive threat that most could do nothing but avoid him.

    “Well… it was nice of you to let the distraction run off before the feast begins,” Azarel said, taking both of his hands out of his pockets, revealing his massive, tattooed arms. He banged his fist into an empty hand, and stretched out his neck.

    “Wait,” Shirou said, still sweaty. “You can’t seriously think you can pick a fight in this open space? What about witnesses?”

    “What about witnesses?” Azarel said without a care in the world.

    “You can’t mean… are you going to kill everyone here? Just to preserve secrecy?”

    It was Azarel’s turn to look surprised, and then release into the near-empty airport a loud, blasting noise some may have called a laugh.

    “Why would I bother with secrecy, or with devouring all these weaklings? They aren’t worth my time in the least. All that I’m here for… is to devour you, Hero of Justice Emiya!”

    Shirou abandoned the idea of reasoning with him. He wouldn’t kill innocent bystanders, but… if the rumors were true, the collateral damage from fighting him alone would rope in everyone in the airport.

    His only choice was to run.

    “-I am the bone of my sword.”

    His circuits sparked fully to life, and his hand shone with a power beyond the realm of reason. That light took shape, and then solid form: A sword.

    Azarel looked at it expectantly, but what could have been described as glee quickly shifted into disappointment as the sword was thrown not at him, but at a window to his prey’s left. Not waiting an instant after it was thrown, Shirou ran after it and jumped out the window, reinforcing his limbs to more easily land on the sloped roofing.

    Azarel grumbled plaintively to the view of his prey’s escape.

    “Disappointing…” he muttered to himself. “You’re disappointing, Hero! But… devouring my prey is always more satisfying after a hunt!”

    Azarel walked up to the broken window, and looked down at the man running away. He turned a corner, and the hunter could do nothing but smile.

    “Now let’s see, Hero of Justice, if you can truly satisfy me!”

    And with that cry, he jumped out of the window in pursuit.




    Shirou Emiya ran. With capabilities beyond a normal human’s, he ran alongside the building, making a dash for the parking lot. Once he reached the fence separating the airfield from the outside, he quickly pulled another sword, this one a magically potent blade. He cut through the fence like a hot blade through butter, and kept running.

    Through his head, the only true idea of escape came from high-jacking a car. He internally, pre-emptively apologized to its owner, and kept up his run into the parking lot.

    That it, until a car sped in front of him, and honked. Its window went down, and Shirou saw a familiar face for the second time today.

    For some reason, Ayako was gesturing for him to get into the car.

    He quickly obliged, and before he’d even put on his seatbelt, he could hear rubber burn as Ayako floored it. He looked at her, back at the airport, and then back at her once again before speaking his mind.

    “Mitsuzuri-san, I’m grateful, but this is putting you in a lot of danger. You need to drop me off as soon as possible.”

    Keeping a serious face behind the wheel, Ayako made a series of overly fast and erratic turns unto the highway.

    “Mitsuzuri-san!” Shirou said again, at a higher volume.

    “Shut up!” She said. “I’m trying to concentrate. I haven’t really driven on this road before.”

    As she said that, she shifted gears and forced herself into the acceleration lane, weaving between the few cars on the highway at such an hour.

    “Mitsuzuri-san, I don’t think you understand. That man back there is extremely dangerous. So long as you were just an acquaintance, you’d be fine, but now…”

    “I saw the look in his eyes too, okay!” She said erratically. “I felt… whatever that was, that feeling radiating off of him. I couldn’t just leave you to deal with that!”

    As she said this, she made another series of weaves between lanes and took an exit heading to the coastline and its own roads.

    “Mitsuzuri-san, I can’t let you get involved any more than you are now! You need to stop as soon as possible and let me out!”

    “Now listen here-!” She started, but immediately stopped when she looked at the rear-view mirror. Shirou, practiced in combat and situational awareness, immediately noticed and looked back.

    What he noticed was a bicycle. On that bicycle, pedaling with a completely inhuman speed, was Azarel!

    “How is that even possible!?” Ayako shouted out, looking at the speed she was going at, an absurd speed Azarel was matching on a bicycle.

    “I’m here for you, Hero of Justice! Show me a satisfying hunt… before I consume you!” Azarel roared at the top of his lungs, a sound reaching both Shirou and Ayako through an opened window.

    Shirou looked around, and then at the top of the car. He then looked around the dash, and pressed a button. Over the course of a few seconds, the roof window opened, and Shirou awkwardly shoved himself through it.

    “What do you think you’re doing?!” Ayako yelled up at him, but Shirou closed his eyes and concentrated.

    “-Steel is my body, and fire is my blood.” In one hand, a bow appeared. In the other, a sword appeared, then twisted onto itself and started looking more like an arrow.

    He nocked it, and fired at the bicycle. The vehicle swerved, a motion produced by its owner forcing all of his weight on one side, almost falling over if he didn’t, for a quick moment, go one-handed to punch the ground and force himself back into a standing position.

    Shirou clicked his tongue, and Ayako swore loudly in the background.

    “You can’t stop me that easily, Hero!” Azarel shouted again, taunting Shirou. Shirou responded in kind, firing more sword arrows at him.

    “Get back in! We’re near the cliff turns!” Ayako shouted, and Shirou looked down, before once again making a sword. This one, however, was completely different to the other ones he’d created. It held a spiral look to it, and radiated with a power not unlike the power coming off of Azarel.

    It twisted into a thinner form, an arrow of power incomparable to the others that Shirou had fired. The only real reason he was even firing this one, was because both he and the mad hound had left a populated area.

    “Take this…” Shirou mumbled, putting prana into the sword. “Caladbolg!”

    He let the sword fly from his bow and into his opponent, and at the last second saw that Azarel jumped off the bike and threw a punch.

    Shirou immediately ducked into the car, right before the world behind exploded into a bright light, made of noise and destruction. Ayako turned the car as soon as it did, bringing them around a corner into the safety of an open road. Shirou looked behind, not seeing any more pursuit, and sighed in relief.

    Ayako, on the other hand, kept her eyes on the road, occasionally looking at her front seat passenger.

    “Is it over?” Ayako finally said after a long pause. Immediately, as if on queue, a bike fell from the sky behind them, and along with it came the imposing figure of the mad hound, Azarel! He quickly grabbed the bike and jumped on it, picking up speed immediately.

    “Spoke a little soon,” Shirou mumbled. “He’ll take us in a race here. With these turns, there’s no way we can out-speed him.”

    Ayako smiled, and accelerated, right before the next turn.

    Shirou turned away from Azarel as soon as he noticed she’d accelerated, but before he’d even had time to ask a question she’d started breaking, shifted gears and turned.

    From a straight trajectory, they’d done a motion known as… drifting!

    “Like this, we can absolutely keep in front of him. He’ll still have to slow down to turn properly, on a bike like that,” Ayako said, flashing Shirou a smile.

    “Mitsuzuri-san… where’d you learn to do that?”

    “Took up street racing in university. I was so good, I eventually got scouted to become a pro,” Ayako said, before doing another drift and carrying on, until once again, a view showed itself in the rear view mirror.

    It was Azarel, speeding up to them, having achieved a drift-like skill that involved using his leg as a makeshift break and tilting the bike at an insane angle!

    “You have got to be kidding me!” Was all Ayako could say at the quickly gaining monster.

    “Can you cut him off?” Shirou asked, the most amateur of questions.

    “I can, but… I can’t lose him. Not unless we break that bike.”

    “Alright,” Shirou said, climbing back through the roof window. On the way, he accidentally hit the radio, and music started blasting. Whichever’s car this was, they were a fan of super Eurobeat.

    “Everyone loves to have music with their feasts!” Azarel shouted, before laughing loudly. A sound quickly cut off as Shirou attempted to take more shots at him.

    The high speed and winding road barely affected his aim, which would have surprised the average person. However, Azarel still managed to avoid every single shot, and once again laughed as the Eurobeat went on.

    “I’m going to get you… like a space boy! And then I’ll devour you, Hero!”

    He quickly found a burst of speed and dashed up to the car, almost grabbing onto it with the tree trunks some would call arms. SHirou forced him to reconsider with a few well aimed shots, but even he could see it was nothing but a delaying tactic. The mad hound was catching up to them.

    “Shirou!” Ayako shouted over the music. “Get in!”

    “I can’t! He’ll take us!”

    “Shut up and trust me!”

    Shirou stood still a moment, but ducked in. Then, he saw the same thing she did:

    A gap in the rail, just as the road started to return to the mainland. Shirou gave her a quick look, and she nodded.

    Azarel sped up, no longer hampered by Shirou’s fire, until he was face to face with SHirou, nothing between them but a window. For a solid moment, Shirou saw the look in his eyes, the raw, primal hunger that accompanied his boundless strength and savage disposition.

    Azarel took a hand off the handles, and reached for the window, intent on crashing it, when there was the screech of tires and breaks, as Ayako rammed into him so hard the man went careening over the Cliffside. The car would have soon followed, if she hadn’t immediately pulled back in, doing a precarious zigzag as she struggled to go straight again.

    Shirou, meanwhile, could do nothing but look at the spot they’d lost him.




    It had been a few hours since they’d thrown Azarel over the cliff and into the water. Ayako and Shirou had maintained a very cautious, slightly awkward silence between them on the road over, only occasionally making small comments.

    “I don’t know about you, but I’m getting hungry,” was one of such comments, spoken by Ayako. After a quick discussion, they decided to eat.

    Once they’d found a small town off of the highway, they rolled in to see what their options were.

    “I mean, there’s always McDonalds,” Ayako said, and Shirou immediately grumbled. He was technically a mercenary, but he wasn’t a savage. “Then, we have a few of these places.”

    Ayako gave a vague motion to a few shops, the names of which neither of them could read. After a quick struggle to look into store windows and see what was on the menu, both decided to go for the safer option, and rolled into the McDonalds.

    “Come on, it won’t be that bad!” Ayako said to Shirou, as they both walked in. Shirou couldn’t help but notice that all the customers with in a corner, where he couldn’t see a single one of their faces.

    Ayako walked up to the counter, all chipper, and announced her presence with a loud “hello!”

    Shirou immediately felt something wrong. The employee, who was crouching to seemingly refill the cup dispenser, seemed a little too big. He stood up, a goliath of a man, and turned around to face them both, a clear, yet devil-like smile on his face.

    “Welcome to McDonalds, how can I help you!” The man said, wringing his hands together in what he probably thought was a friendly manner. Shirou immediately sighed his relief, for the gorilla in front of them was not Azarel.

    They both ordered Angus burgers and sat down to eat, when Shirou felt the urge to go pee.

    “I’ll be right back,” he told Ayako, and she hummed in affirmation, her mouth half-full.

    Shirou walked up to the bathroom, one of those single-toilet bathrooms, and found it locked. To make sure there was someone and it wasn’t some child’s prank, he knocked.

    “It’s occupied,” a familiar voice told him. “But as soon as I’m done, you’re next on my list, Hero.”

    Cold sweat ran down Shirou’s neck, and he turned to face the other customers he had to pass to reach the door.

    Twelve people, all of them knocked out cold, were sitting in the booths. One of them, Roger, was familiar to Shirou. Gears clicked in Shirou’s mind, as he realized just who these people were.

    They were the ones sent after him. They must have met up with Azarel here to share information, but he was a little too hungry to do so.

    Shirou broke into a run to reach Ayako, grabbing her arm and forcing her upright.

    “What the hell?” She said, barely hanging on to her burger.

    “It’s Azarel, he’s in the bathroom! We need to get out of here!’

    Ayako looked at him for a solid second, a single eyebrow arched, but decided to follow silently. They both ran out to the car, yet right before reaching it, Shirou pulled Ayako away and shielded her with his body.

    The next instant, Azarel had landed on the car from lord knows where, smashing it into a heap of crunched up metal and broken glass.

    “Nowhere to run to now, Hero…” He said, slowly walking off the car and jumping down to the ground. “And you too… I honestly didn’t think you’d even make a snack, but the way you drove me off that cliff… you’ll be a satisfying dessert, woman!”

    Shirou turned away from Ayako, refusing to look her in the eyes before facing Azarel, and took a step forward.

    “I’d rather not have a senseless fight, but if you threaten an innocent like that, then I have no choice.”

    “Well, looks like running isn’t all you can do.” Azarel beckoned at Shirou with both arms. “Come on, I’ll even let you get the first hit. Show me what you’re made of, Hero!”

    Shirou closed his eyes and outstretched an arm before starting a chant, recital that came from deep within.

    “I am the bone of my sword.
    Steel is my body, and fire is my blood.
    I have created over a thousand blades…”

    “What the hell is this…” Azarel muttered, looking around himself as if seeing something Ayako wasn’t.

    “Unaware of loss, nor aware of gain.
    Withstood pain to create weapons, waiting for one’s arrival.
    I have no regrets, this is the only path.”

    “Yes…” Azarel muttered, before bursting out into a roar. “Yes! This is it! This is the ultimate feast, the pinnacle of entertainment! Against you, Hero of Justice, I’ll have no need to hold back!”

    “My whole life was Unlimited Blade Works!”

    The world was enveloped in fire, and everything changed. Where there was once a parking lot, there was a wasteland, a graveyard of swords, with its only landmark a small hill. The sky was red, the red of dawn.

    Ayako couldn’t speak at the sight, yet for another, it was the opposite.

    “So, hero… that blade you threw at me earlier was just a fraction compared to this!? Yes, yes! Against you, I can fight to my fullest!” Azarel shouted, and his tattoos started glowing, slowly fading from his skin in a bright light. “Releasing Dragon Enchanter!”

    His once strong, frightening feeling had escalated with the disappearance of his tattoos, and he radiated two things: power, and death. An assured fate made itself clear to all who would face him.

    And yet, Shirou stood tall, for this place was his world, the one place he was at his strongest. If he couldn’t face Azarel here… there was no other place where he could stand a chance.

    “You monster…” Shirou said, loud enough for Azarel to hear. “Before you kill any more people, this will be your end.”

    “Then come, Hero of Justice, show me just what you can do.”

    Two swords, one black and one grey, flew from across the landscape into Shirou’s hands, and he took a stance. At the same time, Azarel took steps forwards arms at his side, expressing his arrogance in his stride.

    The swords in the landscape shook, resonating with their owner’s desires. In an instant, they all flew towards the beast before them. In that instant, Shirou ran forward, blades in hand.

    In that instant, Azarel smiled.




    The End is another Day…

  4. #4
    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    Build a City and Call it Babylon



    In the middle of the night, there are times when he can still hear the murmurs of people who don't exist anymore. Cold fingers touch warm skin all over his body while he lies very still. They have no right to touch him, but they do. The proclamations and judgments of gods long since fallen from their thrones seem as likely a culprit as anything else. Could there be any alternative? You are dreaming, darling. You are only drunk, my dear. But there is nothing and there is no one to call dear in this place. After all, this is the end of the world.


    *****


    He is accustomed to being alone in his bedchamber. When he takes others to bed, it is always in some room of their own. Dotted across the city like the stars dot across the sky, there are those he has bedded and those he has thought of bedding. Until tonight, his restless mind and his restless body have driven him across the city as he drives the people from their own beds in one way and then another.

    Love more, fight more, laugh more, take more, cry more, and give more into his hand. All these things he has driven them to do, and with each offering they make he sees another flicker of something he seeks. And until tonight, he had believed he would never stop, never quiet, never be still. In his bedchamber, it is very quiet.

    There are no stars visible from his bedchamber in the palace. Some of the dwellings in the city have windows and rooftops open to the sky, but here they are enfolded in high walls and a warm, heavy darkness at night. The smell of burning oil fills that darkness with its only source of light. Gilgamesh's eyes grow heavy, but he sees no sign of such weariness in the frame of the one who accompanies him in his room.

    The curve of a precious shell fills the palm of his hand. The man, the creature, before him holds the fire. Close, but not too close, he seems unafraid of the flame licking so close to clothing and skin. There is nothing unremarkable about a man or a woman taking hold of fire, using and enclosing it, but this is a gift granted to them by the gods through the means of their civilization. Something in the way this man holds the small lamp seems unfamiliar. Gripping too soundly, too trusting, the image is like a child who has ceased being afraid and who has never been burned.

    There are many things he owns, many treasures Gilgamesh has collected, held in a distant storeroom which he can access anytime he likes. This day had proven that more than any other. Even so, there are a few things that remain with him in his bedchamber. A few treasures give him specific delight to look upon them. Specifically, there is almost always an array of adornments spread out on a low table made of shining cedar. It is before this table where the other man, Enkidu, now kneels.

    The man lifts his free hand with his fingers splayed out. They seem ready to grasp, but the hang in the air above the fine things made of precious metals and shining stones. They hover a little longer over the smaller things. Gilgamesh considers the fact that, were Enkidu a thief, the smaller items – rings meant for ears and fingers and a few for the nose – would be less easily missed. His hand never touches down, but his eyes and poised fingers give them such attention that Gilgamesh thinks he might be wiser simply to tell him, 'Take one.'

    The thought that he would not resist such a thing crosses his mind. He would take neither his hand nor his life if he picked up one of the rings, folded it into his hand, and removed it from his collection forever. No matter how intent he had been on killing him earlier that day. He is ready to speak to him if it will bring him to rest. 'Choose one,' he might say.

    Then, Enkidu's attention flits to something else laid out on the table. It was worn around Gilgamesh's neck until he had entered the room, and it is likely the only thing there tarnished with sweat and perhaps droplets of blood. It will need to be polished, but it is too fine not to gleam. It is made of many flat, golden plates that hold together in a single form, moving independently but never sliding apart. Like armor, they move gracefully, never leaving a gap. At least, that is what they do when he wears the necklace draped across his skin.

    “Aren't you tired?” Gilgamesh asks abruptly, just as Enkidu brushes his fingertip across one of the plates, causing it to catch the light of the flame he rather carelessly attends in his opposite hand. Enkidu's fingertip moves along the edge of the golden plate as if he is dangerously testing the sharpness of a blade. Gilgamesh catches his teeth together, molars grinding.

    Enkidu draws his hand back, fingers curling into his hand. He looks more frightened than guilty or repentant. His head turns to look at Gilgamesh, the length of his strange and lush hair falling over his shoulders. The startled look in his eyes looks like something unfamiliar to human criminals, those who disobey the law and look to Gilgamesh with fear and excuses. Instead, he resembles a prey animal, alerted to the presence of a hunter – man or animal – at the edge of the watering hole where he has only just stopped to drink. This look hanging on such a human face alarms Gilgamesh. He has a pang in his stomach like he is hungry.

    Something must have been betrayed by his face, because Enkidu's expression softens. His eyes are bright and he tentatively puts on a small smile.

    “It isn't very dangerous, is it?” Enkidu asks.

    “No, it's—” Gilgamesh answers, his tone terse and strained and quite abruptly cut off as Enkidu moves to stand. He settles into a crouch, his feet nearly flat, but he remains bent forward with apparent purpose. His hair hangs down in front of his face, and the white garments he is clothed in bunch forward, too. Before he can ask, Gilgamesh sees that Enkidu has placed his lamp on the floor, far from touching anything else. The corona of light reaches his face as he steps back, and it seems only the grace of a clever god has prevented the fabric about his legs from going up in flames. Aruru, perhaps, keeping her creation out of trouble.

    The light does little to fill the room, but even from its position on the floor it keeps them from being in total darkness. Enkidu steps back, away from the little contained fire, and looks to Gilgamesh and his bed.

    “No, you... don't leave it there. You bring it with you... to the side of the bed,” Gilgamesh says, realizing what he means to do.

    Enkidu's brow creases only slightly as he crouches long enough to take up the lamp again.

    “With the shepherds... They keep their fires burning through the night,” Enkidu explains as he approaches Gilgamesh's bed.

    “It won't burn through the night,” Gilgamesh tells him, a little gesture of his wrist indicating the lamp. He looks down toward his knees where he sits upon his bed. Beneath him, there are blankets made of tanned skins, each of them with a rich brown or gray coat of hair. His fingers rest upon one of them, gently gripping with nothing else to do.

    Enkidu holds the lamp more reverently as he takes a seat just across from Gilgamesh, close enough for their knees to touch. He looks around, the lamp shifting more from one hand to the other.

    Gilgamesh reaches out, taking the lamp. It feels hotter than it ought to, but it isn't painful to set it aside where he usually puts it when the night draws to a close, just beyond his bed.

    “In the wild, you build a fire to keep the animals away,” Gilgamesh says, knowledgeably, when at last the bed isn't as likely as Enkidu's clothes to go up in flame. His gaze falls to the perfect, clean linen that crosses Enkidu's body. It draws across his chest, covering tightly enough that he cannot see the tight muscles in his abdomen. Muscles he knows all too well from trying to find some way to tear them apart or worse before. Whatever anger had led him to want to end this life before him now seems insane.

    He had longed for such a friend. He had known it to be true. He had dreamed.

    Enkidu's breath draws in, his chest pressing outward against his linen clothes. The space between the muscles of his chest is less pronounced than a woman's. The muscles are angled, nearly flat but with a little definition that is unfamiliar – at least, it is unfamiliar in someone he is looking at from across a bed.

    A meteor, blazing from the sky – bright and beautiful, deadly and with the power to end the world. An axe, less intrinsically dangerous – made for creation and destruction. A dream – the dream of a man he would draw to himself, a dream of a man he would embrace like a wife. He had told his mother, and she had told him it was true.

    Now this man is sitting before him, as strange as he could have imagined. His arms are wide-set bones and slender wrists. In the streets of Uruk, their contest had played out, and Gilgamesh had seen the great and strange things Enkidu could do. He is a creation unlike any other, as Gilgamesh is a creation unlike any man. His hair is long, full, and thick like a woman's, but his feet and hands and even the feature of his nose are a little larger and more pronounced. The little bump in his throat that his voice comes from each and every time he speaks and the hollow beneath it catch his attention, too. Realizing that his lips have gone dry, Gilgamesh rubs them together quickly. He does not want to think of his mother.

    “In the wilderness, they keep me to keep the wild animals away,” Enkidu says with a tilt of his lips. Now that his hands are free, he briefly touches the length of his hair, working a tangle from it, but then his hands are poised on his lap, fingers curled into the length of linen. He watches Gilgamesh with the same bright interest that he affords to anything he sees that is new.

    Gilgamesh breathes out and shakes his head.

    “Does it bother you?” he asks. He speaks quite generally, casting a glance off to the side before returning Enkidu's gaze.

    “To drive off the wolves from the sheep?” Enkidu asks. His eyebrows lift, the movement even and slight. He too glances off to the side, reaching out to touch a blanket that is indeed a wolf pelt.

    Gilgamesh feels himself swallow before he can reply.

    “Or being brought to my room,” he suggests.

    “It is the finest place I have ever been,” Enkidu says without any shadow of insincerity. Both his hands press into the cushioned bed, and he pulls himself across on his knees – coming closer to Gilgamesh as he is folded upon himself.

    “There was no other place I'd have you be,” Gilgamesh admits, feeling all at once as if those first moments – just after nearly tasting death – have returned. His chest feels as though at any moment he might run out of air, his heart might beat its last, he might laugh, or he might cry out in some unexpected agony. His eyes are wide, but he knows there is no sense in hiding them. No matter how different they seem, Enkidu is different, too. Different from all others.

    “This palace is very large. As large as the first shepherd's camp I came to, I believe,” Enkidu says. He looks up as if he is considering it, then he looks up to the full height of the ceiling.

    “Yes?” Gilgamesh asks, innocently lifting one shoulder and letting it fall back into place. He feigns a deep interest in a reddish strand of hair which he picks from the blanket beneath him.

    “Surely if you, mighty King Gilgamesh, wanted me in your house, in your care, somewhere else... in some other room...” Enkidu is saying as his voice stays low but grows louder to Gilgamesh's ears.

    Gilgamesh realizes before he looks up. Enkidu is leaning closer to him. His voice babbles, soothing like flowing water, but there is a smile on his lips and he knows before he sees. He can almost taste it.

    “I would have had you nowhere else,” Gilgamesh insists. He lifts his eyes, narrowing them just a little. He is not angry, but rather he momentarily squints as if he is facing the sun. It does not last for long, for soon they are falling shut, the lines of tension at the edges of them smoothing away into nothing.

    Enkidu's lips are against his, parted gently as if he were content simply to use words. There is no space between them, but for a moment there is only breath. Then, Enkidu's lower lip comes up to meet his upper. The gentle close of his mouth makes Gilgamesh's throat issue a faint sound, a mockery of pain. The side of Enkidu's nose bumps gently against his, and the way he moves his head seems as much like silencing, heavy, warm contact as his lips stopping both of them from talking. His forehead bumps and his nose makes a gentle circle, skin against skin, and Gilgamesh feels a flush across his face he has never felt the freedom to feel before. From anyone else, it would have angered him.

    “I knew it would be true,” Enkidu says, startling him enough to draw him out of his virginal blushing.

    “What would be true?” Gilgamesh says, feeling the space – just enough space – between their lips.

    “I knew you needed me... not to kill you, but to show you,” Enkidu says.

    'Not to kill you,' Gilgamesh hears not just with his ears but in his chest. He breathes it in, and it sends a tingle unlike fear through him, warm and perplexing. He could kill him. It had only been a matter of fortune, a moment's advantage from one breath to the next. He could have killed him. And now, here they sit, together on this bed. Together in this bed Gilgamesh has always chosen to take alone.

    “Show me?” Gilgamesh asks. He tries to sound brave, like he has not already imagined the blood from his abdomen spilling across Enkidu's fingers, across any spear or blade he might turn against him, even to very sharp teeth in the mouth he has touched but not tasted, the mouth that feels like a man's.

    “To show you what it's like... not to be alone,” Enkidu says. Then his lips press a little more firmly, and Gilgamesh can feel that they are warm, and he feels the wet skin beyond the soft mouth that carries such soft, impossible words. He recalls when a trapper came from outside the city walls, desperate to speak with him on the advice of his father. 'There was a beast,' he said. 'There was a man,' he said. 'A wild man who keeps me from all the game. A wild man who terrifies me. A man with no equal...' He recalls the advice he had given, the assistance he had provided, and now the remembrance sets his skin afire.

    “... A-As she taught you?” Gilgamesh mumbles out, even though the thought of it is hard to speak. This is no longer a show of his wisdom, the might of Uruk, and the allure of their women.

    Enkidu's eyelids seem heavy when he looks at him next. That look is accompanied by the touch of his hand to the front of Gilgamesh's clothing. Gilgamesh feels it sliding away, and there is nothing he tries to do. His eyes flutter shut once more, and just when he expects to shiver as the fabric across his shoulders gives way, he feels the stillness of Enkidu's hand. He is feeling his heartbeat. Gilgamesh has never known anyone to do that before.

    “I knew it would be true. I knew we would be the same. The first woman who cared for me, who showed me what it was to care for another woman... another man... she told me about you. I knew from my creation that I was to find you, and she brought me to you... Gilgamesh,” Enkidu says. Then his flattened hand takes on some form again, fingers and palm gliding in a soft circle.

    Gilgamesh feels his breath hitch and his eyelids feel too heavy to open. His lips are parted and he feels them taken as easily as his breath. That is the real taste he gets – of Enkidu, of his wildness, the gentle hand along with an anxious bite into his lip. Enkidu's body goes rigid and he pulls back, and Gilgamesh can feel his apology in the way he moves.

    “Enkidu,” he says, using his name so adamantly that he hopes to show that there is so much of a thrill, so much eager thirst for joy that even if there had been any break in his skin from Enkidu's teeth that he could feel no pain. “Share my bed with me,” he says, with every intention of it being an ongoing request. He does not know how it became possible, but he hopes that it is. He has never been very interested in hope before, as far as emotions are concerned. He cracks open his eyes to meet Enkidu's, to watch for an answer as he listens. “Let me show you before my mother, before my people, and before anyone who might seek to boast before us...”

    Enkidu's pursed lips part to an open, wide expression. He looks as if he has just seen half the world, shame leaving his face as quickly as clouds can clear from a desert sky.

    “Even if I bite?” he asks, his fingers just barely touching at the center of Gilgamesh's hand. He has forgotten to pull them back, even in his haste not to harm him.

    Emboldened, Gilgamesh reaches for the waist of Enkidu's smaller frame, pulling them both up to the center of the bed rather than sitting on its edge. He feels as if he might drink any poison, spare any limb, if only he could see only that face of hope rather than any of shame ever after. As soon as they are duly positioned, Gilgamesh lies back against his bed, looking up at Enkidu.

    “Bite all you like,” he says in the same brave tone he had drawn from himself before, but this time it is accompanied by a low, humming laughter. He starts to lower his chin with it, but Enkidu stops him short with a gentle bump of his nose. He lifts up his jaw, the rush that floods him before a truly fair fight washing over his body. Rather than teeth, he feels laughter, lips, and a playful lick.

    “I won't return cruelty for kindness,” Enkidu promises, murmuring by Gilgamesh's ear. He finds a place beside him, lying on his side and a crooked elbow.

    “What I felt before was hardly cruel,” Gilgamesh says, a little something like a challenge. In response, several moments later, he feels the gentle touch of a sharp tooth along the edge of his ear.


    *****


    None but the only man who had seen him back from the other side of the sea will ever know of the tears he cried, gnashing his teeth for vanity's sake on a beach. None will know of the guilt, failure, and treason he feels in his own heart as he returns to Uruk. He is their king and so he will be.

    After some time, when he is shaven and shorn, when he once again wears the fine raiment of a king, he grows tired of sitting on the throne one day. He calls to a slave and speaks to him lowly, as if he has some confidence in the secrecy of the request he is about to make. There will be none, and he will not be harsh in his dealing with such a lie when he returns. He requests that he be given supplies for a journey – a journey he must make alone. He will journey across the world once more, and he does not tell them how long he will be gone.

    He gives orders to the men who guard the granaries. He bids farewell to the women who mind the temple. He waits for their adulation, their tears, and their pleas. Then he is gone, across a now familiar trek that it would be impossible to make twice. He knows that he may meet death on this journey, but he is no longer fearful of it. It feels as though he has left his fear at the edge of the water, and he intends to find it again. Only enough for himself, only enough to keep in his collection, because he knows it will never leave his mind.

    Water from head to toe, lungs burning for need of air, he finds it again. This time no man and no snake wrest it from his hand. No thief, and yet there is no joy, no hope making what he finds here last forever for the people of Uruk. He knows that this is what he has been told all along. It might be possible to delay it for a while, but death awaits them all.

    He returns to Uruk, not the shadow of a king but a king worn from a long journey. He hears whispers at the walls, there are murmurs by the granaries, and only one of the women lingers outside the temple upon his return. He has not announced it, and he does not have any intention of having any great reception for himself. He quietly minds the plant in a fold of his clothes, and draws the man who is tasked with guarding the entrance of the palace.

    “That woman,” he says, of the single love priestess minding the entrance of grand Eanna on this dreary day. The air is thick with the promise of the storms of restless gods, all in conference, deciding how best to deal with him. “Bring her to me,” he says.

    He sees that he is obeyed, and he returns to his chamber without waiting to see that she will follow. He is already seated with several lamps burning before the door opens and he sees the small, beautiful, and faintly familiar form of a woman. Her hair is black, but it is the length and shape of his. He knows it must be.

    “You're the one, are you not?” he asks clearly, when she has stopped just beyond his door.

    “May I be of service to you, my King?” she asks, but he can hear the hesitance in her voice. Her eyes fall to the floor, and he can see the shadow of grief. Perhaps she had wept. Perhaps she had wept not because he had called them to mourn for him.

    “There is no need to hide from it. I will not harm you, whether you remember or whether you do not,” Gilgamesh promises her with no indication of withdrawing such a promise. He could find no pleasure in punishing her for any part of it.

    “I am the love priestess called upon by my King, the Great Gilgamesh, to accompany the trapper into the wilderness to retrieve the man-beast called Enkidu,” she recites.

    “Do you love another?” Gilgamesh asks. He sees in her eyes only confusion, and it satisfies him. He clears his throat and continues rather than requiring her to answer. “And you serve our Lady of Love and War, the Goddess Ishtar,” he recites, his words an empty recitation at last devoid of any sign of anger.

    “Yes, my King,” she says, her head lowered for a moment before she looks back to him as she should, representing the goddess she serves.

    “You will do, then,” he says.

    “I... will do? I will do whatever you ask, my King. Whatever you need,” she says, and he hears the faint tone of coy acquiescence taking hold of the honesty he had heard before. He wants it to stop, but he knows that she has learned it as her nature, as he can wear the skins of an animal and be thought a killer, as he can wear these fine clothes, tired and dirty or not, and be thought a king.

    “You will be the representative of our Lady of Love and War, the Goddess Ishtar... for me, as King of Uruk. For me, in my bed,” he explains, dispassionately. He has chosen to sit somewhere apart from the bed, and he does not even gesture toward it.

    “Should not the High Priestess—?”

    “You will be the High Priestess if you require, but either way surely I can be afforded this right. I am your King... and my law is—”

    “Absolute, my King,” she agrees.

    He sighs and shakes his head.

    “You will be honored. You will... bear my son, should the gods be pleased,” he says, his teeth gritting in spite of himself. He does try not to show it much, but taken into his confidence even in this manner, he is sure she cannot help but see. “None will ever diminish your name. Your station and your child will not allow it,” he says, even trying to offer her some cool comfort with this proposition. It is a command, but he could not feel less interested in its being obeyed. This is only what he must do now. Seeing her on the steps, just before the skies open their flood to offer lifeblood to the river, he had simply seen a way to make this less distasteful than it might have been.

    He wants no woman, no man in his bed. He invites her because he must, because this is the only escape from death there is. He has learned this, and he knows that his lifetime is all there is left to him. He will step forward, back to his throne. He will lie with a woman in his bed, and he will treat her child kindly as every child of Uruk belongs to the King. This is how he will not die, this is how he will live.

    “I will do whatever you require, King Gilgamesh, King of Uruk,” the woman says evenly. She does not bow her head, and he stands to acknowledge her with a touch to her shoulder and a nod. He ushers her from the room and turns her to the hand of an attendant before returning to be alone for a little while longer.

    He sits down upon the edge of the bed. He touches along animal skins. He wonders if some of them have gotten too old while he as been away. What would make them too old? They are already dead, and he has found no way to bring anything back with him, even at the end of the world.
    Last edited by Milbunk; March 16th, 2016 at 03:05 AM.

  5. #5
    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    Defibrillator

    “By my hand I have emasculated Zeus, Indra, Thor, Raijin and the Thunderbird alike in one fell swoop! I am the genius that took their house by storm and thieved from them their most cherished jewel! The gods robbed of their power, their raison d’être, the masses then lost utter faith in them and took hold of their own fates.”

    Scathach, listening to Tesla’s passionate declarations, nodded in affirmation. “For the gods, such a turn of events is beyond crippling. It is to be afflicted like with walking death itself.”

    “Entomb the outmoded ones, I say! The laboratory as their abattoir, the museum as their ossuary! The era of humanity is to be ushered in — the old gods are dead, and I killed them!” Tesla proclaimed.

    “Not the same level of intimacy needed to cut out the heart of a foe. Still, it cannot be denied that act is a form of direct and responsible godslaying in its own right.”

    Tesla folded his arms. “In short, does this satisfy your curiosity?”

    “That it does,” Scathach said. With a self-satisfied nod, she turned to leave, would speak no more on the subject at hand.

    Tesla, however—he was possessed by peerless drive, the scientific spirit. “Then, allow me my turn; what interests have you in this matter?” Questions beget questions, and he sought for answers until he was gratified. He plumbed mystery and brought it to the light at all costs for his sake, and right now Scathach was rather mysterious. “Do you believe that those who have that godslaying trait might have a critical edge over Solomon, over his infernal and divine aspects alike?”

    “Who can say if that’s true or not? It might very well be, if it’s coming from a genius,” she replied.

    “You,” Tesla said, “are a wily woman. Who has also not yet answered me.”

    Scathach shrugged. “That might happen when you hypothesize out loud. People could get lost in your words.”

    “A ‘no,’ then. Then, if strategy-making is not your motivation, what?”

    Tesla’s next move directly assaulted Scathach. His persistence made her face tighten up. It wasn’t that Scathach didn’t want to answer his questions. It was that Scathach would answer his questions, and she had already said too much. It was the curse of being a mentor.

    “Call it giving in to misplaced nostalgia. It’s a line of questioning I use every time I come across a high-level individual. Nothing about you in particular, aside from that, interests me.”

    “————Queen of Dun Scaith, even now, in these extraordinary times, you seek your own death.” It was stated as confidently as it was asked, a callous declaration that Tesla had divined or deduced Scathach’s motives.

    “The way that the Land of Shadows ended, by Solomon’s hand, was not a good death.”

    “Humanity is on the brink of extinction and you want to die! You’d weigh the worth of your honor against the fate of civilization and find the latter lacking! How apathetic are you to humanity’s plight?! Pity is wasted on you. I don’t care how others get their satisfaction. But, a valuable asset prioritizing its own erasure over our collective goal is worthless, in my thoughts!” The brilliant inventor snapped at the legendary woman.

    “A fine attitude you have there. Nothing less would fit for the man who always believed in the future,” Scathach said, the tone her words bore toed the line somewhere between apathy and caustic. “Then, if you disagree with me so much, you have no compunctions about making the attempt?”

    “God, but your pride!

    “And what of your pride?”

    “It tells me it’s a waste.” Tesla thumbed the bridge of his nose with his naked thumb. “That I mustn’t waste my valuable time humoring your misbegotten, useless honor.”

    “What else does it tell you?” Scathach press on. For that, he resented her so very much.

    Halogens hanging high above from the ceiling flickered. The windowless garage-laboratory in Chaldea that Tesla called his own would have been teased with absolute darkness. Instead, here and now the dark was a small thing—kept at bay by the shining circuitry of Tesla’s half-armor. The light glowed with the ceaseless radiance of booty plundered from the heavens and danced at 220,000,000 miles per hour.

    His plated mail was the armor donned by the chaste paladin of knowledge; the closed palm now outstretched, the Five Vajras of humanity primed and wrathful; crackling literal lightning in a bottle aimed right at Scathach’s face.

    “IT ALSO TELLS ME THERE’S NO NEED FOR HESITATION, MADAM!” The spirit of science burned with the desire to know.

    “Started to think you’d never give it a shot!” With an ice-cool confidence and a splash of blood-hued miasma Scathach’s own spear was called forth.

    In an instant Tesla exploded to the side and above, electromagnetism flaring, reeling him away from anywhere near that wicked speartip. “You shan’t stand still and take it quietly, then?! I knew nothing less hedonistic would satisfy you!”

    “If you can kill me but can’t even fire off your great weapon then you’re just as powerless!” Scathach responded to Tesla’s lightning evasion with a lightning-strike of her own, a lunging stab that wheeled off into a sweep mighty enough to effortlessly fell a mighty rowan tree as easily as if it were grass beneath a mundane sickle. This deadly sweep clipped the very ends of the speeding Tesla, shattered the bones of his tiptoes into a hundred pulverized fragments. It was a glancing blow to make him momentarily fantasize that he’d rather she took his feet off in one go, such was that strike.

    The witch who hailed from the Land of Shadows was quick as one. Even so, Tesla had the gods’ lightning at his call, and utilized its discharge to amplify his so very base speed to levels that bore a chance of escape from the warrior-woman’s unrivaled agility. Fast as she was, the Archer had cowed the heavens’ might, and with that had access to its boons, one and all. He capitalized on this free flight. He pulsed and surged with all his might, mentally calculating his trajectories, shifting vectors tens of times every moment, anything to keep distance from Scathach.

    Evasive maneuvers wouldn’t be enough to shake Scathach’s relentless pursuit. He couldn’t dodge forever. That wouldn’t resolve this. This was a duel, Servant to Servant. To decisively call the match was to use their Noble Phantasm first. Scathach unceasingly unleashed strike after strike on him with Gae Bolg Alternative. The spear cracked like a whip as it cut through the air at supersonic speed, the sound almost as forlorn as it was predatory, throbbed with the latent magics imbedded into it. Mighty was Scathach’s prowess, and keen was her whirling lance. Who draws their blade first has the advantage; who strikes first wins.

    Nothing could stop the retribution of the gods sans the gods themselves. So too the man who had become a god by displacing them. The fire Prometheus committed to humanity was just as much his by association as it was theirs.

    Tesla’s System Keraunos had been ready since this fight had been agreed upon.

    Graced with a clear shot and frustrated with being pursued, a bolt of lightning roared from Tesla’s glove, complementing the battle cries of Scathach’s own weapon, unerringly snaking towards her like the lunge of a vengeful Naga. The serpent of lightning tore into the scenery, swallowed the woman whole. Yes, it was nothing but a direct hit. Cursed as she was with both immortality in life as the queen-gatekeeper of the shadowy lands and in this afterlife as a Lancer, even though she felt it and was intimate with it all so well pain was transient for her, wholly meaningless. And still, the fraction of the might of Tesla’s Noble Phantasm was overwhelming enough to make a scream rip forth from deep in her throat.

    A very feminine scream.

    It made Tesla’s eyebrows crinkle.

    Still, it worked. The thunder strike served to put even more distance between Tesla and Scathach. Though she still charged him, a burgundy-and-blood blur, her body quivered as she pursued. Scathach was still much too close. He couldn’t unleash his trump card on her, the impetus of this whole affair, like this. His Noble Phantasm of the purest energies, lightning at its most perfect, was ironically slow on the draw, and all the more apparent when compared to hers, that which was ranked highly amongst the fastest Noble Phantasm classes. More was needed. More was ever needed.

    Ever on the run, Tesla fired another storm at his opponent. Again, a direct hit from the hungry Naga. Again, a very feminine scream. Beyond that, actually, it was very feminine. Moreso than before. Scathach writhed as it struck, felt Tesla’s energy at her core. For a moment the electricity robbed her of control of her motor functions, and what a moment it was.

    It made Tesla’s nose twitch.

    Tenaciously, masochistically, Scathach pushed herself to lunge at Tesla. She grasped the firm shaft of her spear as if she were desperate to hang on, like she had to feel its reliable solidity in her palms, like she had to feel the contours of its long, thin form in order to maintain a grip on her own reality. Her hips rolled with each lunging step, her thighs pressing and contracting with the movement and full of flesh. Also full of flesh—

    Tesla couldn’t take his eyes off her. Couldn’t afford to take his eyes off of her. She was his opponent, after all, and a misstep would be painful least of all, and threatened to be fatal in the worst scenario. He had to observe, get his results, run his experiment again until the path he forged lead to him his desired opportunity. Not just on an intellectual level did he have to watch every single one of Scathach’s moves, there was something primal that too made him—

    Shoot her with another bolt of lightning. Not look away. Take in the sound of her nubile, no – salacious, no – licentious, no – virile, no – lively moan/mewl/cry/wail/ yell that betrayed and displayed just how much life the undying deathseeker had and was feeling right here and now. The way the energies made her hair gleam, her full-bodied body loll like she was drunkenly dancing, heedless of mores, ready for fun in a way that gelled perfectly with the ecstatic excitement from the rush of battle and the pain of relentless electro-agony.

    Scathach was panting, tiring, flushing, and not because the battle was draining her.

    The range was good now. Tesla should have now taken the chance to startup the sequence needed to initiate the full scope of System Keraunos, initiate the time-space breakdown only his mind could have engineered. Instead, his heart beat at 220,000,000 miles per hour, and he was positive that he had enough evidence, biased as though it might have been, to publish a Theory that, yes, he was as beet-red as Scathach’s own face. He stood ramrod, his brilliant thoughts produced by his brilliant mind doing their darndest to process this utterly gorgeous sight before him.

    That sight, the kind of sight he never allowed himself in his life due to his ascetic-like decision to push the boundaries of science to the ends of the Earth and beyond.

    With those thoughts in his mind, distraction eating away at him, somehow he managed to do it. He couldn’t take his eyes off of her, off the woman, and in doing so had her dead to rights. The energies from his suit flared and pulsated, spread and gathered and charged up to a zenith unrealized on this planet but alive and nascent in his mind, ready to be birthed.
    SYSTEM KERAUNOS
    Legend of Mankind -- Advent of Lightning!!!
    Tesla hollered, his voice only cracking barely, stuttering almost inaudibly as he recited the name of the fabled deathray that rent all into a most base nothingness. The overwhelming power of the pinnacle of science ground the room away, and blacked out all of Chaldea’s puny electrical facilities.

    “KYYYYYYYYYYYYYAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA~”

    No explanation needed who said that, nor what it meant. The room was destroyed, and a gaping hole served a pretty frame of the glistening distant mountainscape that cut through and illuminated the darkness like a spotlight. It shone on the form of Tesla—and Scathach, this queer little play’s two actors.

    Gae Bolg Alternative sunk deeply into the ground, leaving only a paltry few feet for Scathach to cling meekly to. She was exhausted, yet – in another way – satisfied. Her skintight outfit, the one that left very, very, very little to the imagination was burnt nearly all way gone, somehow hiding even less that before. Tesla could see everything, the valleys and the mountains of the Land of Shadow’s impressive topography. Reported to be so hostile and dangerous, this countryside seemed so…inviting.

    Scathach’s eyes were glazed over. She didn’t give a damn who saw, or how much they saw. In this altered state she didn’t mind.

    “It appears, even that, such a powerful Noble Phantasm, the experiment…was a failure.” Tesla admitted, uncharacteristically beside himself.

    “Such… a pity… that.” The lackadaisical, afterglow-basking Scathach replied. “I suppose there will… be other chances.”

    “Indeed, the world is, erm, filled with mighty heroes and fearsome enemies, yes,” Tesla quickly said in kind.

    “Raises a new question, tho’,” Scathach went on, “In a, huh, strange way, doesn’t this mean you still won, somehow…?” Scathach gave Tesla a heavy look, and her gaze zeroed in on a particular part of his person.

    “This?” Tesla complained. “This is why women are needless distractions. Not one thing derails the forward-driving momentum of science more.”

    But, if Scathach was staring, then it was fair for Tesla to also stare.

    “–I rescind that. I know of two things.”
    Last edited by ItsaRandomUsername; March 16th, 2016 at 03:38 AM.

  6. #6
    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    Disorder

    Verdant grass gently rippled as far as the eye could see. Above, the pleasantly cool breeze herded fluffy white clouds across the pristine blue sky. For that land of eternal spring, only one word could possibly suffice – paradise.

    “It’s definitely better than waking up in a snowdrift. Or a torture chamber.”

    Gudao pushed himself to his feet and stood. All around him was more of the same: lush green grass, cool wind, bright blue skies, the gray tower in the distance, the warm sun shining overhead–

    The gray tower in the distance? Gudao squinted, puzzled. He hadn’t seen that before; no, it wasn’t as simple as that. That tower hadn’t existed until he’d looked for something.

    “I guess this couldn’t be simple, huh? Still, I may as well check it out.” A wry smile rose to his face. “Matthew’s probably worried sick again.”

    Gudao stepped forward, and his foot clattered on hard stone.

    “Wait… Wasn’t I all the way back there?” He whirled around, and walls of rock green with moss answered his gaze. Behind him was a doorway through which the prior fields were visible – and yet, they seemed incredibly far away, like the sun on a horizon.

    “I guess I’ll go forward then.” A spiraling set of steps wound up from the floor and into the ceiling. He strode up them, a hand trailing against the mossy wall as he walked. Gudao continued to climb, feet crunching against the rigid steps as he rose.

    “Just how long are these steps going to go, anyways? I must’ve been walking for hours.” He sat down amidst the flowers, and idly twirled a blade of grass around his finger.

    Flowers?

    A rainbow of blossoms clad the stone steps. Thick green vines clung to the walls, each sporting bulbs in various states of bloom. Gudao stood and ran forward, stone turning into earth underfoot as he pelted forward.

    He slumped against the wall to catch his breath, and looked up. Ahead of him was a man in a field of flowers. Flowing white unruly hair. Elegant flowing robes unwearable by any mortal man. An unmistakable air of power.

    Gudao opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it. No, that wasn’t Solomon. His skin was too pale, his ears were too pointy, and he wasn’t busy cackling about piss. And most of all, Solomon would never be rubbing his legs in obvious agony.
    “Umm… are you okay?”

    “My legs are killing me, those accursed 2nd and 5th keep twisting history and blathering on about stars, and I haven’t gotten laid in over 2000 years. Other than that, I’m peachy.”

    “Oh. Well, I’m sorry about that, I guess.”

    The man smiled and waved a hand. “No need to apologize, it’s not your fault. You’re merely a character in all of this.”

    Gudao sighed, and sat down next to a vibrant red plant – a poinsettia, he idly recalled. Matthew had excitedly placed them all around Chaldea as Christmas had neared. It really had been a while, hadn’t it? One lost track of time easily when the world ended.

    “You look melancholic. Something on your mind?”

    “No, nothing much.” He eyed the man, and continued. “It’s something I’ve been wondering for a while, but… where are we?”

    The man smiled. “An excellent question, and one with multiple answers. Some would say we are in the final resting place, meant for only the greatest that humanity has to offer. Others would call this a gaol; the fitting end of a man who fell victim to love.”

    “What would you call it?”

    “The insides of a ginger who’d give Freud a field day.”

    Gudao blinked.

    The man stared.

    Gudao blinked again.

    The man sighed. “Why do they always do that? That Saber of yours never laughed at my jokes. I tried again and again to get her to lighten up a little, but all she’d do is freeze up without saying a word. Eventually she just got stuck that way.” With a grunt of relief, he swung a leg up onto a stool and resumed massaging it. “I really have to question if she understood human emotions at all.”

    “…Sorry, Saber. You must’ve had a hard life.”

    “They always say that too. It’s truly uncanny.” The man looked toward the tower window, his gaze trained on something unfathomably far away.

    “At any rate, it seems it is time for you to go, Gudao. Quite the trial awaits you back at Chaldea.”

    The room lurched, and vines peeled off of the walls as the flowers withered. Even the man grayed before Gudao’s eyes, color bleeding out of his clothes as the world around him died.

    “Trial? Wait, how did you know my name? And what kind of trial?”

    “It won’t be IIZO IIZO!”

    “What?”

    “I said, it won’t be an easy one, Gudao!”

    “Wait, what’s going to happen? And who are you, anyways?” Gudao ran forward, but with each step the room stretched further and further.

    “Hmm… A bit less than a starting penalty, I suppose.”

    For a moment, Gudao stopped. “What?”

    Everything fell into darkness.

    – C H A L D E A –

    “IIZO IIZO!”

    Gudao groaned. What had happened there, in that tower with that strange and infuriating, yet familiar man?

    “IIZO IIZO!”

    And what was up with that noise?

    “IIZO II–”

    With a loud bang, the odd speech stopped, and acrid smoke seeped into the air.

    “Ah. That was my alarm clock, wasn’t it?”

    Gudao grimaced. Mephisto definitely wasn’t getting any Raging Flames for a while.

    “Master!” a voice purred. “You’re finally awake enough for some fun.”

    There were a number of things Gudao quickly realized about the situation. For one, he was in his room, lying amidst scattered sheets. For two, he was no longer in the pajamas that he’d worn to bed – or anything, for that matter. For three, Kiyohime was on top of him.

    “Um, Kiyohime, it’s nice to see you and all, but could you get off of me please?”

    She gazed down at him, puzzled. “But how could we finally consummate our marriage then? Ah, are you going to take the lead! I do love it when you’re aggressive.”

    “That’s, um… That’s not exactly what I meant…” Gudao glanced at his right hand – no seals left after that disastrous battle with those chimera.

    “That’s no good, Master.” Kiyohime tugged, and Gudao lurched as cloudy eyes stared at him. “You’re only supposed to think of me.”

    This isn’t good at all! I’m about to lose a lot more than some QP!

    “I was supposed to capture you, but now that you’re right here, we finally have the chance for some alone time. So prepare yourself, Master.” Kiyohime smiled.

    “I’ll cap – ture – you – in – side – of – me!”

    Eyes wide, Gudao called out to the only person he could think of.

    “MATTHEW!”

    And with a resounding crash, she burst through the locked door and slammed into Kiyohime. The dragon crashed into the wall and slumped to the ground, and Gudao scrabbled to his feet.

    “Thanks, Matthew!”

    “It’s no problem, Sen–”

    “Huh? You stopped talking, Matthew. Something wrong?”

    Gudao turned to see his junior brandishing her shield protectively, face flushed.

    “Um, Senior… Your clothes…”

    Gudao ran to the dresser.

    – C H A L D E A –

    Now dressed, Gudao stood in the hallway alongside Matthew. “So what’s going on, anyways? Kiyohime said someone sent her to capture me. Actually, why was I asleep? Isn’t it the middle of the day?”

    “Slow down, Senior; not all at once.” Matthew started to run down the hallway, and Gudao followed. “It started a few hours ago in the cafeteria. Do you remember?”

    Gudao rubbed at his temples, eyes closed in concentration. “The cafeteria… the cafeteria… Emiya was cooking like usual, Elizabeth was challenging Marie like usual, and then… and then…”

    At a sudden realization, Gudao frowned.

    “David.”

    – C H A L D E A –

    Servants ate in the cafeteria, chatting about the odd things they ran into on various trips to singularities, kvetching about unsuccessful quests to find materials, and generally having a good time at the restaurant at the end of the world. Strictly speaking, they didn’t actually need to eat. But when your average meal was a set of horseshoes, raw hearts, and homunculus babies marinated in amniotic fluid, you took every chance you could get to enjoy real cuisine.

    Of course, not every lunch time conversation was a pleasant one.

    “I’m telling you, I can take pretty much anything down with one hit from this Yew Bow!”

    “That’s all well and good, but when the enemy avoids it, all of that damage means nothing.” David smirked, and spread his arms. “Havesh Avanim, on the other hand, never misses.”

    Robin grimaced, and David continued. “Besides, Mr. Two Skills, you might be able to weaken the enemy a little, but that’s not even close to as useful as the status-clearing and protection I provide. Accept it, Green. I’m the best 3-Star Archer.”

    “Hmph. Like I’m worse than a shitty father like you.”

    David frowned. “I already apologized for that, Robin. How was I supposed to know that little Solly would use those Demonology for Mongrels books he’d read while practicing his maniacal cackling to raze history?”

    “He had pitch-black eyes with blood-red pupils!”

    “And why should that mean anything? A parent never judges their child by appearance.”

    Robin stood in stunned silence, and murmurs echoed through the cafeteria.

    “Wait… Is David a good father after all?”

    “It seems I have misjudged him.”

    “So he does care for children.”

    With a careless laugh, David broke through the murmured praise. “Besides, someone had to put the shag in Abishag, and kid or no kid, that someone was going to be me.”

    “He’s trash.”

    “He’s trash.”

    “He’s trash.”

    Robin sighed. “You really threw us through the ringer here, David. All of the crazy kids to have to throw myself against, and you make him? Why couldn’t you have at least had a cute little lady like Arthur did?”

    A metal spoon snapped in two, and the pieces clattered to the floor from Mordred’s hand.

    In perfect synchronicity, every Servant save Mordred and Robin dove to the ground or ran for the door.

    “Clarent–”

    “Oi oi oi, there’s no need to be hasty here!”

    “Blood Arthur!”

    A blinding blast of crimson lightning rent the room as it shot toward Robin – and a single woman stepped forward into its path.

    “Luminosité Eternelle!”

    Bloody lightning crashed into a golden light as the holy maiden withstood Mordred’s assault. The ground tore and the air howled, yet she did not give even a single step. To do so would be to deny the faith in which she relied.

    Finally, the beam ceased. Before the stun could set in, she twirled her flag in a meticulously practiced motion before planting it in the floor.

    “Tch, so you interfered – Jeanne d’Arc.”

    “Won’t you stop this, Mordred?” Jeanne implored. “We are all on the same side, after all.”

    “Yeah, sure.” Mordred paused. “After I get a good hit in on him!”

    Mordred leaped forward, streaking past Jeanne, and Robin dived aside as she slashed the air where he once was. He bobbed and weaved to dodge her strikes, but sweat streamed down his face. A nick to the arm, a scratch on the leg, a scrape across the chest; each were testaments to the inevitable end of the battle. Then Robin slipped.

    Mordred stepped forward and swung Clarent down to cleave into the prone Robin – and Jeanne was in her way, flagpole outstretched to block her blade.

    The swordsman cursed in frustration. “Outta the way, Old Maid!”

    “Wh-What? I’m not old, I’m a high-school student!” Jeanne sputtered.

    The two women continued to exchange blades, with Jeanne flinching every time bolts of lightning sparked along her flag.

    “Of course you are!” Mordred said. “If you’re older than me, you’re old! If you’re stronger than me, you’re Father! And besides, Ruler; you haven’t even been relevant since Chapter 1! You’re old and obsolete!”

    Jeanne froze in shock. “I-I’m still important! I’m the face of Fate/Grand Order, and the only uniquely classed 5-star Servant! Even today, Master still counts on me for the toughest batt–”

    Never one to let an opportunity go to waste, Mordred charged. Clarent swung toward the air, Jeanne turned to dodge, in a fluster, tripped over her own flagpole, and Mordred’s sword sliced past her head.

    A long braid of luxurious blond hair fell to the ground.

    “Ah, my bad there, Ruler.” Mordred stopped, suddenly sheepish.

    Dark blue robes, pristine white flag, shining and pure character – all of them were stained pitch black.

    “Oh? You’d apologize now, Knight of Treachery.”

    Mordred frowned, unease plain on her face. “Who are you?”

    Ruler smirked. “You do not recognize me? Are those eyes of yours for show, traitor knight?”

    “I’m not one for patience. Last chance to quit it, you dirty bitch.”

    “What master yields before the yapping of a whelp? It seems the dog must be taught to heel.”

    Sword flooded with bloody light, and pitch-black flag unfurled.

    With a deafening crash, everything shattered.

    – C H A L D E A –

    Gudao rubbed his head and winced. “Now I remember. I was watching from the hallway, and that last blast knocked me out. So then, that means that…”

    “Yes.” Matthew frowned. “Jeanne Alter is loose in Chaldea.”

    Master and Servant ran in silence.

    A loud sigh, and Gudao spoke. “So who’s accounted for?”

    “I haven’t been able to contact Dr. Roman and Miss Da Vinci at all, Senior. Most of the Servants are out searching for food and supplies.”

    “What about the ones we have left, Matthew?”

    Matthew furrowed her brow. “Medea’s still recovering from her carpal tunnel and sore throat in the infirmary, Fergus is in the middle of Nursery Rhyme’s surgery, Elizabeth was holding a live concert for the wyv– err, the people in Orleans, and Euryale dragged Asterios away on an errand again. Other than them, everyone else should still be here.”

    “I see. For now, let’s look for Siegfried; he’ll be a great help against Jeanne Alter, and when it comes to close combat, he has no equal.”

    “Then we’ll head to his room on the third floor, Senior.”

    Gudao and Matthew rounded a corner, and promptly dove back as a wyvern charged into the wall. The monster roared and swooped toward them.

    “Matthew!”

    “Right!”

    With a roar of exertion, Matthew leaped forward, and sturdy shield met scaly skull, sending the wyvern crashing to the ground. She raised her shield high, and slammed it to the ground. The wyvern’s head rolled to the side.

    Gudao flinched as a spray of blood hit the wall. “That was… impressive. Mordred’s training must’ve really paid off!”

    “Th-Thank you, Senior.” Still flushing, Matthew ran down the hall, and Gudao followed – until he crashed straight into her unmoving back.

    “Matthew, what’s the… hold… up…”

    Wyverns filled the corridor. Haphazard shrieks pierced the echoed as the rustle of countless wings shook the air.

    “On second thought, why don’t we talk to Kojiro back on the first floor?”

    “We’ll head back at once, Senior.”

    – C H A L D E A –

    “Thanks for the save earlier, Kojiro.”

    “It is no problem, Master.” The swordsman frowned, and continued. “Though, I wish you would bring me along for more important missions more often. I tire of farming, after all.”

    “Huh? Did you say something just now?”

    “…It is nothing.”

    The team traveled through Chaldea, with blade and shield dispatching countless wyverns.

    “So where are we headed next, Senior?”

    “I want to check out the cafeteria again. It’s where all of this started, so we might be able to get a clue as to what Jeanne Alter’s up to.”

    Matthew swatted aside a wyvern, sending it crashing into the wall. “Then let’s hurry! The longer we take, the more harm she might do.”

    Kojiro smiled as he bisected a dragon in a single blow. “I too wish to put a stop to this. And while my role in Orleans was purely behind the scenes, this time I can create a chapter of my own legend!”

    The three continued to run, until finally…

    “That’s the cafeteria up ahead!” yelled Gudao. “Now, let’s–”

    A silver knight leaped forward, blade outstretched to strike at Gudao’s throat – and Matthew dashed toward him to block the blow, sending it aside as he slid back.

    “Gilles de Rais!”

    Gilles smiled. “Correct, Gudao! And on my honor as Jeanne’s right hand, you shall not pass!” In his left hand, a flag appeared.

    “SAINT WAR ORDER!”

    Kojiro snorted derisively. “With that, he has dug his own grave.” The samurai leaped forward, katana slicing through the air to seek Gilles’ neck – and the knight swatted it aside before driving a fist into Kojiro’s stomach. With a resounding crash, Kojiro slammed into the wall and slumped to the ground.

    Gudao stood, mouth agape. “Did… Did Gilles just win a battle?”

    “It matters not what my normal performance is! For the sake of Jeanne, I shall do anything – even if that anything is the impossible!”

    Gilles shot forward, and Matthew met his onslaught with a barrage of blows. Longsword crashed against shield as sparks and warriors danced.

    “You’ve done well, Shielder! I didn’t think you could protect that Assassin from my attack, let alone guard against my blows!”

    Matthew slammed her shield into Gilles, knocking him back, and then charged. “Don’t think that complimenting me will make me go easy on you, Gilles!”

    “However! You won’t be able to use that skill of yours twice!” Once again, the flag was in his hand. “And just as God offered no mercy for Jeanne, I will owe no mercy for you! SAINT WAR ORDER!”

    Prana swirled as Gilles glowed with power, and with a violent roar he slammed his sword down. Matthew had no time to dodge, and thus, she did the only thing she could.

    Defend.

    The Servants roared as each attempted to outlast the other. For an instant, for an eternity, their efforts were matched. Yet such a stalemate could not last.

    Ever so slowly, Matthew’s knees began to buckle. She gritted her teeth and poured every drop of prana she had into her shield – and yet, she still lost ground to Gilles as the floor crumpled beneath her. She couldn’t last. Without a change, she would fall.

    Yet Matthew was a Servant – and no Servant was without a Master.

    “Emergency Evasion!” Gudao cried, arm outstretched as purple light flew toward Matthew. Her burden lightened, and with casual ease Matthew sent Gilles’ blow crashing into the floor. It was a fatal opening for any Heroic Spirit; however, Matthew was exhausted from withstanding Gilles’ assault, and Kojiro was still unconscious. A sterling opportunity would go to waste.

    Well, if not for another Servant.

    “Fly, Hrunting!”

    A barbed arrow of dark steel zoomed past Matthew to bury itself in Gilles’ chest.

    “Y… ou…”

    As Emiya strode into view, he spoke. “Next time, don’t use a Noble Phantasm that gets you killed in one hit.”

    The Servant Saber – Gilles de Rais – faded away.

    “Ahh… Now I have to roll him again. Ehh, he’ll show up again when I least want him to.” Gudao sighed, and walked forward to treat Matthew’s wounds. “Still, thanks Emiya. That could’ve been bad without you.”

    “It was only thanks to you making an opportunity, Master.” The crimson knight frowned. “Still, Jeanne Alter… There is no doubt that she is a fearsome foe. Let’s continue; we have no time to waste.”

    “You’re right, but…” Gudao looked over at the fallen Kojiro, and frowned. “Let me wake him up first.”

    He walked toward the fallen Samurai, kneeled, and spoke into Kojiro’s ear.

    Kojiro snapped awake, shrieking in terror. “No, not the gate! NOT THE GATE!”

    Matthew tilted her head in puzzlement while Emiya tried – and failed – to hold back a smirk. With an unnecessarily loud cough, Kojiro stood.

    “Now that everyone’s recovered, let’s go to the cafeteria. Hopefully it has some answers, or at the least some leftover curry.”

    At Gudao’s words, the party sallied forth.

    – C H A L D E A –

    What was once a cafeteria was now a ruined wasteland, scoured clean of food, tables, flooring, and anything else recognizable. If a certain park was infused with enough spirits and grudges to rival another world, then this cafeteria was devoid of them to the extent of annihilating another world. Without a doubt, nothing remained.

    Well, nothing but a quietly shaking Atalanta kneeling on the floor.

    Matthew gingerly patted her on the shoulder. “Um, Atalanta… Are you okay?”

    With haunted eyes, she looked up. “Oh… It’s you. And Master as well.”

    “I’m glad to see that you’re alright, Atalanta.” Gudao rubbed a temple contemplatively. “Though come to think of it, weren’t you here for lunch earlier? What are you still doing here?”

    The archer flushed, and she spoke. “W-Well, I am a hunter. I was preparing myself for tracking down and defeating Jeanne Alter, and then you four arrived.”

    “Huntress, do you meant to say that you were here the entire time?” Emiya said.

    “Well… yes.”

    “Then can you tell us anything about what Jeanne Alter might be planning?”

    Atalanta stood, eyeing the group of Servants. “Yes… But it did not make much sense.”

    “Anything is useful at this point. When aiming to capture a swallow, every movement should be accounted for.”

    “I’m sure that we can figure it out,” chimed Matthew.

    “Very well then.” Atalanta breathed deeply, and continued. “Jeanne Alter and Mordred fought, and Jeanne Alter was victorious. She then ordered Mordred to… move her severed braid to the storage room on the first basement level.”

    “Her braid?” asked Gudao. “What could she need that for?”

    “It’s not as ridiculous as you would think, Master.”

    “Do you know something about this, Emiya?”

    “That I do, Master. That I do.” The red archer pushed his fingers on the bridge of his nose, but found no glasses. He coughed, and continued. “To a magus, hair can serve as a vital receptacle of prana to be used in emergencies; this is why many female magi wear decorations and ribbons in their hair. Furthermore, hair is a potent artifact of the body used for rituals such as voodoo and holistic magecraft, and retains a spiritual link to the body for a time even after severed from it. Finally–”

    Emiya paused, and Gudao immediate stopped organizing his craft essences by their dominant hexadecimal color values to feign attentiveness.

    “Finally, you’ve noticed Jeanne’s resemblance to Saber, correct?”

    “Come to think of it, they look rather alike,” said Atalanta.

    “That is the result of a unique bodily constitution, which I’ve dubbed Artoreism. People with Artoreism tend to suffer from dramatic and immediate schizophrenic episodes upon losing a defining element of their hair, which is likely due to a sudden shock to their spiritual core, thus disrupting the crystallized lore that composes their–”

    “Emiya?”

    “Yes, Master?”

    “15 words or less.”

    “Cut off hair, they go crazy. Put back hair, they go happy.”

    Gudao clapped in understand. “Alright team, we have a plan! We get to the storeroom, we recover the braid, and we put it back on Jeanne and forget all of this ever happened. Let’s move!”

    “Right!”

    As the Servants left the cafeteria, Matthew ran next to Atalanta.

    “Ah, um, Atalanta?”

    “Yes, Matthew?”

    “I’m glad that you’re on our side this time.”

    “As am I, Matthew.” Atalanta clenched a fist. “That woman… I won’t forgive her for her crimes. I’ll fill her with arrows and make her beg for mercy!”

    Matthew blanched. “You must be really excited for making up for Orleans…”

    – C H A L D E A –

    The absolute worst situation with the absolute worst opponent had come to pass. In a single blow, that corrupted Ruler had felled the former Saber of Red, an indisputably powerful combatant. Atalanta had hidden underneath a table for cover, but all that was left was rubble. Her discovery was imminent.

    “For your first orders, defiant little dog: hide this away. The storage room on the first basement floor will do. You can even have one of your jester friends guard it.”

    With gritted teeth, Mordred trudged away.

    “Now then. It seems there are still rats skulking about in the wastes. Whatever shall I do with them? Do I chop them limb from limb, disembowel them, and use their innards as strings for a marionette? Do I throw them to my dragons to see how long they endure before they become feed? Or perhaps–”

    A particularly cruel smile rose to Jeanne Alter’s face.

    “I could burn them at the sta–”

    A loud squelch interrupted her dramatic monologue. Jeanne Alter looked down in disgust. Brown and pale yellow chunks clung to her armored boots; disgustedly, she tried to scrape them onto the ruined floor. Eventually she stormed out of the cafeteria, cursing that abominable God the whole way.

    Atalanta unsteadily staggered out from behind the wreckage.

    “My… apple pie…”

    – C H A L D E A –

    Atalanta coughed. “Yes, of course. I wish to repent for my actions in Orleans. Now, let us focus on the task at hand.”

    “Right!”

    – C H A L D E A –

    As the party traveled to the storehouse, yet another Archer joined the group.

    “Master, I’ve heard about the situation. I’ll fight at your side!”

    Gudao blinked in puzzlement, and then smacked his fist on his palm in realization. “Glad to have you with us, Arash. A Great Hero like you will definitely help blast away our problems.”

    “Take care not to get too confident, Master.” Emiya said. “The last thing we want is for this to blow up in our faces.”

    “Senior, I’m starting to remember the explosion from your first day here. It’s almost nostalgic.”

    “I know I’m reading this wrong, but this conversation’s getting a bit awkward for me…”

    “What do you mean by that, Arash?” said three people in perfect synchrony.

    “…It’s nothing.”

    “We should be there soon. I can sense a gate ahead,” said Kojiro.

    Gudao frowned. “This is proceeding smoother than it should be. Something has to go wro–”

    “OPPRESSORS MUST DIE!”

    “And there we go.”

    “How did you know that would happen, Senior?”

    Gudao smiled wryly. “Spend enough time with Shakespeare and Hans, and you pick up on these things.” He looked ahead, and his face contorted in disgust.

    Ahead of him was the bane of his FP rolls, the ever-present barrier that stood between him and his last enhancement for Yew Bow – Spartacus! I refuse to expend valuable time and effort on that thing. I refuse to even look at that thing a moment longer!

    “Arash, use your Noble Phantasm!”

    “Ehh, Senior!?”

    “So quickly!?”

    “Isn’t that a bit rash!?”

    “Well, us 1-Stars are fleeting in the first place.”

    Arash leaped forward, a fearless smile on his face. “Of course!”

    Corded arms drew his bow to the limit, and then farther. The lone arrow glowed with power, with might – with the life of a hero.

    "STELLA!"

    A blinding explosion blew both 1-Stars away. As the dust settled, fleeting words echoed through the emptied halls.

    “You were not wrong.”

    “Yes, you were,” replied four Servants.

    – C H A L D E A –

    “Ahead of us lies the storeroom,” said Gudao. “It’s highly likely that we’ll have to face a Servant that Jeanne Alter’s bent to her command, but with our line-up I’m not too worried about that. Kojiro, for frontline offense! Matthew, for party defense! Emiya, for midrange combat and support! And Atalanta, for long-range attacks! Together, there’s nothing we can’t handle!”

    As the party cheered, Gudao threw open the storeroom doors, and they stepped into the darkness. Rhythmic drips of water and the clatter of shoes on stone were the only noises in the inky black. With a drawn-out creak, the storeroom doors slammed shut, and a voice rang out.

    “Oh? Who would dare trespass in thine ancient lair?”

    Gudao gulped. “Gudao. I seek the braid of the blond maiden.”

    “Oh?” Amusement replaced curiosity. “You would attempt to retrieve the hair that I stole from that woman?”

    Gudao strained his eyes, peering into the darkness for some sign of the speaker. And then he saw them.

    Shining eyes, like pools of fresh blood.

    Unconsciously, he stepped back. Just what sort of monster had Jeanne Alter managed to recruit?

    “Scared? How disappointing. And here I thought I had a new challenger.” Gudao heard a sound that sounded disconcertingly close to lips being licked. “A new primate to murder.”

    Footsteps grew closer, and piece by piece Gudao saw just who it was that he was speaking to. Bright red eyes, like rubies bled from an ancient golem. Bone white skin, like a bleached skull. Elegant long black hair that rippled like a river under a new moon. The unmistakable regal aura of one born to rule. And as her mount, a dog clad in white–

    “Cu Chulainn… Is that you?”

    The long-suffering Lancer sighed. “Yeah, she got me, kid. Now I’m stuck doing this gig while that crazy lady runs around searching and this crazy lady entertains herself by sitting on me.”

    Gudao blinked in shock, and then gazed closer at the woman. The darkness of the storeroom and her black dress had fooled him at first, but upon looking closer, wasn’t she–

    “Nobunaga? What are you doing here?”

    “Fuhahaha! I had you fooled there, didn’t I! Ah, you brought that Boobs Servant with you too!”

    “I’m a Demi-Servant!”

    “You can’t deny the truth, Boobs Servant!”

    As Matthew readied a retort, Gudao threw up a hand. “Leaving the matter of Matthew’s boobs aside, what are you doing here? Did Jeanne Alter get you too?”

    Nobunaga cocked an eyebrow. “Jeanne Alter? I’ve no idea what you’re talking about there. Mo showed up a while back and handed me a braid, said it was important. She didn’t look very well. Maybe she got in a fight with that cash cow or something.” She laughed, and continued. “Well, that’s not my problem! So why are you here, Gudao? You interested in a girl’s hair?”

    “Putting it that way is kind of… I mean, we need that braid to return Jeanne to normal! So please, hand it over!”

    “I don’t think so.”

    “Why not!?”

    “The things Jeanne Alter has planned sound interesting! Besides, I haven’t gotten to do much lately after a certain someone dropped me like a boiling teakettle after my event!” Ten arquebusses warped into place behind Nobunaga as her dress shifted into familiar imperial regalia. She jumped onto the ground, and Lancer summoned his spear as he rubbed his back. “If you want that braid, then come get it!”

    – C H A L D E A –

    Arrow crashed against bullet as Atalanta and Nobunaga dashed around the edges of the storeroom. Hundreds of shots ricocheted off of walls, the floor, and even each other to form a deadly mobile cage – and Atalanta shot down each and every bullet. Such peerless talent is why she is the honored devotee of the goddess of the hunt. Such skill is why Atalanta is a Heroic Spirit.

    Bullets continued to fly, and Nobunaga cursed as her katana clashed with twin scimitars. Weapons were forged to kill, not to withstand; and yet, Emiya rejected that truth. Paired blades rattled against her sword and shattered, knocking her back. Emiya shot forward, blades outstretched to slash at Nobunaga – and jumped back as a hail of bullets cratered the floor in front of him. Nobunaga looked at her katana and frowned. It was of fine make, and yet the countless impacts against that Archer’s swords had begun to tell.

    “You’re aiming for my sword, are you not?”

    At this, Emiya smirked. “Blame that soft Master of ours, if you must. All that he ordered was to render you unable to fight.”

    “Even still, you make light of me, Emiya.” Countless arquebusses floated behind her, and paired blades dropped into waiting hands. “That is most unwise!”

    With a deafening roar, the battery of guns fired – toward Kojiro.

    – C H A L D E A –

    In the center of the storeroom, spear and sword clashed. Lancer launched a blistering barrage of spear thrusts, each one dragging the air along and leaving vacuums in their wake. An ordinary man would be pulped. Yet Kojiro swept every blow aside as though it were natural, his blade sliding past each blow like a snake through grass. Lancer cursed and leaped back, spear trained on the samurai.

    “Fighting with you is disgusting.” The spearman grimaced in dissatisfaction. Whether you were angry, or greedy, or just looking for a good time, fighting was meant to make you feel something. Clashing blades gave insight into others like nothing else could, not even a passionate night.

    But that samurai denied such a truth. Striking at him was like stabbing at fog. He was impossible to discern, impossible to engage with, and impossible to enjoy. Fighting against him was pointless.

    “Have we finished, Hound of Culainn?” Kojiro smirked. “Or do you need to catch your breath?”

    Lancer twisted his spear, tilting its point toward the ground. “Yeah, I’m done with this. If I can’t see that heart of yours–”

    The crimson spear throbbed with prana.

    “–then I’ll claim it.”

    Kojiro shifted, falling into a stance for the first time.

    “Hiken:”

    “Gae–”

    Thunder roared as a swarm of bullets flew at Kojiro. He threw himself to the ground and rolled, breaking his stance.

    “Bolg!”

    The crimson spear howled and flew, its curse already lodged in its target’s heart–

    “Shield of Rousing Resolution!”

    –And swerved toward Matthew as fate twisted to eliminate the interference!

    “Hazy Walls of Chalk!”

    In a burst of vermilion light, Gae Bolg crashed into Matthew’s shield, seeking an outcome that had already come to pass. The winds howled, the ground cracked – and Matthew held firm. Against the Servant Shielder’s ability to defend her allies, no Noble Phantasm would surpass her invincible defense!

    Gae Bolg returned to Lancer’s hand, steam rising from its surface, and Kojiro and Matthew leaped forward. Behind him was the shield that had withstood his deadliest below. Ahead of him was the samurai with an impenetrable technique.

    “Fine then. The lassie’s done enough, so now it’s your turn, samurai.”

    Once again, Kojiro brought his sword into the only stance he required. Lancer leaped forward, his spear an asp seeking the samurai’s throat.

    Blood fell.

    – C H A L D E A –

    “Well, he couldn’t have won with luck like that anyway.”

    “Rather low tension, aren’t you,” said Emiya.

    Nobunaga sighed. “I wasn’t expecting too much from him anyways. He might be the best of the big brother-types here, but he was only holding me back.”

    “Oh? Then you alone suffice to defeat four Servants at once?”

    “Fuhahaha! Of course I can! I’d have preferred if that Lancer defeated at least one of you, but it can’t be helped.”

    Nobunaga floated upward, aglow with power.

    “Tenka Fubu!”

    The stone of the storeroom gave way to a sea of fire.

    “Master… I’m sorry…” Atalanta slumped to the ground, panting heavily.

    Nobunaga threw back her head and laughed. “There we go! Without that troublesome cat running about and shooting down my bullets, none of you can withstand my unrivaled firepower!”

    “Is that all?”

    “What?” Nobunaga looked down to see Emiya staring up at her, a trademark smirk on his face. “What do you mean, ‘Is that all?’! Fine then; I’ll show you the might of the Demon King of the Sixth Heaven!”

    The sky filled with arquebusses, and as one, they aimed toward Emiya.

    “Sandanuchi!”

    “Rho Aius!”

    Countless crimson streaks of light crashed down – and a single flower of shining light withstood them all.

    “Take heed, Nobunaga. I’ll show you a real Reality Marble. I am the bone of my sword.

    “A real Reality Marble? It’s not even a real Noble Phantasm!”

    “Unknown to death, nor known to life.”

    “Wait, you’re not even saying the whole thing!?”

    “Unlimited Blade Works!”

    The sea of flames gave way to an endless dusty graveyard of swords. Massive gears fell into the sky as the BGM shifted from Sonic Barrage to Emiya, and countless blades floated from the earth to point at Nobunaga.

    “This is how an Archer uses a Reality Marble.”

    A shower of swords crashed through hastily summoned guns, and Nobunaga crashed to the ground.

    – C H A L D E A –

    “And that’s the first aid. Are you alright now, Atalanta?”

    Atalanta sat up weakly. “Yes; you have my thanks, Gudao.”

    “Really, it was no problem at all. I’d never leave a gold Servant in the lurch.”

    “Um, Senior. That’s a bit…”

    Gudao walked toward the fallen Nobunaga. “Hey, you okay?”

    The Archer pouted. “Shut up, Master. You’re only talking to me now that you want that braid.”

    “Hey now, that’s not true. It’s just that I’ve got a lot of Archers, so sometimes one of them slips through the cracks.” He smiled, and pulled out a box from the wreckage. “Tell you what, Nobunaga. I was saving these Unlucky Bones in case I ever rolled a Tamamo, but I’ll give them to you. You worked hard, after all.”

    “Master… Fuhahaha, thanks! You really are a great Master!” She reached into a pocket and pulled out a thick braid of blond hair. “Here, this is for you! And I’ll give you a bit of extra, too. That Saber-like… Alter-like… Jeanne-like… Anyways, she’s trying to break into the extra-secure storeroom on the top floor where we keep the Grails! Said something about getting the role that she deserved.”

    “The Holy Grails!? One of them was bad enough! Senior, who knows what she could accomplish with all of those!”

    Gudao frowned. “I agree, Matthew. Alright everyone, let’s go! To the top floor!”

    – C H A L D E A –

    Gudao staggered behind his party of Servants, gasping for air.

    “Master, you don’t look good. Do you need to be carried?”

    He threw an arm at the wall to hold himself aloft, and replied. “I knew that Jeanne Alter was an evil, malevolent, and historically inaccurate creature of pure spite, but I never thought she’d be so evil as to disable the elevators! What’s wrong with that woman!?”

    “I feel your priorities may be a bit skewed, Senior…”

    “Not at all!” Gudao strode forward and placed both hands on Matthew’s shoulders. “Elevators represent man’s dream to reach the stars, to free themselves from the confines of the Earth. They allow even the lowliest of souls to become the greatest incarnations of humanity, to be a modern Prometheus! As our eminent explorer would say, ‘Elevators are Good Civilization!’ Nay, they are the very hallmark of civilization! A building without functional elevators mas as well be a pile of mud!”

    “Master, Matthew is unconscious,” said Atalanta.

    “Huh?”

    Gudao looked at Matthew to see her flushed and unresponsive.

    “Senior’s face… So close…”

    – C H A L D E A –

    After waking Matthew, the party continued. Emiya moved next to Gudao and spoke.

    “At any rate Master, a word of caution. Jeanne Alter will likely have a full team of Servants under her thrall; it would be wise for us to find another comrade to assist us.”

    “That’s true, Emiya. But where are we going to find another unaffiliated Servant? It’s not like one’s just going to come out of nowhere.”

    “Greetings, my Master!” said Diarmuid. “I have come to offer my assistance in defeating Jeanne Alter!”

    Gudao blinked.

    Emiya blinked.

    “…Glad to have you with us, Diarmuid.”

    “And I am glad to serve you, my Master.” The spearman looked toward the other Servants, and spoke. “It is a pleasure and an honor to work with you all.”

    Gudao smiled, and faced the group.

    “Soon, we’ll be facing a harsh battle against one of our own. We’ve had to fight countless wyverns, faced trusted comrades who became powerful enemies, and even lost a valuable member of the team.”

    Diarmuid let out an audible sniff.

    “But I look at you – I look at all of you – and I feel confident. I feel proud. Our party was solid enough before, but with Diarmuid at our side as additional damaging and debuffing, there’s no one we can’t defeat! This is the final battle of this Grand Order!”

    Loud cheers filled the hallway – and then were interrupted by a single voice.

    “Oh, how troublesome! This jar of such delectable sweets just won’t open!”

    Diarmuid ran forward into a room to the side, and Gudao followed to see Marie struggling with a large jar of Gummi Orions.

    “Allow me to assist you, my lady.” Diarmuid stepped forward, and Marie raised a hand to her mouth.

    “Why thank you! Here you are, kind knight.” She handed the jar to Diarmuid, who dropped his spear with a clatter to grasp the jar.

    “Err… Diarmiud… We kinda need you over here… With that whole ‘saving the world from Jeanne Alter again’ thing?”

    Diarmuid grunted in exertion, veins bulging as he struggled against the jar. “My apologies, my Master; I’m a bit tied up at the moment. This might… HYEEAARGHHH… take a while.”

    Gudao walked out of the room.

    – C H A L D E A –

    “Senior, what happened to Diarmuid?”

    “Beautiful Princess, Rank A.” Gudao sighed. “We’ll have to go on without him.”

    “Master, we are close,” said Atalanta. “At the end of that corridor to the left should be the maximum security storage room.”

    “Then let’s hurry.” Gudao ran forward, rounded the corner – and stopped in his tracks.

    In the middle of the corridor stood the strongest dragon-slayer – the immortal swordsman Siegfried.

    “Siegfried! Don’t tell me… You’re working for Jeanne Alter!?”

    “I’m sorry. With her command over dragons, there was nothing I could do.” Siegfried drew Balmung, and pointed it at Gudao. “I’m sorry, but I cannot let you pass.”

    Emiya stepped forward. “Go, Gudao. Take the other Servants and defeat Jeanne Alter.”

    “But Emiya… That’s Siegfried! You can’t be serious!”

    “Go.”

    Archer’s red coat billowed as Gudao stared at his back.

    “Fine. A little while is enough. Keep him busy by yourself.”

    Gudao clenched a fist, and the group began to move.

    “By the way, Gudao. May I confirm one thing?”

    Gudao paused, gaze downcast.

    “…Fine. What?”

    “Yeah. Buying you some time is fine, but–”

    A rain of swords fell in the hallway, dividing Siegfried and Emiya from the others.

    “–you won't mind if I beat that thing, right?"

    Gudao gritted his teeth, and then laughed. “Yeah, you don't need to hold back. Give him a beating, Archer!”

    Master and Servants left for the final battle as aspiring heroes clashed.

    – C H A L D E A –

    Gudao opened the door of the storeroom, and the party stepped inside.

    “It’s a palace?”

    The floor was carved of polished black and white marble; similar columns rose to the domed ceiling. A massive set of steps clad in red fabric stretched upward to an extravagantly decorated balcony shrouded in red and gold.

    Matthew spoke. “It used to be an ordinary room, but after the third Grail we put in here, it turned into the chamber you see now.”

    “How grandiose.” Kojiro sighed. “As expected, Holy Grails cannot settle for an inferior vessel. If there is one positive, at least this one isn’t trying to kill us.”

    “Oh, don’t worry about that.”

    The party looked up toward the balcony, and Jeanne Alter spoke once more.

    “These Servants and I can kill you just fine. Gilles! Mordred! King Arthur! The time has come!”

    The three Servants strode into formation behind Jeanne Alter as she slowly walked down the steps.

    Gudao stepped back as Atalanta, Matthew, and Kojiro readied for the final battle.

    “France will once again fall to the fires of my retribution!”

    “There’s no way I’m going through wyvern hell again!”

    – C H A L D E A –

    Sparks flew through the air as Monohoshizao scraped against Excalibur again and again. Saber whirled and spun as she crashed into Kojiro from every angle, yet the samurai held firm.

    “How amusing, Saber. It seems like yesterday when we were in opposite positions.”

    “The time for conversation is past, Sasaki Kojiro! Defeat me already, and stop that woman before she ruins everything!”

    Saber slammed Excalibur downward, and Kojiro’s knees buckled as he crumpled to the ground. With a roar she swung down to behead the samurai – and he swiftly rolled aside and sprung to his feet.

    “Eye of the Mind, is it?” Saber clenched her blade, and leaped forward. “You won’t have the opportunity to do that again!”

    The sound of steel rang through the air once more.

    – C H A L D E A –

    “Sorry about this, Matthew!” said Mordred as she kicked the girl into a wall. Matthew shakily stood, and then threw herself aside as Mordred launched herself forward to pierce the wall.

    “That’s alright, Mordred!” said Matthew as she swung her shield at Mordred’s head with all of her strength. Mordred jumped upward, twirling around Clarent’s hilt as the shield swept underneath her to crash into the wall. She twisted down, armored legs streaking toward Matthew to crash against her unprotected back–

    “Emergency Evasion!”

    –and slid aside as purple light shrouded Matthew, protecting her from harm. Matthew stood and charged at Mordred – and with a single hand, Mordred halted her charge.

    “Still, I am pretty happy to be fighting alongside Father!” she said as she slammed Clarent onto the shield, sending crimson lightning sparking into Matthew’s armor. “Ah, not that I’m happy to be fighting you or working for that bitch, but Father might finally acknowledge me, you know?”

    With a smile, Mordred continued her onslaught.

    – C H A L D E A –

    Arrows flew as Atalanta unleashed a constant volley at Jeanne Alter; and yet, the flag-bearer swatted them all aside with contemptuous ease.

    “Your pathetic struggling amuses me, my former underling. Just how long do you think you can run around before you fall?”

    Atalanta snarled as she fired volley after volley of arrows. “As long as it takes to bring you down!”

    “How amusing. It seems you truly despise me, foolish girl. However–”

    Jeanne Alter dashed toward Gudao, flagpole outstretched like a spear.

    “How will that resolve of yours fare when your beloved Master in is danger?”

    Gudao watched the black flagpole zoom toward his skull. There was no time to dodge, no time to move. By the time his mind could tell his body to move, he would already be dead. The flag rocketed toward him – and struck empty air as Atalanta tackled him, dragging him away.

    Blood dripped to the ground from a gash in Atalanta’s side.

    “And that’s the first strike! Now, how will you dance for me as I slice you apart, piece by piece, you traitorous Archer?”

    Atalanta shook with wrath. “You used me, you tried to kill my Master, and most of all, you trod on my apple pie!” She nocked an arrow, and Tauropolos glowed with power. “Now die! Phoebus Catastrophe!

    A single arrow soared upwards, and a hail of arrows rained down upon the chamber.

    “Atalanta, you’re hitting us as well! Wall of Fleeting Snowflakes!”

    Layers of magical energy rippled around Kojiro, Atalanta, and Matthew as Atalanta’s Noble Phantasm slammed down, blasting chunks of marble into dust. Gudao squinted through the dust, searching for a sign of their enemies, and then felt something slimy along his ankle. He looked down, and screeched in terror as a hideous tentacled monstrosity clung to his legs, holding him in place.

    “What is this!?”

    “What’s going on, Senior!?”

    “It’s like those Forbidden Pages that Teach showed me!”

    From the balcony, Gilles cackled madly. “Yes! Howl in disgust! Writhe in resentment! And prostrate yourselves before the might of the great Jeanne d’Arc!”

    Jeanne Alter stepped forward, black flag aglow with barely contained power.

    “I have to thank you for that, Atalanta.” She smirked, and walked toward the struggling Servant entangled by Gilles’ creatures. “It’s thanks to your efforts that you will all die here!”

    “La Grondement Du Haine!”

    The unholy maiden raised her dark standard, and black light rained from the heavens as the judgment of God.

    “Hazy Walls of Chalk!”

    Golden light shined around Gudao, and he twisted in shock to see Matthew with a determined smile.

    “If no one else, at least you, Senior…!”

    “No! I’m not letting any of you die!” There had to be something he could do! Something before the black light crashed down!

    Suddenly, he remembered something that he could do. Gudao frantically tore at his clothing, but to no avail. He wouldn’t make it in time; even so… even so, he had to try!

    Yet in the instant before Jeanne Alter’s Noble Phantasm crashed down, someone took action.

    “Fly, Caladbolg!

    A single shining sword zoomed through the chamber and plunged through Prelati’s Spellbook into Gilles’ chest. The tentacled creatures melted away, and the Servants dived for cover as the black light rained down.

    “Gilles!” Jeanne Alter cursed, and stared at the newcomer. “That useless Siegfried. He couldn’t even take care of trash like you.”

    Gudao looked up to see Gilles’ killer, and smiled. “Emiya, you survived!”

    “Of course I did, Master.” Emiya strode into the chamber, his bow fading as Kanshou and Bakuya took its place. “He was a Saber and I am an Archer. The conclusion was obvious.”

    “So you defeated one piece of useless trash and brought one more in its place. Don’t presume that this makes a difference!”

    Gudao blinked away tears, stood, and raised his right arm – now clad in the shroud of the Mage Association uniform. “All Heal!”

    Green light radiated from Gudao and zoomed into his downed Servants, and Atalanta, Kojiro, and Matthew rose to their feet.

    “One after the other, all of you cockroaches refuse to die! Ugh, are you going to start sparkling?”

    “Say what you like, Jeanne Alter!” Gudao smiled confidently, and continued. “One way or another, we’ll throw it all back in your face!”

    – C H A L D E A –

    Matthew and Mordred clashed as shield crashed against sword. Mordred’s strikes were brutal and unrelenting; and yet, Matthew bore each one without yielding, forcing Mordred away from Gudao and the other combatants.

    “Look, you’ve gotta do something about that damn Ruler if you want this to end! She’s got a skill or something that lets her mess with dragons, and dragon-like Servants!”

    Mordred leaped forward to slash at Matthew, and immediately spun back to block a strike from Emiya with Clarent. As the married blades clashed with the sword of coronation, Matthew ran in to swing at Mordred’s unguarded back.

    “All of you people, one after another!” Mordred roared, and crimson lightning trailed from her blade as she swung in a circle to intercept. “I mean, that’s the spirit, Matthew! Keep it up!”

    Prana flooded into her arms, and with a mighty swing Mordred slammed into Matthew. The young woman flew back, and Mordred spun to swat another set of blows from Emiya aside. She shattered his blades, and as he recoiled, she leaped forward to–

    “Shield of Rousing Resolution!”

    –land and immediately rush toward Matthew, who waited with shield poised. Mordred leaped upward and swung her sword down, aiming to crush Matthew with sheer power – and Emiya ran forward, a shining sword that thrummed with power in his hand. Her instincts screamed to dodge the Archer’s blow, and yet, she could not.

    “Durandal!”

    With a massive blast, the Broken Phantasm shattered Mordred’s armor and flung her into the wall.

    – C H A L D E A –

    “It sounds as though your child had some trouble.”

    Saber fired a blast of wind that sent Kojiro skidding along the floor, and barreled forward in an explosion of prana to crash her sword forward. “That is no child of mine!”

    “Really now, how cruel.” As katana and longsword danced in a flurry of blows, Kojiro continued. “Would it have been so hard to at least acknowledge her existence? Children derive meaning from the attention of their parents, and a life without meaning is a terrible thing.”

    “What would you know of parenting, Kojiro! All you ever did was laze about a farm and swat at birds, while I had a kingdom to rule!”

    “It is true that I have no experience ruling over others,” said Kojiro. “Yet, even to me one thing is obvious. Leaving control of a country to a hormonal teenager who you wholeheartedly and absolutely rejected not a week prior was a terrible idea.”

    Saber flushed, and Kojiro swatted aside a particularly violent blow. “It seemed like a good idea at the time! Besides, who else could have done so! Gawain was busy with his bar roast competitions, Galahad and Percival were playing Two Knights, One Cup, Bedivere just kept staring at me, and Lancelot was sleeping with my wife!”

    “Did you try out marriage counseling? That might have helped you find a better solution to the problem than driving him insane.”

    Saber audibly gritted her teeth. “I understand why Medea loved airing out your rib cage so much now. Perhaps I will try it myself, to see if it works for me as well.”

    She leaped forward, and Kojiro smirked as he raised his blade.

    “Hiken–”

    With a blast of wind, Saber flew backward away from Kojiro’s technique – and cursed as countless sets of Kanshou and Bakuya closed in around her. In an explosion of prana, Saber spun in midair, and Excalibur smashed apart the blades aiming for her vitals as the others cut deep gashes across her body. Saber looked up, and saw a shield crash down upon her.

    – C H A L D E A –

    “And that’s all of your allies defeated, Jeanne Alter!”

    Jeanne Alter cursed as she batted away Atalanta’s arrows. “There’s no way that I’ll lose again! I refuse to fall down here! I will reopen Orleans, and gain the true starring role! And this time, no poofy-hatted princesses or pink-haired idiots will get in the way of my fame!”

    The flag-bearer once again dashed at Gudao – and tripped as an arrow buried itself in her left ankle.

    “I won’t be caught by surprise twice, pie-killer!”

    “Now’s the time, Kojiro, Emiya!”

    The two swordsman leaped forward as Jeanne Alter struggled to rise to her feet. In perfect unison they swung blades, and Jeanne Alter would fall here–!

    “So this is where Jeanne Alter went?” David walked into the room. “Wow, it’s as if you’re all fighting the final boss!”

    With a single sweep of her flag, Jeanne Alter knocked Emiya and Kojiro aside. She tore the arrow from her ankle and cackled as prana swirled around her and the Grand Battle BGM began to play.

    “David, you fool!” yelled Gudao. “Now look at what you’ve done!”

    “Oh, that doesn’t look good at all. I think that I should leave.”

    “Like Hell you are! Stay right here and help us stop her!”

    “Senior, what happened just now? Weren’t we winning?”

    Gudao sighed, and rubbed his temples as Jeanne Alter continued to cackle. “While we were fighting her earlier, Jeanne Alter was still fundamentally one of my Servants, and thus had about the same amount of resilience and power. But thanks to David, now she’s a full-fledged final boss, which means–”

    “That I am mightier than ever!” finished Jeanne Alter. “Curse God and despair, Gudao! For all of your boasts shall come to naught!”

    – C H A L D E A –

    Arrows, swords, staffs, shields – nothing fazed the unholy maiden as she crashed into the Servants and smashed them aside. Yet they continued to rise, and continued to fight. They were the last line of defense between history and a hellhole full of wyverns and dragons. For the sake of Gudao’s sanity, for the sake of human history, and for the sake of Casters everywhere, Jeanne Alter couldn’t be allowed to succeed!

    Emiya stood unsteadily, and Jeanne Alter charged forward, flagpole outstretched to run him through.

    “Dust of Osiris!”

    Golden particles flowed from a bespectacled Gudao’s hand to Emiya, and the black flag crashed harmlessly against his breastplate. Emiya slashed at Jeanne Alter, and as she fell back to dodge Kojiro leaped forward to attack. Jeanne Alter planted the flag and spun around it to kick at Kojiro’s head–

    “Order Change!”

    –And sailed over Matthew’s head as she swung her shield upwards, knocking Jeanne Alter into the air!

    “Hamesh Avanim!”

    David twirled his sling, and five stones flew upward to crash into Jeanne Alter.

    “Everyone, now! Reinforce All!” Gudao pulled down his left sleeve to reveal the Chaldea Battlesuit, and with Jeanne’s Dragon Witch sealed, every Servant answered his call.

    “Hiken: Tsubame Gaeshi!”

    “Phoebus Catastrophe!”

    “Unlimited Blade Works!”

    “Clarent Blood Arthur!”

    “Excalibur!”

    With all of their power, each Servant unleashed their strongest blow – and Jeanne Alter unfurled a black flag.

    Blood dripping from her lips, she smirked, and spoke.

    “La Grondement Du Haine!”

    Black light roared to devour all, and a lone girl stood against the darkness.

    “Deploying Noble Phantasm! Lord Chaldeas!

    A shining shield of ethereal light stood against the midnight tide. Matthew gritted as her skin began to bleed and her bones creaked. Yet she did not move a single step. She didn’t know who the Servant was that gave her power. She didn’t know the name of her Noble Phantasm, or the nature of its legend.

    Yet she wanted to protect. And to her, the Servant she had fused with had also wanted to protect others, to help others, to triumph against evil, and to bring hope for the future.

    Therefore, her shield, her resolve, her existence would not yield here!

    The black light washed away, and Matthew sank to her knees in exhaustion. The other Servants slumped to the ground, and Jeanne Alter weakly began to stand.

    “Too bad, Gudao. Those Servants of yours made quite the effort, but it wasn’t enough. You’re all out of moves.”

    Gudao clenched a fist, and blue eyes met gold. “No. There’s still one more person who can act.”

    He pointed at Jeanne Alter and spoke. “Me.”

    Black light glowed on his fingertip, and fired. Jeanne Alter staggered from the Gandr, and Gudao ran forward.

    “No! NOOO! Losing to a Servant is one thing, but to a mere human? I won’t stand for it!”

    “Your fifteen minutes are up, Jeanne Alter!” Gudao pulled the braid out of his pocket, and a Holy Night Sign. “If you want another Order–”

    He slammed the craft essence and braid into her stomach, and Jeanne Alter glowed with golden light.

    “–Then get in the gacha!”

    – C H A L D E A –

    “Jeanne. Jeanne? Can you hear me?”

    Jeanne weakly opened her eyes. “Where am I?”

    Gudao looked down on her, smiling. “You’re in the infirmary. How are you doing?”

    Jeanne flushed. “Embarrassed. To have such an embarrassing side of me shown… Certainly, I took pride in inspiring my countrymen on the battlefield, but to go to the extent of annihilating history for it, I…”

    “It’s okay, Jeanne. You made a mess; that much is undeniable. But you’re still my reliable Ruler, here to justly and correctly guide me through these Grand Orders, and I wouldn’t have anyone else.”

    “Gudao…” Jeanne blushed, and then smiled. “Thank you.”

    “Of course!” Gudao smiled, and grasped Jeanne’s hand.

    “Besides, I’m sure the next event will give everyone the chance to hear your lovely voice as you lead them to victory!”










    One week later, the Garden of Order began.
    Last edited by Milbunk; March 19th, 2016 at 12:55 AM.

  7. #7
    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    Hands.

    “Your hands are shaking praetor.”

    Saber voice startles me. She was waiting for me to gather my courage so we could go and meet our opponent in battle. I had thought that clasping my hands would have hidden it..

    “Are you nervous praetor?” She asks in a cool voice. I can only nod, since my mouth seems to not be working at all. “It is hardly surprising. This is the first time a life will be extinguished by your hand.” I wince. You are not helping Saber.

    “That is good. Don't forget that feeling. That nervousness of fighting someone else, that fear of what might happen, the thrill of the upcoming battle. Yes, all of them are important if you wish to survive.” I nod. I know that no matter what she says, I can't get used to the idea that I have to kill to survive. To be honest I don't think I could ever will. “And yet you must. Otherwise you will end up found wanting.” I nod again. It seems that is all I can do.

    Mmm? I feel something in my hands. I feel warmth. Before I can think of it more, the sensation leaves. “Let us go praetor. It would be unsightly of us to fall not before our enemy but to the imposed time limit.” Saber? “Do not worry. Be as fearful as you have to be. I am strong enough to carry your fear into battle praetor.” I see. Thanks Saber. But I can't do that to her. I must calm myself. Whatever happens in the next duel, even if the threat of death is true, I must at least let her fight with her full strength.

    Let's go Saber.

    -


    “Your hands still shake Praetor.” Saber says breaking the silence. It is another moment of steeling myself before another battle for my life. I am supposed to compose myself again before we fight to the death but I know that it's impossible. “Whether you accept it or not, whether it is excitement or fear that makes you tremble so, you must calm yourself.” I nod and breath as deeply as I can. It's mostly useless but I can feel myself getting less nervous. Just a bit.

    “Once, you have fought and found yourself victorious.” My breath hitches. I don't want to remember that. “It doesn't matter what you wish Praetor. The situation you are in doesn't allow you to have a better outcome.” I know that. I know that. But... “You are too nice Praetor.” Saber says, but I can hear something in her voice. Pity? Sympathy?

    “We must go Praetor.” She interrupts me. Got it. Before I can move however, she takes my hands in hers and squeezes them lightly. Saber?

    “You are not alone Praetor. Whatever guilt you feel, I will also feel it. So take some of my strength, steel yourself, and let us meet our adversary.” I see. Thank you Saber. “It is no problem at all Praetor.”

    I sigh and try to calm myself. Saber sharing her strength with me helps. One last deep breath.

    I am not ready, nor I think I will ever be, but let's go Saber.

    -


    “There is not much I can say to make you feel better this time, Praetor.” Saber says and I know she is right. “This is the unfairness of war.” I know. I can feel my hands enrolling into fists and go rigid from the force I put in them. I don't want to fight her. I don't want to kill her.

    “Then shall we die ourselves Praetor?” No. I don't want to die. It's cowardly and selfish but I want to keep on living. “Then there is no other choice. We must extinguish a life that has once ended.” That's right. Alice was given another chance at life in the Holy Grail War. And I have to end it again so I can keep on going without an aim. “That is not true Praetor.” Saber? “To reach this far without an aim would be impossible, even with my help. There is something that you are moving towards to. You may have yet to realize what it is, but surely you wish for that.” But I don't have a wish for the grail. “Then perhaps what you wish for is not the grail.”

    I see. But then why would I enter the Holy Grail War? And is it something worth the life of others? “I don't know Praetor. For you to be here, you must had believed so. Perhaps you will find out as we keep on going.” But is that not the same that be aimless? “No. If you were to be truly aimless you would not have bested Dan Blackmore.” But the only thing I wished for was to live. “Then that should suffice for now.”

    I can feel something in my hands. It's warm. “Praetor. There's no other choice but to fight and win if you truly wish to find what was so important for you.” I can feel her hands slightly squeezing mine. “There's nothing wrong with wishing to live in spite of others. And even if there was, I would carry that sin for you.” Thank you Saber. Her hands leave mine but I can still feel her warmth. I nod to myself.

    I may not be able to come to terms with this but it's something I must do. Let's go Saber.

    -

    “Have you resolved yourself praetor?” Saber asks. I nod. I still can't get used to killing someone. I can't forgive myself from living by killing another. But this time I am also protecting someone else.

    Even if it's only this time. Even if after this, the guilt will eat at me. Even if I know this resolve could go away at any moment, I am ready.

    “Hmmm. Well I suppose I will accept your reason only this once.” Saber nods. “If you are resolved then that is should be okay. There's only one thing left praetor.” She extends her hand to me. “...” She looks at me expectantly. We spend some seconds like that. “Praetor.” She speaks calmly but I can hear some irritation within her. “Today we are of one mind in battle. So today we should support each other too on body too.”

    I see. I don't get it but I see. Some more seconds pass before I can see Saber going red. Is she blushing... no I think she is mad? “Praetor. Your hand.” My hand? I put my hand in hers. She grabs it with hers and squeezes tight enough to hurt a little. Then she let's go and walks toward the door. “Is this not our ritual Praetor? I would have thought that you would have understood that by now.” Ritual? Ah... I see I guess that happened. I should probably not say anymore though, lest Saber gets madder at me.

    Today is different, I am resolved and I am prepared for battle. So let's do our best together Saber.

    -

    I'm scared. “Mmm?” I am scared Saber. “I see. Perhaps that resolve you showed has gone.” No. I want to fight for myself now. I don't wish for more battle but I have accepted that fact. If this place is truly my home then I suppose I will defend it. “I see. So what are you afraid of?” Of him. He has almost beaten us thrice. He almost killed us twice. “Indeed. He is a though opponent to be sure. But he is not the first and certainly not the last.” I know.

    I know but. “You already know my full power Praetor. With that we shall triumph over him and his assassin. There is no need to worry.” But. “Trust me, Praetor. I will win.” I trust you. But I am still afraid. I take her hand in mine. I don't want to lose you Saber.

    “You will.” Saber lets me squeeze them as tight as I can. “Perhaps not now Praetor but in the future you will. That is an inescapable fact.” I know. I didn't want to but I know. “There is still some time for that but it will happen. You will be my Master until that time comes. You will win the war and we will separate from each other until that time. So let us fight together until that time comes.” I nod. I squeeze one last time before I let go.

    I am still scared but I trust you. Let's go, Saber.

    -

    No words will leave my lips and Saber knows that I am ready.

    This had to happen at some point.

    I tried to not think about it.

    But if I want to live.

    I have to kill someone who helped me.

    Someone who reached her hand towards me.

    Saber grabs my hand with hers.

    Slowly she pulls me toward the door.

    This time I let her support me.

    This time I need her help.

    Once we reach the elevator entrance I will stand on my own, but for now I will let her carry me.

    Thank you.

    “It is no trouble, Praetor.”

    -

    It's the end. Today is the last fight against the strongest opponent.

    “Are you ready, Praetor?” Saber is waiting for me. I have survived. I killed to live. I killed friends to keep on going. I killed those that had better goals than mine. I killed those that had wishes unlike me. I am about to kill someone who I called a friend. Someone who helped me even if he had no reason. Someone who, in his own way, believed in me. He is the strongest Master and I am the weakest. I struggled to get this far, yet for him it was inevitable to do so.

    I nod. This time I extend my hand to her. You have supported me all this time. Will you lend me your hand once again?

    “Of course, Praetor.”

    -

    There are two ghosts about to fight each other with an Emperor and a Saviour.

    It's unexpected and yet there are no surprises.

    The two ghosts think the same and agree on their ideology.

    But one has decided they have no right to interfere.

    They left their world a long time ago.

    So they must fight not for them but for those that ignore that their future is being decided right now.

    The Emperor and her ghost do not have time to link their hands but it is not necessary now.

    There will be time after the battle.

    The battle for the future starts.

    -

    I type my wish. I send the data to the Master that left the Moon Cell. The other me should live.

    And so I wait. I survived only to die right now but I am alright with this. If I can avoid more useless killing then it's okay. I can feel myself going deeper into the sea. I can feel my hands and feet going numb. My thoughts are slightly slower than they were a moment ago.

    “There is still some time before we separate, Praetor.”

    Saber?

    “Indeed. Did you truly believe I would leave you alone?”

    I see. Even at the end you are with me. Thank you Saber.

    “Of course. It is my duty as your Servant to be at your side.”

    I know she said something but I can't hear her anymore. I can feel my body disappearing. I should not last longer.

    But I trust my hand forward. I know that she will take it into hers. I know that she will wait for me to disappear before she does so.

    I know that I will leave her alone. But I can't help but be grateful.

    Thank you Saber.

  8. #8
    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    I'LL MURDER YOUR CAT

    It felt like I’d walked through this situation a hundred times, but every so often, it found new and exciting ways to spice up my life. This was just going to be one of those days. I walked towards the scene, umbrella dangling off my wrist as I jammed both hands in my pockets.

    It had happened in an alley, again, and as usual, someone had the forward thinking to bring a now-puking rookie to the event. At least the kid had the decency to get out the way first, and I offered him a little pat on the back as I stepped behind the tape, on my way to the man bent over the larger sheet.

    “Doctor. Don’t you think you’re a little old to be on your knees like this?”

    “Inspector. I’m surprised you’ve left yours.”

    I leveled a glare at him that glanced right off his frame, harmlessly burying itself in the wall behind him.

    “I will murder your fucking cat.” I turned my eye back to the scene, looking at the blood splattered around the edges of the alleyway.

    “What have you got for me?”

    He barely even glanced at me as he checked the thermometer. Ideally, you were supposed to do time of death as soon as possible, but with this one it had been... difficult, if not impossible.

    “Two victims, both deceased, both with tremendous scarring. The woman as far as we can tell, died – there,” He pointed to what I could only describe as a generous rendition of Jackson Pollack on a fuckton of meth. “And the child died over there, about five to six feet away, in the direction of the road.”

    He peered at me over his spectacles.

    “As far as we can determine, the woman died via extensive scarring on her stomach, hands, legs, and groin, while her face...” The doctor looked uncharacteristically grim. “See for yourself.”

    He pulled the blanket back, and even I had to take a step away.

    “Shit...”

    He nodded. “It looks like her head was hit repeatedly with a blunt object until it bursted. I think this is what allowed the child to make a run for it, right up until she was killed through a cut to the back of the neck. At least it seems like she didn’t suffer much.”

    He stood up and turned to face me, quietly accepting the cigarette I’d held out to him on the way up.

    “Her wounds were inflicted post-mortem, unlike the older woman. The wounds are haphazard, but if I had to guess...”

    I eyed the corpse speculatively.

    “Let me take a stab at it. The woman was hurt just enough to make her beg for death, and then killed, while the kid’s wounds were completely crazy. Not because the killer was trying to hurt her – but because they were angry for killing her too quickly.”

    He nodded, a little taken aback, and I managed a little chuckle around my cigarette at his startled face, one without any humour. Even if we’d become decent friends, he was still new to this city, and the force.

    “About five months ago, we had our first case. Four people hanging out in an abandoned KFC. Three gangbangers, a woman we could only assume was a prostitute or their victim – all butchered so severely we could barely even determine that much. The woman, much like now, had her head bashed in.”

    I took a long drag and stared up at the cold, clear sky.

    “It’s only escalated since then, and in every case we’ve had – at least one had their head caved in, in just the same way. Sometimes men, sometimes not, but there’s always been one woman, and they’re always the one with the most damage,” I turned to him again, an important detail having almost slipped my mind. “Time of death, Doc? Let me take another guess; at least a day’s gone by.”

    He raised an eyebrow.

    “You’re not far off. With guesses like that, maybe you should dive into fortune-telling.” I gave him the finger, and he kept going. “As far as we can tell, time of death was,” He checked the machine he was carrying. “About two days ago, during that thunderstorm, which I think accounts for the amount of blood lying around the scene.”

    I clapped him on the back.

    “Good work. I’ll take it from here, yeah? Go get some coffee or something.”

    He returned my one-finger salute and went to confer with some of his colleagues as I let out another slow puff into the bitter air. The benefits of actually having some ranks in the system were starting to show, I guess. I idly glanced over to the sheet again, then sharply turned away, flicking out my phone as I went.

    “Yeah, it’s me. I want to talk to him- yes, it’s important. No. No. I’m the detective just give him the fucking phone.”

    I let out a slow breath, cig dangling from one hand.

    ‘Inspector Rowan.’

    “Emiya. It’s him again.”

    My fingers tightened dangerously on the cheap flip phone.

    ‘...Terumi.’


    ---

    “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe this. Fuck. Fuck.”

    Every time. Every goddamn time I go along with this man, I’m used as bait. It chafes to learn that a human can’t really do much else here – a normal human. At least it was dark and raining, so I got two checks on the ‘reduced visibility’ list and a whole lot of minuses on the ‘surviving scale’.

    I peered around the corner and drew back as I caught a flash of yellow. That fucker. We’d gone up against him three times, and I’d gotten either extraordinarily lucky or hopelessly lost as Emiya did the brunt of the work. Hopefully I could be a little more useful this time, but I didn’t have high hopes.

    I ran through what I knew about the criminal, the high-powered superhuman called Terumi. When I’d first met Emiya, he’d been in a battle for his life against the man in that busted-up KFC. I’d been lucky to get off a few shots amidst the flickering knives and deadly, poisonous aura that man exuded from every pore, but...

    Had it stopped raining?

    No, I could still hear it, and see it around me, but for some reason I was enveloped in a little protective cone of shelter. Naturally, I looked up.

    “Hel~lo, old buddy, old pal. I’ve been looking forward to our little play-date, haven’t you? ”

    Terumi’s voice sounded like a lover’s – no. I’d narrowed it down back when we’d first met. It sounded like a man talking to a beloved dog right before he easily snapped its neck and got himself some breakfast. He so clearly hated everything that he met that it sent shivers down my spine.

    I stared straight up into his eyes as he hung above me like a demented spider, his knives buried into the wall to support him.

    “Hit it.”

    Terumi’s grin widened, gleeful eyes widening.

    “Aw, Inspector, I’m so glad you’ve finally decided to get with the program, you little shit,” He looked almost benevolent. “But I’ve got bigger, slower plans for you–”

    Emiya descended like the wrath of God.


    ---


    Even I couldn’t believe how dangerous the red-headed man was, and I’d seen him break a man’s arm with nothing but a rolled up newspaper. It had been hard to swallow – harder to believe, but I’d had to adapt.

    Adapt or go completely nuts from what I’d seen him do.

    He flung six broadswords at Terumi in the time it took me to blink, and just as fast, the poncho-wearing man had shattered them and leaped to meet Emiya.

    I ran over the plan one last time.


    ---


    Emiya looked as serious as ever.

    “Mr. Rowan,” Even in situations like these, he never failed to be polite. “I’d rather you didn’t come with me.”

    His face and voice were both in sink, firmly trying to deny me the chance to come along, but hell, I’d given up trying to argue against his morals a while ago.

    “No can do, kid. I appreciate the advice, but this is my city and these are my people he’s killing. People trying to make a living. People trying to make change. People who straight up don’t give a fuck and just want to duck their heads under cover. He’s killed them without any regret.”

    I looked him straight in the eyes.

    “I’m coming with you.”

    He blew air through pursed lips, completely unamused. The only reason I could get this far was because I’d spent a solid month just trying to convince him to let me join in. The man was stubborn like a mule, but even he’d finally caved to my caffeine-boosted endurance.

    Well then, Mr. Rowan, I’d like for you to do what I tell you – exactly what I tell you.”

    I nodded crisply in the face of that stare, and he appeared a little mollified.

    “If you don’t mind helping then, Mr. Rowan, there’s something I’d like you to do...”


    ---


    There it was, my chance, as clear as day.

    Emiya sprung back, having finished his chanting, and Terumi surged forward, that dreadful aura surrounding him again as his hood blew back.

    “Unlimited Blade Works!”

    The world surged around me as it warped itself to Emiya’s whims. He’d warned me this was coming, but goddamn. This was real magic, was all I could say as Emiya called down a rain of swords out of mid-fucking-air.

    Terumi cackled like a man possessed, which, in a way, I suppose he was. Dodging everything and deflecting the occasional close call, he zeroed in on Emiya as I drew my bead.

    “Do yourself a favor and roll over, mutt! Or, as I like to call it, why don’t you play dead? Ourobo-”

    I shot him in the back of the head.

    He slumped onto his knees and fell over, his body dissipating into smoke as the world faded around us and returned to the rainy alleyway. I caught the tail end of Emiya’s disapproving stare and threw up my hands.

    “Well, what was I supposed to do, just stand there?”

    Emiya’s face was contorting between shock, anger, and plain weariness. He let out a sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose.

    “Mr Rowan, it would be massive hypocrisy from me to try to reprimand you,” His accent came to play as he moved over the slightly difficult words, as it always did. “At the very least, I’m genuinely glad you’re safe.”

    I backed down, unable to get angry in front of the truth written on his face. I noticed that he didn’t say and that this man is dead, but I didn’t fault him for it. I’d brushed against the core of his crazy ideals once, but that was enough for me to get a glimpse of the man underneath. I know he’d wanted Terumi to repent, but – I couldn’t say anything to him. I only had pity to offer.

    “Go home, Mr. Rowan. And please,” His golden eyes earnestly caught mine. “Don’t endanger yourself again.”

    I nodded mutely and watched him walk off into the night. Five months of brutality and it ended like this? Cleanly tied into a little bow and whisked under the rug?

    I shook my head and walked out of the alley to hail a cab. I’d come into it without any warning and I’d left just as abruptly, but seeing it end like that was too strange for me.

    It didn’t have a conclusion, or some dramatic ending. So much work had been thrown into a last-minute anti-climax. A bang and a puff of smoke, that was it. The curtains had closed, the actors had left, and here I was, a shitty stagehand taking a drag on a new cigarette.

    I guess that’s just how it goes.

  9. #9
    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    Tsuki no Ori
    The Moon’s Corral


    0.

    The beginning First changed everything.

    The following Second acknowledged much.

    The resulting Third pointed out the future.

    The connecting Fourth… I concealed my form.

    And the final Fifth had already lost its meaning.

    What about the Sixth? Well, since you asked so nicely, let me tell you about the Sixth.

    1. The Second

    After tipping my hat to the cabin-crew, I jump out of the airplane. From approximating the oxygen level in the atmosphere, I guess I am slightly ten kilometers above sea level. No fear though, never fear. After all, just a few weeks ago, I had fallen from a much higher altitude and am still falling.

    Barking a note when I am half-way done with my fall, I slow my descent as a canopy of brown envelopes me. Alone in every sense of the word, I land in what was once called South America.

    “It’s different.”

    The rotten tree trunk dirtying the ground snaps at the haphazard prodding of my cane.

    The archives in my city portrayed the Amazon forest as a sea of green that stretches as far as eye can see – filled with exotic animals and colourful plants. However what the bright moon shines upon is only a dirt caked land. The spindly trees wave in the night-time wind. Their branches have brown leaves that are never accompanied by others. Yet, the trees are huddled close enough to create the darkness of a sinister forest. I can only declare it as a wasteland of death just like any other location in the world. I should correct myself on that.

    Just like any other place on earth except that one island – the jewel of the world.

    While leaving the island on my airplane, I had heard from my advisor that The Thirst was moving. Having grilled Madam Ise beforehand, I could only draw one conclusion.

    “A tree that wears sapphires in such a repulsive place? How wholly ridiculous.”

    I say that, yet here I am.

    I say that, yet four other suitors are here. Indeed, above the stench of haggard death imprinting this land, I can smell a deeper, darker death – my brethren.

    Humanity has given up. Too difficult, they proclaimed. Too troublesome, they moaned. Leave civilization to those on the Moon. And like that, nine out of ten people lost all their passion, their love. As for the people on the Moon, one only has to look up at the sky. There are no more lights dotting the lunar surface anymore – just a shattered sky of ice encircling the planet. All that is left in this world is the Committee for Restoring Humanity and us.

    Us.

    The remnants of a small secret society, or perhaps you could say cult. Either way, we came to inherit the world. Obvious isn’t it? In a world that stinks of death, the only thing fit to rule it are the dead, no?

    Which is why I move. Which is why I run. Which is why for the first time in so long, I unleash everything that I have into a full sprint, breaking a multitude of dried trees just to enter a dead rainforest.

    Because it is a dead rainforest. A live jaguar should not be in a dead rainforest. They went extinct many years ago.



    I am no stranger to darkness as these eyes pierce through the night. If the prey is a mere beast, there is no way that I can’t track him. Galloping over a fair amount of distance while breaking dried out branches and cracked roots of trees no longer tended by nature, I followed the jaguar’s scent until it disappeared. Even if the scent of an animal disappears, there are others ways to track it.

    After a few seconds, I nod to myself and make my way towards a clearing south of where I stopped. A small hole in the dead forest, I could only ask myself if it was man-made or natural. To be honest though, neither answer mattered much because what is at the clearing is not a jaguar but only a man with his glasses in one hand, drinking out of a small creek that bisects the clearing.

    “You’re the first one I’ve seen,” After wiping his mouth with the sleeve of his flamboyantly stripped shirt, he put his glasses back on, “What do you make them call you now… Prince Arishima?”

    I don’t say a thing, because I know that he knows that I know.

    “To think that one of us sixteen has finally found what she asks of him…”

    And that is why the other four of us are here. To stop that person, but I can’t help take a stab at him.

    “How crass, drinking water of all things. It’s not like you need th-.”

    “The sound called you here, didn’t it?”

    That it did. It was from hearing water being disturbed that I deduced the jaguar must have grown tired and wanted a drink.

    “Perchance you saw a jagu-“

    “Curious isn’t it? That you followed a jaguar and I followed a bat.”

    “A ba-“

    “Yes, the irony isn’t lost on me either.”

    I have always hated how he keeps doing that. Whether it be some sort of magecraft or a special ability of his, the-glasses-fellow-over-there always interrupts someone, knowing exactly what they are about to say. I once vowed to one day get him back for that.

    “Knowing you, you’ve deduced the order that we arriv-?”

    “The Thirst, The Fird, The Phith, me, and you’re the last, Arishima. The Thirst and The Phith are ahead - talking. I don’t assume to know what that kid is doing.”

    Or what sort of name The Fird is, I want to add. No romance at all.

    “So then Forth, I guess this is where I ask you to assist me? We’re only here to seize The Thirst, there’s no need for you and me to fight is there? As gentlemen, we can even help each oth-“

    Even his weasel-ly laugh cuts my sentence off.

    “The only person who can win in this arena is The Thirst. At the same time, that means the only person who can lose here is The Thirst. If we defeat The Thirst or destroy the tree, he loses. He has nothing. But because we can’t lose, we can’t win,” he pauses, “What are you supposed to retrieve?”

    “F-“

    “A fish from the Moon, yes, we all know. And I have to retrieve an airplane made of water. You can at least go to the Moon, what about me?”

    “You can use magec-“

    “Don’t play the fool, Arishima. You know that magecraft isn’t that strong anymore; after all, you broke multiple bones from your jump – and don’t ask how I know. It makes you look idiotic.”

    It’s true; the spell that should have slowed my descent to a crawl didn’t work as intended. Even if the curse of restoration immediately activated, I still shattered bones in both my legs.

    He continues, “I have seen what was and what is to come, and it is beautiful. This world was, will be, is beautiful. That is why I must stop the Thirst. That is why I must stop you. You understand, don’t you? For the sake of the future. Everything that is meant to be, I must bring it to pass. Only I can bring it to pass.”

    “Humanity is dead. Humanity has stagnated. Humanity has given up. My advisors have been telling me this. The people I govern have been telling me this. However, the world that I see different. The world that I have always seen is different. It’s not about progress, it’s not about humanity, it’s not even about us. It’s about what is to come. The things that we can achieve, the things that must be achieved. And what is that future, you ask?” He smiles.

    I open my mouth but-

    “But you know Arishima, Arishima, A. Ri. Shi. Ma… I actually quite like that name! It suits a fop like you, Arishima. Yes, I couldn’t stand that name before, because it was stolen. Stolen from me!”

    The speed of his pounce as he attempts to drive his claws into me throws his glasses off his face. He’s terrifying, but then again, so am I. With a sweep of my cane, I attempt to push him back but-

    -I spit out blood as the wounds revert.

    Forcing himself out of an awkward stance, he used my chest as a springboard before I can react. That would have shattered the spine of any normal person, as well as crush most internal organs. I know because it did so to me. Either way, that isn’t the problem, the problem is that-

    -My arm snaps itself back into place.

    Not relenting, he dashed back in to knee me; I am to take the blow with both hands. What I didn’t block was the reinforced scarf that wrapped around my face and hurled me through a sea dead trees. The impact almost tore my arm off. But the problem is that-

    -My heart restarts.

    Punting me off the ground, he vaulted into the air to purse me. Even with my entire body shattered, I brace myself, ready to grab and throw him away to give myself some breathing room. Yet, the moment I reached out, his whip of a scarf sealed my wrist and threw me back into the ground, which isn’t a problem, since the problem is-

    “The problem is that you’re too easy to read.”

    But neither of us has had any formal training.

    “You’re full of openings; even a trained child could beat you.”

    Yes, that might have been true if I were human, but at my level, I can even dodge a bullet that’s already been fired. The same obviously applies to you as well. So then, if the two of us are about the same age and the same level, why am I the one being tossed around like refuse? Stop lying already, you clown-clothes wearing, fake-glasses character.

    “And now you know why you lost, Arishima.”

    “So tha-“

    “Yes, this is the fragment my Sister gave me. To see forth everything that was and will be, that is why I am called
    Kaleidoscope
    The Forth
    . You see Arishima, you can’t win. You can’t win because I’ve seen that you can’t win. You can’t even hope to win because I’ve seen you lose. I’ve actually seen you lose. It’s not pretty, by the way.”

    “So, that’s how you kno-“

    “What the world is going to be like? Of course.”

    “And for a reason lik-“

    “But there is no better reason. I am not changing the world, the world is already changed. The world I see is beautiful, the future that I see is beautiful, so I have to protect it. You were going to say ‘yes, that’s actually very lovely’ by the way. But you see, even if I’m playing by a script, even if I’m trapped in these confines, I’m making the world a better place. So that’s why I must say, ‘Nay, I will have her, not you’. She is a sacrifice for that future. And I do know what a noble goal that is, thank you very much, so please die.”

    He closes the distance in a second, claw poised to sever my head from my body. He knows that it won’t be fatal on a night like this, but still, we don’t regenerate instantly. In that gap, he will be able to do whatever he pleases with the rest of my body. Actually is that something he knows because he knows? Or is it something that he does merely because he is shown that he had already done it? Either way, I won’t let him, the least I could do is secure-

    “A mutual death then? Against me? Do you really think you can accomplish something as ridiculous as that ‘Second!’”

    He has seen the future. He knows what I am going to do, when I am going to do it, and how I am going to do it. That’s what it means to be
    Kaleidoscope
    The Forth
    . However, what he is about to do is not something he has already prepared from prior knowledge. He has no other choice than to slice my hand off and then take my head without me knowing it. But knowing that, knowing that in the next second that he will take my head off breaks my heart. No, I’m not miserable because my head will be taken off, it’s been taken off enough times that I don’t worry about it being away from home on a full moon.

    It is just that ever since we’ve met, ever since the first time he threw me off with his interruptions, I have always felt inadequate. I know what you must be thinking, me, Prince Arishima, inadequate? Have at you, villain.

    However, it is the truth. Was I just that much of a simpleton or was he just so much better than I was? In truth, the moment I left his company I would forget about those feelings immediately. Now, I just think it as sad – terrifyingly sad. I cannot lose to this person. Out of all the four suitors currently in this dead rainforest, he is the only one whom I definitely cannot lose against.

    Because everything he does is utterly genuine.

    He does not move, he does not talk, he does not feel unless his outlook gives him permission. He is the one who sees both the past and the future, and is bound to those visions. Every interruption isn’t actually a true interruption; he doesn’t actually know what I am about to say. All he does is follow what he has seen and everything acts accordingly to his vision.

    That is why he is the most naïve, genuine one of us all.

    There is no falsehood, there is no desire. Like an automaton, he moves, trying to complete his vision for the future that has chained him. In this second before my head is severed, I affirm, nay, I will avow, that he will stay on his path no matter what. Save the future. He’ll keep repeating those words as long as he has life. He will fight, not for the people, not for an ideal, not even for the love, but for the vision. Like his namesake, he will set forth and make his vision a reality – because for him, it is already reality. And he will mean it every single time. He will win every single time. How utterly, terrifyingly sad. How utterly, terrifyingly pure.

    And that is why I cannot lose to him. I might entrust the world to him, but I won’t entrust her to him, never her. That is why I would do something as stupid as settling for a mutual death even though something like that has no meaning to someone who can see the future.

    One second before he will block my attack and cut my head off.

    Instead, a thud rings out as a head hits the decayed forest floor. Then, a complete savagery of the body. The body is ripped limb to limb until it is nothing by tiny pieces.

    The one who committed this act was – without a doubt – me. But how did I do it?

    Imagine for a second there existed a mystery that could move the timeline around. Pick moments out and then push them to whenever you wanted them to happen. Of course, I don’t have this power. All I can do is push my actions forward or backwards by a second – one single second. However, against someone who sees the past and the future, one second is all I needed. During our exchange, I moved my attacking-self one second into the future. That meant my attack would connect one second faster than his attack. So even if he had predicted what I was going to do, I broke the laws of time and that prediction, that truth, was one second faster – crushing my certain fate.

    five timeless words
    Here, the order has fallen.


    If the future that you set forth is one devoid of love, then I will break that future every single time.

    2. The Phith

    I call upon you, my dearest Master, owner of my soul, reflector of light, for we have taken our curtain call before either of us had a chance to fight. For that, I wish to thank you, for not letting harm come to me or one of your numbers. However, Master, I beg your forgiveness as I question your decision about allowing that come to pass.

    “Damn, one of them actually killed the other. That was pretty insane,”

    Master, I beg your forgiveness for this apostle’s words. He does not mean what he says and only talks brashly because of his age. I suspect that with enough training and discipline, he will become an apostle worthy of serving under You. Yet, he does have a point. As You know, I do not question You, for You are my Master, You are my Lord, You are the Moon in the sky. Your blood has even blessed the Earth that I stand. However, are You sure Master, that it was wise to allow two of Your apostles to fight each other? For one to die? Of course Master, if it is Your will that one of them was lacking, but Your faithful avenger was right here all along. Therefore, Master, I must believe that You had a greater reason for allowing something like that to pass.

    “Hey, gramps, why are you holding your hands like that?” In his foolishness, The Thirst dares ask a question like that. I ask for forgiveness my Lord, he does not understand Your esoteric ways yet.

    “I am praying to our Lord. You should do it as well.”

    “That’s kind of boring. I mean, I tried listening to one of the nuns before I ate her, but geez she was annoying.”

    My Lord, I am sorry that I am seething. Yes, the child should know better thank to drink the blood of a human who has not given up yet. I beg for Your forgiveness Lord for his sake, so he may one day earn his seat next to You. However…

    “How dare you blaspheme our Lord like that? God? What is God to our Lord? A disgusting, decaying Divine Spirit means nothing to a planet! A “God” couldn’t even touch our Lord; they would all paw at His feet.”

    “Okay, you really don’t have to get all defensive... Sounds like I stepped on a sore subject…”

    Again, my Lord, a thousand apologies for losing my composure.

    “So then, Thirst, have you considered my proposal?”

    “Yeah, no. I think I’m gonna have to pass on that. I mean, sure, it sounds really cool resurrecting something like that, but… no. I don’t think I want to do something like that.”

    O Lord, this is a trial, is it not? I understand that the task You gave to me was to find a winged mole. I could not understand why I would not find such a being. I destroyed cities searching for that in Your name; I even broke multiple laws and combined animals for You. Yet, to no avail. I had given up, waiting for another sign from You-who-always-watches-over-us-at-night. And it finally arrived, You allowed one of your disciples to find what he was searching for. You chose this person.

    At first, I was angry, I killed the very person who brought me the news. After pairing his blood with a nice wine, I realized this lamb that You chose, he was not going to use the
    blood of the moon
    elixir
    to forward your greatness. The other four would never agree to help me either. Therefore, You had chosen him because You had chosen me to convince him, convince him to use it in Your name.

    “Um… I’m going to go now if that’s okay with you. I’ve got a tree to collect and everything. It was nice talking to you though. Good luck with the whole God resurrecting thing you have going.”

    Yes, my Lord, I understand now. I completely understand. I have no choice but the beat this sinner into submission and force him to bask in Your greatness. The moment he feels the ecstasy of your red grace on his flesh he will understand that You are the most supreme heavenly body in this universe. According to ancient text, that tree of sapphires is not the strongest planet ERGO, undoubtedly ERGO, My Lord, You are the strongest of the heavenly bodies. It makes so much sense I am shivering in excitement at the fact. So even if he departs, I shall grab this sinner by the neck and –

    “Hey, let me go will you!”

    And bless this fist that crushes your enemies, my Lord, whether it be in general discussion or on the battlefield.

    “That… hurt. I thought we had a pact? I mean those fools can break it as much as they want, but I didn’t think that you’d do something so dumb.”

    Oh, red-perfection-in-the-night-sky, it is true. I will admit it. It is true that there was pact between the apostles, and it was even I who created that pact. I believed that having an agreement between the apostles would be a great honor in Your name. Keeping us together and alive to all serve You in harmony. That is what Your benevolent grace would approve of, correct? We do not have a Rose Prophecy like the former Ancestors, and so I believed that this pact would keep the five of us from killing each other.

    “Can you not see that the pact was the beginning? The progress that we have made is all because of it. And the final stage is using the Coral Princess’ blood to resurrect our Lord! That is the entire reason for the pact. That is the entire reason for your existence as well as the Sister System!”

    The sinner is silent, my Lord. Will he see the light or be filled with irrational anger? I am sure an apostle that foolish cannot exist.

    “Hah. Really? I didn’t know that. But me, I kind of like things how they are. So yeah, you should probably leave. This world is not so bad.”

    I am sorry.

    I am so sorry, my Lord. I will now remove the holy garb in which You clothed me in. This tie that symbolizes Your life draining fangs will be loosened and this vest that is your ever-loving embrace will be unbuttoned. My Lord, even with these trespasses, I hope that You will bless me in the first battle I have had the honor of fighting in Your name ever since that accursed pact was enacted.

    I promise You my Lord, it will be over in a second.

    My Lord, I am sorry; it was not over in a second. I beg Your forgiveness because even with my overwhelming age, I was not able to crush him in our very first exchange. Yes, my Lord I now understand why You blessed us a full moon on this night. This is my trial, my herculean labor. Under Your grace, under Your love, I bring you back onto this world to finish what you started so many eons ago. And to do that…

    “T-There’s two of you?”

    “Yes, this is not an illusion. This is not a projection. This is not a spare body. There are actually two of me. And now there are four. This is my fragment and the very reason why I am called
    The Denial of Nothingness
    The Phith


    “One over the golden ratio…”

    “Sinner as you are, Thirst, you are not a complete imbecile. This is the power that my Lord has given me; let it sink in and drown your blasphemy and helplessness.”

    “Wait, this doesn’t make any sense. You’re saying your fragment is from your God or whatever. So does that mean your Sister is your Lord?”

    I…I-I..I

    I-I apologize. I just said something unspeakable; something that should not ever be uttered. I misspoke, I stuttered, I did not mean what I said. Let me explain My Lord: my Sister, the abomination that I am bound to protect, the thing that protects and powers the city I preside over – I have taken this fragment of True Magic from her. No, it is not the Magic that slighted you; I would never wield such a heinous and blasphemous power. I gave her to the weakest of Your apostles. The one that I use is the First – known as the The Denial of Nothingness, I am only able to make a complete independent replica of myself: a clone, a perfect clone. This is the power that I took from the Sister, not by will, but through force to better worship You. Yes, I am sure in Your infinite wisdom, my Lord, that You see the application. If there are two of me then I can worship You twice as much.

    “Well, whatever. I was kind of worried because you were using a ranged weapon, but if this is your fragment, then I’m probably going to leave. Seriously, don’t try to stop me this time. The pact won’t protect you anymore.”

    So my Lord, does my power become of me? Do You accept me? Do You love me? Because all this I do for you. The Sister system that I created and used to fuel the cities that remained to feed the humans, your future food stock. The pact I negotiated so that there would be a constant number of Apostles to serve under You when You descendent. You have watched me break everything that I worked for in an instant. Does my sacrifice please You? Does it please You enough that You will fight for me, that when You are resurrected I will have a place at your side?

    Of course I will.

    Of course I will, for I am Your faithful servant. We are Your faithful servants. There is no need for more Dead Apostle Ancestors. All twenty seven places can be filled with me. We will even fill any extra spots if it is Your will.

    All for the sake of You! For the greatness that you came so close to bringing on the world! I believe in You. I have never met You, but I believe that I know You, that my prayers reach You-who-is-always-in-the-sky. That You are with me, You are with all of me as we deal with the last obstacle in Your rebirth.

    Yes, I believe in You.

    I believe in You.

    I believe in You.

    I believe in You. So then why am I alone once more? Why are all of me gone and I am the only one left? No matter, the obstacle is a little more formidable than I thought. But I will make more of me next time. As I believe in You.

    I believe in You.

    I believe in You.

    I believ-

    The second wave is destroyed faster than the first one. The Thirst, the thirst of that apostle; frightening, utterly frightening. One touch and each one of me dies. My Lord, I have just died one thousand and twenty-three times. My Lord, You failed to save me one thousand and twenty-three times. I only have access to one fragment of the First, but I believed that fragment supreme. While, I cannot create, I can replicate. Perfect replication of the body, mind, and soul, so my Lord they were not inconsequential clones or projections; they were me. They had hopes and dreams and wishes to serve You and You forsake them?

    The Thirst is coming closer, but I do not care anymore. I have lost, I accept this; there is nothing shameful or wrong about that. The only question I want to ask is why have You forsaken me?! Crimson Moon Brunest-

    3. The Thirst

    The old man died because he broke the pact. You know, I’m not really the type who’s big on rules, but it was his own pact. Have a bit more respect for something you created – or something like that.

    “Damn, I didn’t realize they’d all be coming for me.”

    When I found this place, I was pretty stoked. I’ve never won anything before, so getting the jump on the other guys was – well, it was pretty satisfying, among other things, I guess.

    “But now we’re killing each other? That’s pretty messed up.”

    Yeah, even if I had planned for this; there’s something that is off. The old man found me because he was following a wolf.

    A wolf.

    Wolves shouldn’t even be alive. I mean, I’d love to eat a wolf and stuff, but wolves are extinct like anteaters or them ekindeys. Well, there might be some in that coral reef, but I don’t think ekidneys swim in the ocean. They’re what-are-they-called again… Monotremes, yeah them.

    Well it seems that my haori is slightly tussled in the last encounter, so I’ll-

    “I have found you at last, Thirst. Pray, have you seen a jaguar?”

    And here comes the charmer of the group. That three piece suit, top hat, and cane really clash with my haorihakama. An east vs west type thing; if there’s even still an east and west?

    “Second – or should I call you Arishima now?”

    “We've been acquainted for quite some time, so you may still address me as Second if you're uncomfortable with calling me Arishima.”

    He’s a complete dandy, but at his core he’s still a nice guy. I really can’t help but like him.

    “But Thirst, Forth told me that you were conversing with The Phith. What happened to him?”

    “I could say the same thing about the Forth, couldn’t I? We all felt it when you killed him; I’m sure even Fird could,” I look around, pretending The Fird’s in earshot, “Wherever you are!”

    “That is bound to rattle his bones. He absolutely detests that.”

    “Yeah, he’s that sort of guy, really straightforward. But enough with your so-called ’niceties’ Arishima, are you here to stop me as well?”

    “Yes, I am here to stop you.”

    “I see. That’s too bad.”

    He smiles. I smile back. They’re both tired, tired smiles, but we have to keep going. Him and me, even if we’re going to get in each other’s ways, even if we know that this is the last time we’ll ever meet; actually, it’s because of that we need to smile for each other.

    “Ahhh, this really sucks. Can’t you just give up?”

    “What about you Thirst, can you give up on your pursuit? I haven’t the slight idea on how long it took you to find this place, but I doubt it was easy.”

    “Actually, you were watching me do it.”

    “That time you came to use my library? That’s how you found what you were looking for, but-“

    “Well, I went to everyone’s library, but where I found it wasn’t in yours.”

    When I couldn’t find any information in my library, under some pretense, I asked to use everyone else’s. I wouldn’t say that it was anything inspired, but a bit of research never hurts. In the first place, I wasn’t the only one doing it. The Fird borrowed some files on some ancient Japanese mythical creatures from my city, which was ironic because I found the book I needed in his archives.

    “But yeah, you’re right. There’s no way that I can give up. But I got to ask, even if we’ve all seen her, is this princess really worth it?”

    He laughs nervously, “Honestly, I haven’t the foggiest: her nimble and elegant movements, sheer skin just as beautiful as her elegant clothing, a pure voice like a bell, beautiful flaxen hair that doesn’t belong in this world, and those eyes brimming with life just like the island she calls home. That’s what love is right? Finding out if something is worth it.”

    I honestly don’t understand it. It’s not that I find this attitude nasty or anything, but the concept of two people mutually loving each other is alien to me. I’m led to believe that this was the norm before the pole shift, but it isn’t the norm now.

    “But her blood is the blood of the Moon itself – the elixir of immortality. It’s definitely valuable, otherwise seven Dead Apostles and five Ancestors wouldn’t be courting her. The Phith believed it could even resurrect the Crimson Moon.”

    Three generations ago, something fell out of the sky and created the island that still maintains life and produces oxygen and nitrogen. The thing, or rather, person, who fell from the sky was formerly the artificial
    soul
    brain
    of the Moon. But she wasn’t important, her blood was. The blood of the Moon flows through her veins. It’s believed that if a vampire drinks her dry, they will inherit the Moon, or at least be cured of the need for blood. When these rumors started flying around, the five of us met and made a pact. We all wanted her blood; however, because of the Sister system, we couldn’t risk all-out war. We agreed not to get in each other’s way nor use force. With this agreement in place, we all decided to court the Princess.

    The first generation was stubborn, so our planes were never allowed on the island. Either way, she found a consort too quickly. The same thing happened with the second generation, and here we are with the third Coral Princess. Opening the doors for suitors, every Dead Apostles worth had anything and even some humans started vying for her attention. Yet all she gave were impossible demands: for example, finding a tree that wears sapphires.

    “And that’s why I have to protect her. I love her, you see.”

    “Why can’t she just protect herself?”

    “I’m sure she could, but this isn’t about the ability to protect oneself. Rather, it is the desire to protect someone you love.”

    “I really don’t get that, sorry.”

    And that was the main hypothesis of why humanity was declining. Humanity had lost their love, and with it, their will to live. But vampires aren’t humans; we are the denial of human history. As humanity has become weaker and weaker, the few vampires that are still alive have become stronger – perhaps not in raw strength, but in the shadows, we now rule the world. Yet, even if I’m a vampire I might be something closer to a modern human.

    “The old man, glasses, and you all love or loved something – be it a god, the future, or a woman. No idea about the kid, but I don’t love anything. I don’t even know what it means to love something. That’s why I’m the one who will be entrusted with the Princess.”

    The one who wanted the reach the goal the least was the one who obtained the key. It’s a meaningless and clichéd poetic justice of the highest degree. Normally, I'd instantly throw a book with a plot like this away, but, I think I'm going to quite like the ending for this one.

    “Oh? If that is so my dearest Thirst, won’t you just give up? If you have no reason to successfully court the Princess…”

    He says that. He says that and it’s true. But I can’t let him, or rather I don’t want to let him. Even I don’t understand whatever love is, I still have a reason.

    “You know Second, I like everything that the way it is.”

    “How on earth can you possibly say that when you just killed The Phith?”

    I can’t argue against that because he’s right. I did just kill the old man and invalidate our pact, but I don’t really regret it. It might be hypocritical of me to say this but-

    “That might be true, but I like the way the world is right now. Sure, nine out of ten humans are basically just blood bags, but isn’t that fine? Seeing them this way and seeing where they came from, don’t you think that it’s beautiful, Second? Having lost the will to survive, living day to day without a care for the future, and then dying. A useless life, a meaningless life, an unrewarded life.”

    “How can you possibly support a stagnant world?”

    I don’t speak for a few moments. How do I put my feelings into words I feel he understands? Actually, why is it important that he understands at all?

    “If this is the end, then let it be the end. Humanity, vampires, we’ve both had a great run. I’m not saying ‘let’s give up,’ but everything has to end. Why can’t we just say ‘Good job,’ bow, and turn out the lights?”

    Ever since I’ve obtained my name, I’ve noticed that it has never really fit me. The Thirst implies ambition, it implies craving for something, yet the very wish I thirst for is the denial of my own wish.

    “While you have no qualms in letting humanity end, you don’t want to be the one who ends humanity.”

    “Of course not. That would mean meddling. Dead Apostles, we’re the anti-thesis of Humanity, but at the same time, that means we’re the only people who can appreciate them for what they are. I mean, I don’t want to understand them or study them – that’s really lame and boring. But to let them continue…. No resurrecting weird Crimson Moons nor whatever the Forth was trying to do. Just let them do their own thing even if that means following them into the dark. Why can’t we just give up and enjoy what we have?”

    The words of a Dead Apostle who has never experienced any passion.

    “Of course, I don’t fight for humanity. I’m not here because humanity wants me to be here or even because the people I govern want me to be. I’m here to make sure that nothing happens ruins the way humanity is going. For that, I’m going to kill the Coral Princess.”

    The Second won’t say a word. He knows that as long as the lineage of the Coral Princess exists, the blood of the Moon will be on Earth. For something that can change humanity to exist goes against every fiber of my being. He’ll understand my position and make some biting remarks.

    “Ohoho-“

    Wha?

    “Ohohohohohohohhoho.”

    Why… is he laughing in such a ridiculous way?

    “Wishing the best for something. Protecting it so it can forge its own path. You’re hilarious, Thirst. You say that you don’t understand love, when what you love is humanity!”

    I… love humanity?

    I don’t agree with that sentiment. When I think of love, I always imagine a feeling. Something that doesn’t need work; it just exists. That isn’t what I feel about humanity. But at the same time, I can’t deny those words. Perhaps, I was always aware of this contradiction inside of me. That my wish, the very thing I am fighting for is wrong, that it’s hypocritical.

    The wish to allow humanity to move independently means that I can’t change anything. Fighting for a cause like that inherently breaks that wish, as I am influencing certain possible actions. Furthermore, like the Second said, I’ve already killed the Phith, and he’s already killed the Forth; the world is already irrevocably changed, and my wish is already in tatters. At the end of the day the wish to allow humanity to move independently is a selfish wish.

    “You see now don’t you? That your wish is merely forcing humanity to move down the route that you believe is the best.”

    Even so…

    Even so, I don’t think that I’m wrong.

    “So humans can have an ending they prepared for themselves or even miraculously flourish. I believe that decision should be theirs, so I don’t think it’s wrong to get rid of the blood of the Moon that could taint the power structure of the world. Even if the Phith and Forth are dead and that structure is basically in pieces, the Sisters are still in their Angelica Cages. I know that what I want is hypocritical, I know that it’s a mistake.”

    But that’s okay, because I’ll admit it. I love the world as it is right now. I don’t want it to change and so that it won’t change, I will change it.

    “I know that it’s incredibly childish, but it’s not as cliché as fighting for the girl you love!”

    I laugh and lunge at him.

    “Too right, Thirst! We’re just two lovelorn fools, so why not settle this the only way we know how!”


    With a quick stroke of his cane, he bats me away before I get the chance to lunge at him.

    More than the wind, my very lungs are knocked out of me. Actually, you could say that the entire top half of my body is knocked away, but I’ll recover from that. As if time was rewinding, the curse of restoration restored the top half of my body. But I’m already in pieces before the curse of restoration can take effect. If I was an older vampire, perhaps I could regenerate from just my ankles, but I’m not that strong, so I’ll have to cheat instead. Coupled with time rewinding, my body puts itself back together and in a few moments, I’m facing a panting Second.

    “The curse of self-healing. I didn’t think that level of magecraft was even possible in this day and age.”

    It’s not. That wasn’t even magecraft, but the fragment that I took from my Sister. It is actually the same thing that I used against the Phith.

    “But that wasn’t normal, was it? You always managed to get the jump on me and I don’t know how you did it. However, it’s in your name, right, Second.”

    When the Sister system was first established, we took names after the fragment of True Magic that we were able to collect. For the sake of anonymity, we didn’t take the name of our own True Magic, or the title that comes with it. For instance, Arishima is called The Second, but that doesn’t mean he uses
    Kaleidoscope
    The Second
    . From seeing him in action and the energy that it took out of him, I can only conclude that he is
    Blue
    The Second
    . That’s why it’s dangerous to use your fragment in front of another Ancestor, and that’s why we keep our names hidden. It’s too easy to figure out what your abilities are when there are only four options. At the same time, they are our trump cards and dead men can’t talk right?

    “Bravo, Thirst, so you know what I can do. How will that help you in any way?”

    Blue
    The Fifth
    includes Time Manipulation – as in manipulating time itself. Coupled with his name, that probably means he can manipulate one second at a time. Being detached from the energy supplied by the Sister, the Second can’t use this ability as he pleases. I don’t know if he used this against The Forth, but judging from how hard he’s trying to keep upright, he can’t use it anymore. The next time he will also shift his energy debt to the future by one second. Knowing that is his only option, he won’t use the True Magic haphazardly anymore. He knows that I have unprecedented healing abilities, so he’ll save it for when he can secure a certain kill or to create an opening. He’s wary, so I can’t fight him like I did against the Phith. In that case, I will raise my hand and fire.

    Two bullets of condensed magical energy appeared and fly directly at The Second. There’s no way that he can’t dodge them naturally but what should frighten him is the barrage that comes after.

    “Impossible. Where are you getting the magical energy to do that? There’s barely any mana in this area in the first place.”

    “And od alone shouldn’t support this level of nature interference,” I finish for him, “But shouldn’t you be more worried about yourself?”

    The barrage continues to rain down as he continues to dodge and parry the magical bullets. In truth, they aren’t that strong. In fact there are tonnes of weapons that I have access to in my city that are much stronger than this. However, he’s clearly shaken from my display.

    I would be as well. In this day and age, such a large barrage isn’t possible. I must be using my fragment. He knows this, but he doesn’t know what I’m using. Could I be creating energy from nothing? Could I be a materialized soul using myself as a perpetual engine? Could I be drawing all this energy from a parallel world? Or am I somehow using The Fourth?

    The barrage stops and another spell is abruptly cast. He can see the magic circle on my palm; he knows what will happen. He knows that it is impossible, but after seeing that barrage he is questioning what is possible and impossible.

    “Fire--!!”

    A wide beam of light – it is just pure magical energy distributed over a wide area. There’s no way that this can be dodged from where he is standing – unless the enemy could dodge into time. Right, there are two ways to defeat the strongest attack with time: one is to kill the opponent before the attack was started and the second is to escape to the future where the attack has ended. The Second can’t do the first because of the barrage, so all he’s left with is the latter. After all, there’s no way that I could maintain this for more than a second. We are both using fragments of True Magic so we should be equally matched.

    And one second later, The Second appears…

    -and is washed away by the still flowing magical energy.

    The battle is over. His top hat is no more and his cane is charred beyond recognition, just like his body lying on the ground. In that position he looks at the ice encased moon, as if longing for it. Even if the damage is not fatal, he has used too much of his fragment without any backup. He won’t be able to rewind any more damage for now.

    “H-How?”

    “Mine is probably the weakest of all the fragments. I’m sure you know about human spirits; how they can devour a person’s soul and turn it into sustenance. Well, my fragment allows me to do the same, but I can use any soul as an energy source.”

    “You were devouring your own soul?”

    “Well, The Phith basically gave me an unlimited energy supply, but I used all of that fighting him. How should I explain this… have you ever heard of Taoism?”

    “Taoism… I know it’s an ancient religion, but aren’t you the Oriental expert? You are the one wearing a kimono in the remnants of South America.”

    “Same till the end. Well, you know in old cemeteries there are angels?”

    “Grave markers,” The appropriateness of this conversation is not lost on him, “In magecraft they’re used to ground the soul of the person. It’s a physical record of that person’s existence.”

    “But they only ground the soul. You see, in some cultures there is more than one soul. There’s the part that supports the mind of the organism and the part that supports the body of the organism. It is the second part that can stay bound to this earth which was used to create familiars or even to become familiars.”

    “I don’t see how that-“

    “Vampires, humans, and everything else that is alive requires something else to be alive. Living creatures always have other living things living on or inside of them, sometimes on a microscopic level. Even if these beings don’t have cognitive ability…”

    “They still definitely have a body,” He forces a laugh through his burned lungs, “So in a way, you were still devouring yourself. It definitely fits you,
    Heaven’s Feel
    The Thirst
    .”

    He sighs as I draw closer. He is no longer burned, he must have had enough energy to regenerate his former appearance but that’s as far as he can go. All he can do is wait for his execution.

    “The Fird possibly overheard everything.”

    “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

    Finally, I am standing over him. Our eyes meet and we smile once more to say our farewells.

    “I failed to protect her.”

    “I am going to kill her.”

    “I detest you for that.”

    “I know.”

    He looks up at the moon one more time and reaches for it, as if asking it to take him away. But it will never reach back.

    “When you are concealed like the moon covered by the clouds-“

    I raise my hand.

    “-my heart is as if a full moon.”

    And when my hand drops, his head is released from the body.

    4. The Fird

    I am The Fird. I am a fish. I am a bird.

    I regress.

    I am a bat, a wolf, and a jaguar.

    I regress.

    I am a griffon, a unicorn, and a giant crab that I don’t really understand.

    I regress.

    I regress.

    I regress.

    I keep on regressing, but there is no beast that can fight the Thirst.

    “Fuck-!”

    By being connected to and then overwhelming a Sister, one can gain access to one aspect of the True Magic they wield – one single fragment of a supreme mystery. I never obtained such a power; instead, I was bestowed this gift so I could fight against the other Ancestors. Known as a Regression to the Age of Gods, it’s a fragment of a time long lost.

    “So it was you kid, you’re the one who led everyone astray and made them kill each other. No, you didn’t make them kill each other, they did that on their own. But if you just wanted them to stop me, why didn’t you lead them all to me?”

    On the precipice of a crystal valley, we face each other. The last two suitors for the hand of the Coral Princess.

    “But seriously, kid, you’re an improvement as an animal. I mean you don’t have that ridiculous pompadour anymore.”

    “The fuck you say ‘bout my hair?!”

    That Thirst is terribly rude. There’s no way that I’m going to let him get away with insulting my hair, especially when he’s the one who-

    “Good, I got you to talk. Talking’s good, you know.”

    From the other battles I know everything I need to know about The Thirst. I know I can’t let him touch me or he’ll take my soul, I also know that he turns other beings into magical energy. If that’s the case, I’m at a disadvantage. After thinking that through, maybe it is better to talk.

    “The fuck you want to know?”

    “What you want, of course. I have no idea, but I know that it’s messed up for sure. Tonight you’ve been leading us by our noses into each other without us realizing it was you. I mean, shame on us for that, but what’s the point? What’s the point of having us kill each other? Do you want to rule the world or something; have the combined power of the Sister system to yourself?”

    “Nah, that’s too much of a pain.”

    “Then you’re after the elixir then. Pretty lame, kind of expected more.”

    That’s funny. He’s so sure of himself, so sure of his goal, and so sure of his judgement of others. Bullying the weak might be wrong, but right now, I can’t help it – I regress.

    “The face of a monkey, the body of a tanuki, the legs of a tiger, and the upper portion of a snake as a tail. And its cry-“

    “--------------------!”

    Its cry is that of a Nue.

    “That makes no sense! That makes no sense at all. Disregarding you actually turning into a magical beast, the bigger question is-”

    The Coral Princess requested that I obtain the sound of a Nue’s cry. Now I don’t know that much about Japanese mythology, The Thirst does, but not me. Anyway, I asked my beloved about it and she told me that a Nue was a bird that resembled a green pheasant, but at the same time, that wasn’t what the Coral Princess wanted.

    Thinking it fun, she made me do some research on the topic. Unable to refuse, I ended up borrowing a few books from The Thirst, one in particular was called The Tale of Heike where it described a monster, a phantasmal species, with the cry of the Nue. Looking into it further, the name Nue had become synonymous with this monster even if it was not the monster’s name in the story. Therefore, what the Coral Princess wanted was not the sound of a Nue, but to see the phantasmal species and hear its cry. And right now, I became that magical beast for The Thirst.

    It didn’t have this ability a few hours ago. The particular Regression that was implanted in me allows me to become any beast in the history of the world. Of course, that includes phantasmal species.

    “It makes no sense, why didn’t you just go to the island instead of coming here to stop me? I would have never gotten there in time unless…”

    His face, crunched up from thinking starts to relax and then widen in disbelief.

    “-unless I never wanted to marry that stupid princess in the first place. Yeah, sounds ‘bout right.”

    “B-But you… my library… you… you’re the reason why I-I…”

    His hands are in his face while his knees are on the ground. He stays in that pose for a few minutes and then one by one the fingers come off the face to reveal an abhorrence and a determination no one could have expected.

    “I see,” He murmurs, “So that was your endgame. That is… seriously messed up.”

    My beloved knew that we had the information The Thirst wanted in our library; however, there was no way to give it to him without arousing suspicion. Therefore, we tried to make him want to read our archives by having me requesting to see his. He could have refused had I asked him if I could see information about the Nue, so I just asked for access within reason and took whatever I needed. He saw what I took and could not reprimand me as he already gave me permission. Like that, the idea of checking each of the Ancestor’s archives for clues was firmly engendered into his mind. It would only be a matter of time before he asked for access to ours. In his mind, as he allowed us access, we would have to reciprocate. Like that, he found the location of the tree which wears sapphires.

    “And that’s why you were the second one here. You already knew where I was going to be. You probably already had this place mapped out in preparation.”

    Actually, we didn’t have this place mapped out.

    “But that’s not the end of your plan is it? You don’t want the elixir, you just wanted us in a place where we couldn’t communicate with our cities, a place where you could make us kill each other because your goal is-“

    “Yes, I’m here to buy time so the Six Sisters can escape.”



    “Firstly, the Sixth is one of us.” The twinkling voice ran through the speaker. A familiar voice – one that I had grown up listening to – but every time she started to talk I still surprised myself with how much I wanted her to continue and never stop.

    She doesn’t belong in this drab hall made of steel that dully reflects most figures. Even if she were the centerpiece of the room, the green liquid that filled her cage and the multitude of wires restricting her figure only slight her natural beauty.

    I had tried to dress up the room with some flowers and other things that she asked for – there was a vanity by the casing, a few pieces of ancient art on the walls. But, sitting on this blanket and pretending we were having a romantic picnic was too much – how phony. Even so, when she suggested this, she was holding her broom, smiling as wide as her witch’s hat, so I couldn’t help but humor her.

    “In the beginning there were six of us, The Six Sisters. We were created as the No.1 Saving System to Earth and the beginning of the A-Ray Project. By combining genetic material from different animals and humans, new species would be created – possibly up to one hundred sub-species of humans. These species would subsist on a form of energy not seen before, and that was one way humanity would survive in the Land of Steel.”

    “Land of Steel?”

    “That’s was their proposed name for the world after the planet was dead.”

    “But this shithole never died.”

    She smiles gently. “Yes, for some reason, those who created us were wrong about the fate of the planet. However, by accident, they created beings that could use True Magic. We had too much value to be scrapped, so we were encased in these cages and cities were built around us. As you know, fuel is necessary, physically and metaphysically, for progress. Humanity has run out fuel in the metaphysical sense. They are stagnant, they can no longer move. But there are some who don’t accept that, they want to continue. Most of those people are vampires, and in their own way they’re forcing humanity to stay alive by using us. There’s no way that one tenth of the population could create enough energy to keep the other nine-tenths alive. So they use True Magic, they use us. The rulers of the cities, the Ancestors, gained access to a fragment of our power, and that is how the Sister system was born. In fact, the one who created it was The Phith. He was one of the scientists who created us.”

    “Never liked him but, guess there’s something I should thank the old man for.”

    “You’re sweet.” She smiled again and my heart blossomed.

    I have always felt that way towards her, even before I was a Dead Apostle. Unlike the other Ancestors, I haven’t even lived for a century. I’m sure you’ve heard of the designer babies, children created through genetic modification. There were no successful cases as each stopped breathing and died. I came from a similar, more private project. My father, the former Ancestor of this city had a culture of cells from when he was human; using those, he created a clone… me. My father was a peculiar vampire; if he wanted “children,” he could have just turned someone. Also, it is possible for a Dead Apostle to have a child. There has even been a case in the past of a True Ancestor and Dead Apostle having a child; however, it seems my father wanted a replacement more than a successor. My father wanted me to grow up as a human and be turned into a vampire like he was. So, on the day that I would be turned, he took me here.

    The sound of gears moving, machinery crashing. It’s a sound that I’ve heard all my life, but for that moment, I thought it was musical. No, it wasn’t as if the sound changed, but because of who was before me. It wasn’t love at first sight, but at that moment, she bewitched my heart. That was when I vowed that even when my memories fade and I fall into hell, I would never forget that moment.

    It was less than second, but that was the moment that made me.

    Having the same potential as my father, my transition didn’t take long; what always remained in me though was the image of her.

    As my father’s true heir, I was allowed access to this room and we talked – we talked a lot. She also recommended some movies for me to watch. Entertainment was a big part of the Resurrection project and I liked them so much that I changed my hair, although she could never change the way that I talked. She also persuaded me to kill my father – which I did. As emotionally momentous as that should be, I feel like it’s nothing more than a footnote in my relationship to her. I killed him, became The Fird, and the city and its people are much happier now because of it. Well, most of the city doesn’t even care.

    “I know ‘bout the pact. But what’s that and the Sixth got to do with one another?”

    “Well, I was going to get to tha-” She pouted.

    “M’bad.” I automatically said.

    “No, you’re good. Firstly, how many Ancestors are there? Five, right.”

    “Gotcha. Five Ancestors, Six Sisters, one’s missing. Then, she’s the Sixth right? But hey, why don’t ‘cha ever bring her up? She’s family, she’s bound to help us out.”

    “Because even if we do have the support of the Sixth Sister, there’s still no way that I could break out of here.”

    I’m still sulking. We’ve been together for almost a century and she still hasn’t brought up one of her sisters.

    “You always go on and on about how if I cut the power, the other Ancestors will notice and blow our brains out with a nuke. Why doesn’t your sister just annihilate them?”

    “Sweetie, facing one city is like facing all five of us. There is no way for me to break out without the others knowing, unless all five of the Ancestors are gone at the same time.”

    And that’s why she called me to have this picnic – our last date together before I go the rainforest and betray the rest of my brethren like I betrayed my father. No doubt all the Ancestors will leave competent subordinates to take care of the cities, but they won’t be wielding fragments of True Magic, which means we have an advantage.

    I stand up.

    “Where the hell is she anyway?”

    She was supposed to meet us a while ago. Being late, we decided to start the picnic without her and I ended up asking about who the Sixth was and was given an entire lecture. But seriously, she’s really lat-

    -Red erupts from my back. There’s no pain, there’s no pain yet and the wound will regenerate. But I don’t understand, I don’t understand how someone got into here unnoticed. Fearing the worst for my beloved, I can only slowly turn around to face my attacker.

    “N-no, way…”

    A witch’s hat crowing an all too familiar face. Her slender hand that I know too well is gouging into my back destroying my prized overcoat.

    “Yo, sis, I brought the package. You wanted it in him right?”

    So… you are… the Sixth.



    “To destroy the Sister System.”

    “To save the Sisters.”

    “They’re the same, kid. You’ve literally doomed us. Literally. All for what? So you could go and play hero for some artificial witch?”

    “Don’t you fucking dare talk about her that way!”

    “Oh, so she whispered sweet nothings in your ear did she? She promised that after she escaped the two of you would go somewhere else and live your lives happily ever after, did she? Don’t you think they’ve promised the exact thing to the rest of us? You thought she thought you were special did you, that you were different, that you were loved? Reality check, she was just using you!”

    “Don’t you think I fucking know that?!” Faced with his abuse, all I could do was let the floodgates out of what I truly felt, “Don’t you think that I knew that she was using me? It’s obvious, ain’t it? Why she’d even talk to a person who trapped her?”

    The Thirst’s eyes are snowy and bitter. There is nothing that they couldn’t freeze at this point. That’s reflected in this absolutely calm voice which attempts to slice my own resolve.

    “So why did you do it?”

    The only question that matters.

    “Because I loved her.”

    The only four words that matter.

    “It doesn’t matter if she lied to me, it doesn’t matter if her feelings weren’t genuine, because mine are.” The words cascade out – the first time I’ve ever been so eloquent. It’s a shame she isn’t here to hear this. “Just being at her side made me happy. That much I know, that much I cherish, and that much can never be taken away from me. Even if I know this is foolish, even if I know that many other people will be hurt, I can’t stop. I won’t stop. I will keep you here, Thirst. I’ll keep you here so they can rescue the other Sisters. This has never been about the cry of a Nue, an airplane made of water, a winged mole, a fish from the moon, or even a tree that wears sapphires. We’re only here so I can buy time for them.”

    “And you said that I loved humanity, Second,” He says shaking his head before turning to me, “But if you say that you’re still buying time, that means I still have time. In that case Fird, I won’t let you destroy humanity for your own selfish wish.”

    Even if he says that, I can’t help but think that we are kindred spirits. We’re both hypocrites. He wants to keep humanity going the way it is going, yet goes around and destroying the very people who keep the system running. And me, I’m sacrificing myself for someone who is only using me in the name of love. It would only seem fitting that we are the last two here.

    “For the sake of humanity-“

    “For the sake of the person I love-“

    “-Right here, I will crush your dream,” We declare in unison.



    I regress.

    We will start our fight and end it with one blow. There is no way that I can defeat him; the moment that he touches me, he will devour my soul. Therefore, if I want to defeat him, I must overwhelm him in a battle of pure magical energy. However, he has access to all the microscopic creatures that grow on his body, that exist in the air, and in the ground. In that sense, he’s as strong as a magus of old.

    My body distorts as a blackness overwhelms it and hardens at the same time, those are my scales. The sharpness that burst through my mouth are my fangs and the leathery appendages that now frame my back are my wings.

    There is one creature throughout history and mythology known to create magical energy by just breathing, existing – the
    Grand
    crown
    of the Phantasmal Species.

    “A.. Dragon.”

    I roar. It’s a thunderclap that shakes the trees, moves the earth, and blows The Thirst back. Seen as a monster, a devil, there were time were multiple heroes were needed to defeat a single dragon. There were times when entire armies were destroyed. It is even said that a dragon is able to maintain a distortion in space-time just by just being there.

    In that sense, to face a dragon is to face nature, the world, itself. Not the weak nature that can’t support life, but the nature of old. The vibrant, uncertain nature from where humanity sprouted and fought so hard to release themselves from. And once again, as if a replay of the legends, a single person is standing facing against such a beast.

    Once again, a single person is standing against the World itself.

    I don’t have any time to admire his daring. I know what I must do. The magical energy wells up inside of me – in my magical core. If the magic circuits of a magus is a machine that creates magical energy, then the core of a dragon is a factory. The overwhelming amount of magical energy fills me, ready to obliterate my enemy. Where is my enemy?

    My enemy stands right in front of me with one hand supporting the other-

    As if someone who opposes a fallen star.

    As if someone who opposes the incineration of Humanity.

    And the earth itself trembles. Expanding and retracting in a split second, an aura of death spreads around the entire plain we are standing on. This was a dying wasteland, but not dead. In that moment, everything just died, giving their energy to The Thirst.

    “I just realized,” He said, “If I can convert the soul of anything I am touching…”

    No…

    “-I’m always touching the Earth aren’t I?”

    The swirl of magical energy around him immediately thickens until it matches my own.

    He is turning the planet itself into energy. The ultimate evil and the unlimited expression of humanity. Who would have thought that it would be from a vampire? To support the wish of humanity staying the way it is, he is destroying the very earth that sustains that status quo.

    This is the ultimate thirst that requires the drinking of planets to slacken.

    But a mere Dead Apostle can’t contain that much energy. At this point, not just the brain and the circuits, but the body itself will be destroyed. Yet time rewinds and the body continually regenerates. It’s humanity’s million year cycle of life and death in a matter of seconds.

    But I am not worried; it is said that the breath of a dragon is the breath of the world. So then all this exchange meant, all it ever meant, was two worlds colliding.

    Unable to contain the magical energy any further and reaching fever pitch both blasts are released.

    Vortexes of magical energy surge: one, the breath of a dragon; the other, the meager remnants of the life of the planet. The clash of magical energy rips through the already-dead landscape. Pieces of crystal as well as earth are ripped off from the ground into mini-tornadoes that disperse into the surroundings.

    Two words colliding, challenging each other just as the wishes of two of us clash. It is a replay of the legends that the world will never see – a beyond cliché tug of war between two beams of magical energy. It’s a scenario that has played out through history again and again each time the result being the same.

    Unable to move, I hold only my ground expelling as much magical energy as this core allows. Each time I feel blood circulate, I can add more. Each time I take a breath, I can add more. Therefore I know I can win. But at the same time a shudder rings through my entire body. The body of a dragon dances feverishly, breaking apart at how much magical energy it is expelling.

    Yet, he is the same. A single person channeling the World against a dragon. His magic circuits are destroyed and re-created every second along with his flesh, yet he shows no sign of stopping either. I can see it in his eyes, the eyes that don’t look at me, but something else beyond me.

    He screams.

    He screams to keep himself sane.

    He screams to keep plundering the earth.

    I can’t help but admire that. Even if he’s completely wrong. Even if he’s a disgusting vampire, let alone person. I can’t help it.

    Against that… Against that raw humanity, I can’t win, but I won’t lose either. I have my own hypocritical reason for being unable to lose. To make sure that she’s happy, to make sure that she can have a future, even if it’s one without me.

    -Bear it.

    A selfish romance.

    -Bear it.

    Self-satisfied determination.

    -Bear it

    Even if she doesn’t feel the same way, I will pray for her happiness, even if nothing of me remains - at least, let those be the cinders of my love.

    -Bear with it. Even if it crushes my heart and reaches my soul. Even if my arms and legs can no longer move and I can’t even move my maw to content with it, I have to bea-

    “It’s okay, everything’s okay. You can rest now.”

    That twinkling voice, it’s not an illusion. So then where are you?

    Ahhh, so there you were beloved, you and your sisters are twinkling with the stars.

    I’m blown away. First, my legs become nothing, then my wings, my scales, then torso. They all regress and return to the World whence they came. All that is left of me floats in a sea of magical energy – sinking. So if you will allow me one last word, one last wish.

    “Fuck, I never told you. Tonight you’re really beautiful.”

    In the end I couldn’t break that habit. Even so, I pray with all my heart that sentiment reaches her.

    5. Judge

    If only it had stopped at the Third, someone once said. Well, that someone was wrong. But that’s a bit biased of me since of the Six, I make up the end.

    I whistle, “They did quite a number on this place.”

    Two newly created hills are on either side of our brooms and in the middle is an artificial valley. We were not here for the beginning of the fight; however, we did see the end. So yeah, it’s not that hard to believe this was the aftermath.

    It is as if teams of giants carved out the earth and then moved the dirt into two separate piles, creating a valley of death. In some mythologies, mountains are seen as symbols of immortality, so I’ll concede that it’s somewhat fitting.

    “Yo, Fourth, no need to be so down, you didn’t even care about him right?”

    She just glares at me. Sheesh, tough crowd.

    “No… bullying… Fourth…Sixth”

    Jeez, not you too Fifth. Don’t say that in a cutesy tone; it just makes me look like the villain here.

    I laugh nervously, “My bad, my bad. Kid did a bang-up job, though. Too bad The Thirst escaped.”

    “He’s not going to stop.” The Third pulls up her broom so she’s across from me.

    “What do you mean?”

    “After the events of tonight, The Thirst won’t stop. He was a hollow man before, now we’ve just destroyed his world. He is less than a person. He will chase the one thing he set out to do this night forever. He will find the tree which wears sapphires no matter what.”

    And you, Third, stop doing Second’s job for her. You’ll just make her sad, just look at her over there all mopey with no info to dump on poor me.

    The Third glides away from this new valley of death and we follow her into another one. It’s an entirely alien world, one where you cannot even feel the World’s slowing heart. The Thirst’s goal was arriving here to procure that sapphire wearing tree.

    Just that it technically isn’t a tree.

    We can see him ahead, his eyes like those a dead fish. Oh, how they would be different if he knew he was about to be gutted. Perhaps even if he knew, he would not stop.

    But shouldn’t we stop him? After all…

    The battle is over in an instant. Actually, it was impossible to even call that a battle. A spider erupted from its nest and encased The Thirst in crystal before he could even react. In that sense, The Thirst was nothing more than material to maintain its nest.

    Ahhh, what a hopeless endeavor this night has been.

    To have fought so hard, to have lost so much, just to reach this conclusion.

    What a wasted wish that was.

    To have fought so hard but to have destroyed it with your own hands.

    Truly, the ultimate expression of humanity, right, gals?

    But if there is one thing I will commend you on. One thing that I will commend you all on.

    The planet is dying and humanity has stagnated. It was never a delicate equilibrium, but an oppressive stalemate that everyone knows how to fix, yet no one can enact.

    So, Dead Apostle Ancestors of humanity’s twilight, I must commend you all on your superb love that overturned this stalemate. At the same time, isn’t it ironic that the same love is what led to your downfalls? We may have used a child; however, we never forced him to love – that was his own choice.

    And that is what we seek to protect. So that this love can proliferate, so
    Mother Earth’s
    Çatalhöyük’s
    wish can be actualized-

    Type Mercury
    The spider
    soundlessly roars. Completely alien, there is no way to understand it. However, if I were to guess, it seems to be confused.

    When is the promised time? Is it now? Why are you dying? Should I move?

    The questions overwhelming it and the backlash surrounding its abrupt awakening will lead to the death of humanity – of love.

    While it is mostly The Thirst’s fault, this was partially due to our designs. Yet, rest easy, dear Ancestors, even if your wishes were never realized, they will not be in vain.

    In your place, we will protect this World.

    In your place, I will bring judgement to all who threaten it.
    Last edited by Milbunk; March 16th, 2016 at 03:10 AM.

  10. #10
    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    PSEUDOMONARCHIA

    ---

    CHALDEA SECURITY ORGANISATION
    CLASSIFIED [RESTRICTED] [SCI]
    15 MARCH 1950
    PROJECT ███████

    HUMAN CONTINUATION FACILITY, CHALDEA
    TIME::12:00:00


    Half a mile beneath the surface, the world’s greatest engine roars. The culmination of the effort to fuse ten years of advances in technology with ten thousand years of magical knowledge.

    ‘Five.’

    The subtle blue glow of Cherenkov radiation pours through armoured glass.

    ‘Four.’

    ‘Magic circuits at 97.76% capacity and rising.’

    ‘Three.’

    ‘Penning traps discharging.’

    ‘Two.’

    ‘Tachyonic flow detected.’

    ‘One.’

    ‘Ignition.’

    Collapse of the wavefunction.

    「 」

    The world that is seen is no longer seen, and it falls away into the great dark, and that which lies beyond makes itself known.

    Baryogenesis.

    As things were, so they are. The nuclear fire rages.

    The Throne lies empty.

    Ten to the seventy-eighth power actions observed.

    Ten to the seventy-eighth power reactions observed.

    And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again.
    And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again.
    And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again.
    And again. And again. And again. And again. And again.
    And again. And again. And again. And again.
    And again. And again. And again.
    And again. And again.
    And again.

    Ten to the seventy-eighth power actions observed.

    Ten to the seventy-eighth power reactions observed.

    Grand Unification.

    The unknowable is known. Uncertainty, dispelled. Aeons pass; an omnipresence in entropy.

    God’s in Her Heaven/All’s Right With the World.

    The stars fade into being.

    A great flash divides Heaven and Earth. All creation sings.

    Enuma Elish.

    Foundation of the Anthropic Principle.

    Two souls leave the cycle. The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    Fading, she cries out across the abyss. Nine inhuman voices reply.

    Collective unconscious.

    At the Temple the sphere is ringed; great magic descends. The system is cast.

    The freedom of the will?

    Magna Voluisse Magnum.

    It is to here all things inevitably lead.

    Dying Godhead fades. The leylines grow dim.

    Rhongomyniad.

    The tower shines at the end of the world, even as the last dragon falls.

    Violation of Novikov self-consistency.

    The Throne grows large.

    Luminosité Eternelle.

    God is here with me.

    The city shines on the hill.

    Souls turn and turn in the widening gyre. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. The starting penalty is five. Life penalty, body penalty, freedom penalty, fame penalty, fortune penalty. Give the penalty that extends so much punishment, mud, darkness and malice. Elimination of human rights by castration, exile, execution. Torture and sadism upon the body through digestion. Denial by consensus of the colony that eliminates all honour.

    Entanglement.


    At Valesti, six Royalties stand in the dark. The First and Highest System, reborn.

    Jupiter bleeds. An oath fulfilled. A land of steel.

    Ten to the seventy-eighth power actions observed.

    Ten to the seventy-eighth power reactions observed.

    Time stretches on. All possibilities reach their terminus. The nuclear fire burns no more; the great dark returns.

    God’s in Her Heaven/All’s Right With the World.

    Decoherence.

    「 」

    HUMAN CONTINUATION FACILITY, CHALDEA
    TIME::12:00:08


    ‘Six hundred percent throughput in the magic circuits... parameters critical! Abort Mission!’

    ‘Circuit breakers cut. Mana levels dropping. Record mission abort after three seconds.’

    ‘Phenomenon Recording Cyber-Demon LAPLACE - offline.’

    ‘Open the door!’


    “We called off the test due to a power spike. What happened in there?”

    “...I saw The End.”

    ---

    οὐδὲν χρῆμα μάτην γίνεται, ἀλλὰ πάντα ἐκ λόγου τε καὶ ὑπ’ ἀνάγκης

    'An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed... for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.' - Pierre-Simon Laplace

  11. #11
    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    Sigma Zero (Part 1)

    This is the story of a man.

    For as long as he could remember, his mind was controlled by a condition.

    Depictions and sights of Conflict were like poison to his body. A heart bound by heavy chains, his breath torn and ragged, his body turned rigid like a corpse.

    Yet the sight of those that suffered in War, never failed to force that comatose body forward.

    The man entered every warzone across the globe,
    seeking those who needed his help
    seeking that which caused him pain.


    “Why is a man like you in this hellhole?” Soldiers that fought beside him might ask.

    “Perhaps, to better understand
    that ‘why’
    myself
    .” He would answer as he treated their wounds.

    Yet being willing to risk everything of himself to save everyone, is it surprising that he ultimately lost his life to War?

    And as he lay dying, he recounted his life’s story, from present all the way to past.

    He wondered
    what he had accomplished throughout his life
    why he chased the thing he hated most.


    He remembered
    those lives that he had saved
    those lives that he had lost.


    And there,
    he came to a conclusion
    I could finally answer ‘why’.


    It’s said that War brings out the worst, and best, in people but...

    ∑ | Δ | Δ | ∑

    The ward reeked of chlorine.

    Its pungent smell blanketed the cloth walls and dividers of the makeshift hospital, overpowering the dozens of other scents that swirled around in the cramped, boiling tent.

    Perhaps that was a good thing however- otherwise the only alternative that would fill the nose of the medical staff was one of sweat, tears, and blood.

    A rancid concoction by anyone’s standards.

    In a sense however, that helped the workers focus on the here and now, not of the past and what-ifs. For even as some beds were silently wheeled out of the tent to make space, another bed, its inhabitant groaning in pain at their wounds, was wheeled in almost immediately to take their place.

    For those who had not departed, still had a chance to be saved.

    The doctors and nurses reasoned with themselves as they continued, methodically and tirelessly, in their task.

    So focused in their work and duty to save lives that they barely recognised the whistle of a descending shell, followed by the soft thud of an explosion in the far-off distance.

    Or perhaps, ‘desensitised’, was a better word to describe their ignorance of the battlefield that raged barely several kilometres away.

    Waking up every morning to the sound of a shell that got a little too close does that to you.”

    The doctors and nurses would say to those new-arrivals, before they were all running to their stations in preparation for the next batch of wounded.

    Yet for all the methodical, cacophonic madness as medics scurried to treat the next patient in line, there was one slightly quieter corner of the makeshift ward.

    Cordoned off by thick, yellowing sheets of cloth that did little to stem neither the smell nor sound, a doctor and his nurse operated quietly on a patient.

    A young man, his sleeping form wrapped in a thin layer of plastic sheet as the remains of torn, bloodied desert-camouflage clothes lay crumpled in a pile nearby. Several large tubes led to and from him, one in particular connected a mask on his face to a large machine nearby. Within a small gap in the sheet, was the visceral sight of his bare ribs heaving up and down, his lungs bubbling as they expanded and shrank beneath them.

    “Nurse.” The Doctor said through his facemask as he held a bloodied set of tweezers out in his hands, his eyes unwavering as he watched his patient’s wounds from behind square-rimmed glasses.

    “Yes, Doctor.” His male companion said in response as his bony, gloved fingers quickly picked up a stainless-steel bowl and held it forward. The subsequent shy clink of metal however was quickly drowned out by another dull whump from far outside the tent.

    Quickly the nurse took a look into the bowl, quickly counting the number of metal shrapnel they had been able to extract from their patient.

    “That makes eleven pieces.” He murmured as the Doctor nodded in response, his eyes never leaving his charge as his fingers worked slowly through the soft, bloodied flesh.

    The operation continued in silence for several more minutes, punctuated only by the sound of the Doctor’s call to his aide, the stainless-steel bowl growing heavier each time.

    Finally-

    “Nurse, thread.” The Doctor called out as again he held out his bloodied set of tweezers.

    “Yes, Doctor.” The nurse replied as he took the implement away, his free hand deftly unwrapping a package set of needle and thread, before he threaded and passed it forward.

    Quietly again the Doctor continued his work, his hands threading the needle in and out of the patient that lay before him.

    “Nurse, scissors.” He said after several minutes.

    “Yes, Doctor.” Came the reply, the man in one hand deftly wielding a set of stainless-steel scissors to cut the thread, as the other unwrapped another set of needle and thread.

    The deftness of his fingers matching that of his assistant, the Doctor quickly tied off the thread that had just been cut, before exchanging the needle and leftover thread he held with the new implement held aloft.

    And again, he continued sowing.

    Two stitches.

    Seven stitches.

    Eleven stitches.

    Twenty stitches.

    Thirty-three stitches.

    “That’s the shrapnel and wounds taken care of, nurse.” The Doctor said with a deep breath as he stood up straight, his head leaning back to stretch for a moment before taking several steps back to look at his work. “That’ll have to be enough for now- hopefully infection won’t set in.”

    “If God wills it, Doctor.” The nurse replied as he took off his gloves and facemask, revealing the tanned skin of a man used to the desert sun. His eyes gazed at the man that lay before them, his breathing regular as he lay asleep, unaware of what had just occurred over the last hour in the small corner of the makeshift ward. All that remained of the past events, was the bloody bowl of twisted metal that lay beside the bed.

    And the series of red, stitched cuts that criss-crossed the young man’s entire chest and stomach.

    “I suppose that’s correct.” The Doctor smiled wryly as he too took off his facemask and bloodied gloves before adjusting his glasses. “But we’ve done all we can here. The main hospital will have to take care of any follow-up work properly to ensure that he won’t be joining God’s side soon.”

    “Thank you very much for your efforts.” The nurse said, giving a bow to the taller man, before he untied and hung his operating coat and walked to the operating table. “I will bring him out- no doubt his squad would be very grateful to hear that his wounds from the blast are not yet fatal. I am quite certain that they would like to pay you their thanks-”

    “Again, tell them that I have no need of such things.” The Doctor interrupted as he took off his operating cap to reveal his head of black hair. “As long as I know that he can make a full recovery, then that is enough thanks for me. Just make sure he doesn’t stay out in the open too long- he still needs to get to the main hospital at the Capital.”

    “Of course, Doctor.” The nurse said, giving a bow. “Though, you should see about taking a break before the next patient, Doctor. How many hours have you been working nonstop?”

    “Not nearly enough.” The Doctor said with a tired smile as he shook his head, a hand rubbing his forehead as he did so.

    “Nonsense!” The Nurse said. “I heard from others that you were already in the Ward back when the first shell hit at 5 this morning, and it’s already past midday! You haven’t had a break, you haven’t even had lunch yet have you? Doing this only poses more risk to the patient than anything else, Doctor!”

    “Even so, more keep coming.” The Doctor muttered in reply, his eyes downcast at his bloodstained operating gown. “Regardless of what happens to myself, I can’t just leave them to die like that.”

    “That’s not a valid excuse for neglecting your own health, Doctor.” The Nurse answered. “Though, God-Willing, I do hope that this whole thing ends soon too, now that foreign aid is arriving. Still, I’m going to log you for at least an hours break with the timetable and get you to take a break- it is the very least I could hope to do after all you’ve done for my people.”

    “...Fine, alright then.” The Doctor said after a short pause and a glance at the still-sleeping man at the Nurse’s hands. “I’ll report to the canteen and come back in a bit.”

    Satisfied, the Nurse gave a deep bow of his head, before pushing the operating table out through the heavy cloth dividers.

    For several moments, the Doctor’s gaze remained fixed on the heavy sheets as they fell back into place. In that moment of relative peace he slowly took off his operating gown and hug it on a nearby peg on the wall, the cacophony outside of the ward echoing around him.

    Slowly, he turned to look at the operating table that had been left behind. That heavy, blood-filled bowl. Those series of bloody tools arrayed before him.

    And at the sight, he felt his gut churn.

    Clenching his jaw, he felt the nails of his bare fingers dig into the palms of his hands as he willed the contents of his stomach down.

    For several more moments he stared at the bloody, messy table and its contents, before turning around and slowly walking out of the operating theatre, into the swelteringly hot and crowded corridor outside.

    Yet he ignored all those that passed him by. The chaotic rush of nurses, doctors and patients. The operating beds with men, women and children laying on them, the degree of wounds as varied as the number of people in the Ward.

    The sight only made the chaotic swirling in his gut worse, as he felt the thumping of his heartbeat echo louder and louder in his head.

    Eventually he reached the entrance of the Ward, slowly opening the heavy fabric of the tent and stepping out into the boiling heat of the midday desert.

    And immediately he was hit by the stench of decomposing flesh.

    Yet despite that, slowly and without pause the Doctor continued to walk.

    Around the outside of the large tent his feet crunched softly on the restless sands, before reaching the back of the dark-green construct.

    And at the end of his journey, he felt his stomach give an immense heave as he collapsed to his knees into the sands.

    Gagging his mouth he released an inhuman gurgle, his eyes shooting open as he felt the muscles all around in his body stiffen and churn chaotically. Mirroring that, the man could feel his heartbeat quicken, the thumping sound of blood surging through his head growing louder, in lock-step with the pain in his chest as his free hand dug into the fabric of his clothes.

    And with each pounding heartbeat he felt, several faces flew by in his mind.

    A young soldier who’s been sent to keep the peace.

    An elderly pensioner and her lifelong partner.

    A college-student turned freedom fighter.

    A teenage girl and her boyfriend.

    A widow and her two children.

    A father-of-four and his wife.

    A young boy of barely ten.

    “I’m sorry-” He muttered softly through his hands as his body heaved, his eyes clenching themselves shut even as he felt tears slowly trickle down his cheeks.

    “I’m sorry... I couldn’t save any of you. I’m sorry... that you’ve had to leave everyone behind. I’m sorry that those who loved you can never see your faces again.”

    He whispered those words over and over, the only audience for his confession being the endless sands of the desert.

    As well as an array of black bags arranged neatly before him.

    “I’m sorry that you all had to die.”

    | | |

    “Ugh...”The man woke with a grunt, his eyelids shooting opening to see the grain of the wooden desk his body was slumped upon.

    “Well, that’s an old memory.” He muttered, slowly willing his hand to release its iron-grip on his chest before sitting upright. “Haven’t had that one in a while. Must be too many late nights building up.”

    Slowly he picked up a set of thin, rectangular spectacles sitting on the wooden table, before he stood up and turned to slowly look at his surroundings.

    It was an older-style building, with floors made of wooden board. The same dark material extended up half of the walls before being replaced by faux wallpaper for the remainder, obscured as they were by various health notices and posters. A wooden shelf jutted out from the walls above the desk, with several ‘Thank You’ and ‘Get Well’ cards visibly displayed upon them.

    Curtains were arrayed on the wall opposite him into several cubicles, a large bed filling each one. The tired orange light of early afternoon filtered its way through the room from the windows that nearly covered one side of the walls, hovering like a halo over several sets of drawers and medicines. Occupying the centre of the room was a long wooden table with two vases of flowers, and several books laid out on it, as several more chairs completed the set.

    “How many years has it been since I left the front-lines for this, more-peaceful place I wonder...?” He continued as he dusted off his white doctor’s coat, before looking at a clock on the wall, its mechanical tick echoing through the room.

    “Club activities should have already started...” He said as he squinted at the small numbers on its surface, before being distracted by the sound of shuffling outside his little ward. And just as he turned to look at the set of old wooden doors leading into the room, did they slide open.

    “Excuse us.” A pair of voices called out as he saw the two young girls standing at the doorway, one’s arm slung across the other’s shoulders.

    One of the two wore a set of usual gym uniform, with red bloomers and a red-trimmed, white shirt with ‘2-A’ clearly emblazoned across the front. That white shirt contrasted greatly with her long, dark-brown hair that fell almost all the way to her knees, its colour matching the large eyes set within her pale face.

    Her supported companion wore a similar outfit, the same ‘2-A’ letters clearly emblazoned at the front of her shirt. A head of black hair was tied into a single long ponytail by a thin blue ribbon, the colour an exact match to her pair of thin sapphire eyes.

    “Ah, Hakuno, Meiling.” He greeted, putting on a calm smile as he stepped forward, opening the curtains to the nearest bed. “What can I do for you? Has something happened?”

    “Good afternoon doctor.” One of the girls answered, her long, thigh-length hair waving gently as the two hobbled forward. “Mei twisted her ankle during track earlier, and we thought it’d be best for her to rest at the Infirmary until activities are finished for the day.”

    “Sorry for bothering you again, doctor.” Her companion replied, the sheets scrunching softly as she slowly sat down on the bedside.

    “No, please, it’s nothing to worry about.” He answered. “I assume you’re in good shape yourself, Hakuno?”

    “Yep, everything’s fine here doctor.” She replied.

    “Alright then, you can leave Meiling with me.” He replied, smiling at her energy. “Though, before you go I thought I should mention that you shouldn’t strain yourself too much- the Academy’s exams are just four days away after all.”

    “Yes I know, thank you doctor.” She replied with a nod, before turning to her classmate on the bed. “I’ll come back to check up on you when the lesson’s over, so just take it easy for a bit.”

    “Yeah, thanks for bringing me over, Hakuno.” Her friend replied, nodding with a smile. And seeing her job done, she turned around to leave the nurse’s office, the wooden door sliding comfortably closed behind her.

    “Alright then, Meiling.” He said after she left. “If it’s alright with you, may I take a closer look at your ankle? Just to make sure there’s nothing else too serious that’s wrong about it.”

    “Of course, doctor.” She replied, giving him a calm smile at his question, before bending down to untie her trainers. Then, slowly, she lifted her legs onto the bedspread, flinching slightly as she stretched her left.

    “Thank you.” He nodded, before reaching out and gently touching the offending leg. “Slight swelling...” He said quietly, comparing her two feet.

    With gentle movements he slowly twisted the ankle in a series of directions, noting the varying amounts of discomfort his patient was experiencing with each twist.

    “Alright, it seems to be just a sprained ankle.” He said as he stood upright. “It’ll be best not to put too much pressure on it for a day or two to let it heal up properly. I’ll get some warm water for you to soak it in.”

    ...Hm.’ He thought to himself as he walked to the sink at the corner of the Infirmary. ‘Why did I mention exams to her? Are club activities supposed to be running so close to them? And... haven’t I seen her face somewhere before...

    “What am I saying?” He whispered softly as he shook his head. “Of course I have. She’s a student at the Academy so of course I’ll have seen her around the place. Though, if I remember she’s just recently transferred, so I might want to take some time in talking with her to see how she’s coping...”

    ∑ | Δ | Δ | ∑

    Ah.

    Another dream. Another warzone.

    “Peacekeepers.” A man in combat fatigues said as he shook his head, though his eyes never left the steering wheel of the road and the truck he was driving. “Hah, at this rate all we are at the end of the day are ‘Piece-Pickers’.”

    “Focus on the road Soldier, every second’s critical for those civvies.” The co-driver said, his pale-green eyes giving his colleague a short glance.

    “Aye Sir.”

    “Of all places.” A man with jet-black hair and square-rimmed glasses muttered as he stared at the column of tar-black smoke rising from a short distance away. “Why did it have to land in the middle of a refugee camp?”

    “Don’t think about it too much Doctor- just be grateful the convoy was passing close by and our platoon was allowed to divert.” The co-driver replied, his face impassive as he stared at the same column of smoke, coming ever closer and closer before what appeared to be their destination came into view.

    Just like yesterday, he saw a sandy landscape arrayed before him, the unyielding Sun smothering its inhabitants with its oppressive heat. A mass of tents stood in a dishevelled array before them, though nearby there was a noticeable hole within the ranks, filled instead with rising black smoke.

    Unlike before however, the pungent smell of chlorine was gone.

    Replaced, instead, by the acrid smell of burning plastic. Not enough, however, was it to mask the putrid mix of decomposing human waste, of freshly-spilt blood, and of charred flesh.

    Unlike before however, the hustle and bustle of a medical ward was absent. Equally absent, was the sound of whistling projectiles above them.

    Without wasting any time, the Doctor leapt off of his transport vehicle even as others were still pulling alongside behind, his white Doctor’s coat gleaming amidst this blasted landscape as men in combat fatigues followed him suit from the same truck.

    The co-driver’s green eyes took a quick glance of the area, before he turned around to the men behind him as they were disembarking.

    “Corporal!” He screamed over the chaos as he pointed over the heads of various dishevelled civilians behind him towards a mass of burning tarpaulin. “Get those fires under control and the survivors out of there! Watch for shrapnel and unexploded ordnance- the bomb squad and the next convoy’s still half an hour away!”

    “Yes Sarge!” A soldier replied, as he motioned to a small group near him before running towards the blaze.

    “Help! Finally!” A hoarse voice called out in a foreign language, as the soldier turned to see an already sizeable crowd jostling nearby, several soldiers already attempting to control and organize them.

    “Private!” The man shouted again to another soldier as he pointed to the crowd of men and women. “Find our interpreter and sort those civvies out- triage the ones needing immediate treatment and get them to the trucks for evac back to the hospital. Pick out some tents and have the others who aren’t in immediate need rest there.”

    “Aye Sir.” The man nodded in reply as he snapped around to look at the men in combat fatigues gathering behind him before shouting himself, his audience splitting off soon after.

    “Doctor.” The Sergeant said as he watched the group disappear for a moment before turning to the man that stood motionless beside him. “...Are you alright?”

    “...Terrible.” The soft reply came, the Doctor’s entranced eyes staring out from behind his spectacles, before he drew back in a flinch, a hand pressed to his forehead as his eyes and teeth clenched themselves shut. “Sorry, Sergeant. Yes, I’m fine here.”

    “Alright then.” The man nodded slowly in response, before turning around to observe his surroundings one more time. “I need you to help the men triage these patients. Some of the trucks we arrived in should be ready to turn back and head for the base and our field camp, but there’s only so much space.”

    “Of course, of course.” The Doctor said as he peered through his fingers, his breathing irregular. “I’ll... see about who needs treatment urgently, and prioritise them. Those who are less-urgent, I’ll... put them on the second convoy, if at all possible.”

    “If there isn’t enough space for all the wounded we’ll just send all the trucks back and keep the men here.” The Sergeant said as he noticed the Doctor’s hesitation. “May give us more time to set the place up anyway.”

    “...Thank you, Sergeant-” The Doctor replied, just as his sentence was interrupted.

    “Doctor!” A man shouted from nearby, the two turning to see a soldier in combat fatigues racing towards them. “We’ve got a medical emergency here!”

    “What’s happened?!” He shouted back in reply as the soldier arrived in front of them.

    “It’s a girl Doctor-” The soldier began. “She was near the site of the blastzone- a piece of shrapnel’s rammed itself straight into the back of her skull!”

    | | |

    “Ngh...”The man woke with a grunt, his eyelids slowly opening to see the grain of the wooden desk his body was slumped upon.

    “What a terrible memory.” He muttered, sitting up properly as he rubbed his forehead, the high-pitched ringing of the school bell he barely registered. “Still... I wonder why I am starting to remember the past like this.”

    Taking several deep breaths the Doctor put on his square-rimmed glasses as he stood up with a stretch. Then, slowly, he craned his neck slightly to look at the shelf above him, the array of cards standing tall and proud atop it.

    Slowly he reached out towards them, a hand slowly picking one up and bringing it down towards eye-level as he stared at the hand-drawn picture on its front.

    Nobody would doubt that it was the drawing of a child, considering its composition. A cacophony of bright pastel colours, deformed stick figures holding hands with misshapen beaming smiles, one of which wearing what appeared to be a long, white coat.

    He couldn’t help but feel his lips turn up slightly at their corners at the sight, before opening it to read the more legible handwriting within:

    ’Thank you for saving our daughter.’

    “...It’s been a long time since then.” The Doctor said with a sigh after a long pause. “I hope they’re doing well now. Though last I heard the warzone’s only increasing in size, at least I believe they’ve migrated far enough not to worry about it.”

    He stared at the six words for several more silent minutes, before hearing the calm tannoy system sound out in the background.

    “Fifth period should have just finished, right?” He asked as he looked up to the clock, just before he heard the door to the Infirmary slide open.

    “Excuse me.”

    In surprise, the Doctor turned around to see another student dressed in black standing at the Infirmary’s doors.

    In a phrase, she could have been described as a tall, dark beauty. Pale-coloured skin served to contrast with the black uniform she wore, which instead matched the head of black hair she had tied into a single ponytail. The red armband around her left bicep also eerily matched the set of crimson-red eyes set within a face of elegant features.

    “Ah, welcome.” The bespectacled man said as he placed the card on his desk before moving to prepare a chair for the central desk. “What can I do for the President of the Student Council?”

    “No need for a chair Doctor, I’ll only be here for a short while.” The President replied as she held up a hand, a small smile on her face. “Thanks for your hard work today as always.”

    “Well, there’s only so much a Doctor has to do, considering how close the exam period is.” He replied with a shrug of his shoulders. “Though Club Activities are still ongoing, I guess your peers are taking more care of themselves. I hope supervision hasn’t been too troublesome for you?”

    “Could be better I suppose, considering all the people I need to keep an eye on.” The President answered as she stepped forward to the curtains of the nearest bed.

    She stood there for a moment with a hand on her hips as she stared at the curtain. And just as the Doctor saw the smile she wore turn into a frown, her hand lashed forward, tearing the curtains away to reveal the sleeping form of a male student in the Academy’s black uniform.

    “Especially lazy Student Council members who won’t keep up with their monitoring.” She said in a lowered tone, before a high-pitched smack could be heard through the room, instantly echoed by a pained cry.

    “Gah!” The student’s body rolled to the side from the impact, both hands clutching the side of his face. “Yeow! Whazzat for Prez?! I was just minding my own business y’know?!”

    He was dressed in the traditional black uniform of the Academy, a red armband around his left bicep almost identical to the one worn by the Student Council President. To the passer-by however, the implications of that office contrasted with the messy head of blond hair that he had, as well as the dishevelled state of his uniform. And that was before ignoring the reprimand he was receiving.

    “You’re supposed to report back to your shift nearly half an hour ago, Librarian.” She replied, looking down at him as he turned to face her, waving the hand that had struck him as though to shake off the impact. “I know some of those books can be heavy, but we can’t be slacking so close to ‘Exam time’. Besides, your regeneration cycle shouldn’t take that long to heal over any wounds in your head now right?”

    “Gah, can’tcha cut me some slack already Prez?” He asked as he flexed his jaw, a hand still rubbing his cheek as he sat up in the bed. “It’s not like anyone comes to the Library anyway now so close to the date.”

    ...Regeneration cycle?

    “Be that as it may, everything needs to be in proper order beforehand.” The President answered as she folded her arms. “I won’t accept anymore complaints- you should be aware of how many others applied for your job, so you’d better do it well before the Coordinator regrets his decision.”

    “Tch, fine, fine, yes, alright ma’am.” He replied as he shook his head, a hand to his forehead before he turned to get off the bed and into his shoes.

    “Right, off with you now.” The President said as she shooed her colleague away. “I need to check up on someone else in the meantime.”

    “Fine, alright.” The Librarian responded, before turning to the Doctor with a wave. “Thanks for letting get some shut-eye anyway Doc. I’ll catch ya later, alright?”

    “No problem, Librarian.” The Doctor replied as he gave a wave in goodbye.

    Not that I remember admitting you here in the first place though...

    With several more inaudible mumbles the Librarian walked out of the Infirmary, the wooden scratch of the doors seeing him off as the Doctor and President stared at it for several more seconds afterwards.

    “Well, that takes care of that.” The President said as she moved a lock of her raven-black hair out of the way, before turning to the Doctor. “I understand that you should have one more resident here?”

    “Erm...” The Doctor said, turning to his desk to look for the entry-log clipboard. Before he could find it however, he head the shuffling of curtains as a new voice called out.

    “Are you looking for me, President?” It said, the President and Doctor turning to the bed at the corner of the room opposite from the Infirmary entrance.

    There, a young man sat on the edge of the bed as his hand held the curtains apart. Dressed in the traditional black of the Academy

    “Good to see you’re behaving yourself.” The President responded. “Especially considering how quickly you saw the ‘Truth’ of things, I was worried what would have happened if left to your own devices for so long.”

    “Well, I will make sure I stay quiet and obey the rules if that’s what you mean, President.” The Student answered. “Though, having said that my Legendary Soul is quite the hot-headed one- she’ll probably look for a fight at any chance she’ll take. Though, I suppose as long as none of the other Students do anything strange she won’t blow her top.”

    “Then I suppose the best option for you is to stay put here for most of the day.” She answered, giving the Doctor a short glance before returning to look at the Student. “The other student-candidates shouldn’t show up here most of the time, apart from Council Members and the good Doctor here.”

    “I’ll see if there’s a way to keep her content for the time being.” He nodded. “Though I might have to look around for some entertainment.”

    “Do that when all the others have gone home for the day.” She waved her hand in response as her disinterested look tilted to the side. “I’ll be having the Librarian stay back after-hours today, you can ask him for something.”

    “I’ll make sure to do that.” He replied with a nod. “Is there anything else, President?”

    “No, that should be it for today.” The President replied as she flicked her hair, before she turned towards the exit whilst waving a hand in goodbye. “It’ll be a few more days before you can go all-out, so just behave until then.”

    Giving the Doctor one final nod, she glided out of the office, the wooden doors sliding shut behind her, the man in white staring at the door with his brow slightly furrowed. Eventually he shook his head and returned to his desk, the sound of sliding curtains behind him ignored completely.

    ∑ | Δ | Δ | ∑

  12. #12
    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    Sigma Zero(Part 2)

    ∑ | Δ | Δ | ∑

    Again.

    Even after I’ve left the front lines, it seems as though I’m cursed to remember it again and again.


    “Still, it’s surprising that I’ve met you again, Doctor.” A soldier said out loud over the sound of a running engine.

    “It is a bit, isn’t it?” The bespectacled man in a white coat said, giving the soldier that sat across from him a nod, before he turned to look out the back of the truck. “You’ve changed divisions though, haven’t you?”

    There was a thin cloud of dust and dirt being kicked up by the truck’s powerful- an obfuscating cloud that was made worse by the convoy of vehicles that followed and preceded them. Yet even the cloud kicked up by that powerful mass of steel and petrol was hardly enough to mask the view of the dilapidated city that surrounded them.

    The grey concrete were filled with holes and cracks, the unused and abandoned buildings slowly crumbling under their own weight whilst thick, blackened, splintered stumps that lined the roads harked back to a more peaceful time.

    “Yeah, the Brass can’t seem to figure out where they want me.” The soldier nodded, before turning to look into the truck and the two rows of seats aligned to the walls of the cabin, the Doctor following his gaze.

    They were occupied by several uniformed soldiers, the majority being a variety of dishevelled civilians, their ages varying from children all the way to those reaching their sunset years.

    “To be honest, my wife’s getting a little cross at me too, being away so often.” The Soldier continued as he gave a huff, a complicated smile crossing his face as he shook his head and turned to the Doctor. “Still, I’m hoping my application for temporary leave’ll be approved soon.”

    “I’m pretty sure it will, considering how much you’ve been giving to the Expeditionary Force.” The Doctor replied. “Still, what’s the occasion? You usually stay until your deployment’s finished. Though, each break doesn’t seem to last too long.”

    “The Force is stretched quite thin.” The Soldier answered, rocking his head slightly. “There’s supposed to be regulations regarding how frequently we can be deployed, but at the same time we can’t just ignore all these terrorist attacks going on in the world.” At this he gave a jerk with his head into the truck.

    “Not to mention all these civvies who need help. About my returning home though, my wife should be giving birth soon.”

    “Is that so?” The Doctor asked, raising an eyebrow. “Congratulations then- though, as someone who’s met you so frequently on the field, I’d have to recommend a change in profession.”

    “Don’t remind me.” The Soldier replied as he gave a smile despite being rocked about as the truck hit something on the road. “Though, I am considering that. How about yourself though?”

    “Me?” The Doctor asked.

    “Mmhm.” The Soldier nodded as he hunched forward, elbows on his knees. “Ever thought about a career change?”

    “...Never really thought about it, no.” The Doctor answered after a pause, before he turned to look at the road they were passing through. The cracked tarmac of the road was slowly replaced by cracked rubble, the tall wall of broken grey buildings surrounding them slowly being replaced by abandoned shanty houses and charred, cratered fields.

    “Even after all you’ve seen, you’re still willing to come back into the fighting again, is it?” The Soldier asked, following his gaze.

    “It’s no different than you and your men really, Lieutenant.” The Doctor answered. “You yourself keep coming back to these warzones, don’t you?”

    “That’s only because I’ve been ordered to.” The ‘Lieutenant’ replied. “Soldiers like me... Once we have our ordersno matter how terrible the conditions, its our job to follow through with them until we’re either done or dead. But people like you though...”

    At this the Doctor turned to look at the man sat across from him, their gazes locking even as the truck bounced up and down across the uneven road.

    “People like you don’t have a reason to keep coming back.” The Lieutenant continued. “Someone who vomits at the sight of a bombed-out house. Someone who can’t even stand up straight at the sight of a dead body. Someone who cries himself to sleep every night while remembering the corpses that he’s had to bag.”

    “...So you’ve seen them then.” The Doctor replied after a pause, a wry smile appearing on his lips as his eyes fell to the ground.

    “Considering how many times I’ve somehow found you on the same battlefield as myself, it’d be surprising not to notice.” The Lieutenant replied as he leaned back. “Still. For someone who seems to have a permanent case of shell-shock, to keep coming back to the warzone without fail like you. Why?

    “Why does a man like you, keep on coming back to a hell like this?”

    At the Soldier’s question, the Doctor took a deep breath as he closed his eyes, a noisy silence surrounding them for several minutes as the convoy proceeded.

    A silence interrupted by the sound of an explosion, echoing over the distance.

    “Bloody hell.” The Lieutenant said, his body giving a jerk in surprise at the noise as did many of the other passengers in the truck. All their gazes instantly cast themselves to behind the truck, at the grey shell of a city not far behind them.

    “As soon as we’re out of the place they start blowing each other up, huh?” The Soldier asked as he shook his head, his gaze focusing on the brown-black cloud of smoke mushrooming upwards just visible through the husks of forgotten buildings.

    “The ceasefire isn’t supposed to be over for at least another hour, but look at them. I’d have to ask why’re they so eager to go for each other’s throats like this sometimes.”

    “Why, huh?” The Lieutenant heard the Doctor ask as he turned to look at him, the man’s gaze also turned to look at the cloud through his square-rimmed spectacles.

    The Lieutenant kept silent as he watched the Doctor, waiting for the man in white to explain his cryptic answer. Yet before he could-

    “Leftenant!” A voice shouted from the front of the truck, both the Doctor and Lieutenant turning towards the voice. “Field Ops wants a word with you.”

    At this, an impassive mask covering the Soldier’s face as he gave the Doctor a quick nod, before he stood up and made his way to the front of the truck despite its constant jostling. As he reached the front of the truck, the co-driver passed him a receiver set.

    “Leftenant here.” He spoke clearly and calmly, though the Doctor couldn’t hear the replies over the radio from this distance.

    “...Flock three’s still in there?” The Lieutenant asked. “But that shell just... Bloody hell. Yes sir, I’ll get to it.”

    “Doesn’t sound good, Leftenant.” The co-driver replied.

    “It’s bad.” The Lieutenant replied. “One of those bastards got trigger happy and launched a shell before the cease fire finished- landed right on top of another evac convoy. Fighting’s starting to spring up and those civvies are stuck in the middle of it.”

    “Bloody hell.” The driver cursed. “Survivors?”

    “Not sure.” The Lieutenant replied. “Some should still be alright from that considering they want one of our trucks to dispatch over as a replacement.”

    “Since we’re clear of the city we can rearrange some of the trucks and go back in to pick ‘em up.” The driver replied, eyes still fixed on the road.

    “If we don’t do that those civvies and our men’re probably going to die in the crossfire.” The Lieutenant answered as he gritted his teeth. “Stop the convoy and radio them all. Get a head count of soldiers and civvies- find the one with least civs on board and redistribute them amongst the rest of the trucks. Every free vehicle we can get, we’re going to have to bring back into the oven again.”

    “Aye Leftenant.” The co-driver replied as he reached out for the radio set.

    “Yourself sir?” The driver asked as the truck slowly pulled to a halt.

    “I’m following them in.” The Lieutenant answered, before turning around at the sound of footsteps, audible now that the rumbling of the engines had turned off.

    “I must apologise for eavesdropping on your operations.” The Doctor said, bowing his head for a moment with his quivering fists clenched, his knuckles white.

    “But I request that I accompany you, Lieutenant.”

    | | |

    “Gh-!” He grunted as his body jerked, his eyes snapping open as he felt the biting force of his fingers digging into his chest, as though to restrain the memories of a long-forgotten war that had welled up within him.

    Faint gurgling sounds could be heard as he remained slouched over his desk, his throat struggling to keep the contents of his stomach still. A chaotic swirl within him, not unlike the chaotic mess of memories his dream elicited as the pounding of his heartbeat marched in concert.

    “Damn.” He cursed after a while, his eyes staring into the grain of his desk’s old wood as he felt the bile in his throat slowly recede. Eventually, it instead took in shuddering breaths, his body still shaking slowly even as he sat upright, the blurred sight of the health posters that adorned the walls bringing him back to the present.

    “How long was it since that engagement?” He asked, a shaking hand covering his face as he willed himself to close his eyes for several minutes more.

    “...Come to think of it, how long has it been since I’ve moved to this small-town school anyway?” He thought out loud after a long pause, his tremblings having ceased as his breathing returned to normal. “And, how long have I been at this school anyway?”

    He flinched at the thoughts, a sharp jolt of pain passing through his brain as though those numbers, just out of his reach, had struck back in fear of him grasping them.

    “...Yeah. Yeah, it’s not like how long I’ve been here matters now.” He told himself slowly as he shook his head, a hand reaching out nearby for his square-rimmed glasses as he put them on. “All that matters is that I’ve pulled myself out of that hellhole finally.”

    But is it really?’ A nagging voice in his mind replied as he put on his glasses. ‘That soldier I had just remembered- he’s been in all of these dreams hasn’t he? That question he asked in those final moments- It’s important, wasn’t it?

    Your answer, was also important, wasn’t it?

    He grunted as he raised his hands to his temples, rubbing them gently as the jolts of pain he had felt before recurred again and again with each thought.

    “...Why?” He whispered. “Why is it so difficult for me to remember things like this? Is something wrong-”

    His sentence was cut off as the sound of breaking glass echoed throughout the room he was in. His body sat upright as he shook his head slowly to try and dull the pain, before turning to look at the clock in the room.

    “It’s nearly six in the evening.” He read, the orange beams of light cutting through the window at a near-perpendicular angle to colour the white face of the clock in near mad-red. “The students should have long gone home by now- all that’s left should be staff, and even then most should have gone too.”

    So that glass...’ He thought as he stood up, shaking his head again as he stepped towards the doors of the Infirmary, the earlier pain in his head already faded away.

    And as he approached them, he heard two sets of footsteps running down the corridor outside, before the sound of splintering wood abruptly brought the cacophony to an end.

    What’s going on?’ He thought as he slowly slid open the doors, the usual grating of wood against wood muted for once.

    And just as he opened the doors, did the thump of an object being dropped onto the floor reach him.

    What’s happening?’ The Doctor asked, his brow furrowed as he stepped out into the corridor. ‘Is there a fight going on?

    Slowly he walked across the wooden hallway of the school, instinctively pressing his body close to the walls as he begun to peek around each corner.

    He didn’t have to look around many, before he spotted the figure of a female student slouched against the wall, the orange light of an insane sun illuminating her from an open window. The wall that she had been propped up against had been splintered, flecks of blood staining the wood an even darker colour.

    “Hey!” The Doctor shouted as he ran to the student, all earlier caution thrown to the wind even as he felt his heart catch in his throat, its beating rhythm intensifying at the same time. “Meiling! What happened?!”

    Yet even as he called out to her automatically, he had already begun to fear the worst- a feeling that intensified as he knelt before her figure and saw the clean, deep cut in her chest.

    “Damn-!” He cursed as a hand fumbled to her neck, searching for a pulse even as he laid her flat on the ground. An action that would reveal a large pool of blood having dripped onto the wall behind her.

    She’s been run through-!’ He thought, alarm bells ringing in his head as his hands felt nothing from her neck. ‘No pulse either- killed in a single strike? From what?!

    A question answered only by a gruff, androgynous voice from behind him.

    “You took long enough to show up.”

    “Wha-?!” The Doctor asked in surprise, snapping his body around to see who had just spoken to him.
    Yet whoever- or perhaps, ‘whatever’, it was, was faster.

    Blindingly faster.

    In the blink of an eye, long before he had turned around, the Doctor felt cold metal abruptly surround his throat, a crushing pressure applied immediately afterwards to it as his crouched figure was dragged to his feet.

    And in the next instant, a searing pain sliced through the centre of his chest, a wet squelch coalescing with the horrifying snap of bone.

    “Grh-!” He grunted, the scream of pain that was to be released from his mouth muffled by the pressure that gripped his throat. His widened eyes caught a glimpse of a blade protruding from his chest- its cold, nearly pure-white colour bathed in red as the Doctor’s blood dribbled down its length.

    Instinctively a hand reached to claw at whatever held him aloft as the other instinctively rose to clutch the shaft of metal that protruded from his chest. The sharp edges of the blade cut straight through his fingers, the red of his blood mixing with the white of his knuckles as he gripped harder and harder.

    As though trying to ground his soul from leaving his body.

    “Nothing personal, y’know?” The voice of his assailant said. “Just that you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. Though, if you hadn’t opened up that door I wouldn’t have even known you were here!”

    A strange, wet squelch echoed around him as he felt the metal protruding from his chest pulled back and out. An instant later, he felt the grip on his throat release itself at the same time, just before his body crashed against the floor, in sync with a chilling squelch.

    He wasn’t sure if he actually knew what had happened as he lay there blinking, the shock of what had just happened rendering his senses mute.

    Even the searing pain that he had felt earlier had abruptly muted itself, as though his body had already given up from the sheer ferocity of the sudden attack.

    His head was left staring at the ceiling, his vision focused on the sight of his attacker that stood behind him, the orange of the setting sun casting a deep shadow over them.

    But like this, he couldn’t see the pool of red liquid slowly creep in from under his body, his white Doctor’s coat slowly becoming stained with red as awkward bubbles gurgled from the cut in his chest.

    Ah...

    It was a tall figure- or perhaps that was due to its posture?

    -This thing.

    It was a figure clad in full plate-armour, their face obscured by the shadows of their helmet as he identified a pair of horns protruding off of it.

    It’s run me straight through, hasn’t it? My spine- my lungs- in one clean strike without pause or thought.

    In one hand it gripped a large sword, the crimson liquid that slowly dripped down its pure-white blade slowly mixing with the blood-red enamel on its hilt.

    Like this... I can’t even feel my legs. After running into countless wars, am I to die in a place where even the sound of bullets can’t be heard? In this silent school, where even my own screams of pain can’t be heard?

    He felt a gurgle emerge from his mouth, unbidden even as the bright-red colours of his vision, illuminated as it were by the setting sun, slowly became muted and dark.

    “-Tch, what a messy business.” A muffled voice echoed out from the suit of armour as it swung its bloody sword onto shoulders effortlessly with one arm. “Though, I missed slicing your heart there- I must be outta practice. That lazy Master of mine’d better get his ass moving and clean up the mess before someone else shows up.”

    A mess, is it?’ The thought echoed in his mind alongside a curse as he remembered the corpse of the girl sitting just behind him. ‘...Those who die namelessly on the battlefield- a mess, are they?

    As the thoughts occurred to him, he tensed his muscles, bracing for the jolt of pain he knew was coming as he slowly sat up.

    -Or at least, he wish he could.

    Just as he had realised earlier, the blade that had pierced him had run clean through his spine. The lack of any response from anything below his chest was enough to prove that.

    And that same feeling of ‘senselessness’ was spreading.

    He couldn’t even feel any of his muscles. Each nerve impulse his brain sent was met with the same empty response, his body having already begun to shut down from the shock of this unknown figure’s attack.

    And with that realisation, he remained flat on the ground, helpless and unmoving, as the sound of metallic clanking boots rushed down the corridor at nearly impossible speeds.

    Dammit.’ He thought, his body letting out a wet gurgle as blood slowly filled his throat, his vision soon turning black, the face of that dead girl he had seen just moments ago filling his vision.

    Powerless.

    As the word reverberated in his mind, that face he saw began to amalgamate with the faces of those deceased that he had seen in his recent dreams.

    Those that he had seen die on the field of battle.

    Powerless, as always. In the face of combat, in the face of War, why am I so weak? Those that are doomed to die... Those that are fated to kill... Why are we all so weak? This, in the face of a perpetual cycle that no one can stop... A folly that humans are doomed to repeat ad-infinitum, over and over, despite all the destruction that it brings...

    “-Why...?” A formless voice asked out loud, even as his mind swirled in black chaos, his body already shutting down.

    The same question that that soldier had asked me...

    “-Why?”

    The same question that I’ve been asking with every battlefield I’ve entered... And even, like this, I still ask it... The last things on my mind as I join those that I’ve failed...

    “...No, that’s not right.”

    That formless voice corrected him, his mind slowly sinking into a black, helpless swamp as a single memory bubbled lazily through, shining for one fleeting moment before bursting.

    No... I’ve felt this before...

    This drifting feeling. This sense of weightlessness as I lose any and all feeling across my entire body...

    Yes... I’ve felt this before... And if I’ve felt this before...

    Then I’ve... Already died once, haven’t I?

    “The truth you seek.” A clear, foreign voice spoke in his mind, cutting through the haze even as his vision darkened to black.

    ...The truth...

    “An answer to that eternal question.”

    My answer...

    “Even at Death’s doorstep, do you dare turn away from it?”

    ...No.’ His mind’s voice replied.

    I’m here for...a reason...aren’t I?’

    The broken sentence were the last things his consciousness recognised, just before it lost its grip on reality.

    ∑ | Δ | Δ | ∑

    Ah...

    I recognise this smell. So, am I the patient this time?

    “Doctor.” A voice called out through the murky haze as his vision slowly returned. “Doctor.”

    ...Evidently not.

    “Mmm.” The man in a white Doctor’s coat grunted as his slouched form stirred, the stool he was sat on creaking slightly under the weight. Slowly the figure sat up to lean his back on the grey, crack-filled walls as glazed eyes hidden behind scratched square glasses gazed at the nurse before him.

    “Nurse.” He said quietly as he blinked several times, before trying to rub off the bags under his eyes as he stood up. “Sorry, I think I must have dozed off. How are the patients?”

    “They’re still stable for now.” She replied, her thin eyes also barely propped open. “I’m more worried about you though, Doctor. How long has your shift been now? At least twenty-four hours, isn’t it?”

    Just as she finished her question, a single ear-splitting crack could be heard echoing within the building through a boarded-up window nearby, shattering a silence neither party realised was there.

    “...More like thirty.” He replied casually as he lifted his sleeve to reveal a small watch on his wrist, its hands barely readable due to all the scratches on its glass surface.

    “Doctor-” The nurse began as she reached a hand out to place on his shoulders.

    “Don’t even think of telling me to take a rest.” He answered as he brushed her hand aside. “I’ll stop when those snipers outside this hospital stop raining death on the people of this town.”

    “...You know that’s impossible.” The Nurse answered as she shook her head. “Ever since the Red Party withdrew from here to ‘consolidate’ their position, these Warlords haven’t stopped fighting for this town ever since. This blockade hasn’t stopped ever since. And that was already two years ago.”

    She scoffed as she flung her hands into the air. “Those Western Capitalists can talk all they want about ‘preserving World Peace’, but where are they when we need them?! When we ask them for aid all they do is sit around and talk. Talk! Talk! Talk! All they’re good for is talking!”

    “Nurse.” The Doctor said simply as he watched her pace around the dim room.

    “I remember when they wanted to stick their noses into every conflict around the world while I was still at medical school!” She continued regardless. “I remember all that bullshit they keep rattling off about ‘Protecting World Peace’, ‘Protecting Children’, ‘Protecting Livelihoods and Communities’. Well, when disaster actually strikes, where the hell are they?! They should all just go and-”

    “Nurse!” The Doctor said again, raising his voice as he grabbed her by the wrist.

    At this he heard her give a soft gasp, before she spun around to face him. Her teeth were clenched and her free hand balled into a fist, the bags under her thin eyes even more evident to the Doctor from such close range, even as he noticed tears slowly begin to dribble down her porcelain cheeks.

    “Looks like the one who needs a break here is you, Nurse.” He spoke as their gazes met in that moment. “I can understand why though. The stress of having to look after people even in these conditions...”

    “You would know, wouldn’t you Doctor?” She asked, her hand falling limp in his grip as her gaze drifted to the floor, several silent sobs punctuating her words. “How many battlefields has this been for you now? You must be used to it by now- unlike me, who graduated just when this hell began in my home, completely forgotten by the International Community all the way until now.”

    “...I’ll admit I know the feeling.” He replied as he released his hold on the nurse’s wrist. “I’ll also have to admit, that even though I’m like this, I don’t think it’s gotten any easier.”

    “Even though you can keep your calm like this?” She asked, as several tears fell off of her downcast face, barely visible with the few functioning lightbulbs in the drab, crumbling room.

    And as though to punctuate her statement, several cracks of gunfire echoed through the barricaded window nearby, before being quickly replaced by the eerie silence.

    “It’s a good thing you haven’t seen me when my shift is over.” The Doctor said, a complicated smile on his face, before he shook his head. “Now, did you needed me for something?”

    “...Yes, actually.” She shook her head as she took several deep, quivering breaths before looking up at him, her hands also reaching up to wipe her face. “Do you remember the patient that was brought in about four days ago?”

    “I...” He began, before trailing off as he felt his body stiffen, a cold chill run down his spine. “...There was only that girl who’s managed to survive until now...from that mortar strike, isn’t it?”

    “Yes.” The Nurse replied as she nodded slowly. “She’s only here thanks to your efforts, Doctor. I checked on her before I came, her condition is still stable, even after all that had happened to her... Doctor?”

    Her sentence trailed off as she noticed the man’s breathing rapidly grow irregular as she spoke. What little colour that remained in his face slowly drained away as he clenched his fists by his side as his entire body stood rigid.

    “I was wondering how I was going break this news to you.” He spoke softly to hide the quiver behind the words that were forced from his mouth, his eyes closing as he continued to speak slowly. “I was speaking to the hospital’s quartermaster about our inventory. The hospital’s... running out of supplies to treat our patients with, including her.

    “...The hospital chief’s decided that we have to prioritise who we treat with what we have leftover.” He continued after a pause as he saw the Nurse staring at him silently. “Those whose wounds are less severe, and have a higher chance of recovery we are to treat first. And... Those who’s wounds are more severe, we have to... Pull, the plug.”

    “That... That can’t...” The woman in front of him said, her stuttering words falling out of her as the Doctor noticed the tears again start to fall down her cheeks. “After we... After you’ve, worked so hard to keep her alive... We can’t just-”

    “Unfortunately, we have... had to make some hard choices.” The Doctor said as he heaved a deep tired sigh, his eyes closed again. “Regardless of how much I’ve done, if at the end of the day she dies then that’s resources wasted that could have saved at least three other people in this hospital.”

    “Even so...” The Nurse said as she clenched her hands by her side. “Even so, we can’t just let her die like that!”

    “Without resources, we don’t have any choice.” He replied slowly.

    “But why?!” The Nurse shouted in response as the Doctor kept his eyes closed. “Why is it that she has to die?! What has she done to deserve this! All she was doing was collecting food for her family from the aid van! She was just in the wrong place at the wrong time when that shell just had to hit! Why is it that we have to leave her to die like this when she’s done nothing to deserve this?!”

    “My daughter-” A third voice spoke quietly from the side of the room at the Nurse’s outburst. Yet that alone was enough to cause both Doctor and Nurse to turn and look at its origin.

    “You are...” The Doctor began, before his eyes opened wide at the dishevelled man that stood in the crumbling wooden doorway, the door itself long cannibalised long ago.

    The man was balding, half of his tanned, mottled head was visible through the receding white hairline. On his thin frame, he wore little more than a yellowing singlet, and a set of dirty brown cargo pants. And along the left leg, the Doctor saw a large downwards cut in the fabric, a dirty white bandage shining through in the dim room.

    “My daughter-” The man repeated himself as he took a shaky step forward. “What did you say was going to happen to my daughter?!”

    “...He managed to get to the hospital through, that hell outside, and was asking to see her, Doctor.” The Nurse said slowly as she stepped aside, the man limping slowly toward to them. “I was... coming to talk to you about his visit.”

    At this the man in white took a deep breath, clenching his eyes shut reflexively before opening them and turning to the newcomer.

    “I’m afraid, it’s as you’ve heard, so, I won’t beat around the bush.” The Doctor said as calmly as he could manage. “The hospital is running out of supplies to treat the constant stream of wounded- we have to try and focus on those with the highest chances of survival.”

    “But then-” The man forced out of his lungs, his eyes darting between the Doctor and Nurse. “But you’ve already used up so much resources already! Can’t you just-”

    “With the extra resources I expect to need to save your daughter, I could treat at least four different patients with.” He answered before he finished. “I am sorry, but what’s spent is not relevant anymore- it’s what we have left.”

    “Then give me some time-!” The man said as he raised both hands forward to the Doctor. “I have... I have contacts outside of the town! I can try to find a way to get some resources for my daughter! Just, please, give me-”

    “Half of her skull was fragmented in the blast.” The Doctor cut him off, his voice raised and firm even though his eyes were closed.

    “That is the most severe wound this hospital has to treat right now. If I don’t reallocate the resources she’s using, we could lose two patients by tomorrow. I’m running out of plaster, oxygen and antiseptics to keep her going- even if you happen to have those contacts you say you do, do you really think you could get all of that by sunset tonight?”

    “But-” The man said, reeling back slightly at the Doctor’s statements as his hands fell to his side. “But- but-!”

    “I am sorry.” The Doctor replied softly, before taking a deep breath and opening his eyes to look at the man, seeing a tear falling down his face as he stared at the Doctor. “I would have liked to tell you this in a better way, but as things stand...”

    The voice of the man in a white labcoat slowly petered into silence as their tired gazes locked with each other in that dim room as silence blanketed them for an infinite second. And slowly, ever so slowly, the old father was the first one to break that link as tears slowly begun to stream down their face.

    His gaze, having been so focused on the man in Doctor’s white before him, slowly begun to fall down towards the green-and-white floor tiles.

    And a moment later, his legs crumpled beneath him as he fell to his knees, a hand covering his mouth as he blinked.

    “I should have been the one that day...” The man said numbly after another long pause, his blank gaze trained on the chipped and worn checkered floor as a hand slowly moved to his left thigh. “If only... If only this old wound didn’t cause so much trouble, I would have been the one to collect our family’s rations that day.”

    “My daughter- I’m sorry that I asked you to collect food in my stead...”

    “I’m sorry... Mei... I’m so, so sorry...”

    | | |

    “Gh-!” The Doctor gasped, the breath being caught in his throat almost as soon as he had taken it.

    Confused, he sat up as his body gasped for air, his constricted throat releasing itself in small margins as his hand gripped it and his chest tightly.

    As he struggled for breath, his muscles slowly released themselves as he felt his breathing slowly normalise. His shallow, irregular breathing slowly turned into deep, gasping breaths as he closed his eyes, the hand that held his throat slowly releasing itself.

    The nurse’s office...’ He thought after a long pause, his breathing having normalised as his blurry eyes slowly scanned the room. And with his assessment, he felt his body collapse backwards into the bed, the springs bouncing with a light creak as his arm covered his eyes, filling his blurry vision with the white from his doctor’s coat.

    “...A nightmare.” He mumbled, the memories and his thoughts about as hazy as his vision. “And that’s after I got-”

    He cut his sentence off as he felt something stir next to him, his eyes darting towards what appeared to be a bundle of black, napping next to the bedside.

    “Mmh...” The bundle of black mumbled as it looked up, revealing a pair of arms and torso that was covered in the School’s black uniform.

    “Doctor? Oh, thank goodness you’re awake now!” She continued as she looked up at him, her black ponytail sweeping backwards to reveal her slightly dishevelled face, framed by the bright light of the afternoon sun that shone through the glass windows.

    “...Did something happen to me?” He asked after a pause as he looked at her, still lying on the bed.

    “Well, we found you lying unconscious on the floor this morning- it was quite a shock you know?” She continued.

    “I guess that’s true, isn’t it?” The Doctor asked as he turned to look at the ceiling for a moment, before he jerked upright again.

    “Wait, Meiling! What about her?!” He snapped as a hand felt his woundless, unblemished chest before turning to the student sitting by the bedside. “F-For that matter, wasn’t I wounded when you found me?!”

    “Hm?” The student asked. “What are you talking about Doctor? I’m right here aren’t I?”

    “What?!” The Doctor asked softly, his eyes shooting open for a moment before he fumbled in his pockets for his square-rimmed spectacles. He quickly found and wore them, before turning to look at the student that was sitting next to his bedside-

    “It’s me, yes?” The student asked with a smile as he recognised her features from the day before, today unblemished by the harsh, orange setting sun.

    “But... How?” The Doctor asked regardless, shaking his head as he glared her, a hand outstretched between them.

    “I’m not sure what you’re saying, Doctor.” Meiling said after a pause, before cocking her head to the side. “Though, you’ve been overworking yourself recently, haven’t you? You must be hallucinating.”

    “...Maybe you’re right.” He murmured after a pause, the outstretched hand slowly falling down to his lap as did his eyes.

    “Anyway, I hope you’ll take it a little bit easier from now on, Doctor.” Meiling said as she watched him stare into his lap. “Not least since the exams are coming up- we wouldn’t want to have some of the NPCs turning comatose on us, do we?”

    “NPCs...” The Doctor repeated slowly as he stared at the white sheets. “What do you mean by NP- Gah!?”

    His sentence was interrupted by a surge of pain that engulfed his mind- the same sort of pain that had afflicted him yesterday when he had just woke up. With a grunt he leaned forward into his lap, his head cradled in his hands as he held the three letters in his mind despite that piercing pain.

    NPC- NPC- NPC-’ His mind repeated as his eyes glared through his fingers into the white sheets. ‘This acronym... What does it have to do with me? It must have-! But what?! And why is it that it hurts so much...! Just like yesterday... Just like-!

    “Doctor, is something wrong?” Meiling asked as she leaned forward, before the Doctor put up a hand between them.

    “No, well, it’s just my fatigue getting to me...” He answered to try and reassure her whilst he shook his head. “I’ve, been having dreams about the combat zones I’ve been in, due to them, and...”

    His sentence petered off gradually as abruptly, the haze that covered his mind dissolving itself in concert, a single memory from his most recent nightmare bubbling forward as his eyes slowly opened wide.

    For several moments an awkward silence covered the room, broken only by the Doctor’s rocketing heartbeat that thumped in his head.

    Amidst that silence, he slowly turned to look at the student that sat by his bedside with widened eyes. Before finally-

    “...Impossible.” He whispered softly

    “I’m sorry...?” The student asked as she squinted her eyes and cocked her head again.

    “Meiling...” He said slowly, his voice picking up pace as he continued. “You didn’t die yesterday. You were never alive to begin with-!

    “You were the one who had half her skull missing, when we were running out of supplies to treat you! You died that day on the operating table! I watched you die as your father turned off the ventilator himself-!”

    “...You must be more tired than I had thought, Doctor.” The girl known as Meiling said calmly after a short pause as she gave him a calm smile, her thin eyes mirroring it as she made to speak again

    “Don’t give me that!” The Doctor interrupted with a raised voice as he spun out of the bed, putting it between him and the ghost that he saw before him. “I know what I saw- I know a corpse when I see one! And I know that a corpse can’t revive itself spontaneously either! Who are you? Why am I here?! Where is this?!”

    “Doctor, please, you are growing hysterical.” The phantom said as she slowly stood up from her chair. “It just wouldn’t do for an NPC to lose themselves like this.”

    “This ‘NPC’ business again!” He spat as he instinctively raised his fists. “What are you even talking about-Agh!”

    Again his sentence was interrupted with a shaft of pain jolting though his mind, his body curling up as he cradled his head in both hands.

    NPC... What the?” He thought as he clenched his teeth through the pain, the three letters resonating in his mind like a struck gong. “Why... Why does she keep referring to me like that- And, yet- Why does it sound so familiar?

    “Doctor, please remain calm.” The phantom said as she slowly began to move around the bed, the Doctor himself looking up at the sound of her footsteps, before inching backwards slowly with a hand to his head.

    “Please remain within the Infirmary until a corrective NPC arrives to address your defects, Doctor.” ‘Meiling’ said, a strange hiss echoing softly around the room as the Doctor noticed black noise slowly float upwards from the student’s long hair.

    “To hell with that-!” He cursed in reply as he spun around towards the Infirmary exit. Without pause, a hand reaching out to grasp the handle and pull the doors apart, the heavy slabs sliding open with a bang.

    And no sooner had the exit cleared, did the Doctor bolt out and down the hallway. Left behind, ‘Meiling’ staring silently at the gaping hole in the room as the black pixels surrounding her, and the doorway, was left to keep her company.

    | | |

    “What’s going on here?!” The Doctor grunted as he stumbled down the stone steps that lead to the school building’s entrance, a hand cradling his head as a flurry of pink petals enveloped him. “What is this place? Why is she alive? Why am I alive?!”

    I died yesterday, I must have-!’ He thought as he stumbled towards a large cherry tree that stood in front of the school building. ‘That feeling of my consciousness fading... that feeling just after that... thing... snapped my spine as casually as if it were breathing- there’s no way I could mistake it! And if I managed to recognise that, then how did I die in the first place?!

    A hundred thoughts were swirling in his mind as he felt the burning sensation in his brain continue to rise with each, an inevitable rise like the tides as he collapsed onto the side of the cherry tree.

    “Dammit...” The Doctor cursed as he held his head, his body propping itself up onto the deep, dark wood as cherry blossoms continued to rain slowly down upon him.

    This pain... Every time I think about the irregularities of this world, it keeps on coming back- so hard, to even think with it there... And yet-

    “I can’t stop here...!” He continued as he gritted his teeth, his eyes clenched shut behind his square-rimmed glasses. “This World, this word ‘NPC’, the ‘Why’ that has been crushing me over the last three- no, my entire life. Something is here, a reason why I’m here-!”

    His declaration was cut off abruptly as a thought came to him, echoing within the chaos of his mind like the ringing of a soft bell, his eyes opening as he heard it.

    And the more he focused on the thought, the clearer his mind became, as the inferno that raged within was drowned out by two words-

    “Moon Cell.”

    The Doctor whispered as his body quivered slightly, a gradual realisation coming over him as the disconnected dots in his now-clearing mind slowly linked themselves

    “The truth I seek...” He continued as he remembered the words that that formless voice had given him just yesterday. “An answer to my eternal question. The reason, why I am here...”

    As he finished his sentence he took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment. Upon opening them, he slowly took a step back, and craned his neck to look up to the canopy of the tree that he stood under.

    It towered over the school building that it had grown beside, its large, twisting trunk thick enough to house a small room. To all that stood below it, the silver light of the midday sun illuminated through the gaps in the branches, an ethereal pink hue of cherry blossom petals bathing the area as a result.

    And as he watched the sight, his eyes slowly traced the thick branches down to the trunk of the tree that he stood next to.

    And, almost without realisation, he brought a hand up to eye level and brought it forward to touch the rugged wood of the tree-

    Yet it was only his realisation as to how much his hands were quivering, that made his hand freeze just an inch away.

    “...No.” He said softly after a long pause, his gaze focused on his shaking hand. “Even if... I might die again, I can’t turn away now.”

    With that statement to steel himself, he pushed his hand forward onto the wood of the old tree.
    And in reply to his action, the entire cherry tree shook as a pink light blinked briefly from its roots.

    “Wha-” The man gasped as he stepped backwards, his hand reeling away from the tree he had awoken as the dark wood of its trunk slowly creaked apart with a shudder.

    The dark maw that had opened up revealed a riveted fence, the metal’s sheen dulled by the shade whilst the rain of endless cherry blossom petals from above shone in the light. And within, he could just glimpse a small, box-like room beyond said gate.

    “...A door.” He murmured to himself as he watched the maw from several steps away, his body otherwise frozen at the turn of events. “No, an elevator of sorts... And yet despite its noisy entrance-”

    He turned towards the school for a moment at his words, expecting to find at least a row of people’s heads looking through its windows- no doubt, the students that were still in class would have noticed.

    Yet try as he might, he could find no-one looking through the windows at him.

    All the heads he could see were focused almost completely on the classes that they were sitting through.

    “This is definitely not right.” He continued as he clenched his hands as his vision returned to the gap in the tree. “And yet... if I don’t, my ‘Why’, will remained unanswered, wouldn’t it?”

    Clenching his teeth one more time, he willed his body forward as he discarded the lingering doubt he had. And in response to his approach, the metal gate opened slowly with the clank of metal, the Doctor stepping through dutifully.

    And as he turned around to look at the bright school that he had left behind, did the metal gate close itself and the tree’s trunk collapse in on itself again.

    A false World that covers the ’truth’ of things.’ He thought as the darkness enveloped him. ‘But in that case, my dreams, my memories... They were not false, were they?

    | | |

    “...Where is this place?” He asked as he held his arm above his eyes to shield them from the bright orange light of a setting sun that hovered above the sea.

    An unknown amount of time had passed since he had stepped into that elevator, his eyes having already grown accustomed to the darkness before its doors opened up again. And when he eventually stepped through, he couldn’t help but open his eyes wide at the bleak world that painted itself before him.

    Surrounding him on all sides were the rising bodies of unmistakeably man-made skyscrapers, their glass bodies reflecting the setting sun on the horizon a far distance away. Yet at the level he stood at, he could clearly make out the body of water that had engulfed said skyscrapers, each and every one of their lower-halves submerged.

    And before him, like a path made out of glass, was another collapsed skyscraper, its thick body half-submerged in water.

    And, as though they had taken on a life of their own, seven ‘windows’ stood hovering above ground before him, arranged in a large semi-circle directly before him. Each shone in a pure, bright-white light that was untainted by the orange of the landscape, as though protected by an invisible force from the nature of the world itself.

    Or perhaps, it was more correct to say each contained an invisible force that overrode the will of the World itself.

    He couldn’t help but be puzzled as he thought that. Not by the strangely serene, drowned city that surrounded him. Not by how the very basic law of physics was being broken before his very eyes. Not by these strange glass containers.

    But rather, by how he wasn’t fazed at all by what he was seeing.

    “I feel as though, I’ve seen this all before.” He whispered as he stepped onto the side of the collapsed building and gazed at the seven windows before him. “That... I’ve seen others come here before. And, at the end of this road... What did they find?”

    A question that he soon answered himself, as the ground before him seethed in black noise at his presence, the pixels coagulating into a solid form with a hiss to block his path.

    And in several seconds after his arrival, stood a tall, rickety construct that vaguely resembled a human.

    Its body stood at nearly two metres in height and coloured black as ash, a stark contrast to the bright orange lighting that reflected off the glass nearby. Yet adorning every limb of its body were bright-white lines. Reminiscent of warpaint, each converged towards a single bright ‘orb’ that floated within a cavity that was its chest, its size in stark contrast with its shrunken head.

    ...Is it hostile?’ The Doctor thought as he felt his stomach heave at the thought, his heartbeat already raising itself as his body instinctively curled into a combat-ready position.

    “Master candidate.” A robotic voice echoed around the sunken ruins in answer to his question. “Congratulations on making it thus far through the Preliminary period. Your questioning of the reality that is the mundane, has earned you the right to fight for your existence.”

    “My existence?” He asked beneath his breath, receiving a just-perceivable nod from the effigy before him in return.

    “You stand at the entrance to a tournament that is designed to test you, and the human condition, to their very limits.” The mechanical voice continued. “The prize for victory: A chance to change Fate itself. The penalty for defeat: The black abyss that is death.”

    “What grim terms.” The Doctor muttered. “Yet, you speak as though those are my only options-”

    “It is because they are.” The voice continued, as the effigy raised an ‘arm’ to point at him. “Your presence here, your participation in the Preliminaries, is an implicit acceptance of these terms. Your very entry to the SE.RA.PH, an acceptance of the fact that you may not leave until you bring about your victory... Or you die at the hands of those who seek the Grand Prize.”

    A choice between victory or death...’ The Doctor thought as he heard his heartbeat still thumping loudly in his head. ‘And yet why can I not remember ever agreeing to this... No, for that matter-

    “You talk about the ‘Preliminaries’ and ‘Candidates’.” He asked. “Do you mean that all those people at that School... They were all here to participate in this ‘tournament’? And, that...”

    The second half of his sentence petered out into nothing as he realised what he was about to say, his eyes falling to his feet as the words faltered in his own throat.

    Almost as though he didn’t wish to acknowledge it -

    That should they fail to pass, they will all, unequivocally, die.

    The Doctor looked up at the effigy as the robotic voice finished his sentence, his eyes wide open at how easily the voice could say those words.

    And, in response to his glare, the effigy simply pointed its ‘arm’ out towards the edges of the building that they stood on, the Doctor slowly turning around to look.

    And almost immediately, he felt his stomach turn itself inside-out, his heartbeat skyrocketing instantaneously.

    For what lay floating in the ocean that had engulfed the city around them, were corpses.

    Dozens- no, hundreds, of corpses, floating atop the red sea like flotsam carelessly discarded by a passing storm.

    With his hands clutching his stomach and chest, he fell to his knees at the sight as he struggled to hold back the bile in his throat.

    How did I not see them when I arrived here?!

    “Wh-?!” He struggled to form his sentence, a miserable wheeze instead escaping his lips as he knelt, gazing in shock at the sight. “How-?!”

    “All of them-” The robotic voice continued, heedless of its sole audience’s plight. “Master Candidates who have failed to prove the worth of their existence. Failed to prove that the ‘fate’ they desired, was strong enough to change their fate to die here.

    Like animals to the slaughter... No, innocents to the massacre. This thing... It must have murdered them all. And, just like them...

    The thought crossed his mind as he sat, his gaze fixated on the ocean of corpses that surrounded him. Yet even as his body quivered, his muscles spasming too much to even let him turn his head, he could hear the clink of glass-impacting-glass as the effigy began to slowly step towards him.

    Again... I’m going to die again. Not even being able to move, not even being able to overcome this cursed affliction of mine, even when my own life is at stake- there really is no fate for someone like me, other than to die, is there?

    Since at the end of the day, I am weak. Just like every patient I couldn’t save.

    Powerless. Just like that girl, within that bombed-out city.

    Hopeless. Just like yesterday, that question still hovering over me.


    “Why?” He whispered through his irregular breaths.

    Why is humanity caught in this perpetual cycle? A ‘Fate’ that we cannot change- to murder each other over and over, despite all the pain and suffering it has caused everyone?

    “Why?” The Doctor asked.

    “These nameless people, slaughtered like cattle for the simple sin of chasing a dream that they wish for. Unfortunate collateral damage in the path of chaos that is War. Just like me. However...”

    At this he felt the hand that clutched his chest disengage itself, before balling into a quivering fist as he clenched his teeth.

    “I refuse for this to be the end. I refuse for my question to go unanswered. After having fought, and saved, for nearly thirty years to find out that ‘Why’...”

    At this, he forced his head to turn around as his muscles quietened themselves for an instant.
    And there, he gave one, final glare up at the effigy that stood beside his kneeling figure, the white orb embedded in the centre of its chest gazing impassively at him.

    “I will not just accept my fate to die, nameless, answerless, powerless, in a void like this-!”

    And, as though in response to his statement, the sound of breaking glass cut through the silence between man and doll.

    In the split second after the Doctor heard the crack of glass, did the doll before him spin around at an inhuman speed. Its arm lashed out into the air at an invisible projectile, an instant before the erupting sonic-boom hit the kneeling man just as black shards rained down upon him as he instinctively put his arm forward to shield himself.

    “Hmm hmm, y’know it’s not nice being pushy right?” A foreign, female voice asked as he glimpsed the effigy’s shadow leap away. “Honestly now, all these dolls really are the worst companions to keep around. Oh, though it’s not like I really have a say in who keeps guard over this space though...”

    “Huh...?” The Doctor couldn’t help but ask as he peered over his arm at the perpetual setting sun at the horizon.

    And also, at the new figure that had appeared at the base of one of the seven windows, its pure-white frame smashed open from within. Glass fragments hung in mid-air around the figure, the orange light of the setting sun shining off them even as they slowly dissolved, as did the other six intact windows beside it.

    She- if it could be called a ‘she’- was clad in a deep blue kimono that clung to her chest, her bare porcelain-white shoulders coloured by the red of the setting sun, a set of loose armsleeves shielding her arms. Almost indiscernible from the lighting, ‘she’ sported a head of pink hair that was tied into a topknot by a large blue ribbon.

    Without a doubt, this being couldn’t be called a mere ‘human’.

    Even someone like him could tell at a glance that this being possessed a power unlike any mere ‘human’.

    He didn’t even need to see the pair of inhuman, orange fox-ears that peeked out from the top of her head large, or the orange tail that gently swished left and right behind her to confirm that.

    Regardless of his thoughts, the being leapt forward to place herself between him and the black effigy that now stood at the side of the fallen building.

    Thinking about this, the Doctor turned to look at the ground surrounding him, quickly noticing the black shards that had showered him from earlier.

    And immediately, he turned to look at the effigy- its once imposing black figure, had now lost an arm from the shoulder onwards in that earlier exchange, too fast for him to comprehend.

    Yet despite what could have been a crippling injury, it stood still, the orb in its chest staring at them unfazed.

    “Are you alright, Master?” The strange being asked as it glared at the effigy across from them. “Sorry that the order’s a little bit off, but I’m afraid introductions will have to be delayed slightly. Don’t worry though- this won’t take me a minute!”

    As soon as she uttered the words she leapt into the air towards the effigy, a large mirror solidifying itself through the air behind her as she swung downwards with it.

    Yet all it struck was the glass of the building below them, the sound of shattering glass echoing around the area even as the effigy leapt nimbly away.

    Not without the foxgirl almost immediately catching up to it, however.

    Fast-!

    Without even time to right itself, the foxgirl had swung her mirror again, the effigy just bringing its remaining arm up to deflect the attack as the limb erupted into a shower of shards. Reeling from the attack, the now-armless construct stumbled backwards, barely able to keep its balance on its two remaining feet.

    And just as it righted itself from the impact and turned its shrunken head to face the foxgirl, did she leap forward again once more.

    This time, without another free limb to deflect the attack, the floating mirror lashing forward to cleave straight through its ashen torso, just below the orb embedded in its chest.

    For a moment the construct stood still, as though uncertain about what had just happened- its sudden defeat confounding it for a brief moment. That is, before it took a single, slow step backwards-

    And collapsed into two pieces, the ash-coloured doll crashing against the glass floor beneath it, as the white orb and lines that criss-crossed its body flickered into darkness.

    “Mmhm!” She said as she stretched her arms upwards, before turning around and walking towards the Doctor, still stunned by the speed of what had just transpired.

    “Well, that was a little workout after sleeping for so long. Though, I have to admit that really was too easy.”

    He couldn’t help but reel back slightly as she approached, the ferocity and speed at which she effortlessly dispatched the effigy all-too fresh in his mind.

    However, that didn’t change the fact that he would have almost certainly been dead, had she not appeared.

    “Anyway, that takes care of the third wheel then!” The being before him said with a cheerful voice, as though the fight that had occurred never happened. “Hmm, hmm, to be honest this is the first time I’ve been called upon like this, so I wasn’t really sure what I was expecting from my Contractor.

    “To be honest I was kinda expecting some old, middle-aged geezer looking for a get-rich quick scheme from the Moon Cell, but it looks like I might have been wrong! I never thought about whether I might’ve been partial to glasses, but you might just be changing that!”

    Her light-hearted prattling was lost on the man as he couldn’t help but stare numbly at the being that stood before him, an awkward silence enveloping them for several moments.

    “...Ahem.” The foxgirl coughed lightly before clapping her hands together, the Doctor shaking his head for a split second at the sound before blinking at her.

    “Well, I guess this might’ve all taken you by surprise, my Master, so maybe I should start from the beginning.” She continued, before taking a kneeling position before him on the glass. “Oh, though I have to say I’m not sure how much of this is new to your, or just that the Moon Cell’s keeping that info under wraps for the time being before you get out of the preliminaries.”

    “Under wraps?” He asked as he took a deep breath and sat up straight as the being before him came to eye-level.

    “Oh, don’t worry about that now.” She said with a smile as she cocked her head, before she clapped her hands. “Since you’re here now, that basically means you’ve passed! Let me be the first to congratulate you for getting this far, Master!”

    “Thank you, erm...” He continued as he bobbed his head in acknowledgement.

    “Oh, silly me!” She said as she saw his hesitation, both her hands patting her cheeks lightly. “I was going to start from the beginning, wasn’t I?” She paused for a moment, before continuing again.

    “Anyway, pleased to meet you, Master. I am Caster, the Servant you’ve summoned to fight by your side in the coming battles.” She said before bowing forward with her head to the floor for a moment before sitting up, the Doctor again noticing the large, bushy tail attached to her hip wagging slowly behind her.

    “Coming battles...” He asked, feeling his heart getting caught in his throat as he couldn’t help but look around her figure. “Do you mean, there’s more of those, things, that we have to fight?”

    “Mmm, yes and no.” She answered. “But again, don’t sweat the small stuff- the info lockdown should be released soon enough.”

    “I’ll... Take your word for it, then, Caster.” He said slowly.

    “Well then, I look forward to working with you, Master!” She said with a smile as she leapt nimbly to her feet again, a hand outstretched to the man. “Though, calling you Master all the time seems a little impersonal...”

    ...What have I stepped into?’ He couldn’t help but think as he looked at the foxgirl’s outstretched hand. ‘A chance to change fate. Another War, not unlike those dreams that had been plaguing me for the last few days... A Why that has plagued me for what I can only assume is my entire life.

    What the answer to that question is, I do not know- but I do know, that I cannot turn away from this chance now, now that I’ve come this far. And if the only way forward, is with this being... This ‘Servant’, Caster...

    He took a deep breath and closed his eyes one more time, before grasping Caster’s hand.
    And as he did so, he felt a sharp pain cut into the back of his hand.

    Like a needle being stabbed into his flesh, he felt an insignia tattoo itself into the hand that connected him and his ‘Servant’. Yet as quickly as it appeared did it disappear, the Doctor barely flinching as he was helped up onto his feet.

    Quickly balancing himself, he took a brief look at the mark that had emblazoned itself onto his hand- a red mark of a stylized tower surrounded by a halo, before looking up at Caster again.

    “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Caster.” He said, giving a brief bow from the hip, before standing upright again and looking at his ‘Servant’ over again.

    “My name, is Twice H. Pieceman, and I look forward to working with you as well.”
    ∑ | Δ | Δ | ∑

    A/N: I tried (and failed) to keep this thing somewhat close to 10k words, while telling a somewhat full/standalone story. Hopefully that failure won’t come back to bite me.

  13. #13
    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    [[**Author's Note: Thanks to this 'short' getting a little...out of hand...I've added a few chapter breaks (for lack of a better name) to ease the experience if one were to choose to read this in more than one sitting. Estimated reading time is 1:20.

    ...sorry.]]


    True Apocrypha




    -=The First Night=-


    Sion took a deep breath as she stepped out of the car, tasting the fresh mountain air of Solociano for the first time.

    The town, a small mountain village with a population of only a thousand or so, was nestled quite snugly among the mountains of northern Italy. It had very little connection to the outside world, with only a single road leading into the village and not even so much as a radio to be found. According to her sources, there had been attempts to modernize the village by the Italian government in the past, but such attempts had met with strong resistance from the villagers themselves.

    The lack of technology gave the village a somewhat exotic feel, as if it was some sort of reenactment of Italy's past. The brilliant sunlight washing over the old stone houses gave a picturesque view that was somewhat reminiscent of a museum. No doubt, this village would likely prove to be a tremendous resource to those studying pre-modern Italian architecture and culture.

    Of course, Sion's plans were not quite so mundane. As she swept her gaze over the town, her assessment of its cultural value sat quietly in the back of her mind as more urgent matters took the forefront. Landmarks, population, how the streets wound their ways through the town, the atmosphere around the residents, indeed even the weather - all of these things she took in in the span of a breath and catalogued away. This place could become a battlefield in no more than a few hours, and every scrap of information she could get her hands on was another weapon.

    Of particular note was the lack of night-time lighting. It seemed this village went to sleep early, as the number of lanterns that would serve to light the streets at night was alarmingly small. Naturally, with no electricity, those would have to be lit by hand, so it wasn't particularly feasible to have a large number of them, but it would make their work all that more challenging if they had to fight in the dark.

    Marking the spots of the few night lanterns she could see, she nodded her thanks to her driver and made her way into the heart of the town. As had been planned before, her escort did not stay any longer than was necessary, and in short order Sion heard the sound of the vehicle drive away down the road it had come in on.

    It had been one of her instructions as the leader of this operation - that they would strike at their target with as few people as physically possible. To anyone else, that may have seemed tantamount to suicide, but to Sion it was the obvious course of action. The Curse fed on rumors, uneasiness, and the stresses of common people. Adding trained soldiers with who knew what fears and traumas to that population would only make it stronger.

    So, to cut off the disaster that would surely happen from sending in an entire contingent of Knights and Alchemists, Sion ordered that their task force be limited to as few people as humanly possible. Of course, there was a small strike force of Knights set up a healthy distance from the village that they could call in an emergency, but that would truly be a last resort tactic. Besides, defeating a single vampire didn't take numbers - it took skill. And if the best of Atlas and the Church working together couldn't do it, then there was little hope that adding more underlings would make a difference.

    Walking through the town, Sion took the twists and turns that would theoretically lead her to the town's central square. While she had never been to Solociano before, and reliable maps of such a small, backwater village didn't really exist, it was easy enough to figure out that the village was constructed around a single central point by the way the buildings and roads were aligned. Probably a water source of some description.

    As she walked, she quickly noticed something...odd, amongst the villagers.

    Many gave her curious looks, which was to be expected. She even got a handful of friendly smiles and waves. But there was something missing - normally, such a closed off community tended to be very wary of outsiders. But in this case, while they were obviously curious about her, she didn't detect any negativity at all. There was nothing but warm welcomes in their mannerisms, which was the exact opposite of what Sion had expected to be greeted with.

    As she made her way towards the center of the town, this realization caused her to grow ever more uneasy. If her predictions were reliable, then from their perspective, there should have been an unprecedented influx of outsiders coming to their village over the past few days and weeks. But rather than generate concern among the townspeople, they seemed to just...brush it off. They were curious, but not interested. For such a rural, shut-away people, that was beyond strange.

    She supposed that was to her benefit. The less uneasy the people were about her, the more freedom she would have. While she wasn't happy about not knowing the reason, it was always something she could investigate later.

    "Excuse me?"

    An unfamiliar voice stopped Sion mid-stride. Turning to look behind her, she was greeted by a warm smile from a middle-aged woman. Judging from her dress and accent, she seemed to be a local resident. She was built rather solidly, but it was more the muscle of a hard-working mother than that of a fighter - the chances she was an agent of the Church were slim to none.

    "Would you happen to be Miss Eltnam?" With no response from Sion, the woman continued. Sion's grasp of Italian was elementary at best, and the woman's very rural rendition of it made it even more difficult to understand, but even in that unfamiliar accent, she recognized her own name very easily.

    "I am," she said somewhat cautiously, one part due to her lack of fluency in Italian and another because this complete stranger happened to know her name. While it caught her off guard, she supposed it wasn't all that unlikely. If anyone had said 'there is a foreigner named Eltnam coming to the village soon,' anyone could connect that person to her. The most obvious question would be then, who had told her that she was coming?

    "Ah, great!" the woman exclaimed, clapping her hands in satisfaction. "Father Idoni asked that if we saw you, we should lead you to the church!"

    And that answered that question suitably. In hindsight, it was pretty obvious she supposed - if she was working with the Church, it would probably make preparations for her arrival. She supposed it also explained why she had been shown a considerable lack of antagonism from the villagers - they had actually been expecting her. And if they were expecting her as a friend of the Church, then they would no doubt welcome her with open arms.

    The woman laughed apologetically, saying something in Italian that Sion couldn't quite catch. With a friendly clap on the shoulder, she took Sion by the hand and spoke very slowly, "Follow me."

    It seemed the woman had mistaken her hesitation for lack of understanding, but that suited Sion just fine. With a smile and a nod, Sion allowed the woman to gently pull her through the town, all the while keeping a somewhat cautious eye on her surroundings. As they walked, the woman continued to chatter on excitedly, speaking in a way Sion had no hope of understanding. The church had been fairly close by, situated in a central courtyard that, as Sion had predicted, housed a large well.

    The church itself was fairly small, maybe two or three rooms at most, and didn't look like it could hold much more than a tenth of the town's population. It made Sion wonder if there were actually more churches throughout the town, but with the placement of this one, it certainly seemed to be the town's central social hub. Pushing open the solid wooden door of the church without hesitation, the woman lead Sion inside and called out in a loud voice.

    In short order, a small, grey-haired old man came out of one of the inner rooms. Peering quizzically at the pair of women through his dirty glasses, he almost jumped when he finally saw Sion. The old man, a priest judging by his garb, quickly scurried his way over, all the while exchanging rapid-fire words with Sion's guide.

    Sion began to wonder whether she might have been better off turning down the invitation when the woman suddenly turned and gave Sion a hug. Unsure of how to react, Sion stood frozen, but before her lack of response became awkward, the woman let her go, gave her a wink and a pat on the shoulder, and with a few more unintelligible words, exited through the door they had come in.

    "Oh, I'm sorry, sorry!" the old man suddenly spoke up, futilely rubbing his glasses on his equally dirty priest's robe. "Oh! Uhhh...English? Do you speak English?"

    "Ah, yes, English is fine," Sion replied with an awkward, yet grateful smile. English wasn't her first language, but as a member of the Atlas Institute, it was a language she had to be fairly comfortable working in.

    "Great, great!" The old priest replied, relief obvious on his face. "My name is Adriano Idoni. Most, uhm...most of the villagers call me Father Idoni. A pleasure to meet you!"

    "The pleasure is all mine," Sion replied, her smile much more genuine than before. The old man, somewhat shorter than she was, spoke as if he had just recently been brushing up on his English, and Sion had a good idea as to what had prompted him to do so.

    "Mother Riesbyfe informed me you would be arriving in Solociano today, so I took it upon myself to, uhh...to tell the villagers you were coming. I...I didn't want them to get, spooked. It's so very not common to see outsiders, you see!" The man wrung his hands apologetically, as if his attempt at courtesy in preparing for her had been offensive.

    "Thank you," Sion replied with a small nod, "I appreciate your hospitality. I have to admit," she continued, trying to change the subject a little, "I'm surprised Mother Riesbyfe has contacts all the way out here."

    Idoni gave a scowl and a hum as he started to make his way back into the church, motioning Sion to follow him. "Well, actually, I hadn't met her myself before...oh, when did she come? Maybe three days ago? Maybe four?"

    That startled Sion. "Wait, Mother Riesbyfe came here personally?"

    The old man turned to give her a quizzical look before replying. "Didn't you come here to meet her?"

    Sion smiled apologetically, mind racing for an excuse as if she had been caught in a lie. "Well, I knew I was meeting someone from the Church. I didn't know Mother Riesbyfe herself would be meeting with me." In the end, the truth won out. There was no value in hiding things from the priest. As long as he didn't ask what she was doing here...well, hopefully 'Mother Riesbyfe' had managed to sate that curiosity for him.

    "Yes, well, Mother Riesbyfe is truly an outstanding individual. Maybe, uhh...maybe it's not my place to say this, seeing as I've only known her for a short time, but she doesn't seem like someone who is satisfied to delegate."

    "Is she still in the village?" Sion continued. If Riesbyfe herself was here, that made things...complicated. While it certainly seemed to be helping in the short term with setting up and getting a foothold in the town, working with such a VIP from the Church in the field could prove difficult.

    Rather than answer her question, however, the old man simply smiled and, approaching a small wooden door in the back of the sanctuary, opened it wide. Sitting casually on the other side of that door dressed in full armor and lazily toying with what looked like the carrying case for some sort of large musical instrument, was Riesbyfe Stridberg herself.

    *****

    After a short exchange with Riesbyfe outside of Sion's hearing, Father Idoni had rather hastily left the two alone in what looked like a private study of some sort.

    "Long time no see," Riesbyfe greeted her with a patronizing grin. "Glad to see you are doing well."

    "It's a pleasure to see you again," Sion replied with a flat expression. "I must admit I'm curious why you didn't mention that you were going to be here personally at our last meeting."

    Riesbyfe gave a short laugh. "To be honest, I came here just to take a look around, but after spending a few days in the village I decided it would be best if I got involved too. It looks like this is going to be a pretty serious case, and you did ask me to send the best I could afford. Besides, if the next head of Atlas is going to participate, it would only be fair if we sent someone of equal calibre, right?"

    Sion gave a quiet sigh. She and Riesbyfe had first met a month or so prior, when the Church officially contracted the Atlas Institute to help with exterminating a particularly tenacious vampire. For...personal reasons, she had volunteered to head the operation, but through all of the negotiations, 'Mother Riesbyfe' had never showed the slightest inclination towards participating in the hunt herself. Sion had, apparently mistakenly, believed the 'Head of the Knights' was a largely bureaucratic position. Judging by the armor she now wore, it was quite obvious that that wasn't the case.

    "If things move according to your calculations," Riesbyfe spoke up, changing the subject, "then the real danger begins tonight, doesn't it?"

    Sion nodded. "Right. As long as everything remains on schedule, we should see some movement shortly after sundown. And everything will be over by the end of our...well, my third night here."

    "What an annoying vampire," Riesbyfe said with a sigh, leaning back in her chair. "I've been here for three days already, and now it's going to take another three just to find the stupid thing?"

    "Less find it, and more wait for it to exist," Sion said.

    Their target - the Night of Wallachia.

    A vampiric Curse that, in most cases, did nothing. It didn't even really exist. But, when the situation was right, when all the conditions were met, it would manifest in a single night of carnage and destruction, devouring all who lived within its effective range. It was a centuries old curse, and having successfully predicted where it would appear this time, the Church had finally made a move to put an end to it once and for all.

    Sion herself had spent the last month intensively researching all records held by the Atlas Institute, the Church, and even her personal records of the Eltnam family, for any information she could glean about the Curse. Unfortunately, while the research hadn't exactly been useless, it didn't provide her with any practical knowledge about defeating it. Sure, she understood the theoretical framework it operated on, and she could probably even predict its next few appearances within a negligible margin of error. But the nature of the Curse itself prevented any records of its combat abilities from being reliable.

    The way the Curse operated was deceptively simple - it would latch on to rumors spreading about a given area, and as it collected power, it would manifest those rumors as apparitions. As a vampire intent on feeding, it tended towards the more destructive and dangerous rumors - serial killers, monsters, and the like. These apparitions would sow terror and fear throughout the town, thus feeding the Curse even more. When it reached its full power, it would manifest itself as the most powerful rumor circulating, and for a single night would lay waste to everything in its surroundings.

    Stopping that final incarnation was their goal. Theoretically, if that could be defeated, the Curse would end for good.

    Of course, the actual mechanisms and conditions were a little more complicated than that, but for their purposes, this was effectively how it functioned.

    Taking a glance at the clock in the small room, Sion nodded to herself. "About 2 hours until sunset. Shall we start getting ready?"

    Riesbyfe gave what could almost be called an excited smile, motioning to a desk in the corner of the room. "I've made some maps of the town and surrounding area, complete with my own personal notes. Would you like to take a look?"

    Sion raised an eyebrow in surprise. She supposed Riesbyfe had been here for three days, but she didn't really strike Sion as the...careful planning type. She wasn't going to complain about having more information, though. Walking over to the desk, she surveyed the maps and notes Riesbyfe had prepared. Most of the notes were very combat-centric - 'large open space,' 'poor night lighting,' 'narrow entryway,' and more than a dozen places marked with 'hiding spot.' Were those for them to hide, or the enemy?

    This was exactly the kind of information Sion was looking for. Though she had already started, and would continue, compiling her own personal notes on the town as a battlefield, having these maps labelled with Riesbyfe's appraisal of the individual areas was a great foundation for her to build on.

    Sitting down at the desk, Sion motioned Riesbyfe to join her.

    "Two hours until we head out," she said, turning to face the desk as Riesbyfe pulled up a chair beside her. "And lots of planning to do."

    Sitting down with a heavy thud - surprisingly loud, until Sion realized it was probably just the weight of her armour - Riesbyfe retrieved a handful of pencils from inside the desk and placed them on the table.

    "Let's get started."


    ****************


    Sion took a deep breath to settle her nerves.

    She and Riesbyfe had been patrolling the streets of the small village for a little over two hours, and with the sun comfortably below the horizon, shadows hid most of the small town from sight. The sparsely arrayed lanterns were lit, but with the distance between them, they did little except blind their eyes to the moonlight.

    Sion had briefly considered snuffing the lanterns and working with only natural light, but she had quickly dismissed the idea. The moonlight wasn't strong enough for them to operate, and while it would be better than nothing, having the option to lure any enemies they came across near the lanterns to fight was more useful.

    Riesbyfe, clad in her black combat uniform, made a striking figure in the dark. Her white hair and silver armor made her somehow easy to find yet difficult to see in the weak light. Between the lanterns, she became almost ghostly monochromatic, and Sion couldn't help but wonder if that was the intent behind the design. Her instrument case, which Sion could only assume held some sort of weapon, was still slung on her back. It appeared by Riesbyfe's bored demeanour that Sion was the only one who felt the tension of the situation.

    The window of opportunity they had to work was very narrow. This was the first night on which the Curse would be strong enough to physically manifest, and in two or three days time, it would be gone. That meant they needed to draw out its core and destroy it within - at best - three nights.

    Thanks to Riesbyfe's intelligence gathering efforts on the town's layout and Sion's own research about the Curse, they had made a strong start, but it would be difficult to maintain that pace for three nights straight.

    Without a word, Riesbyfe suddenly pulled her instrument case off her back, and began opening it.

    "Something wrong?" Sion asked, keeping her eyes on the environment around them. They were perhaps a 5 minute walk away from returning to the church where they had begun their investigation, if they maintained their current cautious pace. Riesbyfe gave a grunt in acknowledgement before tossing the empty instrument case on the ground by the closest lantern.

    "Smells like death up ahead."

    Sion frowned. It didn't make sense for there to be something naturally occurring up ahead, as it was a place they had already investigated. No matter how close they got, however, Sion didn't detect any smell at all.

    As they continued to press towards the source of Riesbyfe's anomalous smell, Sion quickly appraised the Knight's weapon. It was difficult to make out the details in the poor light, but it was evidently some sort of shield. It was strapped to her left arm so she could wield it without tying up her hands if needed. On the tip of the shield, a sharp spearhead-like point protruded out of the shield, giving it a pile bunker-like appearance.

    It was an interesting design, but she suspected that it was more than just an 'interesting shield.' There was no way the head of the Knights would go into battle without some form of holy relic, and considering the plain, utilitarian look of her armor, she suspected this was it.

    As they broke into the clearing marking the town center, Sion armed herself as well. Pulling a sleek black handgun out from the holster at her waist, she triple checked the ammo cartridge and disengaged the safety. Taking one last look around the clearing to make sure there was no immediate danger, she closed her eyes and brought a hand to her left temple.

    Accelerated Thought Process: Initiate.
    Divided Thought Process: Open.


    With those words, time seemed to stop. As if the world had ground to a halt to wait for her, the sound of fire flickering in the lanterns, the sounds of Riesbyfe's footsteps, the sounds of the wind between the stone houses - everything stopped. In that one moment of serene silence, something hidden deep in Sion's mind began to awaken. As if trading away her emotions, her mind became a computer designed for perfect analysis, perfect calculation. With a sensation like an old CRT monitor being turned on, the circuit was complete - and the machine was turned on.

    Opening her eyes, a volume of information that would put even computers to shame flowed into Sion. Everything she saw before her was suddenly no more than math - the movement of the Head Knight, the flickering of the lanterns, the breath of the wind, everything was a formula, everything was a number.

    Unfazed by the flood of information, Sion completed her ritual with a deep breath, lowering her hand back to her side. Staying atop the flood of information - staying human while your brain turned into a machine - was not a simple task, but it was the trademark of Atlas alchemists. The threat of being dragged under was nothing new to her, and it was a threat that had lost its bite long ago.

    With the mental shock of unlocking her analytic capabilities passed, Sion once again swept her gaze over the clearing.

    Riesbyfe was heading to the church. No doubt, she was worried that the source of the smell was there, and that the priest was in danger. Incorrect, though.
    The wind was blowing from behind them. Any natural smell should have been carried away from them, but Riesbyfe's approach indicated she thought it was getting stronger. Not a literal odour, then.
    No, the thing that caught her attention - a curious hum coming from the opposite direction of the church.

    The town well.

    A sound like static, barely audible over the sound of the breeze - probably unnoticed by Riesbyfe, but with her enhanced cognition, no tiny fragment of input would be lost to her.

    "Riesbyfe," Sion called out in a low voice. As Riesbyfe turned to look at her, Sion nodded towards the well. It was just barely outside the optimal range of her handgun, and far out of Riesbyfe's combat range if she planned to engage in melee.

    Taking the hint, Riesbyfe sank into a battle ready stance and placed herself between Sion and the well. Slowly, she began advancing forwards, eyes carefully trained on her target. All the while, Sion continued to keep an eye on their surroundings.

    As they approached the well, the soft static sound stopped with an abrupt snap. Then, as if on cue, an odd-looking figure popped up a few centimeters above the edge of the well.

    Before Sion could say anything, Riesbyfe stopped and held her shield combat-ready. The poor light coming from the lantern behind them made it almost impossible to see any detail of the figure, but they could at least see a faint glimmer in what looked like eyes.

    "I thought vampires didn't like water," Sion called out cautiously. "What's this one doing in a well?"

    "Oh, don't worry little girl," a raspy voice answered her. "I'm no vampire. I just want to play." It was like listening to someone filing a piece of iron.

    "Come on over, then," Riesbyfe spoke up, her voice somehow a mix of playful and hateful. "We'll play with you all night."

    As expected, the creature only laughed, sinking slightly deeper into the well. "Oh, but you are so scary. I just want to play with the purple one. Why don't you send her over?"

    The situation became decidedly awkward. It seemed the creature was somewhat intelligent, as evidenced by its ability to speak. But it also seemed like it wasn't interested in leaving the well. Of course, Sion wasn't stupid enough to get anywhere close to the well, but there didn't seem like very many more options to get it out in the open.

    "Well, I guess one well is a small price to pay for killing such a disgusting smelling beast," Riesbyfe said to herself as she began approaching the well. Sion slowly repositioned herself around her, gaining a clear line of sight to the well. Raising her gun, she approached just close enough that she could confidently land a hit.

    "Oh, I can't let you do that," the creature's raspy voice sounded somehow more sinister, having lost it's playful edge. "You see, I am the guardian of this town's well. If you try to harm it, I'll have to drown you."

    "Oh please," Riesbyfe called back, maintaining her cautious forward movement. "What kind of 'guardian spirit' smells like corpses?" The creature didn't reply, sinking below the mouth of the well and becoming completely obscured. Riesbyfe approached the well, now within five meters, before stopping. Making eye contact with Sion, they exchanged nods.

    As Riesbyfe returned her attention to the well, she suddenly leapt forward - and the trap was set.

    It was almost too perfect. As Riesbyfe leapt forward, a bird-like talon rose out of the well and struck down on her like a hammer. Riesbyfe of course had been counting on the preemptive attack, and had already raised her shield above her head. A sound like a tuning fork flooded the clearing as the bizarre appendage slammed into the shield, causing the Knight's legs to buckle momentarily, dropping her to one knee.

    Time seemed to slow to a crawl. As possibilities played out in her head like a movie theater, Sion had already begun to move. The sound of gunfire overlapped that of Riesbyfe's shield as Sion made three quick shots towards the well. At the same time, Riesbyfe dropped her shield, reached up, and grabbed the monster's leg that was still trying to crush her. As the three bullets raced past the Knight, she threw her entire body into a forward roll away from the well.

    The bullets shortly after hit the rim of the well, ricocheting downwards into the darkness where the creature was hiding. The sharp sound of bullets ricocheting off stone was followed by the dull sound of them impacting wood, and for the briefest moment, Sion had thought she had missed. However, Riesbyfe's roll - still holding on to the creature's leg - tore the hissing beast from it's hiding place and heaved it over into the clearing.

    In a little more than a second, the entire situation was different - the as-yet unidentified creature was now forced into the open. With Riesbyfe between the monster and the well, and flanked by Sion on the other side, it had no where to run or hide.

    As the creature righted itself after being thrown face first into the flagstone of the city square, Riesbyfe did likewise, jumping backwards and taking up her shield again. In one fluid motion, she rearmed herself and threw something from her belt towards the creature. After the sharp sound of metal striking stone, the object erupted outwards, filling the clearing with an almost blinding white light, at last illuminating the monster between them.

    It looked like something that truly belonged in a well. It's body seemed to be little more than a piece of misshapen wood, embedded in which were two unevenly spaced eyes and a jagged gash containing rows of razor-like teeth that could barely be called a mouth. Out of its wood-like body, four spindly legs, easily three meters long each, supported the creature as it stood in the city square. Despite the bird-like talons, its movement and bearing were more reminiscent of an insect.

    Three bullet holes showed where Sion's distracting shots had struck home. It didn't appear to be significantly injured from the shots, but the unexpected injury had succeeded in causing the beast to lose its grip on the well's interior, allowing Riesbyfe to hurl it into the open street.

    "Huh, so it really isn't a vampire," Riesbyfe said, disappointed. "I was hoping I'd get to test out how effective these UV flares were, but apparently that'll have to wait for another day."

    "Be careful what you wish for," Sion said all the while tracking the creature's movements. It stood cautiously, tensely, watching the two of them. It seemed to understand that despite being almost twice her size, Riesbyfe was not going to be easy prey. Which meant, its next move would obviously be-

    -with an unearthly howl, the creature leapt backwards, directly towards Sion. Spinning in the air to face its new target, one of its huge talons smashed into the ground, slicing through the air Sion had occupied only a breath before. Sion, having rolled forward close enough she could reach out and touch the creature's main body, rose to one knee and leveled her pistol at the creature's face. Two quick shots relieved the creature of its eyes, earning Sion a violent screech as the creature lurched backwards in pain.

    Without taking the time to confirm, Sion kicked hard off the ground, rolling out from under the monster. Riesbyfe's shout signaled that she had made the right choice, and she was just able to right herself in time to see the knight bury the point of her shield-spear downward into the creature's defenseless back, driving it hard into the ground. With a roar every bit as terrifying as the well monster's, she then lifted the impaled creature over her head and slammed it face first into the flagstones behind her.

    The well monster scrabbled weakly at the stones for a few moments, a painful gurgling sound coming from its wooden body, before its limbs went limp. Without another sound, the bizarre creature seemed to melt into a black mist, burned off by the waning light of Riesbyfe's flare.

    The entire fight hadn't even lasted 15 seconds, but as she scanned the area to confirm their safety and came out of her combat trance, Sion felt the tension of hours leave her limbs. With a deep breath, Sion brought her advanced thought processing to a stop, and the constant flood of information pouring into her head slowed to a trickle - returned to human levels.

    "Well, that was a lot easier than I had expected," Riesbyfe quipped as she watched the lingering bits of dead wood melt off her shield. "You seem pretty used to this, as well."

    Sion holstered her weapon as she joined Riesbyfe in watching the 'corpse' melt away into the night. It was somewhat like watching a cube of sugar dissolve in slow motion. Ignoring the veiled question behind Riesbyfe's compliment, Sion spoke.

    "So as expected, this was no doubt an apparition of the Curse. If it had been an actual...thing...it wouldn't disappear like this."

    "What was it, out of curiosity? Certainly not undead, despite the fact it clearly smelled like one."

    Sion gave a thoughtful hum. Her knowledge of Italian mythical creatures was pretty shallow, as she had only begun investigating them after receiving a call to arms from the Church. "There is a myth of a well monster, called the Marabbecca, that supposedly originated in Sicily. I guess it makes sense there would be a similar story here."

    "Just your typical 'don't fall in the well' fairy tale, I suppose," Riesbyfe spoke under her breath, losing interest as the last of the creature's remains vanished into the night air. "Well, not much point in gloating now, is there?"

    Sion nodded in agreement as she mentally collated what they had learned. Effectively, that was 'almost nothing,' but at least they had managed to put down this monster. It had been located in a spot that would have been incredibly dangerous to the local population, so it was a good thing they managed to eliminate it shortly after it appeared.

    Also, she had a new lead. That bizarre, static-like sound would no doubt prove to be a recurring sign for the appearance of apparitions in the future. While not hearing it didn't mean they could let their guard down, it would certainly be a useful hint.

    Either way, the night was young. After one last scan to make sure the area was clear, and that there were no lingering effects of the Marabbecca's presence, the two vampire hunters headed back into the night.




    -=The Second Night=-


    Riesbyfe gave a light sigh as she adjusted the straps on her armour.

    In the end, after destroying the well monster the night before, they hadn't run into any other problems. And while the altercation had been brief, it was certainly eye-opening for her.

    Specifically, in regards to the Alchemist that was her partner. She had no problems admitting that she had been a little concerned when she first met Sion. At Atlas' request, she had handed over leadership of the operation to them, and they had repaid that faith by sending a single teenager as their entire combat force. At their request, Riesbyfe had also come with minimal reinforcements, and had left them outside the city proper, but there was a difference between following instructions and liking them.

    Her biggest concern was that, no matter how good she was on paper - which Riesbyfe knew as an Atlasia she was no doubt one of Atlas' best - a girl her age would not be able to handle the rigors of a real combat situation. She had been pleasantly surprised to learn that her fears were unfounded. Whether she was actually experienced in combat or just incredibly level-headed under pressure, her conduct during their brief scuffle had been more than acceptable.

    While Riesbyfe had provided most of the muscle for the encounter, things had been exceptionally easy for her thanks to Sion's support. One had to wonder if it was just a fluke that things had gone so well, but with the cold precision that Sion acted, and the way that even as the monster was practically breathing on her she didn't hesitate for an instant...it seemed almost as if everything was a part of the girl's plan.

    In any case, it was encouraging to see that her partner was not so green as to be unreliable. That being said...

    "You know, I'm starting to have second thoughts about...this."

    Riesbyfe spoke uneasily, earning a curious look from Sion.

    "Oh? About what?"

    Stopping herself moments before she blurted out 'working with you,' she opted for a more political response. "These 'plans' of yours seem pretty risky for all involved, that's all."

    Sion blinked a couple times, as if confused. "Of course there's risk. We're hunting a vampire."

    Unsure of how to respond, Riesbyfe settled with a sulky grimace. It wasn't that she thought there wouldn't be risk involved, just that she was sort of expecting the risk to be coming from the enemy, not her partner.

    The two walked down of the back streets of the town, a fair distance away from the town center. After spending a large majority of the day sleeping and interrogating Father Idoni, they had set out at nightfall to continue their patrol for apparitions. They also had had a brief 'strategy meeting' before heading out, but that had consisted mostly of Riesbyfe being lectured.

    While she had been thoroughly scolded by Sion for her recklessness the night before - namely, dropping her shield in the middle of a fight - it turned out the real danger was in the questions that had come after. They had started out innocent enough: How many flares do you have? How heavy is your equipment? What kind of martial training have you had?

    The questions soon took a turn for the questionable, however. How much weight can you lift? How fast can you run? How far could you throw that shield? What kind of punishment can that shield take?

    But of course it didn't stop there. What's your opinion on mind control? How would your shield hold up to gunfire? How about your armour?

    'Are you asking me if it's okay to shoot me?'

    'Not really. I'm just curious how you would handle being shot.'

    At that moment, Riesbyfe learned something very important - she couldn't trust her partner. No matter how much she was an Atlas Alchemist, no matter how much a tactical genius, no matter how much her plans were probably 'bullet proof,' if she was left to do as she pleased, Riesbyfe wouldn't be making it out alive.

    She briefly considered whether this was supposed to be some sort of scare tactic - force Riesbyfe into acting more cautious, put her on guard from Sion herself, to make her think of her own safety. Whether that was the case or not, Riesbyfe wasn't willing to take that gamble. Her goal had become clear - defeat the vampire before Sion had a chance to act. If the vampire was dead, Sion would have no reason to put her crazy plans into action.

    The two continued patrolling the town, Riesbyfe mulling over Sion's apparent desire to bring her as close to the brink of death as possible, and Sion no doubt thinking about more ways to do so. How hypocritical could she be, scolding her for being reckless, all the while thinking about how safe it would be to shoot at her own partner?

    A sudden wave of unease brought Riesbyfe to a stop. Quickly, she scanned their surroundings. The street was narrow and dark, most of the light coming from the stars overhead. This feeling, this unease, was unfortunately familiar to Riesbyfe. She had felt the same thing the night before, and countless nights before that. It was a reaction, she had learned long ago, from Gamaliel itself.

    Gamaliel was a shield, both in form and concept. As much as it excelled as a physical barrier, its true strength lay in its conceptual power - an impenetrable barrier, a conceptual fortress that preserved, protected, and enforced God's perfect order.

    Naturally, it could deflect any physical attack short of heavy explosives, and even through those the shield would probably survive even if the bearer did not. But it also served to protect the wielder from evil, from spiritual corruption, from untold numbers of heresies that sought to tear down God and his children.

    This unease, this apprehension - it was a reaction from the shield. Even though it obviously had no real consciousness of its own, it still spoke to her loud and clear:

    Time to work.

    A quick glance at Sion showed that she was also on alert. Whether she was just reacting to Riesbyfe, or she had noticed something was off as well, she had her gun in hand and was scanning their surroundings much like Riesbyfe was. Bringing a finger up to her temple and muttering a few words under her breath, Sion's expression changed rapidly from one of mild alertness to one of cold analysis.

    "Let's move. We're at a disadvantage here in the dark." Sion's voice had an almost mechanical edge to it. Nodding in agreement, the two of them wasted no time, and broke into a full sprint down the narrow street.

    In the worst case, Riesbyfe still had her flares, so they could really fight anywhere. But in this situation, as Sion had described earlier to her, it was better to save them. Pick their own battleground and draw the enemies into it, rather than simply make do with what they had. As long as the townsfolk kept to the curfew, the apparitions should be drawn to the two of them wandering outside, so it was more effective to draw the enemies into a more open environment.

    As they rounded a corner, and a street lantern finally came into view, Riesbyfe suddenly stopped. The uneasy, apprehensive feeling Gameliel was giving her earlier had...stopped. Like a switch had been turned off somewhere. Her mind immediately went into emergency mode - the only time the warning from Gamaliel stopped was when the enemy had been destroyed. Stopping completely like this, with no discernible reason was too strange.

    Noticing Riesbyfe's sudden stop, Sion turned around, and in one swift motion raised her gun. Before Riesbyfe even had the time to speak, Sion pulled the trigger. Instinctively, she tried to dodge the bullet, but with no warning there was no way she could do so.

    Of course, the bullet wasn't aimed at her - as Riesbyfe dropped low, she could hear the bullet zip by over her head and impact into something soft. Wasting no time, Riesbyfe whirled around, swinging her shield blindly like a sledgehammer. Sure enough, though she couldn't see what she was hitting, the solid feedback of hitting something and knocking it away reverberated up her arm. A sickening thud resounded as whatever she had hit slammed into the stone wall of a nearby building. Taking it as her cue, Riesbyfe once again broke into a sprint towards the light of the lantern.

    "What was that?!" Riesbyfe said as Sion took up pace beside her. It took only a handful of seconds before they reached the relative safety of the lantern's glow, illuminating just enough to see they were in a sort of T-junction, with their backs to a large stone wall.

    "I couldn't really see," Sion said, turning to once again scan the darkness for movement. "Its eyes were glowing in the lantern light, even from that distance...maybe some sort of cat?"

    Riesbyfe similarly watched the darkness, flexing the muscles in her left arm to make sure she was uninjured. "It was pretty heavy, maybe as heavy as a person. Would that mean like... a lion or something?"

    "A lion or a tiger would have killed you even after I shot it with its weight alone," Sion replied after a brief moment. "Even so, as heavy as a person would be twice as big as any wild cat that lives in Italy..."

    The sound of padded footsteps and a low growling interrupted their conversation. From each of the three streets leading off of their protective lantern, an unreasonably large canine slowly approached them, each with teeth bared.

    "Those aren't cats at all," Riesbyfe muttered under her breath, earning a snort from Sion.

    "They also look much heavier than just a person," she retorted. Sure enough, they seemed more comparable in size to cattle than to any dog Riesbyfe had ever seen. As Sion had said, if one of these had lunged at her, she'd have a lot more than a sore arm to show for it.

    "These are apparitions of the Curse, right?" Riesbyfe said, keeping an eye on the closest wolf. "I'm not getting a 'vampire' vibe from them at all."

    "I'm also somewhat surprised," Sion replied, slowly inching back towards the wall behind her. "I expected the apparitions to be more...vile, like last night. These seem almost like they could be real animals."

    "Except twice the size," Riesbyfe said with a wry smile.

    "...except twice the size," Sion conceded. "Are you ready?"

    Eyeing the approaching wolves as they crept ever closer, Riesbyfe lowered herself and brought the spearhead of her shield to bear against the closest wolf. Being the one on their left, it would be difficult for her to contend with it and defend Sion from the other two, but complaining about it wouldn't do her any good. All she could do was forge ahead, and trust Sion's tactics to carry them the rest of the way.

    "After you, captain."

    The instant Riesbyfe finished speaking, Sion burst into action. With mechanical precision, Sion swung her pistol around and fired three quick rounds. At the same time, the three wolves - and Riesbyfe - lunged forward.

    Riesbyfe briefly noted the sound of bullets striking home before her focus narrowed in on the wolf in front of her. She aimed to impale the wolf cleanly through the chest with her first thrust, but the animal unexpectedly bounded sideways, towards the wall. This had the odd effect of putting both of them in relative safety, as the wolf was now out of the path of the thrusting shield-spear, but had maneuvered so that the shield was still between the two of them. Paying no mind to the shield in its way, the wolf lunged forward from its new angle.

    The wolf seemed to realize it wouldn't be able to reach her, as it opted for a tackle rather than a bite. The force of the impact drove Riesbyfe several feet backwards, but the instant her feet were steady, Riesbyfe swung her shield around in an attempt to throw the wolf off. While she was able to clear the shield, the wolf was too heavy for her to knock away, so she only managed to push it back up onto its hind legs for a brief moment. The wolf came down again, this time fangs bared.

    Using the momentum earned from swing her shield and throwing off the multi-hundred pound wolf, Riesbyfe brought a gauntleted right fist forward in a straight punch, catching the unsuspecting wolf in the teeth. The fist struck like a hammer, the weight of the gauntlet adding as much to the thrust as any muscle Riesbyfe could throw behind it, and was rewarded by the sound of teeth and bone cracking and snapping. The wolf gave a pitiful cry, claws raking uselessly against Riesbyfe's armor before it staggered backwards in pain. As it did so, Riesbyfe brought her shield-spear to bear once more, and this time had no trouble driving the head of the spear through the stunned animal's skull.

    As the corpse of the beast began to melt away into a familiar black mist, Riesbyfe turned to check on Sion. It seemed her first barrage of shots had ended the first wolf before it could cause any trouble, its corpse melting away where Riesbyfe had last seen it. She continued turning, coming around just in time to see Sion casually empty three rounds into the back of the final wolf's head, which appeared to have its snout and front legs bound together by an invisible rope. Seeing the animal begin to decay as the others, Sion flicked her free wrist, and whatever invisible bindings that had held the wolf were released.

    The two shared a nod, confirming they were both unharmed.

    "Wow, you two are really something!"

    Riesbyfe and Sion whirled to face the new speaker weapons ready, standing a few steps behind the body of the central wolf. Standing there was what looked like a perfectly normal boy, no more than ten years old, dressed in the same 18th century clothing that characterized the rest of Solociano. At first glance, he seemed to just be a normal civilian boy that had broken the curfew. But the instant Riesbyfe laid eyes on him, she knew that wasn't the case.

    In part, because as soon as he had made himself visible to them, Gamaliel's warning returned in full force.

    But maybe more obviously, was the enormous bear that was lumbering along behind him. Easily twice Riesbyfe's size, the enormous beast looked right past the boy, and stared at the two vampire hunters with bloodthirsty eyes.

    "No no, not tonight!" The boy said with a laugh, casually swatting at the bear's face. "It's just getting interesting now, we can't kill them yet!"

    "Who...are you?" Sion asked hesitantly. For some reason, even with the massive bear staring them down...the real threat seemed to be the boy himself. Instinctively, Riesbyfe felt this, but it seemed by her demeanour that Sion had come to the same conclusion.

    The boy laughed again. "If you don't know that much, how can you hope to win tomorrow?"

    "What's tomorrow?" Sion pressed, strangely intent on getting information out of him. The boy, meanwhile, gave a sinister grin.

    "Seriously, if you don't know that much, why are you even here?"

    Riesbyfe immediately placed herself between Sion and the boy, raising her shield in a fighting stance. It was clear - this was their target. Even though he appeared to be no more than a little boy, this...thing, was the target they were hunting. This reaction from Gamaliel was unmistakable - this was the vampire they had come here to slay. This had to be the core of the Curse.

    "Oh, don't worry, I'm just here to watch tonight," he continued with a cheerful voice. Despite the danger Riesbyfe felt from him, he honestly sounded like no more than a little boy.

    "Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of time," Riesbyfe replied, her voice confident despite the uneasiness she felt. "You'll have to die tonight."

    The boy replied only with a condescending smile - amazing, how a ten year old could look condescending - but before he could speak, Sion put a hand on her shoulder. Riesbyfe turned to look at her briefly, but Sion just shook her head, motioning to the roof tops.

    On top of the single-story buildings flanking the boy and his bear, two pairs of eyes flickered, reflecting the light of the lantern. From here, they could see clearly they were some kind of cat - as Sion had predicted earlier, a kind of lynx or bobcat, though certainly much larger than any breed Riesbyfe knew of. As she noticed the cats watching them with careful eyes, the sound of growling once again returned to their ears.

    From their right and left sides, a pair of wolves as enormous as before slowly stalked up towards them. They were completely surrounded, and hideously outnumbered. Riesbyfe grit her teeth before taking a deep breath to calm her mounting frustration. Their target was immediately in front of them, but it seemed like it was going to take a miracle just for them to get out alive.

    "Oh don't worry, you can leave here tonight. I don't mind letting you go. Tomorrow night at midnight everything will be over, though, so stick around until then, okay?"

    Riesbyfe breathed deeply again. Surely, with Sion's accuracy, she would have no problem killing the vast majority of the creatures staring them down before they were in any danger. But, thinking calmly, she realized that wasn't realistic.

    Firstly, Sion hadn't reloaded - after already firing six shots, chances are she wasn't in a good position to fight this many opponents at once. Secondly, and more importantly, conventional firearms would be useless against a vampire. While the animals seemed to die to bullets just fine, there was no guarantee that the boy could be harmed by them at all. And if Sion unloaded her gun into them and they got tied up fighting the vampire, and more animals came...

    No matter which way she looked at it, there didn't seem to be any escape. The boy seemed like he was planning on letting them go, but Riesbyfe wasn't exactly in the business of trusting vampires.

    After a considerable silence, the boy gave a low hum. "I'm pretty surprised, though. I expected that white haired lady to have killed herself by now trying to get to me. You Church types are a lot smarter than I thought!"

    As he spoke, the wolves began to move again. Riesbyfe and Sion braced themselves for action, but it seemed they were actually moving around them, circling at a safe distance. The wild cats on the roof also moved back, joining back up with the boy and the bear.

    "I'm glad, though," the boy continued. "That will make tomorrow even more exciting!"

    With that, the boy turned and, together with his menagarie of animals, retreated into the darkness behind him. Before he completely vanished from view, he threw one last look at the pair of vampire hunters.

    "Oh, and don't worry, I won't kill anyone tonight. I've had fun playing with you, but the real game starts tomorrow night, so go ahead and have a nice sleep, okay?" With a chuckle at the consternation on both of their faces, the boy turned back and vanished into the night.

  14. #14
    Lethum Milbunk's Avatar
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    -=The Third Night=-

    Sion breathed a sigh of exhaustion as she looked out over the town from her seat on the edge of the town well.

    It wasn't physical exhaustion. She had made sure both she and Riesbyfe were well rested and wide awake by the time evening came. No, what she was dealing with was a mental exhaustion - fatigue brought on by the stress of an entire day feeling helpless.

    She knew, that the Curse fed off of local rumors and legends. And of course, the best way to learn about local rumors and legends was to ask the local people. But even if she spent the entire day canvassing the town, her inability to actually communicate with the locals meant that there was virtually nothing she could learn.

    Unfortunately it seemed Riesbyfe was in a similar situation. While she could communicate with the priest at the local church, there was only so much one man could know. Having a single source of information greatly increased the likelihood of that information being untrustworthy.

    While Riesbyfe worked on gathering that information, whatever it was worth, Sion did her best to sort out the information she did have.

    The previous night, they had been attacked by numerous forms of wildlife. They were much larger than one would expect, and their bodies dissipated when killed, so there was no doubt that they were apparitions brought about by the Curse.

    Knowing that, there were any number of possible rumors that the Curse could be exploiting to create them. Maybe someone had gone missing, and the people blamed the wildlife. Or maybe someone had actually been attacked by a bear, or wolves. If the appearance of the Marabbecca was any indication, it could just be that parents warned their children to not stray outside the village for fear of being attacked by something.

    The exact nature of the rumor wasn't really all that relevant once they knew the result the Curse would draw from it. All that was important was that they could expect a large number of dangerous animals - wolves, wild cats, bears, and the like - to complicate things in their fight against the vampire.

    Sion grimaced as she was brought back, once again, to the point where her logic was blocked. Their main goal was of course to slay that vampire, and put an end to the Curse. But they had no information as to what exactly that vampire was capable of. It looked like a little boy, which might give the impression of weakness, but it was plainly obvious that the creatures attacking them the previous night were under his control to some extent.

    Was that because of his latent abilities as a vampire? Or only because they were apparitions created by the same Curse? Was he even controlling them, or did they act out of some sort of hive mind? In the end, they just didn't have any real information on the vampire, and thus it was incredibly difficult to plan any sort of countermeasures against it.

    "I'm surprised you're willing to sit here after a couple nights ago." Riesbyfe greeted Sion with a nod as she sat down beside her, faint traces of something bitter showing through her playful tone.

    "Just the opposite," Sion replied with a wry grin, "we killed the monster that lives here. That makes it one of the safest places in town."

    "I like the way you think," Riesbyfe said, giving a much more honest sounding laugh.

    Sion turned to Riesbyfe with an expectant look, who fell silent, her previous good humor evaporating in an instant. As if deciding how to broach a difficult subject, Riesbyfe stared at the ground by her feet with a bitter expression. After taking a deep breath, she turned to Sion again.

    "There's some good news, and there's some bad news. And to save you the trouble of making the decision, I'll tell you outright: the good news is just that I figured out what the bad news is."

    Sion cocked her head to the side slightly. "Well, all things considered, that is pretty good news. It's better to know than not, after all."

    Riesbyfe shrugged. "I suppose. That doesn't make the bad news any better." After another deep breath, she continued.

    "As I've been told by Father Idoni, there was a legend in a nearby village that had reached its way to Solociano. According to the legend, a mother once gave birth to triplets. Two of them were stillborn - as the legend says, the remaining child had stolen their life force for itself. Of course, there was much mourning over the two children lost, but at least one survived, right? Well, apparently that wasn't so great either. Because," Riesbyfe rolled her eyes as she spoke in an exaggerated tone, "the child naturally grew up to be a vampire."

    Sion simply nodded in response. A child that ended up as a vampire seemed consistent with the apparition they had witnessed the night before. It was a little off, in that according to Riesbyfe the child 'grew up' into a vampire, while they were still dealing with a child, but there was a solid enough connection that it seemed realistic.

    "Sadly, the story doesn't stop there," she said with a sigh. "About ten years ago, a mother in Solociano gave birth to triplets. And, as you might have guessed, two were stillborn."

    Sion's expression darkened as Riesbyfe continued. "There was some concern about keeping the surviving child, as the legend was fairly well known by that point, but in the end they decided against giving in to superstition, and the child was raised normally. And everything was fine, until about a couple months ago."

    Riesbyfe paused, taking another deep breath. "The boy's health started turning downwards. He grew pale and weak, and eventually began coughing up blood. The village doctor, of course, told the family they needed to rush him to a real hospital, where he could be treated properly. The rest of the villagers, however...decided that it was just the legend coming true. If he was coughing up blood, that must be because he was eating blood, right?"

    Riesbyfe spat, as if she found it repulsive even to say the words. "In the end, the boy's parents sided with the mob. A number of weeks ago, the boy 'mysteriously' disappeared."

    Sion frowned. Of course, the situation Riesbyfe was describing was unpleasant. Stories of children being murdered by their parents weren't exactly fun. But Riesbyfe's demeanour wasn't one of disgust or contempt. Sure, she spoke disparagingly of the parents, but otherwise her tone was much more...concerned. Which meant...

    "As you've guessed," Riesbyfe said with a wry grin, "the story doesn't stop there. Though the town calmed down considerably after the child vanished, exactly one week to the day that he disappeared...so did his mother. There was an extensive search of the surrounding wilderness, but her body was never found. Then, a week after that, as they were on the verge of giving up searching for her, the father disappeared."

    Sion felt a distinct sinking fear in her stomach. This was starting to sound like a bad horror story...and that's exactly the kind of thing the Curse fed on. With three disappearances in exactly 7 day intervals, a small town like this would fall into hysteria in no time. Wild and preposterous rumors would abound.

    Sion grimaced. "And let me guess. Today is 7 days since the last disappearance?"

    Riesbyfe nodded grimly.

    In a way, as Riesbyfe said, this was certainly bad news. On the other hand, it explained the strength the Curse had displayed the night before. With this level of hysteria to support it, it was no wonder that it had managed to manifest a veritable army of wild creatures to attack the town.

    It also explained the puzzling fact that it hadn't attempted to directly attack any of the villagers over the past couple days, despite clearly having the capability to do so. Not to mention why it allowed the two of them to survive the previous night. It was waiting for the 7 day cycle, withholding its ability to intervene to feed on the mounting panic among the townsfolk.

    "So now, the townsfolk are convinced there is some sort of curse on the town, from the murdered boy, as part of his revenge. They believe he really was a vampire, and now they are being punished. Not only do they believe people will continue disappearing every 7 days at midnight, but they also seem to think the rate at which they are disappearing will increase. And it will only stop when everyone in Solociano is dead."

    Sion couldn't help but give an ironic smile at that. Of course, the child really had nothing to do with it, but the villagers were in fact right. There was a curse over the entire town, and it did in fact intend to kill as many people as it could. And just to make the illusion complete, it would be at the hands of an apparition that was born from the village's memory of the boy.

    A few moments of silence passed between the two of them. This information, while better to have than not, didn't seem to open too many options for them. They didn't know the exact strengths and weaknesses of the vampire they would be fighting, but they at least could guess at the scope of its power by looking at the rumors that gave birth to it. That, combined with their experience from the previous nights, showed a disturbing fact that they could no longer ignore.

    They were completely outgunned.

    No matter how her mind raced, now matter how many plans she thought through, all of them reached the same conclusion. They didn't know enough about their target to exploit its weaknesses, and even if they did, the difference in numbers would likely prove to render any advantage they could find moot.

    No matter what calculations they did, they always had the same result.

    There was no hope.

    There was no plan she could make that would give them a realistic chance at victory.

    "So," Riesbyfe spoke up, prompting Sion to turn and face her.

    "What's the plan, boss?"

    Sion was struck speechless. Not by her words, but by her expression. It was as if her previous mood had vanished into thin air - her apprehension at the strength of their enemy, her anger at the people of the town, even her playful exasperation at the cliche nature of the rumors feeding the Curse. Instead, what Sion saw - in her eyes, her tone, her body language - was confidence.

    Not in herself. Not in their weapons, or their abilities, or even their chances.

    But in Sion.

    No doubt, someone as experienced in fighting vampires as Riesbyfe would realize in a flash that their chances at victory were basically zero. Going to fight a vampire without a surefire way to defeat it was suicide. But even so, she trusted Sion implicitly. The Head of the Knights of the Inquisition of the Holy Church, an elite among elites. A leader who, at one word, could send an entire army of Knights to certain death, and could trust that her order to do so would be obeyed without question.

    That Riesbyfe was looking to her, trusting her to find a path to victory.

    Sion frowned, bringing a hand to her forehead as if to stave off an impending headache. There had to be something she could do. Something she had missed. Some avenue of advance for them. Some way they could even the odds...

    "...oh." Looking at Riesbyfe, Sion blurted out almost unconsciously.

    She had been thinking about this the wrong way the whole time.

    She was trying to find a way for the two of them to win against impossible odds.

    But there were more than two of them, weren't there?

    "Riesbyfe, how many Knights did you say you have stationed outside the city?"

    Riesbyfe scratched her cheek as she replied. "Hmm...maybe around two dozen?"

    Looking up at the rapidly sinking sun, Sion nodded to herself. They had a couple hours at most before sunset. They would need to mobilize quickly. "Call them in. We'll need every fighter we can get."

    Riesbyfe sighed in mock relief. "And here I thought you were about to tell me there was no plan." Pulling out a small cellphone from her pocket, she dialed as she gave Sion a playful grin.

    Briefly impressed that she even had reception, Sion replied with a raised eyebrow. "Oh don't worry, there's a plan. It's awful, but it's a plan."

    Riesbyfe rolled her eyes with a smile as she stepped away to give instructions to the Knights waiting outside the city.

    As much as she said it as a joke, in reality it was the truth. To be honest, she wasn't even sure it really qualified as a 'plan.' They would call in all the Knights they could to even the odds against the more mundane apparitions, like the wolves and bears. Then, she and Riesbyfe would simply roll the dice.

    It was a frustrating place to be in, as an alchemist who specialized in reading the future. Sure, she took calculated risks all the time. But those were calculated. This would be a pure gamble, a blind guess - she had no idea what the odds were, and no way of influencing them.

    But either way, it was their only chance. With time rapidly running out, their only hope for victory was to get more information - and the only way to get more information was to face the vampire head on.

    While the other Knights held back the other apparitions, Sion and Riesbyfe would confront the vampire, find its weakness, and do everything they could to exploit it.

    And if they couldn't...well, they could cross that bridge when they got to it.


    *********

    An uneasy silence had settled over the town square.

    It was a few hours past sunset, and nothing had happened yet. No apparitions, no fighting, nothing.

    Sion checked her equipment for the umpteenth time as she continued to watch the darkness. She of course had her pistol, safety already off. Four clips of ammunition, plus another 'special' clip. Her Etherlite was of course wound and ready. And lastly, she had a UV flare she had borrowed from Riesbyfe. It was more supplies than she was used to carrying, but not so much that it weighed her down.

    Standing within arms reach was Riesbyfe, her face a picture perfect example of the term 'focus.' She barely even blinked as she watched the streets leading up to the town center, only breaking her silent vigil every half an hour or so to stretch.

    Arrayed around them, taking up defensive positions at the entrances to the square, were no less than 22 Knights of the Church. Each of them wore armor similar to, yet slightly heavier looking than Riesbyfe's. Each of them carried a spear slightly longer than their own height, gold engravings of noteworthy scripture decorating the otherwise starkly silver weapons.

    It had taken only twenty minutes for them to reach the town after Riesbyfe called them in, and she had wasted no time in briefing them and setting up a perimeter in front of the church and around the town square. And perhaps most reassuringly, they had brought a large number of portable lanterns, filling the town square with a comfortable light.

    Sion found herself feeling strangely calm. Unlike her first night here, where she had been tense and nervous, she was much less on edge now. Perhaps it was because of the fact she had already come into contact with the Curse's apparitions twice now.

    She was certainly fairly confident after the previous night that she could handle any single apparition that came after her, barring of course the vampire that she knew nothing about. Fortunately, with the vast bulk of the apparitions just being large animals, her gun was remarkably effective - as long as her aim was good.

    In the time since Riesbyfe had called for support, Sion had managed to shake off the feeling of helplessness that had harassed her all day. Though she didn't know the properties of the specific vampire they were fighting, Riesbyfe was basically a professional vampire hunter, so she could give her more general information. Using that, she had managed to come up with a strategy that she hoped would be effective.

    All they had to do was survive long enough for the window of opportunity they needed to open.

    "Guards up! Here it comes!" Riesbyfe broke the silence with a sudden shout. Before she had even finished speaking, the Knights raised their weapons into fighting stances. Sion did likewise, raising a hand to her temple and preparing to fight, but as she scanned the darkness she still couldn't see anything.

    Accelerated Thought Process: Initiate

    Absentmindedly, she wondered how exactly Riesbyfe always knew when the enemies were about to arrive. She had detected the monster in the well before Sion did the first night, had shown alarm the night before shortly before being attacked, and now despite her constant vigilance, Riesbyfe knew the enemies were nearby despite her still not being able to see anything.

    Divided Thought Process: Open

    The familiar flood of information helped to ease the rising tension in Sion as she scanned the surroundings for attackers. As she had expected, though, she first noticed the approaching threat with not her eyes, but her ears.

    A faint buzzing sound filled the air. It wasn't the static-like hiss that signaled the birth of a new apparition, but instead it sounded like...insects?

    Sion soon spotted the source of the noise. Over the rooftops, a sort of insect had indeed flown into the clearing. And another. And more. A few seconds after she had first spotted them, hundreds of bugs flew over the rooftops and began congregating at the nearby well.

    "Hold your ground!" Riesbyfe shouted again. "Keep watching the streets!"

    The insect swarm, which in the light of the clearing Sion could now tell were locusts, gathered around the well...and began coalescing into a human shape. In less than ten seconds, the locusts were gone, and taking their place was the small boy they had seen the night before.

    With a curious expression, the child looked around the clearing at all of the Knights present, turning to face Sion last.

    "Wow, what an audience," the boy said in a dry voice. "I'm honestly flattered."

    Sion wasted no time in replying, raising her pistol and firing a shot. The startled boy didn't have time to do more than be surprised as the shot hit him in the forehead, knocking him backwards into the well. Just as he fell under the lip of the well, his arms shot up and grabbed the sides. Pulling himself up, he awkwardly flopped over the edge and landed on the ground with a thud. Sion barely registered his furious expression as she inspected the damage she had caused.

    As expected, that damage was very little. The small bullet hole in the boy's forehead didn't bleed, but interestingly it also wasn't healing. Sion tucked that piece of information away for safe keeping as she exchanged a look with Riesbyfe, signalling the start of the next phase of their assault.

    "I was trying to be polite, but it looks like you just want to hurry up and die," the boy said angrily, lurching to his feet with a huff. Before he could so much as a raise a hand, he once again froze with a look of surprise on his face as Riesbyfe charged at him.

    Unfortunately, the distance between them proved too much for Riesbyfe to cover before he could react, and he did so by jumping backwards. Gaining tremendous height from his jump, he neatly put the well between him and his assailant, buying him the extra two seconds he needed to shout.

    "Kill them all!"

    The boy's shout was answered immediately by a cacophony of roars and howls from the darkness. In short order, shouts from the knights positioned around the square indicated they had made contact with the coming apparitions, but Sion didn't have the freedom to watch and see if they could hold their ground. As Riesbyfe finally rounded the well, the boy once again was forced to jump back, keeping himself out of the range of her shield. Sion raised her gun and squeezed off two shots while the boy was still in the air.

    This time, he was able to react before the shots landed, but since he was already in the air from his jump, he could do little more than turn his body. One bullet took him in the chest as he span to face her, inflicting minimal damage, but the other shot landed right on target, destroying his left kneecap. With his leg ruined, he was unable to make a stable landing, and rolled messily as he hit the ground.

    The rounds Sion was using were simple, everyday handgun bullets. They had no conceptual strength or enchantments, so their limit was at inflicting physical damage. While a vampire wouldn't be killed by something like organ damage or blood loss, if Sion was able to hit critical joints or bones, she could still heavily restrict his movement.

    This time, thanks to the vampire being unable to stand, Riesbyfe was finally able to get in range with her shield. Leaping forwards, she drive the spear point on her shield into the boy with her whole body. A split second before the shield made contact, the boy scattered into a swarm of locusts, which flew away in a chaotic mess.

    Riesbyfe whirled her around in a brilliant flourish as they scattered, attempting to swat the locusts out of the air with her shield. Though the swarm had mostly dissipated by the time she reached them, a handful of the insects spontaneously burst into blue-white fire as the shield made contact with them.

    With the swarm of locusts having vanished into the night sky, Sion took the chance to check how the other Knights were holding up. All 22 of the Knights were engaged, working in teams of three or four, to take on similar numbers of giant wolves. Two of the groups were contending with massive bears. They seemed to have suffered a number of injuries, but to their credit, none of the Knights had backed down yet, and they seemed to at least be holding their ground.

    Sion fired a few opportunity shots into the fake beasts, ricocheting shots off buildings where she didn't have line of sight, to thin the swarm of animals slightly and relieve some of the pressure on the Knights. As Riesbyfe came up beside her and took a defensive stance, she too returned to searching for the vampire.

    She didn't have to look for long, as following Riesbyfe's gaze to the rooftops, she saw the swarm of locusts reassemble itself on a building nearby. The vampire, face contorted in fury, fell clumsily as he reappeared from the swarm. Sion checked a few more boxes on her mental checklist - can divide himself into a locust swarm, but recombining into his humanoid body didn't recover the damage he had taken.

    Sion considered taking a few more shots at him, but decided against it. At this range, though she could confidently hit him, she wouldn't have the precision necessary to hit important joints. Instead, she satisfied herself with firing another two shots into a newly approaching bear, killing it mid-charge.

    Taking a few deep breaths to calm himself, the boy did his best to stand up again, putting all his weight onto his healthy right leg. Face returning to some semblance of calm, the boy surveyed the situation below him before once again returning to a swarm of locusts.

    "For a vampire that plans on wiping out the entire village, he's awfully defensive," Riesbyfe said, her voice low enough that only Sion could hear it. The two of them watched the locust swarm descend from the rooftops...into the swarm of animals attacking the other Knights. Sion was about to call out for the Knights to pull back away from the approaching swarm, but she was interrupted by a wolf's panicked yelping.

    The cries of pain lasted for only a moment before the swarm ascended back into the sky and out of sight.

    "What happened?!" Riesbyfe's commanding shout was met with an instant response from the Knights.

    "Ma'am, the bugs just ate one of the wolves! Even the bones!" Though he shouted, his voice was controlled and level. Their status as elites seemed to be well earned, being able to watch a sight like that without getting rattled. As Knights of the Church, she supposed they had all probably seen a lot worse.

    Sion returned her attention to herself and Riesbyfe. She had been right, the boy's defensive nature seemed strange if he was actually as strong as she had predicted. As she turned to speak to Riesbyfe, she noticed the Head Knight suddenly snap her gaze upwards.

    Without waiting for the warning, Sion rolled backwards. Before she had even returned to her feet, she felt the impact of something incredibly solid smash the paving stones where she and Riesbyfe had been standing a moment before. As she gained her footing, she immediately raised her pistol and fired two shots.

    As she had predicted, the impact had been caused by the vampire himself. He must have reformed himself in the sky above them trying to take them by surprise. Luckily, Sion had managed to abuse Riesbyfe's uncanny ability to detect the vampire to guess where the attack was coming from at the last possible moment.

    Unfortunately, the boy was also prepared to act immediately after landing, and easily dodged under Sion's two reckless shots. Before he could attack, however, Riesbyfe struck with her shield-spear, forcing him to evade away deeper into the clearing.

    As the fighting once again descended into a brief lull, Sion returned to her mental checklist. Turning into a locust swarm, the boy had devoured one of the animals, and a cursory glance showed his previous wounds were completely gone. Though it was by no means a convenient or efficient method of healing, in a situation like this where Sion couldn't even guess how many animals he had to feed off of, efficiency was likely not going to be an issue.

    A glance also showed the paving stones where he had landed after his aerial attack were completely smashed, forming a shallow crater. Despite his small stature, he was clearly physically formidable. A single blow would likely be the end of a normal human like Sion, though Riesbyfe could likely fend off a few hits with her shield before the impact shock inflicted significant damage to her arm.

    Also, whether predictive or not, his reflexes were incredible, being able to dodge two gunshots from only a few feet away. The shots had been aimed for his face, making it a relatively easy dodge, but that was still a feat far beyond any human.

    In the slow motion of her Accelerated Thought Process, Sion weighed their options carefully. As far as they had seen, this vampire's special properties seemed tailored towards defense. In that case, their best option would be to continue pressing the attack, to try and push that defense to the limit.

    "Plan C," Sion spoke quietly, earning a nod in response from Riesbyfe. As Riesbyfe slowly moved into action, Sion smoothly replaced the magazine in her handgun. The previous magazine had had a single shot left, but wasting one shot was a small price to pay for being fully equipped and ready.

    Riesbyfe approached the vampire slowly, keeping her shield between her and her target, as Sion moved around to get a good line of sight. The boy had calmed down considerably, but it seemed like the talkativeness had been beaten out of him. With cool eyes, he watched the two of them get into position without a trace of worry. Sion raised her gun and took aim as she saw him drop his hips, ready to jump, but once again he proved faster than she was.

    Launching himself forward towards Riesbyfe, he hammered a fist hard into her shield, causing a sharp, almost melodic sound to fill the clearing. Riesbyfe managed to hold her ground, only being pushed by a couple feet by the impact.

    "Wrong answer," Riesbyfe said with a venom Sion had never heard from her before. As she spoke, the vampire immediately leaped backwards, panic clear on his face. Using his left hand like a blade, he cleanly sliced his own right arm off at the elbow, just as the hand and forearm burst into a brilliant white-blue fire. Just like the locusts, it seemed even touching that shield would be tantamount to suicide for a vampire of his level.

    Attempting to take advantage of the distraction of losing a limb, Sion fired three shots, aiming for the throat and each kneecap. Thanks to the considerable distance between them, however, her target was able to react and dodge out of the way before they hit their marks. A feat that should have been nearly impossible, Sion noted in the back of her head, considering her pistol fired shots faster than the speed of sound.

    Paying no mind to his self-inflicted injury, the vampire switched targets and lunged at Sion with unearthly speed. Just like before, once their opponent had determined Riesbyfe's shield was too big an obstacle, they immediately went after Sion. Fortunately for Sion, this was exactly the movement she had predicted, so she had already started moving.

    Jumping to the side, Sion flicked her wrist behind her, leaving a loop of Etherlite in the air behind her. The invisibly thin cord twisted itself into a makeshift noose, and as the boy sped by her, unable to change his direction, it settled into place comfortably over his head and around his neck. Giving the cord enough slack that the force of his landing didn't rip off her arm, the instant he had stopped moving she pulled the Etherlite back in and heaved with all her might.

    While the boy was certainly many times stronger than her when it came to muscles, she was far from out of shape, and with the body of a ten-year-old, even Sion could pull him off his feet. He let out a choked shout of surprise as he was flung by his neck onto his back by a rope he couldn't see. The sound of his body impacting the ground was matched by the sound of metal striking stone, and before he could react, the flare Riesbyfe had thrown erupted into a brilliant white light.

    Sion felt a little silly using a Mystic Code as advanced and powerful as the Etherlite as a common rope, but it was hard to argue with results. As the UV flare filled the clearing with blinding light, the vampire let out a blood-curdling screech. It seemed it was having the desired effect.

    Sion turned, releasing the Etherlite's hold on the vampire in case he righted himself and bolted, and fired two shots from her pistol at the vampire's face. Due to the fresh flare, it was difficult to aim properly, causing one of the shots to miss and bite into the vampire's shoulder. The other, however, landed on target, handily gouging out one of the vampire's eyes.

    Before the boy could once again split into a swarm of locusts, Riesbyfe charged in and brought her shield down, punching the spear point through the vampire's chest. With a wide flourish, she spun and, lifting the boy off the ground, drove him into the wall of a nearby building, pinning him in place.

    As Riesbyfe's motion came to a halt, her shield began to glow with a faint light, almost invisible in the blinding light of the flare. The light flared up for a moment before disappearing as white-blue fire raced over the vampire's body. But as the light grew stronger, as the mangled body of the ten year-old vampire rapidly started to turn to dust...

    ...he smiled.

    With his lungs punctured and his body rapidly vanishing, he couldn't speak a word. But as Sion watched, the boy looked up to the sky and gave a victor's smile.

    In a final flash of scouring white fire, all traces of the vampire were annihilated.

    It was done.

    Sion turned to scan the surroundings, a cautious disbelief keeping her optimism in check. The Knights were being pushed back by the onslaught, but they had managed to hold their ground long enough. Most of them were now sporting heavy injuries, but none would be fatal if treated promptly. The final incarnation of the Curse had been destroyed, and no one had died. It felt almost too good to be true.

    Sion looked to Riesbyfe to confirm she was uninjured, and at her nod, the two of them turned to watch the apparitions of the Curse disappear from around them.

    ...but they didn't.

    "Wait, we killed it, right?" Riesbyfe spoke cautiously, starting to move in position to assist the ailing Knights. "Why aren't they disappearing?"

    Sion's curiosity as to the persistence of the apparitions quickly turned to concern, followed by outright fear. With the Curse defeated, the apparitions should have been disappearing. Instead, it seemed like the onslaught was getting more severe.

    A sinking fear overtook Sion as the light of the nearby UV flare began to wane. With a clean white light gone, the clearing didn't retake the warm orange glow of the lanterns. Instead, everything was tinted...red.

    In disbelief, Sion raised her gaze to the sky, where the vampire had looked in his last moments. In the sky, hovering directly over the center of the village, was the moon - shedding a sinister, blood-red light.

    As the sound of static filled her ears, Sion had a terrifying realization.

    There was no doubt that the vampire they fought was an apparition of the Curse. And, without a doubt, it had been entirely annihilated. But as she was seeing with her own eyes, the Curse was not defeated.

    Just as both Riesbyfe and she had noticed, that vampire had been far too weak. While it certainly could have wreaked incredible havoc if left alone, it hardly gave the impression of a vampire that would destroy cities in a night.

    No, in her fear from the confrontation with the vampire the night before, and the seemingly endless number of monstrous beasts, she had forgotten one of the most important properties of the Curse.

    The core, the central intelligence behind the Curse would manifest apparitions throughout the city to spread disorder and chaos before it descended itself. And it would always incarnate as the most powerful, most dangerous, most deadly rumor that had taken over the town.

    And it would do so only on the final night.

    Having seen the vampire boy control the beasts, she had immediately assumed that he was the core of the Curse given form. But that was wrong. The Curse wouldn't take form until the third night. So what was the actual true form that the Curse would take?

    Was there some rumor even greater than that of the vampire boy that they had failed to discover?

    Sion's eyes widened in shock as the second wave of realization hit her. The true fear, the true terror that had spread over the town...it wasn't of the boy vampire at all. As far as the villagers were concerned, the boy was dead. He couldn't hurt them anymore.

    No, what they actually feared...was his curse.

    The curse he left behind to destroy Solociano.

    With her accelerated thinking and information processing, Sion could calculate the time faster than she could read a clock.

    11:21.

    If Riesbyfe's report was correct, then the boy's curse would strike the town at midnight. Which meant, in less than forty minutes, the Curse would fully incarnate and the town would be annihilated.

    They had been fighting the entirely wrong battle.

    The sound of static snapped off, bringing Sion back to the present. No doubt, a new apparition had appeared nearby. It didn't take long for Sion to find it, the boy vampire once again sitting smugly on the edge of a nearby roof.

    Looking back at the melee occurring in the city square, Sion did her best to quash the fear mounting even through her normally emotionless advanced thought processing. Riesbyfe had turned back to see the vampire reappear, and seemed to be preparing to engage it again. Meanwhile, the Knights scattered about the courtyard were being pressed hard, and were on the verge of buckling.

    Their mission was falling apart around them, and surrounded as they were, there seemed to be nothing they could do but hope they could survive long enough that the Curse itself killed them.

    Sion slapped herself on the cheek. That kind of pessimistic thinking wouldn't help anyone. What they needed now was a plan of action. Except this time, the goal was different. They didn't have to slay the vampire, or break the Curse, or anything like that.

    They just needed to escape.

    They just needed to survive.

    It was the worst case scenario, but as much as it broke Sion's heart to do, the mechanical nature of her advanced thought processing told her loud and clear that their only hope was to abandon Solociano as lost and spend the next few years preparing for the next appearance of the Curse.

    "We need a new plan, chief!" Riesbyfe shouted over the din of the surrounding battle, keeping her eyes locked on the child vampire.

    "The new plan is to get out of here, any way we can!" Sion said, attempting to map out the best escape route in the back of her head. Riesbyfe turned to face her, shock and disbelief evident on her face. "We messed up, Ries. No...not even that. From the very beginning, this wasn't an opponent we could fight!"

    "We can't give up just because we were wrong!" Riesbyfe shouted back. Even with the challenge evident in her voice, Sion couldn't help but note her use of 'we.' Even in this situation, where Sion was clearly the one making the decisions, even as Riesbyfe was trying to chastise her, she wasn't blaming her.

    "It's not about giving up," Sion said, keeping a careful eye on the battle lines. The first would collapse in less than a minute. They were going to have to move fast. "We were wrong about the final incarnation of the Curse. It's not the vampire boy at all, it's his curse! It's going to incarnate as a curse that wipes out the whole village - that's not something we're equipped to fight against!"

    Riesbyfe growled in frustration, but otherwise made no more objections. "Everyone form up! We're leaving!"

    Her command was met with little visible response. With the Knights pressed as they were, if any of them pulled back, the clearing would instantly fill with beasts. It was unbelievable how many animals they were fighting, and even harder to believe how many they must have successfully put down to survive this long.

    Riesbyfe looked to Sion once more. As always, her eyes showed no signs of fear or regret - only determination. "Alright. Take us home!"

    Sion broke into a full sprint towards one of the streets. Firing a few shots off to relieve the other teams of knights, she emptied the rest of her clip forwards, clearing the way slightly for them to advance out of the city square.

    With a speed Sion didn't think was possible, Riesbyfe rushed past her. In response to a shouted command, the Knights in her path parted instantly, opening a path for her. Her shield flared a bright white as she punched into the pack of wolves that were waiting beyond, and in short order an explosion tore through the rank of beasts, scattering them with the smell of burning fur and blood.

    As if that was a signal of some kind, the defensive lines set up by the Knights collapsed as one, and they formed up around Sion and Riesbyfe, setting up a spear wall to fend off the wolves and bears that had pursued them into the square.

    As they rapidly retreated from the town square, a swarm of locusts blew past them, forming up into the boy vampire in the middle of their escape route.

    "Could you stick around for just one more hour? Pretty please?" The boy spoke in a mocking tone, but as before, neither Sion nor Riesbyfe had any desire to play along with his cheap taunts.

    In one smooth motion, Sion replaced the magazine in her pistol and fired two quick shots, ricocheting them off the buildings in hopes of taking the vampire at an angle he couldn't read. That seemed to be hoping for too much, however, as he casually stepped forward out of the path of the incoming bullets.

    He was quick to dodge backwards again, however, as Riesbyfe charged forward. From behind the boy came a massive bear, but another bullet through its skull ended the threat before it reached the Head Knight. Using her whole body to fling the still dissipating corpse aside, Riesbyfe stopped in her tracks as the vampire blew past them again as a swarm of locusts, this time appearing in the road a short distance behind them.

    "Take point!" Riesbyfe shouted to no one in particular, "Sion and I will keep the vampire busy!" The Knights formed up again, making a multi-layered triangular formation around Sion, with a flat edge to the rear and a point to the front. From this distance, Sion was made painfully aware of how heavily injured most of the Knights were. They had so far managed to hold off the beasts, but it was costing them terribly.

    Despite Riesbyfe's instructions, Sion didn't have much she could do against the vampire at this range. He had proved time and again to be fast enough to dodge around her bullets, so instead she turned her attention to clearing the way in front of them. Her ability to quickly calculate bullet trajectories was invaluable in a situation like this, where she had no direct line of sight to the approaching enemies.

    Despite the constant flood of animals slowing their pace, they actually were making reasonable progress. As Sion emptied another clip and exchanged it for a fresh one, she felt a cautious optimism - at this rate, they might just barely manage to escape.

    "Sion, up!"

    Once again, Sion dodged forwards without waiting to see what the warning was for. Before she could turn to see, she felt a tremendous impact on the ground behind her, as well as that of numerous fragments of stone peppering her back. In the back of her mind, she chided herself. This was a tactic she had seen before, she should have been able to see it coming - and probably would have, if she hadn't been so focused on their forward advance.

    As Sion made to dodge the follow up attack, she hesitated. Out of the corner of her eye, she could barely see the boy...and he was turning away from her. As she realized what was happening, she tried to raise her gun, but was too slow to get any shots off as he leapt outwards, bowling through the ranks of Knights who had been focused on holding the rear...

    ...and directly into Riesbyfe.

    Even through the sound of the battle in front of her, Sion could clearly hear the sounds of bones crunching as the vampire passed through the rear guard. Riesbyfe, who had been taken by surprise, had been sent sprawling almost ten meters backwards. As the vampire turned to deliver the finishing blow, however, she rose to one knee and swung her shield like a hammer.

    The startled vampire scattered into a swarm of locusts, which vanished once more into the night sky.

    With their formation broken and their leader injured, the Knights hesitated. They had lost a full third of their numbers in one blow. Sion had to applaud their tenacity in lasting this long before losing a single member, but tenacity could only take you so far against unlimited enemies of superior strength and speed.

    "Go!" Riesbyfe shouted, a painful cough interrupting her. "Get her out of here!" Her voice was wracked with pain, but even so, using her shield to support herself she unsteadily turned to face the horde of wild beasts fast approaching from behind.

    Sion wanted to scream, to object...but she couldn't. She couldn't bear to leave Riesbyfe behind, but the machine in her head brought her only the cold, hard truth - if she stopped to help, they'd all die. Even if they just had a free run from here out of the city, in her injured state, Riesbyfe still wouldn't make it out before midnight.

    The Knights around her exchanged a look charged with meaning Sion couldn't read. For an instant, the space of a single breath, everything seemed to stop. An illusion of silence fell on them as the Knights took a deep breath as one. Then, the moment passed.

    With a roar rivaling even the great beasts they were fighting, the Knights shouted a battle cry and charged. Half of them charged forward, spears first, plunging into the thinner ranks of enormous animals in front of them. The other half, eyes brimming with righteous fury, charged backwards, towards the encroaching horde of beasts bearing down on them from behind.

    Towards Riesbyfe.

    For an instant, Sion was frozen in awe. In that brief moment before they charged, there was no fear in their eyes. No panic, no worry, no apprehension. Only determination...and trust.

    Those charging back, entrusting the mission of escorting Sion out safely to their comrades in the front.

    Those charging forward, entrusting the mission of protecting their leader to those in the rear.

    Their hesitation was not out of fear or apprehension. It was simply the last good-bye they could afford. After exchanging that one look, they each charged into impossible odds.

    Taking one last look back at Riesbyfe, Sion resolved herself at last. Just as these Knights who were protecting her were doing, she would trust the others behind her to take care of her. The chance they would survive was literally zero. The machine that was her mind wouldn't give her any other answer. But even so, even if it was just for one night, even if it was just for one hour, Sion resolved herself to adopt the faith that the Knights had in each other.

    Though the Knights had left her behind in their charge, it was little effort for her to catch up to men and women charging in plate armor. With the light of the moon growing steadily brighter and redder, Sion's range of vision had increased considerably, and she put that to use by taking completely unreasonable sniping shots with her handgun.

    The biggest issue was the bears - the wolves and wild cats were tough, but they relied on their numbers to get around the wall of spears the Knights raised. The bears, on the other hand, could simply throw their enormous weight forward and crush anyone in front of them. Making ricochet shots even she didn't expect to land, she did her best to pick off the bears before they could get in range to attack the Knights.

    The Knights' charge continued as they tore through the rapidly thinning horde of wolves and wild cats. All defense had been abandoned, and it showed quickly - one by one, a pack of wolves, or a hiding lynx would manage to pick off one of the Knights on the edges of their formation. Sion shifted her attention to trying to cover these flanks, but she could only move her gun so fast between them.

    On the other hand, their suicide charge tactic was working - they were gaining ground at an incredible pace. In the span of a few short minutes, the edge of the town came into sight - only a little farther and they would be beyond the village boundary. Beyond the range of the Curse.

    Of the six Knights that had made up her impromptu bodyguard, only two remained. Sion emptied the last of her current clip into the final row of beasts. The remaining Knights roared triumphantly as they cut through the last wolf, and broke into open territory. Now, the only threat was from the animals behind them.

    Instinctively, with victory this close, Sion ran through the possibilities of what could still go wrong - and immediately threw her eyes upward.

    "Above you!" Sion practically screamed as the worst possible result appeared before her eyes. Just as she looked upwards, the locust swarm had finished reforming into the vampire immediately above her remaining bodyguard, and with an incredible speed plunged downwards.

    One of the Knights jumped backwards, clearing the area in time, but the other didn't make it - or rather, didn't try. Instead, he raised his spear skywards, aiming for the falling vampire.

    His plan was about as successful as one could expect. The vampire impaled itself handily on the spear, but with no actual upward force to stop his fall, he continued downwards, crushing the Knight below in a spray of dirt, blood, twisted metal, and shattered bones.

    The final Knight didn't so much as hesitate, driving her spear with two hands through the vampire's facing and pinning him to the ground. Sion stood frozen, a sick feeling rising in her stomach as the battle ended exactly as she predicted. The vampire, thoroughly maimed and pinned, reverted to a swarm of locusts and attacked the Knight attempting to pin him to the ground.

    Sion desperately reached for the UV flare Ries had given her, but she was too slow. Before the Knight even had time to scream, she was gone, reduced to a pile of clothes and armour by the vampiric locusts.

    Time once again seemed to slow to a stop as the machine that was Sion's mind sped up. Shutting out the brutal deaths she had just witnessed, she focused everything on surviving the current situation.

    There were two possibilities, two courses of action the vampire could take, which each required a different response from Sion. The problem was, with her gun empty, she didn't have time to react - she would have to preempt him.

    If he attacked her as the swarm of locusts, all she had to do was ignite the flare in her hands and run. But if he reformed into a humanoid shape, the flare wouldn't be enough - even weakened by the flare, he would likely be more than strong enough to kill Sion if she was alone. She would have to use the brief moment of pause as he transformed to reload her pistol, and then take out his kneecaps before he could charge her. Naturally, if she attempted to reload her gun and he didn't transform before attacking her, her gun would be useless and the locusts would kill her in a heartbeat.

    So the question became, which did she pick: the flare or the gun?

    For the smallest fraction of a second, Sion hesitated. She didn't know. She tried to calculate the odds, but the information was too sparse. By the time she had the numbers, by the time she could make an informed decision, it would be too late. If she hesitated any longer, she would die anyway. She had to pick now.

    So she acted.

    She had decided already, that she would trust her comrades, even if it was just at the end.

    She would trust Riesbyfe to protect her.

    She would trust the Knights to escort her out of the village.

    So all that was left...was to trust herself to make the right decision.

    Without another thought, Sion tore the pin from the flare and threw it straight upwards. As it floated up into the air, she reached for another clip for her pistol.

    Before she had even released the flare, the locust swarm struck, swarming over her before she could so much as blink. Paying no mind to them, she continued loading the pistol.

    One bite. Three. A Dozen. Two dozen. Sion felt the sting of the locusts biting into her skin, tearing at her with jaws like razors, and injecting her with their vampiric essence. But just as they reached her throat and face...the flare ignited.

    Brilliant white light washed over Sion, scouring away the locusts. Under the harsh light of the flare, the locusts instantly turned to ash and scattered, as if washed away by a wave of holy fire. Sion didn't even stop to confirm she was okay as the clip she had retrieved slid and locked in place.

    Turning around, she pointed the gun behind her. As expected, there were three wolves hot on her trail, with countless more pouring out of the streets behind her. Even if she had enough bullets for all of them, there was no way she could fire fast enough to keep them at bay. Which was why she hadn't loaded normal bullets into the gun.

    This clip was special. It held only a single shot, and she only carried one such clip on her at all times. This clip was actually a type of Mystic Code. It's function was solely to unlock the final function of her pistol - the Black Barrel Replica.

    Firing it in this mode would be like firing a bomb from a handgun. Nevermind the chance that you would be caught in your own explosion, the recoil from it would send a small car flying, let alone a girl her size. Normally, she would use her Etherlite to anchor her in place, allowing her to fire it without killing herself.

    But in this case, that recoil was what she wanted.

    Without a second of hesitation, she braced herself and pulled the trigger.

    As she had predicted, the recoil of the Black Barrel Replica firing in released mode hit her like a train. As the blast incinerated the approaching wolves, it flung Sion herself dozens of meters backwards, and after an impressive flight time of no less than four seconds, she hit the ground hard, rolling and sliding another twenty or thirty meters. As she slid to a stop, she struggled to sit up through the combined pain of the locust bites and being fired like a cannonball.

    The sky was...dark. She could still see the blood red moon, but its sinister light only covered the village. She had made it outside.

    She was bleeding in a hundred places, her clothes were filthy and torn, and she wasn't sure if she would even be able to walk. But she was outside the village. She was outside the range of the Curse.

    And she was alive.

    Sion struggled to her knees and turned her eyes back to the village. The moon's red light coated the town like a dense fog, actually making it more difficult to see inside. As Sion watched, she slipped out of her advanced thought processing, unable to maintain it under the intense pain she was feeling.

    As her more human senses came back to her, the sensation of the poison injected in her by the vampiric locusts became agonizingly clear. She had hoped that, being just an apparition of the Curse, it wouldn't have the power to transform her. Or that its transformative power would disappear when she left the effective area of the Curse. Evidently, she had been wrong.

    Sion felt the world start to shake around her as she was overcome by a migraine-like headache. Clutching her head in her hands, she couldn't even scream...but even though it wasn't hers, screams still reached her ears.

    A mournful, howling wail rose over the town. It lasted for only a few moments, but for Sion, it felt like an eternity. With the pain of her injuries, the corruption from the locust bites, and now this headache, she quickly found her consciousness fading.

    Unable to hold on, Sion slipped into unconsciousness to the final sound of a man's distant, maniacal laughter.



    ***



    Hours later, Sion awoke.

    The first thing she was aware of was the pain of dozens of locust bites, mixed with the various aches and stings from rolling across the ground during her last desperate stunt.

    Turning to look at the village, she could feel the death emanating from it. As tears welled up in her eyes, she was forced to look away. She had no desire, nor need, to confirm that the villagers - and the Knights - were dead.

    Sion didn't bother to stop the tears from falling as she stood up. There would be no false consolation for her. The Knights, and Riesbyfe, were dead. Sion had only known her for a short while, but she felt like they had become rather close in that time. Riesbyfe's death had not been in vain, though. Thanks to her, and her Knights, Sion had made it out alive.

    They deserved so much more - a proper funeral, a proper burial, a proper sendoff - but Sion had no way of giving that to them.

    As she turned her thoughts inward, she became vaguely aware that she was...different. No doubt, the effects of the locust bites were similar to those of a vampire. In that case, did that mean she was becoming a vampire as well? She had figured that any sort of vampiric curse on her would disappear with the apparition that caused it, but she supposed the Curse itself was technically a vampire. Did that mean she was now a vampire descended from that Curse?

    Sion shook her head with a self-deprecating smile as she slowly started walking down the road away from the village. Here she was, waking up in the middle of the wilderness, , half dead, and beside a village full of corpses. There were more important things to do than figure out which vampire her 'parent' was.

    The idea of being turned into a vampire frankly disgusted her, and even more importantly, would be very problematic. The Atlas Institute wouldn't put up with a vampire, especially one from the Eltnam family, and the Church would purge her on sight. Life was going to be...difficult, from now on. At the very least, the transformative power seemed to be fairly weak. While she would be institutionally rejected, as long as it remained at about this level, she should be able to suppress the poison and prevent herself from completely turning.

    Her mind still working slowly from the lingering pain of her countless wounds, Sion started walking away from the village. It would take maybe a day or two to reach the next settlement, so she needed to start as soon as possible.

    Meanwhile, that would give her plenty of time to think. Plenty of time to plan.

    While her more immediate goals would likely pertain to curing herself of this vampirism, there was a lot more at stake here than her own life. In three years, in the far off country of Japan, the Curse would appear again. When it did, Sion would be ready. She would use the information Riesbyfe and the other Knights had given their lives for, and she would end the Curse once and for all.

    Or she would die trying.


    ****


    Riesbyfe breathed a sigh of relief.

    Everything hurt. It took all she had to stay up on one knee, and even that was only possible thanks to having Gamaliel to lean on.

    She had really been outplayed. By following the vampire around, she allowed herself to be separated from the formation, and in her haste to rejoin it, the vampire had struck. With one leg shattered and most of her ribs broken, to say nothing of the numerous gashes caused by the twisted metal of her damaged armor, it took all she had just to keep breathing.

    She had still managed to get off pretty well, she thought. She figured the fact the vampire had had to plow through seven other Knights to get to her played a considerable part in why she was alive at all. They had likely died instantly from the impact, but considering what it had done to their bodies, they were probably better off that way.

    Even in this hopeless situation, Riesbyfe still couldn't help but feel relieved. Because only half of the surviving Knights came to die with her.

    She had been terrified that they would abandon their charge of defending Sion when she was injured, but a full half of the survivors turned and charged, escorting Sion further away. Together with that girl, surely they would be able to find a way out. She still felt like it was somewhat of a waste with how many of them came to protect her - they must have known she wouldn't be able to move. As they engaged the horde of beasts, it was clear at a glance they would be quickly overrun. They couldn't actually help her at all. All they were doing was delaying the inevitable.

    No, with these injuries, Riesbyfe would probably die even without the apparitions.

    She wouldn't have the chance to bleed out, though. With midnight only a few minutes away, she wouldn't have long to suffer before the Curse fully manifested, snuffing out her life along with the thousands of others in this village.

    Riesbyfe had often felt the sensation of time seeming to slow down, especially when fighting. Now, she felt the opposite sensation. With her mind growing hazy due to the pain and her vision starting to blur, it felt like time was speeding up, that the world was leaving her behind as it moved ahead.

    Well, that's fine.

    The world would go on without her. She lived to serve God, so if God wasn't going to protect her, that must mean that her service was over. As long as Sion made it out, she would find a way to end the Night of Wallachia. The lives of twenty some odd Knights and a couple thousand villagers might have seemed an expensive price to pay, but if it resulted in Sion returning to kill the Curse once and for all, then it would be worth it. After all, how many thousands - how many millions of lives would be saved by doing so?

    After as deep a breath as she could manage, she decided to go for one last prayer.

    The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

    Many people in this case would pray desperately to be saved, but that wasn't Riesbyfe's style. If God was willing to save her, she trusted He would save her whether she begged Him or not. So, as she watched over the Knights dying around her, she decided for something a little more...cliché.

    He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

    Actually, the truth of the matter was she didn't know all that many verses to quote in her last moments. She had always believed in the proverb "God helps those who help themselves," so she preferred to go out and do things rather than sit at home and study. As a result, her repertoire of suitable verses to die with was fairly small.

    He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

    That being said, it was one of her favourite psalms. When she was younger, it had really stood out to her, and she had continued to cling to it in her early days as a Knight. Looking back, she remembered wishing so hard that she would be able to become like the psalmist - so perfectly trusting, so sure in his own safety within the grace of God.

    Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

    Riesbyfe smiled despite herself. Here she was, literally moments away from death, watching her subordinates get torn apart one by one, and just as she had wished, she was completely unafraid. It seemed before she knew it, she had become the person she wanted to be.

    She watched as the last of her self-appointed honour guard fell to a massive bear. Even as the bear's jaws closed around his neck, his spear punched through the bear's throat, slaying the beast only moments to late to spare his own life. Riesbyfe couldn't help but feel proud of them, despite their meaningless sacrifice. They had done a splendid job, each Knight felling scores of beasts before finally being overwhelmed.

    Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

    And now, just like her, they were released from their duty. Surely, if one could earn their way to Heaven, these men and women had done it many times over.

    Through her muddled senses, Riesbyfe could faintly hear an explosion far off in the distance behind her. She was well beyond being able to accurately gauge how far away it was, but if anything was happening at all, that must have meant Sion was okay. Riesbyfe nodded in satisfaction. That was confirmation enough for her.

    Riesbyfe felt the ground start to shake beneath her. The horde of beasts was close enough for her to touch, but instead of brutally mauling her as she had expected, they froze. Each wolf, each wild cat, each bear turned its head upwards and howled.

    Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life...

    Riesbyfe tried to laugh, but instead was subjected to an agonizing coughing fit, almost enough to make her lose her grip on consciousness. It seemed like, thanks to her bodyguards' efforts, she had survived to see the descent of the Curse's true incarnation.

    Following the beasts' example, Riesbyfe raised her head to face the moon. It almost seemed like the moon was breaking apart, but it was hard to tell anything at all thanks to the virtually opaque red light on top of her failing vision.

    Bathing in that sinister red light, she gripped Gamaliel tightly as she at last closed her eyes. In moments, she felt herself drift off into the darkness to the mournful cries of a hundred wild beasts.

    ...and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

  15. #15
    Don't @ me if your fanfic doesn't even have Shirou/Illya shipping k thnx ItsaRandomUsername's Avatar
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    They're all posted now, oh goody-goody gumdrops.
    McJon01: We all know that the real reason Archer would lose to Rider is because the events of his own Holy Grail War left him with a particular weakness toward "older sister" types.
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  16. #16
    el bolb Bloble's Avatar
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    All this GO. Disgusting.

  17. #17
    Don't @ me if your fanfic doesn't even have Shirou/Illya shipping k thnx ItsaRandomUsername's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bloble View Post
    All this GO. Disgusting.
    Funny that, because only 3 out of the 11 entries are FGO.
    McJon01: We all know that the real reason Archer would lose to Rider is because the events of his own Holy Grail War left him with a particular weakness toward "older sister" types.
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  18. #18
    Preformance Pertension SeiKeo's Avatar
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    your point is, ?
    Quote Originally Posted by asterism42 View Post
    That time they checked out that hot guy they were just admiring his watch, yeah?


  19. #19
    鬼 Ogre-like You's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bloble View Post
    All this GO. Disgusting.
    This but unironically
    Quote Originally Posted by Canon View Post
    On You's tombstone it will read
    Quote Originally Posted by You View Post
    That's exaggerating my point.

  20. #20
    Don't @ me if your fanfic doesn't even have Shirou/Illya shipping k thnx ItsaRandomUsername's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by @Keo View Post
    your point is, ?
    It behooves of us to define how much is too much.
    McJon01: We all know that the real reason Archer would lose to Rider is because the events of his own Holy Grail War left him with a particular weakness toward "older sister" types.
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