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    死徒 Dead Apostle TwilightsCall's Avatar
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    [OneShot] Find Me

    Originally written for Kirby's 2017 Secret Santa Fic Exchange contest. Reposting for archiving purposes.

    Working from the following prompt:

    Master and servants have been known to share dreams. Yet, when this master enters the dream of a psyche utterly shattered, that of the Hundred Faced Hassan, the dream becomes real. Finding themselves in a city where everyone’s face is obscured, where everyone is hassan and no one is, they must find a way to awaken by finding the true Hassan, or be chased and destroyed by [something]. This fic can star either Kirei, or Gudao/ko, or an OC. What is chasing the dreamer is up to the writer, but it can be anything from a dream monster to a Hassan, and the being itself can be a representation of what keeps the mind shattered, or the mind’s way of exterminating unneeded personalities, or a defense mechanism. The “true hassan” is also up to you. It could be anyone, it could be everyone, it could not even be a person in the dream, but an object, or a concept. Get creative!
    Length is about 18k words. Estimated reading time 1 hour 10 minutes. Any constructive criticism is always welcome.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Oi."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Hello? You mute and stupid in there?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "I...don't know."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    A chill ran down her spine. 'Extinguished?'

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "...please..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Oh."

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

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

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

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

    "Then...am I also Hassan?"

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

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

    "...I don't understand."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    But still, here they were.

    "...why?"

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

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

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

    ...or were they helping her?

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

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

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

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

    Good girl. Smart. Don't trust anyone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    FIND ME

    Ignoring the sound of footsteps coming towards her from inside the shop, ignoring the tears welling up in her eyes, she clenched her fingers tightly around her knife and ran off into the crowded street.
    Last edited by TwilightsCall; January 10th, 2018 at 08:15 AM.

  2. #2
    死徒 Dead Apostle TwilightsCall's Avatar
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    Find me.

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

    Find Me!

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

    FIND ME!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Here...here, she could think.

    Find me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "...oh."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Find me.

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

    Footsteps.

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

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

    One...

    Two...

    Three...

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

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

    But she didn't.

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

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

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

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

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

    "Would you like to help?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Ahh. No clues so far?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "No, little one. Anyone who sits with me in my sanctuary is a friend. And a friend is worth more than any such nonsense of being 'real.' I'm sure you've spoken with others. Perhaps they were not as honest with you about their feelings. But I'm sure they feel the same way as I do. Well, most of them."

    Even without finishing her sentence, the old man saw right through to the heart of the problem...and promptly dismissed it as nothing.

    "Besides," he continued, "doesn't it make more sense to make this place better, rather than just dream endlessly about some foreign world?"

    Looking around the clearing, the man's sanctuary, she spoke with a bit more energy. "Is that why you take care of this place?"

    The man laughed again. "Yes, of course! That's why I take care of this place. That's why I made this place. A small piece of paradise within a vast desert of discontented souls. Well, paradise for me at least. Most of the others seem more than happy in the city outside. They find their joy in each other, you see."

    "And you don't?"

    "Of course I do. But I also find joy in building something. Even as old and frail as I am, I can make something all of my own, that everyone can enjoy. Even if no one else does."

    The girl rested her chin on her knees, looking at the pool of water in front of her. The surface was calm and silent, as if they had never disturbed it by drawing from it earlier. Building that pool must have been a task of tremendous difficulty for a single person, especially one as old and weak as he was. And it wasn't just the pool. How had he managed to find good soil for the plants in a desert like this? Nevermind the grass and flowers themselves. It must have been a nightmare just to acquire everything here. And keeping it alive in a city that was in the middle of the desert must have been even more difficult. And yet he persisted. He succeeded. He thought it was worth the effort, and seemed even happy just to share the result of that work with someone.

    Even though she was supposed to be his enemy.

    Even though he was supposed to be better off if she was dead.

    ...was that really true?

    The way the man spoke, the way he acted made it seem like that was all a lie. Of course, it was possible he was just trying to trick her, to sabotage her efforts...but this whole conversation started because he was urging her to go and succeed, didn't it?

    Maybe...maybe she could trust him.

    And if she could trust him...maybe she could trust the others, too. Maybe they hadn't been trying to hinder her. Maybe she could trust what they said.

    The girl sighed. Even if she could trust what they said, that didn't tell her what she needed to do. And with the rapidly darkening sky serving as a constant reminder of how limited her time was, it seemed like it might not matter even if she did know.

    "Do you know where I'm supposed to look?" she asked, voice low. She doubted this man could help her at all, but he did offer. It seemed silly not to at least ask him.

    For a long moment, the man remained silent. "Sorry, but I don't know. But I think you do."

    "I do?" Confused the girl looked up at him again. Though he didn't meet her gaze, he continued.

    "Yes. All of us are different. All of us had different paths to the truth. But there was one thing that all of us had in common." Though his face was invisible behind the mask, as he turned to face her, she couldn't help but feel like he was smiling. "All of us, every single one, had the answer. I have seen many people, many hundreds come through this world. Most fail to survive their first day. But everyone, even those who failed, had everything they needed to succeed. Not a single one failed because they 'didn't know.' So I'm sure you have the answer now as well. Even if you don't realize it."

    She had the answer? Had she missed something? Had she made a mistake somewhere, or overlooked some critical detail?

    You were born from his mind, like all of us were...

    Suddenly, her eyes went wide.

    Everyone in this world was born from the true Hassan. That meant she, too, came from him. That was who she came from...but where? Of course, that had to be the first place she remembered.

    The place she had woken up.

    The alley beside the blacksmith. The place she met the cloaked man, whose dagger was sitting on the ground beside her.

    If she had come from the true Hassan, and she had started in the alley beside the blacksmith, then he had to be there.

    Find me!

    In an instant, she shot to her feet. It was a flimsy bet, at best. But for a reason she couldn't quite understand, she felt she could take that bet. She felt that had to be the answer. In any case, whether it was correct or not, she didn't have the time to think of anything else. Snatching up the dagger from where it lay on the ground, she ran to the exit of the clearing, the crumbled down wall that led to back into the desert city.

    For a moment she stopped, turning back to face the old man. He, too, had turned to watch her go.

    "It seems you figured something out," he spoke, the smile invisible on his face evident in his voice.

    "Yes. Thanks to you." Looking out over the sanctuary one last time, she returned his smile, speaking with a confidence she knew was unfounded, and yet seemed so much more sure than anything else she had felt that day. "Do you mind if I come back to visit?"

    The man laughed. "Please, do! I could always use a helping hand to tend the garden!"

    The girl nodded. "Then I'll see you tomorrow."

    "Tomorrow," the man chuckled with a nod of thanks.

    Turning from the small fragment of peace, knife in hand, she sprinted off into the alley. She felt no need to hide the knife anymore, nor did she feel a need to hide from the people who she was soon to come across. She had no time to worry about them - all she could do was focus on getting back as soon as possible.




    -----------------



    The city around her was a blur.

    Dashing through crowds, cutting down alleyways, she didn't even stop to consider the masked faces she was speeding by.

    The one blessing she had was that she knew her way around the city. Even cutting through different parts she had never seen, everything looked familiar to her. She didn't know why, but she didn't care either. Every step she took, her mind raced ahead and plotted out the next turn to take, the next landmark to look for, and how far she was from her objective.

    The sun, creeping ever downward, had already reached the horizon. The orange light of dusk filled the city, casting wide shadows across the dusty streets.

    Earlier, she might have been concerned with them. Maybe someone was hiding in the shadows, waiting to attack her. Or maybe she should stick to the shadows, use them as cover to avoid being seen. But now she didn't care either way. She had no time to hide, and if anyone attacked her...well, that's what the knife was for.

    As her mind raced, mapping out the city ahead of her, she nervously bit her lip. It was going to be close. It was just a little too far. But as small as she was, she couldn't run any faster, nevermind her struggling lungs and aching legs. She needed another way to make up time.

    She needed help.

    Breathing heavily, she stopped. Where could she get help? Who could she get to help her?

    Who would help her?

    Shaking her head to dispel the doubts creeping in, she pushed down her exhaustion and broke off into a run again, this time heading for the closest main street. She had been taking side roads and back alleys before, both because they would be less crowded and because they were a more direct route. But now she needed a place full of people.

    As she turned onto the main street, though, she was somewhat disappointed. The street was no where near as crowded as it had been earlier in the day. There were so few people, it almost seemed like the city had been abandoned. Like most of the denizens of the town had just disappeared.

    Without stopping to complain, she took off down the main street. She didn't have time to catch her breath, nor would she make it if she doubled back and returned to her direct route. Her only chance at success was to find someone...anyone.

    Before long, the street opened up into a square, slightly busier than the street she had come from. Even so, there was still only a handful of people.

    As she ran into the square, she faltered, falling to her knees. She didn't know how long she had been running, but it was long enough that she was starting to get dizzy from the exertion. Her chest hurt, her lungs desperate for air. Her legs hurt, finding no relief even now that she was sitting on the ground. Her head spun, making it difficult for her to see anything going on around her.

    She needed help. She needed a way to move faster, and a way to catch her breath. She wasn't really sure how anyone here was supposed to provide that for her, but it was her only chance at success.

    Balling her fists in frustration, she pushed herself back up to her feet. She needed more time. She had taken too long. Memories of everything she had done that day raced through her mind, as if something inside her was pointing and laughing. 'Look, look at all the places you could have saved time. If you had only figured it out earlier. If only you had understood.'

    She remembered the restaurant, everyone talking to her, where they told her everything they knew about the true Hassan.

    'If only you had just listened.'

    Looking around the market square, she rubbed the tears from her eyes. She had no time for this. She had no time to regret the mistakes she made earlier. She had no time to be exhausted. She had to move. She had to get back to the-

    Just before she took off running again, she froze. Across the market square, her eyes landed on a giant of a man, startling mostly because she had almost missed him.

    "Why are you...?" Through heaving breaths, she couldn't finish her thought out loud. But even as she spoke, the thoughts all clicked into place.

    This was the place she had first met him. The square where she had come across that mad preacher, where she had first spoke to that motherly woman. Where that giant had saved her.

    And now he was standing not twenty feet away, desperately searching through the crowd.

    Was he looking for something?

    ...was he looking for her?

    Without another thought, she stumbled her way through the thin crowd to stand in front of him. Now that she had come to a stop, she couldn't make even half the speed she had been running with before, but that didn't matter.

    She needed help, and she had found it.

    As she ran up to him, the giant jumped in surprise. As if unsure how to approach her, he crooned wordlessly at her, as if trying to be comforting and apologize at the same time.

    "I'm...sorry..." Struggling to talk through her heaving breaths, she put her hands on her knees to stop herself from collapsing. "Sorry I...ran way...before..."

    Kneeling down in front of her, the man grunted apologetically. Knowing he wasn't going to say anything, she looked up and met his gaze. Judging from his behaviour, it seemed he had in fact been looking for her.

    "Sorry, but...I need help. Can you...help me?"

    Without a moment's hesitation, the giant pounded his chest with a confident growl. Without waiting for any more confirmation, she leapt up on his shoulder, using his lowered knee as a springboard.

    Pointing a finger towards one of the square's many exits, she took one more deep breath before shouting.

    "Run!"

    Slowly, the giant rose to his feet, as if taking care for his new charge. Confident that she was secure on his shoulder, lowered his body slightly, bracing himself.

    And then he ran.

    With shouts of surprise, the various other masked people of the city leapt out of the way of the charging giant. Like a wild beast that had broken free of its chains, he almost flew down the dusty city streets. With his enormous size, with legs longer than she was tall, he easily ran more than twice as fast as she could sprint. As if she was nothing but a feather on his back, he tore through the streets of the city, not slowing down for the other pedestrians, only briefly looking up when she called out a new direction.

    It had taken the majority of the morning for her to make it to the market square from the blacksmith's shop, but that had been at a fairly slow pace. As small as she was, and as careful as she was being not to stand out - not to mention she had been more or less wandering aimlessly - she had been anything but quick. But with the speed they were going now, they would make it in no time at all. They had already passed dozens of buildings, and there was no doubt in her mind that her giant friend could bowl straight through any obstacle that might get in their way.

    Looking over her shoulder at the setting sun, her breathing froze. Only a sliver of the sun remained above the horizon, the majority of the city now in darkness. Only the rooftops were still lit. Though they would certainly reach the blacksmith in record time, she had overestimated how much time she had left. She needed to go faster. But how could she move even faster than the tremendous speed they were traveling at now?

    ...no, faster wasn't the answer. She needed to make the route shorter. If they followed the winding road all the way there, they wouldn't make it in time. Her gigantic companion was too large to effectively race through the alleyways as he did the main streets, but even if he could, they were only slightly less winding and circuitous as the streets themselves. She needed a way to go straight there, and neither the streets nor the alleys would suffice.

    "Wait!"

    At her sudden command, the giant lurched to a halt, looking up at her with a confused grunt.

    They had only been running for a few minutes, but it was enough for her to catch her breath a little bit. It would have to be enough.

    "Throw me! Up there!" she shouted, pointing up at a nearby roof. The street spent too much time winding around the buildings, and the alleys had too many twists and turns to make good time through. But if she were on top of the buildings, she could run in more or less a straight line.

    Without hesitation, the giant walked up to the edge of the building. But as she moved to climb off his shoulder, he grabbed her hands and placed them back around his neck. Then, he kneeled down slightly, braced himself....and jumped.

    Without any warning, he leapt into the air, grabbing the edge of the building's roof with one hand. Using his other hand to hold the girl steady on his shoulder, he swung himself up onto the roof in one smooth motion. In another moment he was back on his feet, and the two were looking over the rooftops.

    Momentarily, the girl was startled by the sudden ascent. It hadn't even occurred to her that a man of his enormous size could be so agile, yet he seemed to have reached the roof almost effortlessly, all while she remained perched on his shoulder. But as she stared at him in awe, he looked up at her and grunted to pull her from her thoughts.

    "Oh, right." Remembering the reason she had wanted to get on the roof, she quickly scanned the rooftops, looking for her destination. "That way!" Pointing off towards the blacksmith, she gave her instructions, and the giant answered them.

    Just as fast as he had soared through the streets, he bounded off across the rooftops. Effortlessly, he sped over the city, crossing entire buildings in one or two strides, leaping across the gaps between them like they were nothing. And as the last sliver of sun gleamed over the horizon, the girl felt her heart soar.

    They had made it.

    "There! Right there!"

    At her instruction, the giant leapt down from the rooftops, landing at the edge of the market square across from the blacksmith's shop. Without hesitating for a moment, the girl similarly leapt off of his shoulder, stumbling as she hit the ground.

    Stumbling, but not falling.

    "Thank you!" she shouted over her shoulder, stopping only a moment to pay respect for the giant that had enabled her to make it in time. But that was all the time she had for him - without waiting for a reply, she forced one final burst of speed from her exhausted legs.

    Sprinting across the square, she ran into the alley beside the blacksmith, easily recognized by the strange scratch marks still evident in the stone wall.

    She had done it. With a triumphant smile on her face, she looked down the alleyway. She had made it in time. She had found...

    ...nothing.

    Slowly, the smile slipped from her face. Once again breathing heavily, her legs finally tapped of all they had to offer, gave out beneath her as she dropped to her knees.

    In front of her was an empty alleyway. There was nothing there but stone and sand.

    She had been so sure. This had to be the answer. There was no where else it could be. There was no way it could be anywhere else. And yet she couldn't deny that before her was nothing, just an empty alley with bare stone walls and an unkempt dirt path.

    But...why...?

    Had she missed something?

    After all that confidence, after she had been so sure, had she really failed?

    Pushing down her desire to cry out in frustration, she reached out to the nearest wall and pulled herself to her feet. She couldn't give up. Not now. This had to be it. Maybe he was just a little farther down. Maybe he was just around the next corner. She had to keep going.

    But as she took her first step down the alleyway, she was interrupted by the sound of a bell.

    Heavy and somber, deep and foreboding, the sound of the evening bell brought the whole city to a halt.

    Time stopped.

    Like a bucket of cold water had been dumped over her head, her thoughts came to a sudden stop. Her desperate determination, her panic, her frustration. Everything disappeared, swallowed up by a dread beyond words.

    It wasn't a dread at having failed. She didn't feel like she had failed at all. Her drive to find the real Hassan-i Sabbah was still pushing at her even now to run down the alley. But even so, as the evening bell rang out across the city, terror beyond words froze her aching legs.

    Even if she knew salvation lay just around the corner in front of her, it was of no help to her now. Without even looking, she could understand. Like some kind of bizarre sixth sense, she just knew that she was being watched. Behind her, watching her back, was death itself. And she knew she could do nothing to escape it.

    As the sound of the last peal of the bell faded, a voice as deep as the night sky called out to her from behind.

    "Step forward."

    Even knowing it meant the end of her. Even knowing it was the voice of certain death calling out to her. Even knowing her only chance to survive was to run, run away as fast as her aching legs could carry her.

    She turned around.

    Afraid to look up, she slowly shuffled back towards the square, eyes locked on the ground in front of her feet.

    She knew her only chance at survival was to run away, but even then, she knew disobeying this voice would be the end of her. No more sure an end than obeying would be, but certainly a much swifter one.

    "Raise your head." The voice commanded her again. Though she was filled with dread, though she was so tired she could barely stand, though she was so afraid her desperate lungs could barely breathe, she complied. Lifting her head, she gazed at the source of the voice.

    She could not call it a man or a woman. Neither its appearance nor its voice gave any impression of something human. Standing almost as tall her her giant companion from earlier, it stood clad in armour blacker than even the darkening evening sky. A tattered cloak hung from its shoulders, failing to cover the thing's imposing figure. Held in front, point resting on the ground, was an enormous greatsword. Its blade, longer than she was tall, was marred with blood stains, dry in some place while fresh and still dripping in others.

    Not a single inch of skin was visible under its armour, not even on its face. Not that the figure was wearing a mask - indeed, the white skull mask characteristic of this city was no where to be seen on it. Instead, its entire head was itself a skull, etched and worn, as if a testament to the thing's mastery over this place. As if to say, it had been dead longer than this entire city had been alive.

    And not even death could stop it.

    Which made sense, she reasoned. After all, what could this figure be, other than death itself?

    Where the figure had come from was beyond her imagination. She certainly wouldn't have missed it if it had been there when they first arrived. But no matter what objection she could raise, here it was, as if it had just materialized out of the air with the ring of the bell.

    With eyes like blue fire, the figure looked down upon her. Its gaze held no emotion - neither warmth nor cold, neither compassion nor contempt. And though she knew with dreadful certainty that it had come with the sole intent of taking her life, it made no move towards her.

    "You know you are an intruder in this world." The figure spoke again. It was not a question. The girl could only nod in response.

    "You know you have no right to exist here." Once again, she could only nod. Of course she had no right to be here. She didn't even really know how she got here in the first place. But standing before this monster, she felt like she had no right to live at all. Just being in its presence, she could feel her life was forfeit.

    "You know you are nothing but a weakness." Again, it was not a question. She didn't really understand what it meant by that, but nodded anyways. She was just a child, with no memories of who she was or where she came from. What could she be other than a burden? What could she do other than drag everyone around her down?

    "And yet, you do not want to die." As if to prove his previous statement, tears began to run down her face as she nodded one last time. She was not crying out of fear, nor out of frustration. Really, she wasn't sure where the tears were coming from.

    Tearing her eyes from the dark figure before her, she looked around the square, dozens of white masks staring back at her. Gathered in the square, silent and unmoving, were what must have been close to a hundred people, all watching the girl and the demon. None of them gave any indication as to what they were thinking, nor did they give any impression they would take her side if she resisted.

    As she looked across the crowd, more than one familiar person looked back. The giant who had saved her twice. The woman, who had taken her in even if for a short while. The dancer and her companion, who in their own way had helped her learn more about her situation, whether they liked it or not. The shopkeeper who had given her food, despite not wanting to help her. The blacksmith who had found her first, and the cloaked man who had given her the dagger she was even know gripping tightly. The preacher who had threatened her life. Even the old man she had met at the garden, with his empty wooden buckets, was standing among dozens of others, watching quietly and motionlessly.

    It felt like everyone in the city had gathered, as if to watch her trial. As if to see whether she had succeeded or failed.

    Everyone was here.

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

    Somehow, through the overwhelming dread drowning out her thoughts, the woman's words resurfaced in her mind. And despite herself, the girl smiled ironically through her tears.

    All of them together were Hassan. And now they were all here, all in front of her. The true Hassan was standing just in front of her. She had done it. She had found the true Hassan after all, with only this incarnation of death standing between them.

    'Only.' That thought was almost enough to make her laugh.

    Somewhere deep down, she felt like it was unfair. The thing she had been looking for so desperately was standing right in front of her, but now she had no way of reaching it.

    "Then step forward," the skull-faced specter commanded, "and accept your judgment."

    Reluctantly, she returned her gaze to the figure of death standing before her. The only thing standing between her and her goal. But as she made to comply, as her eyes returned to that terrifying visage, she stopped.

    Quickly, she glanced out again at the crowd of masked faces, at the true Hassan, watching her.

    Waiting.

    Though she couldn't see their faces, she could tell from their posture. None of them were satisfied that she was about to meet her end. None of them were upset either. It was not even cold indifference - they were just waiting to see the result.

    You aren't Hassan. Not yet anyway.

    Returning her gaze to the figure before her, she used her free hand to wipe the tears from her face. Summoning every ounce of courage from the depths of her soul, she looked up at the monster and shook her head.

    "No."

    Even the sound of her heartbeat seemed to disappear in the wake of her declaration. Neither the onlooking Hassans nor the specter before her showed any reaction to her words.

    The answer was here. Right in front of her was the true Hassan-i Sabbah, the one who she was looking for. The one who had the power to save her, to make her real. Even if death itself was standing before her, even if her end seemed inevitable, she couldn't give up when her goal was so close.

    The moments stretched on, the last of the fading sunlight slowly leaving the city. As the city darkened, the figure finally spoke again.

    "You would reject judgment?" There was no anger in its voice, no enmity. It was not an accusation, but only a simple question, the unspoken truth behind the words clear.

    'You choose to die resisting, rather than with grace?'

    You were born from his mind, like all of us were.

    But the girl shook her head again. "No. I will accept judgment. But not from you."

    The figure continued to stand motionless before her. The two of them were the only ones not wearing masks. Yes, she was an intruder here.

    But so was the figure before her.

    Taking a deep breath to steady her nerves, gripping her knife so tightly it hurt her fingers, she stepped forward.

    "I am Hassan-i Sabbah," she spoke, unable to keep the quiver from her voice. "I am the Old Man of the Mountain. This world belongs to me, and I belong to this world." Unlike her voice, she stepped confidently, walking up to and around the specter of death without sparing it another glance. Though she half-expected it to cut her down as she stepped by, it remained motionless.

    But until he accepts you as part of himself, you are just an intruder.

    "An outsider like you has no right to judge me," she continued as she came to a stop, now standing almost back to back with the figure. "If I am to be judged, it will be by them."

    Though she heard the sound of armour clinking as the figure turned to face her, she did not move. Instead, facing the true Hassan, she spoke one more time.

    "I am Hassan-i Sabbah. The Old Man of the Mountain. I am one of you, and together we are one. Will you accept me?"

    If there was anyone that could judge her, it was not the incarnation of death behind her. It was the true Hassan. It was the culmination of every citizen of this world.

    She had struggled for the entire day, and this collection of masked Hassans had watched her. They had seen her awake with no knowledge of who or where she was, saw her push herself to find out more. They saw her make friends and lose them, then accept that she had been the one who was in the wrong.

    They had seen her struggle with every ounce of her strength to find the real Hassan in the final hours of the day, pushing herself to her absolute limit...and they had reached out to help her time and time again.

    The blacksmith pushed her to go, to avoid staying in one place where she would learn nothing.

    The cloaked man gave her a dagger, to protect her from the dangers he knew she would face.

    The preacher had threatened her, pushing her just hard enough to prompt the others into acting in her defense.

    So many others explained things to her that they didn't have to, even to their own detriment.

    And in those last desperate moments, the giant had carried her on his own shoulders, closed the gap just enough that she could reach this place.

    Perhaps she was a threat to them. Perhaps they would be better off if she disappeared, if this specter cut her down where she stood. But they had already reached out to help her so many times. Was it so much to ask that they help her one more time?

    "Very well," the darkness spoke from behind her. "Hassan of a Hundred Faces," its voice rose, filling the square, "you have been called to pass judgment. From sunrise to sunset, you have beset this child with all manner of tests. What is your conclusion?"

    Somehow, despite already shaking with fear, shock managed to punch through the curtain of fear.

    Tests?

    They had been testing her?

    Suddenly her entire view of the day's events shifted in perspective. Though she realized her error in thinking they saw her as an enemy, she had at least thought that she was a threat to the interests of the gathered Hassans. But that wasn't the case at all.

    They weren't watching her as she ran past because she was a threat. They were watching her because they were evaluating her.

    They weren't helping her so that she would survive. They were helping her to see how she would react to their help.

    They weren't gathered here to see the results of her test. They were here to determine them.

    For a time, nothing happened. Even if the days events had all been a test, if what they had told her was true, accepting her would still be against their best interest. If she was alive, she might steal their chance at reaching their dream. At becoming 'real.' But even so, in this world, there was no one who could pass judgment but them.

    Only Hassan-i Sabbah could choose whether to accept or reject her.

    Finally, one of the masked audience spoke.

    "Even fearing her own death, she acted bravely and without error." The first to speak was the mad preacher. There was none of the hate that filled his voice the last time they had met, no contempt for her that he had shown before. In a flat, emotionless tone, he finished. "Pass."

    "She has shown wise judgment, even while lost and afraid." The next to speak was the old man she had met in the garden sanctuary. There was no warmth in his voice, but neither was it cold. "She avoided unnecessary violence, and acted selflessly to help someone who could not hope to return the favour. Pass."

    "Good instinct for danger. Pass." The cloaked man who had given her her knife, still wrapped in darkness, proclaimed his opinion curtly.

    "She is a good judge of character, knowing who to avoid and who to stay with," the dancer from the inn spoke. "Pass."

    "She showed an excellent ability to gather information, even under extremely limiting conditions. Pass." An old woman she didn't recognize spoke.

    One by one, each of the masked men and women spoke up. People she had never seen didn't hesitate to comment, speaking with as much detail as those she had met. And every time one of them did, the dread inside her lifted slightly, like each masked person was lifting a chain from her heart as they spoke.

    The procession of comments continued, first a dozen voices, then two dozen, then more. As they spoke, the final darkness of night enveloped the city, and the sky slowly but surely filled with stars, as if countless heavenly spectators were now looking down at the ceremony. On and on they continued, not a single person raising an objection. After what felt like hours, the voices finally started to dwindle off, the gaps between comments becoming longer and longer. Finally, after a long moment of silence, one last person spoke.

    "She wasn't afraid to rely on others in her time of need," the woman who had stood up for her against the preacher spoke. "She never gave up, even at the last second, when everything seemed lost. Pass."

    As she finished speaking, her giant friend, who had saved her twice already, stepped forward. Flicking his hands in signs again, the woman interpretted.

    "'Even before the image of the Great Founder, she remained strong and courageous. She did not flee, nor did she submit herself to defeat against an impossible enemy. Pass.'"

    With that, every Hassan...the true Hassan had spoken, and the last chain had been lifted. Turning to face the monster behind her, she looked up at it with a new confidence, almost enough to match the terror the black figure inspired.

    Silently, the specter returned her resolute gaze. Though it wore no mask, its scarred face was no different from one, its thoughts unreadable.

    "Do you understand," the figure finally spoke, its voice deep and imperious, yet void of hostility, "to be Hassan-i Sabbah means to put your neck beneath my blade, should you bring that name any disgrace?"

    "I understand." The girl spoke clearly and without hesitation.

    "Do you understand," the figure spoke again, "to be Hassan-i Sabbah means to walk a path soaked in blood for all your days?"

    "I understand," she replied, not a declaration of her knowledge, but an acceptance of her responsibility. "No matter what path we take, I will follow it."

    After a short pause, the figure spoke a third time. "Do you understand, to be Hassan-i Sabbah...to live here, means to forsake your own salvation for all eternity?"

    At that, she hesitated. Though barely perceptible, she could tell the figure's voice had changed. Though it was still cold and emotionless, she could tell that within its words this time lay a hint of caution.

    This is your last chance. Turn back now, or give up that chance forever.

    It was an echo of what the preacher had said earlier that day. Death...dying here would be the closest thing to freedom she could ever know. She had no idea what to expect if she were to take up the name of Hassan-i Sabbah, but it was clear from the figure's words that she would almost certainly regret it.

    After taking a deep breath, she replied with every ounce of confidence she could muster. "I understand."

    But even so, if her options were life or death, then the answer was obvious.

    A last long moment of silence passed between them.

    "Very well." The figure spoke one last time, neither disappointment nor satisfaction in its voice. "Then carry out your duty with all of your heart, mind, soul, and strength."

    With that, the figure began to dissolve. As if carried away by a soft wind, though the air was still, the specter slowly disappeared into a cloud of black dust and sand. In silence, she watched with the rest of the Hassans as her certain death disappear before their eyes.

    ...before her eyes.

    Finally, the figure had disappeared entirely. For a short moment, the blue fire in its eyes lingered after, but that too gently faded away, leaving the city cloaked in a darkness lit only by the stars above. Slowly, the girl - Hassan stepped forward, to the place where the figure had been standing. In its place lay a small, bone-white mask, somewhat reminiscent of a skull.

    Picking it up from where it lay on the ground, she looked at it for a long moment. Though it was light as a feather, it felt heavier than anything she had ever held. Turning to face the crowd behind her, she held the mask up to her face. For a second she hesitated, the words of the specter vivid in her mind.

    Could she protect the name of Hassan-i Sabbah from disgrace?

    Could she survive, walking a path of bloodshed and violence for the rest of her life?

    Could she persevere, knowing the only hope she had was the hope she created with her own two hands?

    But after taking one last deep breath, she placed the mask over her face and stepped towards the crowd. Maybe she would fail, falter on the path, collapse under the weight of her new responsibility. But she had been tested and judged by the true Hassan-i Sabbah.

    And she had been found worthy.

    "I am Hassan-i Sabbah," she spoke with a hundred voices, "the Old Man of the Mountain."

    She had passed their tests, and now she was one of them. Even if she didn't know what the future held, didn't know if she could survive the trials she would face, the true Hassan-i Sabbah believed she could. And that was enough for her.

    Though none of them could see it under the mask, she smiled as she finished speaking alone.

    "I hope we can all get along."


    Spoiler:


    thanks for the tip mr urobuchi sir

  3. #3
    死徒 Dead Apostle TwilightsCall's Avatar
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    My comments on the piece:

    First of all, I feel like I strayed pretty far from the actual prompt. I felt a little bad for doing so, but the prompter said be creative, so...yeah. Sorry if this wasn't exactly what you wanted, I hope you were happy with the result anyways.

    As I mentioned in the spoiler above, a lot of the inspiration from this story came from a scrapped Fate/Zero arc. I don't remember the specific details of it (since, you know, it was scrapped), but I repurposed the idea of the little girl Hassan having memory loss being a core part of her personality - rather than just being a Hassan that had happened to lose her memory, she was specifically Amnesiac Hassan. I then took the idea that the number of personalities in Hassan's head was still growing from the Grand Order Bond CE for Hundred-Faced Hassan, plus the prompts idea that there is some monster killing off things in Hassan's mind, and boom you have Amnesiac girl trying to become a real Hassan before she gets culled by the Old Man.

    To term it somewhat broadly, I think my biggest regret is the ending. The idea of having her "trial" be a test that was judged by the other Hassans actually came fairly late in the writing process, and I feel like I didn't do a very good job of integrating it into the story that already existed. If I were to do it again, I'd put in a lot more foreshadowing about the ending, because it still feels to me like it kind of comes out of nowhere. I also think the whole King Hassan/Amnesiac Hassan interaction was done fairly poorly, but I'm not really sure how I'd go about fixing that. Same with the whole judgment scene, it felt really...hand-wavy, if you know what I mean. Perhaps I could fix both of those by tuning the earlier parts of the story to the ending more carefully, but something tells me trying to fix the broken part of the story by changing literally everything else is a bit misguided.

    Also, writing an almost 20k word story without giving any of the characters a proper name was a real....challenge. And a pretty dumb one too. In retrospect, I don't really know why I did that, especially since I already had a naming scheme developed for all the Hassans. I guess I accidentally scrapped it when I scrapped another story element that relied on the names. Woops.

    Anyways, that's all the thinking out loud I have for now. Feel free to leave any questions, comments, or criticisms below. Then go read Snow's entry for the contest if you haven't yet, because it definitely deserved the first place that it got. Besides that, I have another story that I'm hoping to finish either this weekend or next. If you liked this or my writing in general, then keep your eyes pealed for that. It'll probably be about the same length as this one, maybe a bit longer, so I'm toying with the idea of posting it in parts rather than all at once, but we'll see how I feel after another writing session.
    Last edited by TwilightsCall; January 12th, 2018 at 10:58 PM.

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