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    Last edited by Kirby; December 25th, 2018 at 03:31 PM.
    Quote Originally Posted by Dullahan View Post
    there aren't enough gun emojis in the thousandfold trichiliocosm for this shit


    Linger: Complete. August, 1995. I met him. A branch off Part 3. Mikiya keeps his promise to meet Azaka, and meets again with that mysterious girl he once found in the rain.
    Shinkai: Set in the Edo period. DHO-centric. As mysterious figures gather in the city, a young woman unearths the dark secrets of the Asakami family.
    The Dollkeeper: A Fate side-story. The memoirs of the last tuner of the Einzberns. A record of the end of a family.
    Overcount 2030: Extra x Notes. A girl with no memories is found by a nameless soldier, and wakes up to a world of war.

  2. #2
    好き! Kirby's Avatar
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    Three Months Ago In A Teeny-Ass Room Many Miles Away, There Was An Idea, To Bring Together A Remarkable Set of Prompts, To Write The Stories That No One Else Could. But When The Writer Needed Time Management Skills The Most, They Vanished; Three Mon

    “Christ, it’s cold up here.” Ayako Mitsuzuri shivered as a gust of wind whipped through the parking lot, shaking rugged scrubs and rattling pennants.

    “Well, what did you expect?” retorted Rin Tohsaka, standing impassively despite her thighs being as unprotected as ever. “We’re in the middle of the mountains.”

    “When you invited me to France, I was expecting something more hospitable. Like Paris, or beaches. Not a car club in the middle of nowhere.” She gestured at the collection of cars parked on a rare plateau, and a fresh gust of frigid wind changed it from Japanese to Italian. Various people milled about the concrete lot, speaking the sexiest language of mankind - an evolutionary advantage developed after centuries of surrendering to raise odds of survival.

    Rin smirked as she leered at her friend, friend being used in the same fashion that the producer of a Kyo-Ani show would use it while talking about schoolgirls freely and suggestively posed together on merchandise. “I’m surprised Ayako, I never knew you were up for something so scandalous. But I can point out a nude beach for you after this, since you’re so excited for it.”

    “What the hell! Who said anything about nude beaches!”

    All eyes were on the two Japanese women as Ayako’s rejoinder echoed throughout the mountains. Blushing, Rin dragged Ayako into a crimson car, its gullwing door closing behind them.

    “So, I’ll take you for a spin around a few of the loops here to give you a feel of things, alright?”

    Ayako cocked a brow. “Don’t you have to fill out paperwork or something first? And is this even your car? We took mine up here, you know.”

    “Relax, relax.” Rin turned the key and revved the engine. “I handled all that boring stuff offscreen.”

    And without any further description of the mobs or mountains, Rin gunned it and careened around the first curve of many on the mountain path.

    GAS GAS GAS

    Ayako stood near the fence of a scenic viewing platform at the same venue of the one previously described, looking out at the picturesque sunset. As she stared at the shadows dragging along the sides of the mountains like the fingers of a child on a wall being yanked by his father to the basement with belt in hand, she remembered the car ride she’d had not 75 words prior. While terrifying, it was also exhilarating; the high speed twists and turns, the smooth tug and rumble of the road as the car swung through curves like a rollercoaster and the feeling of speed far higher than anyone could accomplish without being a priest who sold their body to the Russians for gambling money. It hadn’t been what she’d expected, but she’d had quite a nice time.

    “Mitsuzuri? Is that you?”

    And just like that, the moment was gone.

    “Yeah, that’s you isn’t it, Mitsuzuri. I don’t know what you’re doing here, but I really lucked out.”

    Ayako turned around and walked forward to meet the rapidly approaching incarnation of LN-villain-tier douche known as Shinji Matou. “Well, I know exactly what I’m doing: debating whether being in proximity with your scumbag ass is worth you being in range of a punch.”

    Shinji flicked a hand through his morals-of-Gintama-defying natural perm. “So we weren’t on the best of terms in high school, big deal.”

    “You told the entire school I was a back-alley dick-sucking slut!”

    “Hey, I never said that!” He harrumphed defensively. “I just vented to a friend of mine an implication or two because I was worried about a fellow archer.”

    “Yeah, and your face just happened to be in the way of my right hook.”

    “Your wha-” Shinji staggered back and landed on his skinny jeans-clad ass as Ayako socked him in the jaw.

    Shinji spat blood and glared up at her. “What the fuck was that for!? I was talking!”

    “Do you just not listen to a single thing a woman says?”

    Uncharacteristically wisely, Shinji held his tongue. Ayako shook her hand while looking down on him. “So what did you want?”

    “I need your car.”

    Ayako walked away.

    “Wait!” Shinji pushed himself up and chased after her, loafers padding on the concrete. “Seriously, I’m stuck up here! You’re the only one I can ask for this!”

    “Fuck off, Shinji.”

    He grimaced. “I lost my car, dammit! Some new guy showed up and goaded me into a bet, his car or mine, and I figured I couldn’t lose! I’m pretty good at this whole driving thing, you know?”

    “Not my problem.”

    “He cheated! Fucked me over midway through, but no one believes me because it doesn’t show up on the cameras! I know how to stop it and I know I can beat him next time, but I need another car for that! And no one up here will let me use theirs!”

    “Because you’re an asshole.”

    “Because I whooped their brie-and-baguette backsides! You know how happy some people are to see others fail! Look, I’m on my hands and knees here,” said Shinji, walking after her. “You’re my only shot at getting my ride back. I bought her myself.”

    Ayako kept walking. “Punching you in the face made me feel a lot better, I’ll admit, but no. I’m not staking my car on anything, let alone some rigged match.”

    Shinji stopped with a sigh. “Fine then. I guess too much happened back in the past. Fair enough.” As Ayako gained distance with a smile on her face, Shinji spoke, ostensibly to himself but loud enough for her to hear. “I really didn’t want to do this, but I’ll have to call Rider. She does owe me a favor, after all.”

    Ayako patted Shinji on the shoulder. “Well, I guess I could help you out. We were clubmates after all, right?” Her hand squeezed painfully. “But I’m driving.”

    GAS GAS GAS

    “No.”

    Shinji and Ayako stood in front of a blond guy who looked simultaneously hotter and douchier than Shinji. “Why on earth would I risk a decently good car for a junk pile like that one?”

    “You drive a fucking Miata,” Shinji seethed.

    “Firstly, fuck you; my car is great,” said Ayako. “And secondly, fuck you again. I worked hard on this rig.”

    Aforementioned blond guy, who is conveniently named Chad, smiled down at her. “While you’re certainly not ugly, I prefer my women slightly more glamorous.”

    Shinji whipped out his iPhone and pulled up a picture of Rin. “Win this race and you get a night with her.”

    “Deal.”

    The two men shook hands while Ayako stood still, brain still trying to process the depth of her acquaintance’s moral bankruptcy that by all right shouldn’t have surprised her, but still did.

    GAS GAS GAS

    “What the fuck were you thinking!” yelled Ayako, her voice echoing through the interior of her Mustang. Shinji winced as he looked out the window at his - currently Chad’s - Camaro. “That piece of shit put a giant-ass spoiler on it. The silhouette was already perfect; why the fuck did he slap on that useless plastic? That’s like putting ketchup on filet mignon, or big tits on a woman in a kimono.”

    Ayako grabbed Shinji’s head and turned it toward her in an ‘I’m going to crack your neck’ fashion instead of a ‘kiss me right now, you dumbass’ fashion. “If we lose this, Rin’s going to kill us both. Hell, who even says I have to give up my car if he wins?”

    Shinji sighed. “Nah, you’re fucked on that end. You shook his hand, so you’re compulsed to follow through just like I was. It’s a simple geis, but a strong one.”

    “Geised?” Ayako stared at Shinji like he’d insisted that 2 + 2 = 7, or that Saber had sex appeal. “Did you join some weird cult?”

    “Call it hypnosis or neuro-linguistic programming or whatever you want, the point is it works. Do you honestly think I’d straight up hand over my car in a foreign country just because I lost a rigged race?” He faced forward. “Anyways, looks like we’re starting soon. Eyes on the road, Mitsuzuri.”

    A convenient mob character on the side of the road held up three fingers. Engines revved. Two fingers. Ayako’s fingers squeezed on the wheel. One finger. She exhaled. And as his hand swung down, the two cars shot forward. Tires squealed against rubber as the racers took off along the road, winding along the mountainsides as they accelerated and bobbing back and forth as each one vied for precedence. With a sharp turn that took her right wheels onto the earth, Ayako zipped past Chad and pulled ahead.

    “This guy isn’t much, Shinji. I don’t know what kind of cheating he can do as long as I’m ahead of him that won’t screw him over too.”

    Shinji clicked his tongue. “That’s what I thought too, unti- Dammit, there it is! Gimme the aux!”

    “What, so you can play more of that shitty German rap you listen to?” Ayako laughed as Shinji fumbled for a CD case in his bag, and then yawned as of all things, classical music started to resound through the mountains and the inside of her car. With each blink the Mustang slowed, and without further ado Chad overtook her. As his Camaro overtook them, Shinji caught a glance of something gray resting on the large spoiler of its back.

    “Was that an angel?” Shinji said, fighting back yawns. “”Ahh shit… C’mon, c’mon c’mon COME ON!” He bit his tongue and pushed a CD into the player, and the classical music yielded to the pounding pulse of maximum volume Eurobeat. Ayako shook her head and accelerated after the increasingly distant headlights of Chad’s car.

    “What the hell was that, Shinji? I started driving like my pussy of a brother!”

    Still wincing from his bloody tongue, Shinji spoke. “Wiegenlied, a lullaby by Mozart. It lulled us into a stupor to give that jackass a golden opportunity and he sure took it! Every time I got close to him when I raced him, he’d pump it up and I practically parked on the side of the road. But not today. Kick his ass, Mitsuzuri!”

    Ayako shifted up a gear, and her car zoomed forward.

    “Also, Bushido is a modern Orpheus.”

    She took her eyes off the road to roll them at Shinji. “You still listen to that stuff?”

    “Did I just see a purple woman running up the mountain?”

    The car swerved violently along the road for several seconds. Minutes later, Chad’s tail lights were in sight for Ayako, who gunned it to catch up to him. Chad swerved in front of her, blocking her path whenever she tried to pass him, and as they approached a hairpin curve, the asphalt in front of Ayako’s car glittered in the sunlight.

    “Shit, is that ice? Dodge it, Mitsuzuri!”

    Shinji looked to the side of the road and cursed. Shrubs and craggy boulders covered the side of the mountain - driving on the earth like she had wouldn’t work this time.

    “Would you shut up and let me drive, Shinji!” Ayako spun the wheel and braked, throwing the car into a drift that sent its side into the guardrail - and then up as the left wheels caught the groove of the guardrail and she drove along it before landing back onto the road with a thump. With an aggressive spin that had her reverse parallel to the Camaro before spinning around it, Ayako pulled ahead of Chad and accelerated as the bassline of the Eurobeat thumped through her.

    “Nice one, Ayako! I really did get lucky meeting you here.”

    Ayako frowned. “Since when were we on a first-name basis?”

    “C’mon, don’t be like that,” wheedled Shinji. “It’s easier to say for rapid directions since I can look for cheating more easily than you, and typing out Mitsuzuri all the time is a bitch for the writer, anyways.”

    “Alright fine, but only for toda- WHOA!” Ayako swerved as a pothole suddenly opened up on the road in front of her, and cursed as another one appeared with a boom. “Shinji, what the fuck’s this! More music!?”

    Shinji strained against his seatbelt to see a horde of gray, faceless angels swarming around the rapidly approaching Camaro and rocketing toward Ayako’s Mustang. “What the hell is this, Doctor Who? Chad’s shooting angels at us!”

    “What do you mean, angels? I don’t see anything besides the road fucking me over!” As Ayako braked to avoid losing a tire, the Camaro passed by, and Chad smirked. Shinji unbuckled his seatbelt and opened the sunroof. He pulled a hunting longbow from his bag and took aim.

    “Are you crazy, Shinji!? If you fly out of the car you’re dead! And how the hell did you fit that thing in your bag, anyways!”

    Shinji pulled an arrow from the garish yellow bag and nocked it. “I won it in a bet at a UNIST tourney from some cringey loser named Felix. It’s ugly as hell, but it fits anything I want to carry.” He fired the arrow, and it spun through the air to strike an approaching angel directly in the forehead. “And I know damn well I’m no Emiya. But even I’m not gonna miss a target heading straight at me. So drive, Ayako! I’ll shoot these things down!” Ayako gripped the wheel and accelerated, and Shinji shot arrow after arrow at the approaching angels, sending them spinning into the air and the mountainside in clouds of dust. The Mustang gained on the Camaro, Eurobeat intensifying as Ayako floored it.

    “How you doing, Shinji?”

    Shinji’s eyes watered from the wind and dust as he shot down another angel. “I’m fine, Ayako! He doesn’t have many left, so just keep going forward!”

    The distance between them shrank to meters, and as a final angel flew toward Shinji his arrow slipped out of his sweaty fingers. He reached down to grab it, swung hard to the left to aim and fired! The arrow punched through the angel’s head moments before it slammed into the Mustang’s hood, and it veered past Shinji in a gust of wind before exploding - sending a shockwave into the unbalanced man that knocked him out of the car. Shinji screamed as he scrabbled to grab the edge of the sunroof to no avail, sliding toward the yawning drop into the foggy valley-

    “Shinji!”

    -and Ayako swerved hard, spinning the car under Shinji and bringing the sunroof under him so he fell into it onto the leather seats. Both gasped from adrenaline as Ayako realigned the car and the Camaro accelerated.

    “Thanks.”

    “No problem.”

    Shinji buckled himself in as Ayako sped up to stay on Chad’s tail. “We’re about 70% of the way through the course, so if you’ve got anything special in this car, now’s the time.” Ayako flicked up a cover on the steering wheel, revealing a dramatically red button, and grinned. “What kind of shitty car doesn’t have a trick or two?”

    She hit the nitro, and the car rocketed forward.

    “I thought you were new to this!” managed Shinji, body shoved into the seat through pure Gs.

    “I am!” retorted Ayako, a wild grin on her face.

    “Christ, you’re like the Emiya of street racing!” He too was grinning.

    And with that mention of their friend with faraway eyes, Ayako pulled ahead of Chad and zoomed into a tunnel, her lights jetstreaming through the darkness. “This tunnel’s fairly straight and pretty thin, so since you’re ahead you’ll stay that way. After it is a series of tight curves followed by a straightaway, but as long as we can handle any other bullshit he’s got we’ve got this.”

    And then, underneath the Eurobeat, he heard it. The dramatic boom of four beats that echoed through the tunnel as the Camaro gained on them with a roar.

    “Shit! Is that Beethoven’s 5th!?”

    “Shinji, I can’t go any faster than this! I dunno if he’s crazy enough to ram us, but it’s up to you to stop him!”

    Shinji turned to see twin lights approaching like the gleaming eyes of a ravenous beast. “My car can’t possibly hold that speed for long, so what’s he thinking gunning it like that now instead of when we’re out of the tunnel? It sounds like he gave up on trying to fuck with us and switched to buffing himself, but what’s he gonna do when he’s right on our ass in this… tunnel… SHIT!”

    And with a roar, Chad swerved right, zooming up onto the wall of the tunnel and across the ceiling to the other side as he passed over Ayako and accelerated out of the tunnel onto the open road. Ayako followed as the Camaro continued to gain, expertly drifting along the myriad curves to maintain speed.

    “He’s gonna win like this, Shinji! What’s the plan here?”

    Shinji grimaced, his teeth clenched from frustration as he watched Chad’s Camaro speed down the twisting slope, and then snapped. “Ayako, did Rin give you anything? Like a gem or something?” Ayako blinked in confusion as she drifted. “Yeah, she left a garnet or something in the glove box, why?” Shinji opened the box, grabbed the garnet and tied it to an arrow. “I’m gonna need you to trust me on this Ayako, a lot more than you ever have before. Can you do that?”

    Ayako inhaled. “You’re planning something incredibly stupid and reckless, right?”

    “That I am.”

    Ayako exhaled. “Fuck it, I’m in. Do your thing, jackass!”

    “You got it!” Shinji unbuckled to stand on the seat through the sunroof once more, aiming his bow toward the road. “Almost… Almost… Alright, there!” He fired the arrow at a guardrail, blasting a hole into it as Ayako drifted around a corner. The Eurobeat yelled GAS GAS GAS, and Ayako obliged, flooring the pedal and sending the Mustang flying off the road. Ayako and Shinji soared through the air as they passed over Chad and multiple curves before landing on the road with a thump.

    ““YES!””

    And with that, they accelerated onto the final straightaway before the end of the course.

    “Shinji, anything else to worry about?”

    Shinji cradled his jaw between his index finger and thumb. “Nah, this section of the road’s pretty straightforward; it’s pretty much a scrub gate. And there are cameras here too, unlike some of the other parts of the road, so he can’t use any physical methods of cheating. Plus he’s out of angels, so it all comes down to the car and the driver.”

    Ayako grinned. “Then there’s no reason to lose!”

    The Camaro zoomed down the curves, Dies Irae still blaring as it gained on the Mustang. Ayako swerved back and forth, staying in front of the Camaro as it tried to move past her; both cars moved right, and Chad drove up onto the earth, flooring it as he pulled parallel with Ayako and began to overtake her.

    “There’s like 1000 meters left, fuck!”

    Ayako smirked. “Don’t worry, Shinji. That dumbass lost the moment he pulled that stunt.” And Shinji looked back to see Chad’s spoiler catch on a low-hanging tree, sending him spinning into the bushes. Ayako flipped him the bird as she drove past and crossed the finish line, triumphant Eurobeat as their victory cheer.

    GAS GAS GAS

    Shinji stood next to his - His! - Camaro, looking at it with a mixture of relief and despair at the cost of the new paint job it’d need. He rubbed it and turned to face Ayako, who’d parked beside him in the lot. “Thanks for this, Ayako.”

    “Hey, I was just helping out a fellow clubmate.”

    “No, really; thank you.” He chewed his lip and winced. “And uh, sorry about the stuff before.”

    Ayako stared at him. “I think I’ll need to punch you a few more times for that. Leave your schedule open, we’ll meet up again sometime.”

    Shinji grinned. “Sure, I’ll wash my face for it. Anyways, I got something for you.” He rummaged in his bag and tossed her an unlabeled CD. “The one I left in your car’s only 3 hours; this one’s 10.”

    “Nice, thanks!” Ayako made a fist - and punched him lightly in the shoulder. “See you around, Shinji.”

    “Yeah, catch you later Ayako.” Shinji got in his Camaro and drove away. Ayako climbed into her Mustang, put in the CD, and started to drive away.

    “Alright, looks like the guitar’s tuned. Hey lucky ladies, your boy Shinji Matou’s here with his acoustic guitar. Anyways, here’s Wonderwall. ‘I walk a lonely road-’”

    “Goddammit, Shinji.”

    And Ayako drove away under the blinding lights of the winding road.

    Spoiler:
    Ayako Mitsuzuri is having a great time in university, but her friends have recently gotten obsessed with street racing, and drifting. After a week of them attempting to drag her along for a meet, she finally relents. The event fascinates her, but moreso was the one man who was getting kicked away from the meetup after apparently betting away his car, but insisting his opponent has cheated, a man of familiar hair and skeeviness, Shinji Matou. Shinji notices Ayako, and meets up with her after the meet, where he insists that he was cheated and begs her to race for him. Ayako is reluctant, but Shinji assures her he knows how he was cheated, and knows how to prevent it. The only question is, what's all this eurobeat going to be for?! Ayako racing vs magus dude. Must involve sound-based magecraft that can only be countered by blasting eurobeat so loud Ayako can't hear their sound.
    Quote Originally Posted by Dullahan View Post
    there aren't enough gun emojis in the thousandfold trichiliocosm for this shit


    Linger: Complete. August, 1995. I met him. A branch off Part 3. Mikiya keeps his promise to meet Azaka, and meets again with that mysterious girl he once found in the rain.
    Shinkai: Set in the Edo period. DHO-centric. As mysterious figures gather in the city, a young woman unearths the dark secrets of the Asakami family.
    The Dollkeeper: A Fate side-story. The memoirs of the last tuner of the Einzberns. A record of the end of a family.
    Overcount 2030: Extra x Notes. A girl with no memories is found by a nameless soldier, and wakes up to a world of war.

  3. #3
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    Whittling

    Every time he served another beer, the barkeeper could feel another piece of his heart pared off. This quaint store along a back street of Jerusalem served a much different purpose. Since the previous siege of Jerusalem, this store was known to be a place where a single man could smoke some wholesome, halal shisha and participate in some rather lively conversation.

    Alas, the barkeep yearned for those days before the “False Crusaders” attacked. They had been labeled false as they had no affiliation with the English prince, but to the barkeep Crusader, False Crusader, what was the difference? They still took Jerusalem in the end. And now, well now, he was serving beer. Because that’s what the heathens wanted. They didn’t want halal shisha they wanted haram, intoxicating, beer. The barkeeper hated himself for supplicating in this fashion. This city was not Damascus or the heathen’s Acre, it was Jerusalem. The rise and fall of this city was the rise and fall of three separate religions, one of which was the true religion. But for those who lived in the city, those who called it home, rather than the destination of a pilgrimage none of that mattered. As long as they stayed in this city, survived, and brought up children to take their place, no one could take this city away from them. Not matter how many times it changed hands. No matter how many times was destroyed. If the good folk of this city continued to live their lives their fullest, Jerusalem would always be Jerusalem. That was the atmosphere that pervaded the hidden marketplaces, the wells with the cleanest water, and the home away from the pilgrim inns. And that is why Harun had so willingly converted his family’s beloved Shisha store into this bar.

    Serving beer made every smile forced.

    Serving beer to heathen invaders seasoned every forced smile with contempt.

    But, serving more beer to a heathen invader who had continuously downed beers without paying for a single one yet. Survival or not, Harun was about to give that no good Frank a piece of his mind.

    “Sir! That’s the fifteenth beer you’ve had, now you’ve either got to start paying or—”

    “Harun, my good man!”

    He was quickly cut off by the doorbell and a cheerful voice that was as round as the owner. The man nimbly waddled towards Harun and slapped him on the back a few times.

    “Saruhan,” wheezed Harun. “Shouldn’t you be out there peddling your trinkets?”

    “Trinkets? If I didn’t know you any better, I would think that was an insult, old friend.” He winked at ‘old.’

    Harun sighed. Must be another offer for a life and fortune changing escapade. He had barely known the man a few months and Harun had only reached out because he believed that the Karimi might have been able to supply him with good coals and Mu‘assel. To be fair, they did for a while. A crusade, especially one that so obviously doomed, was good business. At least that was until the False Crusader calling himself Richard the Lionheart appeared. Harun had cut his ties with the Karimi, but there was one loud merchant who kept coming back to his shop.

    Harun pushed Saruhan’s hand off his back and pulled him closer. “Sorry, like I said last time, no more escapades.”

    “Is that you or your wife talking? Because I got some nice necklaces that’ll take her mind off things. Ten, no, thirty percent off. Accomplices only deal.” “Sub,” he started sternly before his eyes happened to look over at the now slumped over knight who still hadn’t paid. “Sir! This isn’t an inn! And you still haven’t paid for your drinks!” The knight lifted his head. “Heard you already. Don’t have any coin. Got to town this morning.”

    Harun’s face went blank. Most of the time, the False Crusaders paid well. They knew the value of keeping an establishment like Harun’s around. Harun had even paid some “protection” money to keep it that way. But he knew how fragile a relationship could be. The False Crusaders were monsters, after all. If Harun let this man off the hook no one would ever pay again. At the same time, deal with him too harshly and his livelihood would be burned down.

    “I’ll help your pal.”

    “What?”

    “For the drinks. Your pal over there needs help, right?”

    Harun looked at Saruhan who was equally shocked and then thanked the Lord under his breath. Maybe his luck was finally turning around. Either way, that was two birds with stone. Not his problem, not a story he had to tell his wife while she was treating the scratches all over his body from landing in shrubbery anymore.

    Saruhan took the chair opposite to the knight. His armor seemed a bit archaic, perhaps it was an heirloom and that’s why he had that cloak on. If it was an heirloom, it would be more difficult to offer a price. As for the knight’s face it looked at too clean-shaven for someone who had been on the road for months.

    “Saruhan, my friends call me Sub. I don’t know why though.”

    Saruhan, the oh-so submissive merchant which will always subtract and then pocket the difference.

    “Well Sub, you can call me Add.”

    Saruhan nodded a few times. “What a strange name, from what part of Europe do you hail from?”

    The knight’s face frozen for a second before he opened and shut his mouth. Trying to explain the joke would definitely bring more misfortune.

    “A bad jest, the name my father gave me is Kay.” He scratched his nose slightly awkwardly, “Sorry to disappoint, I’m not a crusader, just a wandering knight.”

    ****

    After the knight, Kay the Tall as he referred to himself, sobered up they moved towards to Muslim quarter to talk. From how the knight was walking, Saruhan wasn’t convinced that this Kay fellow even needed to sober up. Perhaps it was just a habit that he kept. If that was the case, how many taverns had this man been thrown out of?

    Shaking that thought out of his head, Saruhan began to explain his grievances to Kay who mostly absentmindedly nodded.

    “Did you get all that?”

    “If the False Crusaders stole your shipment of medicine, it’s already gone by now. Medicine is a consumable. They’re an army.”

    It was going to be rough working with this knight. If Saruhan didn’t known that, what sort of merchant would he be in the first place? Answering his question would require some finesse because Kay was already looking at him as if he was one of those merchants who had no idea about their merchandise.

    “It was smuggled. I’m a smuggler.”

    Darn it all. If Saruhan was going to get this Frank to help him, he was going to have tell the truth for once.

    “You’re pretty smug about that, aren’t you?”

    “Bad jokes aside, are you going to help me or not get into the cistern?”

    “You love it.” Kay sighed, “Anyway, I’m not welcome back to that bar until I finish helping you.”

    Just go to another bar, posturing halfwit.

    “You’re a smug smuggler, so it’s not like you’re going to let me go even if I refused to help you. We’re already at the cistern, aren’t we?” Saruhan vehemently shook his head.

    “Entering the cisterns of the Temple Mount isn’t that easy. Most of the entrances have been sealed. That’s why we’re here, at the law school.” He pointed to the plain stone building that was showing signs of disrepair in front of them. Kay had seen many grander structures than this building, in fact he had seen enough of those “grand” buildings to know that wasn’t just a law school.

    “That’s a church?”

    Saruhan shrugged. “At least it used to be. To be fair, thanks for the False Crusaders it’s not a law school anymore either.”

    Even though the core of the city remained the same, those who ruled the city were fickler. A place of worship could be turned into a scholarly building without a moment’s notice. And then left to die a slow death by disrepair with the same indifference.

    “Well, this seems a bit more complicated that I thought it would be. Thank you for taking the time to show me around this city and include me in your plan but I think I’m going to leave now.” Kay turned on a heel and started walking in the opposite direction.

    He had been a part of many complicated plans before. Hell, he had even been part of an experiment known as “utopia.” How poorly did that turn out? Help a merchant get his goods back from the local authorities? Sure, simple enough. It was in the job description of a Heroic Spirit. A tradition that lends power to later generations or whatever. Kay didn’t mind chatting with some self-important law keepers in the name of humanity and the future of mankind. But when it out that the merchant was a smuggler and the smuggler wanted to retrieve some contraband, and it turned out the contraband was in the False Crusaders headquarters in the Temple Mount. Yeah, no thanks.

    “Shame. But as a pilgrim to Jerusalem, you might be interested in knowing that even though the law school was built on top of the church they kept the pool. It’s pretty famous.”

    Kay couldn’t blame Saruhan for still believing he was a pilgrim. Kay’s acting was pretty convincing. That’s why they called him Sir Kay of the Tall.

    “The Pools of Bethesda, I believe they’re known to your countrymen. Something Jesus, healing a man, something something miracle?”

    Kay stopped walking. His eyesight had been pretty great when he was alive, if he did say so himself. He could always make out a nice rump in a crowded ballroom. So, there is no way he would miss the glint of armor.

    Putting on airs to beat Solomon, “Ever since they took control, the False Crusaders routinely patrol this area.”

    Pilgrim’s paradise or not, there were too few people in the area to escape without being noticed. While Saruhan was inconspicuous, it was unlikely they wouldn’t question Kay with his fine armor that seemed to belong to a different era. The stupid smuggler had indeed trapped them.

    With no other recourse, Kay looked back at Saruhan and snapped, “We’re not doing ‘send help.’”

    ****

    Before the False Crusaders took over the city, the inhabitants in Jerusalem could just wander into the Temple Mount without any repercussions. But after claiming that they were retaking their heritage, the False Crusaders barred anyone from entering what was considered the third most holy place to Muslims. For what? Just because it used to be the headquarters of the Templars before the Christians were pushed back. So then how did Saruhan plan on infiltrating the Dome of the Rock?

    In the past, the pools of Bethesda served as a reservoir that supplied water to the Temple Mount. And with the addition of a second dam by Simon the Just, a closed water tunnel had been created. During the Roman occupation, the Pools had been put out of commission, due to the Birket Israel, a pool closer to the Temple Mount. The Pools of Bethesda quickly dried up and a new city wall was building to prevent water from flowing down to fill the Pools. But what they forgot was to seal the tunnel that was hidden under the rubble.

    “Even if there was water, I’m sure I could have made it. Full armor.”

    Saruhan raised an eyebrow reflexively, but there was no way that Kay could have seen his incredulous look with only torchlight. Either way, Kay was too busy mimicking a swimming motion, intensely calculating how fast the current would be.

    “What did you mean by ‘send help’?”

    Kay looked back at Saruhan and just said, “We’re not doing it.”

    Whatever that meant.

    Saruhan hoped that a torrent of water would miraculously fill the tunnel and carry this self-important knight who only a shell of bravado away. That’s why he told Kay to be the one at the front. It wasn’t like Saruhan believed that ghosts actually haunted these tunnels, like the townspeople always said.

    “Worked as a bodyguard with this lad for a while. Knew a bit of magic this lad, so, of course it went to his head. Thought he was bigshot, he did.” Even if all he could do was make flowers come out of the ground, Kay added under his breath.

    Why did Harun always have the worst customers?

    “Anyway, our employer was this bigwig and the whole country was looking for her – him.”

    Saruhan interjected, “Sounds like one of those romances your people love so much? What were they called, again? The Altrian Romances?”

    Yes, this story sounded as stupid as one of those European tales. Knowing this knight, he was probably embellishing the tale as much as he could. This employer was probably just a village chief or maybe a mayor who had some debts.

    “This one time, we were in this inn, and there were soldiers sent to comb the place because one of the village girls yapped that she was hit on by a white-haired man who produced a bouquet out of nothing.” Kay rolled his eyes as he talked. “He told our employer to escape and that we would deal with the situation. The bigwig got out, and it was the two of us against about a score of soldiers armed to the teeth.”

    Probably some boasting how he singlehanded took them on.

    “So, this ponce takes me in his hands like he’s carrying a princess and says ‘look like you’re injured.’ Before I can respond he shouts out ‘Send help! Send help! My friend is hurt.’ The soldiers all look this way and he throws me into them.

    “To make matters worse. When I get up to start fighting. He’s already gone. Turns out he escaped with my sister and the one who threw me was just one of his illusions. Once again, I had to wipe both their asses.” Saruhan’s ears pricked up at the mention of Kay’s sister.

    Wasn’t this story about their employer?

    Either way, “Didn’t you say all he could was make flowers appear? Illusions seem out of the question.”

    “That’s why the village lass reported him to the soldiers. The flowers he made for her disappeared the next day. It’s like you weren’t listening.”

    Inward sigh.

    “Anyway, whenever the Usurper’s men would find us, he was always look at me and say ‘Kay, we’re doing, Send Help.’ Even when Bedivere joined our motley gang it was always ‘Kay, we’re doing, Send Help.’ At the end of the journey I was more fed up with than Gawain’s mashed potatoes.” Saruhan didn’t ask. But that didn’t stop Kay from complaining about this “Gawain’s” mashed potatoes the rest of journey through the tunnel.

    ****

    The False Crusaders, a supernatural military body led by a Servant who called himself Richard the Lionheart. This was the enemy that had appeared in the Holy Land a few months ago to deal with the rise of the Pharaoh. After a few skirmishes with the Pharaoh's army, the False Crusaders had quickly finished their siege of Jerusalem and took over the city, establishing their headquarters at the Temple Mount, the former headquarters of the Knights Templar and what was once known as the Temple of Solomon.

    “Pile on enough garbage and… it’s still going to be a pile of garbage.” Kay shook his head at the pile of confiscated goods in the Temple.

    Saruhan ignored him and kept searching for his shipment, while discreetly pocketing some other trifles that caught his attention.

    From the tunnel, Saruhan had led them through the courtyard and into the main building where they had spent some time looking for this room. For such a large man, Saruhan was rather light on his feet. As for Kay, it would seem like he could actually disappear and reappear at times. The tunnels underneath the Temple Mount were like that of an anthill. In the past the Templars stored artifacts in vaults, but because of the sheer volume of goods confiscated the False Crusaders had collected they had used rooms such as this one. Therefore, each room had to be labeled with their contents. According to Saruhan, this room was for “Contraband taken from Merchants in the Muslim Quarter.”

    “Why are they collecting all this stuff in the first place?”

    “Religious zealots,” Saruhan muttered disparagingly.

    “They’re offering it to Solomon, the King of Magic. He’s the one who’s supposed to bring them salvation by incineration. Typical, baseless zealotry.”

    Kay opened his mouth but it closed before he could say anything. Instead he returned to looking for the box Saruhan had described. Though it was strange that the room was filled with daggers.

    “The thing about this city is that it’s always attracting zealots. Zealots who live in the mountains, zealots who feel the need to reclaim something, zealots who believe this is their rightful home.”

    “You’re not any better, are you?” Kay held out a box to Saruhan. “This is what you were looking for, right?”

    “If one is to be driven by zealotry, it’s easier if it’s because of something you can actually see.”

    “I bet that sounded great in your head.”

    “It was great when I said it, you tin-head.”

    Kay raised his eyebrow, “How are we getting out?”

    “Same way we got in?” A bit too sassy.

    “Getting out is different. We’re walking out with a box. Remember you almost got caught coming in.”

    “Hey, if someone was a better lookout instead of disappearing all the time!”

    “I told you-!”

    Saruhan nimbly put his hand over Kay’s mouth. Torchlight flickered along the corridor. Both looked at the other with utterly accusing eyes.

    “Two… four… six… lights. Shit, there’s no way we can take them.”

    Both men understood that even with an ambush there was also the chance of one of the guards getting away and calling for reinforcement. Chances of that were especially high since the entrance to the room was so narrow only two men could fit across. In either case, it would mean that they would have to take out all six guards in one fell swoop. However, what Saruhan didn’t know was that Kay was a Heroic Spirit, a being capable of fighting against entire armies. Defeating six enemies would be nothing more than…

    “Pick me up.”

    “Come again?”

    “I hate it as much as you do. But if we’re going to get out of this, you’re going to have to pick me up. It’s going to hurt me more than you.”

    Saruhan didn’t understand, but he picked Kay up who shouted “Send help!”

    Why was this man who had been complaining about this ‘Send help’ for long have such a refreshing expression on his face? Why was it his first suggestion when they had come across some trouble? Why go through so much effort just to reenact something he did with someone he hated?

    ****

    Stingy opulence was how Kay had to characterize the bath and perhaps the rest of Saruhan’s house. All the rugs were the highest quality buying second hand could afford. The plumbing was first-class but the water that came out was slightly murky. As for his servants, they were all middle-aged matrons. Shame, Kay would have liked to have a pretty girl help him bathe and while asking him about his deeds. Kay would refuse of course, a knight who regales maidens with his own deeds is nothing but boorish.

    After wiping himself dry with the threadbare towel he was supplied, he headed to Saruhan’s study. On his way there, his eyes started to water and he started coughing. Someone was burning pine? pepper? For all Saruhan put Kay through, he could do with a bit of supper. He had to meet his fellow knights soon and dealing with those fools on an empty stomach was more than a trial.

    Instead of a nice roast beef, he was met Saruhan’s protruding potbelly. The man was curled up on a second-hand rug smoking a pipe. He motioned for Kay to sit down and after cleaning the mouthpiece with the hem of his robe, offered it to Kay.

    Kay was about to take it when he noticed an open box next to Saruhan.

    “That’s from the Temple Mount.” The moment he finished his sentence, he realized what was in the pipe and dropped it, spilling ash on the rug.

    “Hey, that’s good stuff.” Saruhan fumbled for the pipe, trying to minimize carpet burns.

    Kay’s face hardened. When they had first met, Kay would have wholeheartedly believed that Saruhan was the type of merchant who partook in his own goods. But after the day they had spent carousing together…

    “That shipment was never yours was it?”

    Saruhan only half-looked at Kay. His eyes were too far away. “Hey, I never said they were my goods.”

    “You did say that, many times. It’s the main reason why I helped you.”

    “Hey!” Saruhan snapped. “It’s not like those freaks living on that mountain are going to miss a box.”

    Saruhan wasn’t talking about the False Crusaders was he? The freaks he was referring to must be the fourth power in these lands. Although the organization had not existed in Kay’s time, the political situation had been made clear during his summoning.

    “We stole confiscated Assassin hashish from the False Crusaders.” Kay flatly said. “And we stole it so you could smoke it.”

    “I offered. You didn’t want any.” Saruhan paused and then broke out in roaring laughter. “Send help! Send help! That was just great. You enjoyed that so much too.” Unable to be less disgusted, Kay got up and left the house. It was almost sundown.

    ****

    Kay contemplated going back to the bar but the sun was already starting to drop. When he had been summoned, he had decided to drink as much as possible. Well, he didn’t know what he was going to do after that, but he knew he wasted the only freedom he had in his second life. Then again, after spending the day with that self-centered idiot of a man, well what else was there to lose? This was a world was doomed to be kindling so then why not let it be incinerated in the first place? Then at least he could play the faithful knight that he always had. Right, as a knight of the round table he had his pride. Even if he wanted to, standing up to that… yeah that was impossible for Kay. Summoned as a Servant, a Heroic Spirit, he had a fundamental understanding just how much greater in stature It was compared to himself and his fellow knights.

    “Oi, are you just going to make me pick this all up on my own?”

    Items were strewn all over the hard ground. Most of them were innocuous, just food and other sundries, but the old lady looked at him as if it was a king’s ransom.

    “Feisty aren’t you,” He automatically bent over and began placing the items that had fallen onto the ground into her bag.

    “Just because you have control of this town doesn’t mean you can knock over old ladies, you heathen.”

    Geez, it seemed the old lady had heard him mutter under his breath. She was old. She could hardly care who he was. Well old lady, turns out Kay was even older than you so he could care even less.

    “At least watch for old ladies when you’re walking around all moon-faced.”

    Moon-faced? What does that even mean?

    “No one calls me that. That’s a horrible witticism if you’re trying to insult me, lady.”

    His words did not matter in slightest to her.

    “When you’re as old as I am, when you’ve seen as much as I’ve seen, everyone’s a moon-face, moon-face.”

    Kay ignored her as if believing there was a metaphysical score-keeper that diligently kept track of ironic statements because if there were, he would be the winner. That was important. No one appreciated style anymore, least of all Saruhan. That thought made him mad. But then again, no one in Camelot appreciated style either. After all, according to the citizens that twinky, bleeding-heart, harpist was stylish.

    “Sorry, what were you saying? I was just thinking about sad, sad Tristan,” they would all say after Tristan’s performances when Kay tried to talk to them. No one wanted to talk to Sir Kay the Teller of Tall Tales after a performance that “literally shook hell.” Everyone except for that flat servant who had a crush on him.

    And it’s because that people were this way that they are duped into buying intoxicating poisons from a shady merchant. Kay knew right away from the stench, that rotten, earthy smell was the same as the smoke from Saruhan’s shop. The only difference was the resin was packaged in a brown paper bag.

    “Oi, are you going finish up or what?” The old lady snapped.

    Looking at the bag and then the lady, Kay sighed. “I think you were scammed, lady. I happen to know the man who sold this to you-”

    She just laughed at him. “You? Sub? I very much doubt it. He’s been supplying me with my grandchild’s medicine for a very long time.”

    “No, you don’t understand. This isn’t medicine. It’s a poison that intoxicates people. You should not be giving your grandchild this.”

    She looked at him and taken aback, Kay pushed the paper bag and the rest of her groceries back into the old ladies’ arms before quickly walking off. He had been so vehemently sure of himself and more than that there was a child’s wellbeing at stake. But he couldn’t shake how that lady had looked at him. This old lady who was so full of spunk just a few moments ago looked so scared of him.

    Kay quickly turned a corner before slumping onto the ground, supporting this back against a wall. His face was buried in his hands.

    Something he had seen before. Something that was an all-to familiar sight. But it was so idiotic wasn’t it? The entire world, the entire history of humanity had already been incinerated. Everyone turned into kindling for a mad god’s incomprehensible plan. Bloodthirsty, oppressing False Crusaders had taken over the city and were killing off the population in secret. So why did that lady look at Kay as if he was the enemy?

    “Brother, is the sword of selection a good thing?”

    A scene flashed through his mind. It was something that came from beyond the graveyard, the blood-soaked hill, the chalk white castle, or their long journey across the country. Kay hated old stories. After all, what was so interesting about hearing about people brag about themselves? And for Kay, this might actually be the oldest story.

    “So, the king wasn’t chosen, was he?”

    Annoying. So annoying. Ever since he or rather she had been placed in his family’s care, Kay couldn’t find her anything but annoying. And there she was holding the lance that he hadn’t even forgotten while eyeing that stupid sword.

    “We’re not going to go along with Merlin or Uther’s fanciful conditions. What the people want is a human being with money, troops, and power. They don’t want proof of a king they can’t see. They don’t need an incredible commander. Just someone whose cooperation will mutually benefit all parties.” She looked at him slightly worried.

    Idiot.

    “Brother, so is that what you think?”

    You idiot. That’s why you should have gone home like your brother told you to do so. But you’re an idiot, that’s why you couldn’t do something as simple as that and–

    The rest is history… or mythology, one or the other or both.

    Kay laughed. Alone, on the corner of a dirty street in a land almost on the other side of the world of where he called home, he could only laugh at something so idiotic and pathetic that it made him sick. But…

    "I summoned you knights because I require your power. While I can destroy my enemies alone, I cannot perform the Holy Selection. I need knights that will become my hands and feet. However. I understand that this act violates your beliefs. Will you obey me, or will you leave my side?”

    Somewhere along the road that stupid little girl had become That.

    “Bollocks,” Kay cursed at the empty street. “The world that you wanted to protect, this is it, you idiot.”

    A world where a former smoke shop owner does his best serving alcohol to his enemies.

    A world where a merchant is audacious enough to steal from those who have taken the city.

    A world where an old lady so fervently believes that even poison could save her grandchild.

    All of these ordinary people doing their ordinary best to live their ordinary lives.

    “Holy selection, my ass. It seems everything in your head went to your chest. No wonder you need that high horse.”

    What that fifteen-year-old girl sacrificed on her birthday of all days.

    What that fifteen-year-old girl wished for.

    What that fifteen-year-old-girl wanted to protect.

    All of it was here.

    “I followed your flat rump across the country because you couldn’t accomplish anything with just that happy-go-lucky magus who was only good at making flowers come out of his ass.”

    Bravado aside.

    “And you were like, ‘Kay, you’re useless aren’t you,’ while sighing all the damn time. Turns out, I was the one solving all your problems when things got bad. Well, I’ll tell you what, you can sod off for all I care.”

    That is, bravado aside.

    “But I can’t, I’m your older brother, you overly-serious fool.”

    In the beginning it was jealousy, then disgust, but finally pride. Pride because Kay knew that she would never be proud of her ideal, her deeds, or herself. And eventually as his little sister lost herself in becoming king, that pride turned into pity.

    Who cares about a king who was supposed to be a messenger of god that saved everyone? Kay knew better than anyone else something like that didn’t exist. But this one time, just this one time, that god came. The god came to this holy realm and asked him to help her save everyone.

    Ask for help. That’s something his little sister would never do. His little sister who would hide the fact that she lost her sword. What did Kay make for her back then… a bird catching a salmon wasn’t it? Either way, King Arthur was a stuffy fool. Kay would never willingly follow someone like that. He had been taught better and even being at the edge of the world didn’t change that for a minute.

    With that, Kay got up and started to walk to his appointed meeting place outside the city.

    “Hey you, when are you sleeping?” A flippant remark at a little girl still cleaning the stable.

    He had come into this city to numb himself for whatever deeds his king was to ask of him. To enjoy this second life before entering the services of an absolute ruler who knew no wrong.

    “Don’t worry, brother. I am asleep from dawn until the sun rises.”

    But he couldn’t betray that little girl he grew up with. More than that he couldn’t betray the dream she fought so hard for even if it had continuously betrayed her.

    The endless desert came into view with his fellow knights standing in two columns, facing each other. Their armor was lackluster, their swords dull, even the plumage on their helmets was drab. There was only silent acceptance as they waited for the Lion King.

    Unsheathing his sword, Kay took his place among the knights.

    He had left her there that night and learned later on that for the three hours she actually slept, the court magician was teaching her the finer details of ruling a kingdom.

    In the place of his younger self, Kay reassured that little girl.

    “You don’t sleep much, so I’m sure you’ve haven’t seen many dreams. But don’t worry Artoria, I’ll make sure you go back to sleep and see the continuation of that dream of yours.”

    Spoiler:
    A scene from the lost Singularity Jerusalem - Camelot/Zero. The arrival of the False Crusaders or Lion King, purging of the Round Table, the Martyrdom of Gareth, or your preference. The sacrifices that gave meaning to the later Singularity.
    Last edited by Kirby; December 25th, 2018 at 05:12 PM.
    Quote Originally Posted by Dullahan View Post
    there aren't enough gun emojis in the thousandfold trichiliocosm for this shit


    Linger: Complete. August, 1995. I met him. A branch off Part 3. Mikiya keeps his promise to meet Azaka, and meets again with that mysterious girl he once found in the rain.
    Shinkai: Set in the Edo period. DHO-centric. As mysterious figures gather in the city, a young woman unearths the dark secrets of the Asakami family.
    The Dollkeeper: A Fate side-story. The memoirs of the last tuner of the Einzberns. A record of the end of a family.
    Overcount 2030: Extra x Notes. A girl with no memories is found by a nameless soldier, and wakes up to a world of war.

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    Incurable Poison

    You have heard tales of the unicorn, have you not? Whatever is it that you recollect of them? You remember how it is said that a single touch from its luminescent horn is antidote enough to dispel all impurities, right?

    Consider this:
    A unicorn may be able to cure any poison—but a poison released by a unicorn is an indelible curse that perverts the world for eternity.

    The only poison a unicorn cannot cure is the poison that it won't cure.

    The only poison a unicorn won't cure is the poison that it wants.




    The moment that Inui Arihiko stepped past the threshold of his family's home he found himself unwittingly greeted with what was, by his standards, an uncanny and heart-stopping sight. He was so thoroughly and instantaneously dumbfounded that he almost forgot his manners and had nearly forgotten to take his shoes off at the door. He wouldn't have been given such pause even if he had crossed paths with Bigfoot, or a tsuchinoko.

    The sight? It was his sister, out of the Absolute Territory of her bedroom and about in the house proper.

    His response? Genuine. "Huh." His response? Mild—yet sensiblly contained—shock. His eyebrows, both of them, rose a centimeter as part of said-response. The thought of greeting her crossed his mind for the briefest of moments, but the current atmosphere felt hardly conducive to such spur of the moment, uncharacteristic interactions between the siblings.

    "Hey. You've got a guest," she said.

    "Tohno?" he asked.

    "No," she said, and then walked off with a pack of Suntory Strong Zero in tow to parts unknown and unencroachable to the likes of mortal men.
    ...Lo, she went. The rare Inui Ichiko; an enigmatic beast, seldom seen in the wild.
    —Possibly looks good in glasses.

    He couldn't, nor did he have such desires to, confirm that. Rather, it was merely a gut feeling that he had. Perhaps infinitely close to that thing called 'faith.'

    Instead of any such satisfactory potential inter-sibling dialogues, the first real words to be uttered by Arihiko were spoken as so when he reached his room, as followed:
    "What the hell are ya doing back here, Horse?"

    An appropriate response, perhaps—more likely than not. It was more than if she hadn't ever left him; it was as if they were meeting each other again for the first time. Her bright, green eyes sauceplate-wide meeting his gaze as she scarfed down a carrot. She holding the orange root vegetable in place with one of her reflective, silvery hooves. Her tail curled, swishing, and the fur, as blonde as the hair on her head, catught the sunbeam rather picturesque-ly. It was all the same as before.

    ...Wait. Was that a new tattoo, and a new bracelet?

    "Hewwo, Awiheeko!" Waving at the occupant of the bedroom with her free hoofed arm, she talked with her mouth full, cheeks stuffed full of carrot, making her more resemble a nut-gathering chipmunk than the unicorn she was.

    Arihiko disregarded her spunky greeting. "What was that goodbye for if you were just gonna show up back here whenever you wanted?"

    She was affronted, but not enough to prioritize doing anything else that didn't involve swallowing her carrot cud beforehand. The root veggie bollus. "That's a fine how-do-ya-do, there! Months go by, I thought I'd never ever see you ever again, and I work hard enough to show up again before you, and this is the reaction I get?! You don't even call me by the name you gave me? I'm just back to being 'the horse?' That's mean, Arihiko. Hmph." she said, actually taking the trouble to properly articulate the wordfeel of the onomatopoeia.

    "You're that attached to 'Nanako,' huh?" He tested the sound of the Seventh Holy Scripture spirit's nickname. Arihiko vagulely felt like a retired samurai picking up an old, cherished blade for the first time in years, one coated with thick dust and still bearing a keen edge, and the sensation made him furrow his brow in both self-loathing and nostalgic relief. "Yeah, my bad. Still, why?"

    " 'Why' what?"

    "Why are you here? You got taken back by your tough-looking owner."

    "Oh! Right! That. Well, I worked reaaaal hard—and under Master's nose, no less!—and I was able to come back here and see you again!"

    "I don't get that. Didn't I wipe my blood off that thing or whatever? Wait, no, that's not what I wanted to ask—"

    Nanako rambled about the process. "Oh, that? It's nothing to do with a magical pass. Not a proper one, anywho. 'Proper,' in the sense of a controllable contract. That a magus, or someone with magical training, can utilize, that is. You aren't directly giving me mana, nor am I receiving any from you, and yet you kinda are and I kinda am, sorta. We definitely had a connection. That much was definitely ingrained onto the soul. Yes, that's right. There's no blood or contracts involved here. Contracts in the typical sense, like I said before. It's a form of karmic binding—a connection that isn't a connection, yet is enough to become one! An actual one, but still not one a real magus would accept. But that's okay! I can handle it for now. So, so I discreetly reinforced it, the binding, and reinforced it and reinforced it over and over, like a swallow building its nest using its own spit, and now that it's strong enough I showed up here, at your house, where you live, because it's nice and rife with your energy, but it's kinda like I'm trying to eat enough for a square meal from the backwash in a drink, but that's okay because I don't have to anymore because you're here and I can suck it directly from your presence—"

    "Tell it to me like I'm a kid who doesn't know jackshit."

    "...I cursed you so I'm haunting you."

    "Goddamnit!" He slammed the door in anger. "Why?!"

    "I-It's not for no reason! Honest! It's not a bad curse whatsoever! It's a curse for a cause!"

    "In short, you want me to help you?"

    Nanako nodded her head excitedly.

    "No way, Horse-sé" Arihiko replied.

    "Why?! Why not?! I didn't even tell you what kind of help it is!"

    "I refuse," Arihiko shrugged. "I swore I'd put shenanigans behind me."

    "Y-You're just saying that because you're a gruff tough guy who always does his own thing."

    "I'll admit to that. I messed around a shitton in my school years. But, I knew it couldn't last forever like that. I'm a senior now. I ain't ever gonna call it 100% quits on my lifestyle, but—I gotta be realistic."

    "Don't give me such a blatant lie! The Arihiko I know would never be this studious!"

    "So, don't 'bullshit' you?"

    "Don't confuse me with a different sort of livestock! I'm a unicorn, that feeble attempt at wordplay shan't be applicable to the likes of me!"

    "If it means so much to you we humans also call it 'horseshit.' "

    "It does! No, wait, no, it doesn't. Stop distracting me, stop ignoring me, this is of deep importance!"

    "You're hella bullheaded for a horse. Maybe that's what ya actually are instead. They both got horns. Ya probably just mixed those two big, dumb animals up. Didn't ya, ya cow? Baby bovines, they ain't got horns, do they? Does that mean you'll get yourself a nice, big, jiggly pair of udders a thousand years from now, ya underdeveloped calf?"

    "I have a horn, you know! It's somewhere! So there! I'm fully matured!"

    "Shame. If it took a thousand years, that'd be worth becoming immortal for."

    "D-Don't become a vampire for just that much!"

    "I didn't say I'd become a vampire. Just that I'd become immortal if that's what it took. Clearly, that's not even a possibility, so I'll just enjoy you as you are now in the present."

    "Thank you! Wait. No! Stop distracting me!"

    "You said that already."

    "I had to say it twice because it's important!"

    "You didn't say it twice at first so it must not actually be that important. Checkmate! I had fun. Get outta my house."

    "Arihiko, puhleaaaaase-uh!!"

    "What sorta help do you even need anyway, Nanako? What can a dude like me do for a girl like you? And don't feed me some drama line that you want me to steal you from your master. I'm not that dashing, and I don't have a death wish."

    "Don't worry! I don't need a dashing knight in silver armor. I need a scrappy scoundrel who's not afraid to get down and dirty!"

    At that, Arihiko rolled his eyes."You don't say? Whadda I get in return? You said it yourself, I'm a scoundrel—and I don't do charity work."

    "Come onnnn, I'm running on borrowed time, here! Oh, fine. If you help me out then I'll never bother you again."

    "Why'd you have to tell me that? Now I'll just wait until your witchcraft or whatever it is runs out and then I'll be left in peace."

    "Wait! Hold on! Umm, if you, uh, help me out here then I'll, erm, I'll figure something out! I mean, you can decide yourself! Just help me out already, please?????"

    " 'Don't let your mouth write a check that your body can't cover,' huh? In this case, you didn't write a check at all, you gave me a blank one. Well, if you're just gonna keep on with pestering me 'til you're blue in the face, then I might as well do what I can." Arihiko gave in, and made a grand shrug of it. "Alright. Hit me. What's your request?"

    "I need you to help me go beat up someone tough and scary!"

    (Insert narration detailing Arihiko's profound reluctance, yet it's a reluctance dichotomized by his distant memories of starry-eyed, rose-lensed boyhood fantasies that all young men have, and him not excluded—the fantasy of being somebody's knight in shining armor, to indulge in that immature sense of justice and naive pride, a well-meaning romanticism that never survives the transition pre-pubescent wonder into adulthood wholly intact—that despite Arihiko's repeatedly showcased displays of reluctance with regards to Nanako's presence, and the foolish carousing that ensue whenever man and horse butt heads, that Arihiko's fondness for Nanako, which he had always had and unconsciously knew of, yet hadn't been able to realize himself until they parted ways for what he had assumed was to be for good, was a wound that had been ripped open, metaphorically by her unicorn's horn that he actually hadn't ever seen before but knew that she had to have on account of being a unicorn in the first place, a refreshed memory brought on by her sudden reemergence back into his life, that affection for her and the respective accompanying shenanigans was truly a form of affection, all of this meant that a part of him [despite his rampant self-aware, devil-may-care, bad-boy streak], one that he fully intended to obfuscate from Nanako's awareness at all cost, lest the spirit of the weapon cause a shift in their shared power dynamic, that part of him really did want to help her out, to seem cool and helpful in her eyes, to prove to himself, and to her, if no one else, that he was capable of using his selfishness to any degree of helpfulness, that he was capable of good and that that goodness could bring him closer to expanding his extremely narrow circle of people he was close enough with to consider true friends, and that potential of said goodness to enrich his life enough that this strange character before him could not only become a true friend, but perhaps something a bit more, thus fulfilling in him a need that had yet to be satisfied in all the years of his youthful life, well, he certainly felt moved to action)

    "Okay, fine. I give in. Let's go. Whatever," and after he threw his hands up in the air, Arihiko opened his bedroom door to step into the living room and leave the house he had returned to so soon beforehand. "Let's give your thing a try."

    "...Aren't you even the least bit happy to see me again?"

    "If you gotta ask, then you already know the answer, you dopey horse."


    For incurable poison

    there is

    only

    one

    cure




    "So, this guy, you've got their number, mind telling me what he looks like, so I'll at least know what I'm getting my ass dragged into?"

    "Just keep running around until you bump into her, and you'll know who she is because she's super tough!"

    "It's a 'she,' huh?"

    With that, they were out on the town.

    ———Just like a primeval campfire that protected mankind from the black hours, the neon lights of the arcade hall flickered and flashed through the windows, cast their windows-warped glow onto the street, just enough to entice, enough to flag, but not enough to utterly banish the foreboding smoggy dark glow of the night air.

    Whoever 'she' was, she was well-hidden. Or, perhaps, out of the way. The tail end of the afternoon, the time they had left the Inui residence together, had metamorphosed into a twilight that painted over Misaki City's bustling downtown in autumnal hues, hues of blood-tone reds and crackling orange fire, into the insomnia-infused essence of light-polluted and smogged-up sky, the very aura of metropolitan civilization. Those colors: portents of destruction to come, of impending winter that didn't avow a chance of spring to come.

    As for Arihiko's own state of mind—his own aura—the further the tone of the day-into-night shifted the more his was well and truly steeped, nay, entrenched in the notion of 'What the hell am I doing?' Arihiko may have had his convictions, but he also had second guesses. It was the difference between promising oneself to dive in shark-infested waters while still present in the open air, and to let the reality of the vow wash over oneself, let it sink in as it happens, sink into those very waters. He could tell himself that there was no difference. Nothing unusual here. From day to night, the city's atmosphere changed. Everyone knew that. Even his self-appointed quest, fostered both by a desire to humor the girl and a need to aid her, wasn't unusual. He knew he was a tough. He was no stranger to rough-ups, even if none of them had been so pre-meditated before. Arihiko felt positively ne'er do-well about it. Perhaps that was the x-factor, that je n'ais se quoi that gave him a bad feeling about this.

    "You know, Arihiko..."

    "What?"

    "They say that true bravery is the power to stay convicted even when you want to give into fear and give up."

    "What fortune cookie did you steal that kernel from?"

    "No fortune cookies! And as much as I love its sweetness, no corn, neither! My master told me that! So, I thought it'd buck you up!" Nanako gave off an air of affrontedness.

    "So your master does more than just pimp you up and rub you down with motor oil."

    " 'Pymp yoo ahp?' " She tilted her head, a gesture more doglike than equine.

    "It means to retrofit—ah, forget it." He shook his head, continued to walk with no particular destination in mind.

    Until then, for once, Nanako remained silent. Throughout it all Nanako hadn't left his side. She walked beside him, silent via her ghostly nature. Silent in voice, too; keeping quiet to herself, surely going to, when the target was sighted, speak up and alert him, like she were some kind of Ghost Geiger Counter.

    That was his assumption. He figured it might be wrong, but he didn't want to prod her. Still, he thought it queer. "Hey, Nanako. Why are ya walking?"

    She gave that head tilt again. "So I can accompany you. I gotta, ya know."

    "No. I know that. I mean, why are ya walking? You're a ghost, no? Just float beside me."

    " 'Float, huh? Well, that's..."

    "An excuse? Whatever." Whether the unicorn was being a ditz or hiding something, he decided it was useless to ponder. He could've, maybe, fished an answer out of her, but he restrained himself. He thought about why and couldn't come to a satisfactory answer that suited his ideas about himself. Instead, he pulled his sherpa-lined, brown jacket closer to chest and gave a light shiver; perhaps from the cold, likely not.

    Arihiko really had had it with omens.

    ———Strings upon strings upon strings of icicle lights hung between the twin rows of naked cherry tree branches that flanked the concrete pathway which divided the plaza in two, dangled across said pathway in elegant lines, dangled like electrified spiderwebs. Their color? Warm yellow/orange, more suitable for ambiance than actual lighting. It made the plaza feel like a parlor, changed the whole feel of the locale, altered its very feng shui – a taste of the indoors, outdoors. Though it was a school night, a work night, still, a few sparse couples lingered.

    "Nanako?"

    "Hello?"

    "Question."

    "Okayyy?"

    "Am I the only one who can see you?" 'This' you, he meant.

    "Yes, that's right!"

    "Then how come Sis could also see you?"

    "Oh? That? Karmic association. Probably. Tho', if someone tried hard enough they might be able to see, too."

    "I see." Even though Arihiko wore the nicest pair of sneakers he owned (and he was pretty damn proud of them, too; a foreign brand, expensive, something he'd wanted for ages and managed to get to) his footsteps echoed more loudly than they would during the daytime. Fewer people were about. Sound traveled better at night, too. The thinning of the air. The half-dozed city. "So, I'm the only one who can see you. Touch you?"

    "Yesss? You've got some twisted thoughts rattling around in your brain, doncha, Arihiko?"

    "If this is a wild goose chase, then you're gonna pay me back. If it's not a wild goose chase, as in, you've been truthful, but we still don't get any results, you're still gonna pay me back."

    "W-We'll find her! Honestly! J-Just have some patience—and, well, keep on walking, I guess!" Reassuring though her words were, they lacked a sense of—urgency. Not the sort that one'd expect from a creature supposedly acting upon borrowed time.

    Arihiko didn't care enough to inquire, and just shrugged and snorted. "YOU'RE the beast of burden. I should be riding you, instead. Giddyup, dammit."

    To refuel, Arihiko went to a takoyaki vendor and, using loose change, bought one (1) serving.

    As in, a single serving.

    For one person.

    Now that, that was a deliberate choice.

    He walked as he snacked, downing the steaming hot balls whole, chewing with his mouth open, steam wafting past his lips like a dragon's fire breath. Nanako watched him, drooled as she did so.

    Arihiko wondered about ghost saliva.

    Authoritatvely, he pointed the skewer in her direction. "Sorry, Nanako, but takoyaki ain't for horses. You can have my aonori, though."

    "Arihiiiiiiko...!" Nanako's expression was simply pitiful.

    Then, it wasn't.

    It was focused. Freed of silliness. Brimming with potential energy, she froze like a deer in the headlights and stared down the street.

    ———A crooked alley, that led to a labyrinthine complex of other alleys. The takoyaki man? Vanguard to the rest of the food vendors squirreled away between those winding walls. It felt like a cave tunnel—an entrance to a foreign land, a byway used by its residents, a high-traffic area brimming with the smells of food and overworked graveyarders, cluttered with all the requisite noises boucing off of the concrete walls and tiled paths. If this were a cave, it'd be resound with the chatter of resident bats.

    Chowing down on the final takoyaki with acute gusto, Arihiko hoped that the filling of his belly would likewise fill his heart with courage. Walking through, amidst it all, his eyes scanned, to and fro, from the backs of peoples' heads to their white collars. He gave silent praise that he didn't work such desolate hours.

    He regarded her. She shook her head. None of the people gave Nanako cause to affirm. Unlike before, where she was content to follow Arihiko around Misaki, he was now the one following her—a young man shadowing the spirit that haunted him.

    —And past it all, they found—
    "Her," Nanako was again with that deer/headlights tension. Her eyes narrowed with a tension that Arihiko found foreign on her.

    A distance away. A flowing purple skirt that both modestly-yet-enigmatically concealed-yet-somehow accentuated her graceful legs. A white turtleneck top; simple, perfect, perfect for nippy nights such as this. Unmistakable golden hair. Seated at a stall, gleefully slurping ramen without a concern in the world.

    Who was "Her?" "Her" was Arcueid Brunestud.

    "Her? That's just Tohno's girl. Probably." So Arihiko thought. To him, the exactitude of Tohno Shiki's relationship status was ambiguous, no matter how much he may have ribbed and pried Tohno, on account of his friend being so dang close with so many of the opposite sex. But, that's what Arihiko's gut told him, thus he went with it.

    "That's her, Arihiko. She's the one I gotta deal with."

    "I don't follow. I thought that since you're a ghost or whatever, that you can't, like, touch people, so I thought that, 'hey, maybe she wants me to sock it to some clown that she can't stand but also can't do nothin' about.' I didn't expect THIS."

    "She's a complicated person from my way of life, and as for our relationship—well, she's just like that." Nanako met his eyes with hers. "You can't tell about it from her. That's fine. That's not needed for you. You getting me this far was good enough. She's shunted her aura away, but since we've clashed before I could catch a whiff of it. Just get close enough and I'll handle the rest."

    "Uh-uh," he denied her. "You may be right, that I ain't no magic dude. Aura, schmaura. Whatever. I can size up a guy at a glance, but what you're talking about is way outta my skillset and I'd sure as shit like to keep it that way. Lil' Miss Arc over there seems perfectly fine to me. I dunno what you're running your horsey mouth off about."

    "I told you, she shunted her aura away. She's basically part of the scenery. Landscape. She gives off the sensation of being a normal human, but she's fronting."

    "You don't know 'pimp you up' but you know 'fronting?' No, wait, you know what, I don't believe you, and this is a bad—no, dumb—idea, and let's just go back."

    "It's not like that. Except, it kinda is. It's complicated. But still, it has to be done. It just, just has to. So thanks, Arihiko."

    "Nanako, don't you—"

    "Oh! Hi, Arihiko!" Arcueid caught sight of him, greeted him from her seat. "You come here often? Actually, Shiki told me that you do like to show up here, but I didn't expect to run into you on my very first solo visit. Funny, no?"

    "Yeah. Real hysterical. Go figure." He drew his words steadily, to adapt to the sudden change, to adjust to his own personal awkwardness.

    "So?" She asked. "Gonna join me? Seat's open."

    "Oh, I just ate."

    "Does that physically stop you from sitting down with me?"

    "Well," he said, "no."

    He walked over and sat down next to her. They, the only two at that ramen cart. The proprietor asked for his order, and Arihiko told him he just wanted some tea.

    Arihiko, he had made a promise but now wanted to back out. He knew he was out of his depth, one way or another. He didn't want to make sense of this. Hypocrite that he was, that he knew he was, and was ready to go for full-on cognitive dissonance, for even though he had a tendency to veer towards rabble-rousery and displays of rebellion he didn't want this particular shred of status quo to alter downwards into something irrecoverable. He didn't know how, but he could smell the smoke and see it for the fire that had to have been burning somewhere. He sipped his scalding tea, he kept glancing out of the corner of his eye, watching Nanako, yelling at her in his mind to not try anything, because he didn't understand what she had to do with her, desperately hoping that she'd get it through his thick hoofheaded skull just by reading him—

    "Hey. Arihiko?"

    "Yes, Arcueid?"

    "Hmm. Do I not tell you this because you're Shiki's friend, or do I tell you this BECAUSE you're Shiki's friend?" Her fingers tapped at the surface of the bar.

    "That – depends. On if it'sa secret. A secret t' be shared. Or a secret t' be kept."

    "What of secrets shared for the well-being of another?"

    "Those're," he stalled out, "those're pretty important."

    "Hmmm," Arcueid seemed to gaze into the distance, a distance visible to her alone and unimpeded by the cold, hard walls in all directions, or the tons upon tons of building material that made up the multipstory buildings that surrounded her, Arhiko, and everyone else with the canopy of the concrete jungle. "Very well. I have a feeling, so I'll act on it." She stared at him with those shimmering, blood-red eyes of hers. "Did you know that you're being haunted?" Her eyes shifted nearly imperceptibly, but it was enough – enough to redirect her gaze to Nanako.

    Nanako froze.

    "Really? You, uh, don't say...?"

    "It's okay, Arihiko. You needn't lie. I can see. So instead, let's talk. Shall we?" Arcueid cocked her head, indicating she wanted to walk elsewhere. She fished out enough to pay for her and his orders, and walked off, gesturing in more ways than one that she wanted him to follow her. Arihiko, he looked at Nanako, then to Arcueid, and asked, "Why?"

    "Because. You're Shiki's friend. That, and I'm partly responsible."

    "You are?"



    They went elsewhere. The park plaza from before, with the spidery lights. This time, it was well and truly devoid of all other beings, sans him, and her, and her.

    Arcueid nodded, seemed satisfied. "I like this. It seems like a wonderful place to have a conversation." She ran her hand over the wooden planks of the bench, and sat down, leaning against the backboards for a moment, to then lean forward, an attentive expression leveled at Arihiko and Nanako, one with well-meaning and wordless intent. Arihiko sat himself and Nanako down on the bench directly opposite from Arcueid, their eyes meeting with hers head-on. "Keeping your distance? You had no trouble sitting next to me at the ramen stand."

    "I had plenty of trouble, thanks." "True enough!" Arcueid interjected, a light smile, not one to kill the mood but to ease it along. "This is just for safety reasons," Arihiko went on. "When I think it's safe, I'll gladly mosey on over there and cuddle on up witcha, but until then—" He tightened his grip on Nanako's shoulder, for her own safety. Her tail swished with smoldering heat, and though her stiff body was rattling with fear she was still raring to go.

    "I haven't had to give a lecture like this in quite a while. Let's take this from the top. Arihiko, what's the nature of your relationship with her?"

    "We're twice acquainted. Once, as a freeloader. Now, as someone desperate."

    "Arihiko," said the desperate once-freeloader. "You've done enough. You don't need to humor her. This is up to me, now."

    "Simmer down, Nanako."

    " 'Nanako'? That's a pretty adorable nickname for the spirit of the Seventh Holy Scripture to have. I like it a lot!" Arcueid giggled, pleased with that tidbit. "I'm gonna have to tell HER about it the next time we have a little encounter. I'm sure she'll blow a gasket!"

    "Do. Not."

    "Oh, that's right. Yeah. If she found out about that, that would cause some trouble for you, wouldn't it? But, since you're here now, like this, and we're having this conversation, that would mean you're working with borrowed time. You're already in trouble, Lady Nanako."

    "I'm sorry," Arihiko interjected, with an incredulous scowl. "but, 'Lady Nanako?' "

    "She's over a thousand years old. As an elder nature spirit to me, I should give her my respects, even if fate has set us against each other as enemies."

    "A nature spirit—you mean that you and Nanako are the same?"

    "Alike, rather. But while there are a great many of differences, the Gaian source we originate from is still the same."

    "We may both be nature spirits, but you're a vampire," Nanako glared at Arcueid.

    "Whoa! You just blurted that out like it was nothing. You really let the Neko-Arc out of the bag on that one!" Exhibiting shock

    "—and I'm not that much older than you, either, True Ancesor."

    "Double whoa! She played the age card!"

    "Nanako bringing up your age is the problem?" Content with playing the part of the chorus, but acknowledging that he was more like a cast member of the peanut gallery, Arihiko muttered this to himself. He decided to let the vampire thing slide. Such a thing was merely a step up on the scale from ghosts. The way he saw it, once the supernatural had been established as having a degree of tangibility in the world that opened the floodgates for anything else to also out itself as being. "Anywho," he tried to un-off-tangent the conversation, "you're enemies, huh? Is that why Nanako has it out for you this bad?"

    "Whether it's because we're 'relatives' from the same source, or because it's just her own personality, she may be a weapon that's been used and will continue to be used to take me down, but she's never personally held any animosity towards me myself."

    "That was then. This is now." Nanako twitched with agitation, antsy energy.

    "And that," said Arcueid, "is the crux of the matter at hand. You're different, and acting differently. The state of your body, too, is excessively close to something like a curse."

    "Really?" asked Arihiko. "She's the same old Nanako to me. That is, she was, until..."

    "And there is an 'until,' " Arcueid went on. "Arihiko, you having enough potential able to manifest her, Nanako, was the first step. The rest, that surely must have been on me."

    "How do you figure?"

    "You didn't just manifest her. You also had experiences with her. Those experiences affected her. Even after being separated from you, they lingered." Arcueid turned to regard Nanako.

    "Even after Master performed the weapon purification rites on me," Nanako replied with such an intensity that, if she had hands instead of hooves, she would have balled them up into fists intensely enough to draw blood from her palms with her nails.

    "I imagine they'd have some resistance to the process. After all, the very nature of those experiences—"

    "—Are unneeded!" Nanako snapped. "They're unneeded, in a weapon. Those experiences, those feelings, they survived. Because they survived, I thought that I could store them away, keep them as precious things, secrets worth more to me than anything else in the world. But then, it was you—"

    "In the fight between your Master and me following that incident, you came to empathize too much with me. Were you actually just jealous? Of one like you, having all of that and still free?"

    "That was an accident. A mistake! Your fault!!"

    "So as you can see, Arihiko, I had ripped that wound back open. When faced with a 'maybe,' she pondered on it and thought about it, and thought about also having it. It was too much, and she split. It was elegantly done, in due consideration of the fragility of her own feelings, and a testament to her self-control and focus over her own power—"

    (Never thought I'd hear those words used to describe Nanako), thought Arihiko.

    "—but it was a split all the same. Her feelings, they became their own thing. The original spirit, and the cursebody of her own desires. The building blocks of original sin culminated into a full-on impurity, and one that surely wouldn't be miss in another purification."

    "And that's why—!" Nanako trembled, "—that's why I gotta do it!"

    "Have fun with Arihiko to your heart's content?" Arcueid asked.

    "—why I have to take you down!" Nanako snapped in correction.

    "Oh! Ohh! I see now! That's what you think? You believe that to be your remaining course of action?"

    "I gotta do it Something! Anything!!"

    "You really are a foolish senior spirit, aren't you?"

    "I have to go home."

    " 'Home' being the source of your cursebody? Yep. You really, really are a foolish senior spirit."

    "One way or another, this ends!"

    Had Arcueid's fingernails always been so long—so sharp—so razorlike?

    "A wandering concept thinks she can best me? A snowflake would have better odds surviving a bonfire."

    "Victory...is a luxury that I'll worry about later! Not for that, and not for duty, either, this has to be something I do for me!"

    "Don't you fucking do it, Nanako—!!!" Arihiko yelled at her, reached out to the unicorn girl. But, it was too late for him. She was off like a rocket, and he was only human.

    She screamed for all to hear, and none did. The plaza had been cleared of people. The True Ancestor had done that, in pre-emption of the three's meeting. The sound of metal grating against metal. Bone cracking. They all were her screams, screams for her own sake and no one else's. Nanako flickered, her existence destabilized. With a profoundly anguished expression smeared across her usually girly, dopey face, Nananko, whose form existed somewhere between the young girl of her spirit and the Seventh Holy Scripture of her body, lunged towards Arcueid pointed-tip first—the unicorn's fabled horn—bleeding out cursed holy energy as she jetted forward, jabbed like a spear. Nanako flickered, from moving at such unthinkable supernatural speed.

    —Nobody would call that a fight.
    The fight was resolved in a single blow.
    But, that single blow wasn't used to end any anyone.
    No. It ended something else instead. What was taken instead—

    "I hardly needed to strike you at all," said Arcueid. The claws, gone. "The act of a partial transformation, and of a weapon—a tool meant to be wielded by another—to fire itself off like that put next-level stress on your cursebody."

    The scraps of broken metal faded into nothing, exorcised from the world by the devestating blow. The rest of her brutalized form remained as flesh. Her wounds—immaculate, as if she had bore them for years, clean enough as if someone had erased parts of her very body away. She spilled not a drop of blood and still was worse for the wear of it.

    "...then end it. Finish the job, and end it. It's what I wanted. How I wanted it."

    "It's not my job to finish," Arcueid shrugged. "Everything you did in those moments was done with your own will. Even if you think you wanted your own destruction, I commend you for having that determination to settle things on your own terms. These desires of yours, that you embody, they're precious enough to you to be worth that much."

    "But...I..."

    "There, there," From one strange being to another, both having much in common, she reassured. Reassured, and went on. "I don't know what'll happen next. But, neither do you. For a benign little curse like you to continue to exist, separate from the original body, who knows what's going to happen? Doesn't that excite you? "

    "I...I don't know. I...think so?"

    "No matter what you think of it, at least it'll be you yourself who has thought the thought. So, congratulations on getting to expand your horizons, Senpai." Arcueid smiled at Nanako.

    Nanako sighed. Pure resignation. Whole-hearted acceptance.

    "I won't tell a soul," Arcueid went on. "Especially not your master. If you were able to reach this state without her cottoning on to something being amiss with the original Lady Nanako, then she won't ever. At least, not without a little help from someone..."

    He spoke up. "Hang on, By that, do ya mean...?"

    "Say hi to Shiki for me, Arihiko. Or maybe I'll say hi to him for you first." With that, Arcueid left, her regally purple skirt and fascinatingly beautiful blonde hair fluttering in the nighttime wind until she disappeared back into the city's rows of neatly ordered buildings.

    "Well, I sure feel useless. Guess that's just the way it goes when things get outta my league like this, but damn." Arihiko reached down and helped the girl up. "I can do this much, though."

    Nanako muttered to herself, still at a loss. "A thing like a curse, a curse such as me, I mean, isn't needed in a holy weapon, like I also am, so..."

    " 'Need?' Who needs 'need?' People are damn complex. And, unicorns, they're people too. Whether you're a unicorn, or you're a people, stick around. Mull it over. Maybe nothing'll come of it. That's not bad. That's not good. That's just okay, and it's not my job to tell y'all how to treat your okays. Not sayin' that's what life is, but that's what life is."

    "Wait. When you say, 'stick around,' do you mean...?"

    "If you gotta ask, then you already know the answer, Nanako,"

    Arihiko held out his hand for her to take it.


    END

    Spoiler:
    Nanako is homesick. It's time to run away from Ciel again and rope Arihiko into helping her get back home the only way she knows how. By defeating the True Ancestor!
    Quote Originally Posted by Dullahan View Post
    there aren't enough gun emojis in the thousandfold trichiliocosm for this shit


    Linger: Complete. August, 1995. I met him. A branch off Part 3. Mikiya keeps his promise to meet Azaka, and meets again with that mysterious girl he once found in the rain.
    Shinkai: Set in the Edo period. DHO-centric. As mysterious figures gather in the city, a young woman unearths the dark secrets of the Asakami family.
    The Dollkeeper: A Fate side-story. The memoirs of the last tuner of the Einzberns. A record of the end of a family.
    Overcount 2030: Extra x Notes. A girl with no memories is found by a nameless soldier, and wakes up to a world of war.

  5. #5
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    Death Parade

    There was no sense of the preordained in the meeting.

    “Can you help me, miss? I think they’re trying to kill me again.”

    The pleading voice she could’ve ignored. It was one of the first things she had picked up while living in this side of the world to ignore the beggar, the homeless, the fellow man in need - man, or often enough, as was the case here, child. She’d see any number of them on the streets and the underground on her daily commute during her stay in London, back when she still had it in her to play the game of matching physiological similarities to speculate relation or muse about a potential solution to her shortage of specimens. Nowadays, she imagined, she would just get vaguely annoyed.

    No, it was the words it spoke that drew her attention. Not enough to divert her eyes from the road, a curving highway whose corner she dearly wished a taxi would soon emerge from, but outlandish enough to merit recognition. She reckoned she could use any opportunity to dust off her French anyway. What would it be, paying a warrant in the next thirty minutes or the kid bites it?

    “Shouldn’t you be with your parents then?”

    “Um, well. That wouldn’t help. They hired them, you see.”

    That got her to turn around.

    The child before her couldn’t be more than ten years old.

    At first glance she couldn’t call it anything other than an exemplary specimen of a well-to-do and well-cared-for young boy well on his way to grooming bright blue eyes, roguish blonde hair and balanced facial features into a visage of effortless superiority with which to greet the valet in a few years’ time as he left his car keys and headed off for a night’s entertainment. Definitely not the begging type; a native? Almost by reflex her mind leapt to the task, and it was then that the trail of thought halted.

    The boy was smiling. It wasn’t all there, that she would never miss, but the apologetically hopeful expression directed at her drained all levity from her thoughts. Was that what people called a disarming smile? Yet she knew that what gave her pause was not the earnestness of a child towards a stranger but the unnerve she felt at that moment from a child who could speak those words with an expression like that on its face.

    “Listen, I can’t help you. But that man over there,” and here she pointed at the uniformed policeman who had fled the early afternoon sunlight and found a shaded perch a ways off to pass the time, although she couldn’t be sure he hadn’t dozed off, “will protect you even if it kills him. It’s his job, so go talk to him.”

    Experience had taught her the wisdom of walking away from trouble before finding out if there was any at all, and the short visit that she had intended had no room for murder, her own or anyone else’s. Whether the strange boy was being pursued by assassins set on him by greedy parents eyeing his inherited fortune or merely had discovered the amusement to be found in telling outrageous lies to strangers that compelled them to take them seriously was something she would rather have a policeman find out.

    Never mind that, with how tiresome waiting under the summer sun for a taxi that might never come was she would probably need to talk to him herself for directions. Playing the lost tourist was a horrid but unavoidable prospect, and if the boy insisted she could always drag him there with her. That this lost child might not want to return to its parents - that this boy’s parents might want him dead - was truly no concern of hers.

    When she was young, one of her first lessons was on the topic of human life. The point of it was to instill in her a certain understanding of its value, in a sense more pragmatic than moral. Although this episode in what she later came to think of as her ideological sublimation was in itself irrelevant, an anecdote spoken in passing had stuck with her persistently into adulthood, which she supposed spoke of the effectiveness of its intended message.

    In every minute, humans die all over the world. There is no way to know the exact numbers, nor can anyone know all their identities. Some die in obscurity, remembered by no one, some die in secret, to be found by no one. Some deaths had been a long time coming, some were sudden, incidental. Some caused by human hand, some not. The fact remains that in every minute humans die in great numbers, and nothing we do or not do changes that.

    It was an aphorism that several important lessons derived from. “A man’s life is the work he leaves behind”, “the common good is a waste of effort”, and “don’t sympathise with test subjects” would be a few. She had chosen to distill from it a puerile determinism that did not survive its first impact with an appreciable social environment. It was rather shameful to look back to, but then again she had lived like a monk long enough to excuse her own social maladjustment. Indifference towards the fate of people she did not care about, she found, made her all too human. Having no people to care about was another story entirely.

    That was all to say that she didn’t believe in fate. Here, too, she would reiterate that there was no sense of the preordained - some machination of destiny at work. Any choice of hers would not affect the outcome, as the outcome in its starkest terms would not be determined by it. A perfect chance meeting that had come from nothing and would lead nowhere.

    And yet.

    With a shake of his head, the boy refuted the banality of both fate and chance.

    “He can’t help like you can, miss Magus.”

    Ah, bugger. When did she stop thinking like one?




    Death Parade
    A Day at the Races | The Court of the Crimson King | Spanish Train | Ace of Wands




    “Okay kid, I’m listening.”

    While the boy did the talking, her mind, among other things, was racing. All the while replaying the previous minute in her head, the woman looked him up, down, and through and the findings were annoyingly consistent.

    No discernible magic circuits. No circulation of magical energy to speak of. So far, not too abnormal. But then was the lack of ambient footprint, which indicated either some kind of containment or the absence of discharge altogether. It was no wonder that she didn’t see him coming. He was indistinguishable from any other mundane passerby. Despite the fact that he could somehow identify her as a magus despite her circuits being inactive - without magical means - she couldn’t even discount the chance that he was actually just a completely normal person with an uncanny ability to track down the supernatural. Stranger things had happened, eh?

    “I’m a magus too, but I’m not very good at it. I think my parents are very upset about that, so, uhm…”

    Well, that was that, then.

    “You can’t be that bad. I wasn’t trying to be found but you saw right through me.” She employed her most encouraging tone as bait for a child’s boasting even as magical energy ran through her eyes into the liquid crystal lenses in an attempt to do exactly the same thing. For a single disorienting moment the world exploded in a kaleidoscope of synesthetic perception, the flow of magical energy magnified thousandfold, and then the neural partitioning allowed her visual cortex to process the information without getting cooked.

    Nothing. Not a single trace. It could be due to circuit composition, or perhaps some kind of ESP, but she would have to dig out any answers to my postulations with forceps and scalpel, and as much as the urge reared its inquiring head from time to time she tried to not make a habit of stuffing people in my suitcase to satisfy idle curiosity.

    Though that didn’t mean less intrusive enquiries weren’t on the table.

    “That’s not magecraft. It’s...just something I can do.”

    “Finding other magi?”

    “Seeing things other magi can’t see, I guess.”

    “Can you tell me about it?”

    “...I don’t really understand it. I told you, it’s just something I can do.”

    How delightfully vague. It was obvious from the way his face progressively fell with every response that the boy was troubled by this ability, and it reflected in his reticence to talk about it. She had no idea if he had been trained as a magus, but previous experience with ten year old brats that had just been unveiled as heirs to a crest and were already picture-perfect representatives of Barthomeloi snobbery was unlikely to be of help in this case. As might have been apparent, the woman was woefully unequipped to deal with children.

    “So, are you going to help me?”

    Especially children that expected unreasonable things out of her.

    Despite her better judgment, she was interested. Old habits make up the core of a magus and hers were undoubtedly aligned towards examination, elucidation, and acquisition of the rare and unusual. That did not mean she had forgotten about today’s business plans, or the fact that freelance assassins could derail those plans of hers spectacularly should I involve herself in theirs. But if the two just happened to align for the briefest of moments, that wouldn’t be so bad, right?

    Hah, and here she’d thought she had grown up.

    It must’ve shown on her face, because the boy’s own expression lit up in a joy wholly at odds with the anxiety he must’ve felt being marked for death. Could have been a product of mental conditioning, could just as well have been a mental defect; the two were often interchangeable. However, the excited ranting he broke into before she could slip a word in edgewise may have indicated the latter.

    “Thank you! Your eyes are scary and your signature is masked but I knew you were nice! Your “it” is that of a good person! Or, uhm, not of a bad person! And you look very pretty! Black hair suits you! And your shirt is cool! Woah, what’s in that suitcase? Are you a gambler? Is that why you’re in Monaco?”

    Where to even begin with that. She was already starting to doubt the boy’s circumstances but the manner in which he casually talked about how he had seen through the precautions she had taken specially for this trip rankled in a visceral way. Much like a magician having her tricks exposed, tricks she could never perform again. It was a feeling every magus hated for very real and justifiable reasons.

    More than worrying about the strength of her disguise or the fact that standing at the Gare de Monaco’s entrance made the two of them highly conspicuous targets to any would-be assassins, what she wanted most at that moment was for the boy to shut up.

    “Stop. Listen to me. You live here, don’t you? Then here’s the deal: you lead me to the harbour, I make sure you’re safe until we get there. Agreed?”

    “Agreed,” he said not a heartbeat later, and she couldn’t keep a grasp on my irritation as she watched him dip his head in contrition. She thought she’d done away with the cuteness instinct during her first forays into physiology, but it seemed she might have to revise.

    “So!” Blue eyes met her own as soon as the boy’s head snapped backup. “I’m Flat! Flat Escardos! Nice to meet you!”

    A vaguely familiar name. Old. Second Owners of the city for as long as there had been one if memory served. One could only wonder the circumstances under which the family would resort to killing off its own heirs.

    “I’m…Alice.”

    “Alice what?”

    “It’s a secret. You couldn’t pronounce it correctly anyway. By the way, what do the people chasing you look like? Are they close by?”

    Nod nod nod.

    “Yep! Tattoo baldy and tall snake lady. They’re just around the corner.”

    “You, why didn’t you say so?!”

    Then again, looking at the boy that she was dragging by the hand into the crowd, she could imagine their reasons.

    “Which way is it,” she tried to raise her voice above the din, following the sidewalk downhill. Given how Monaco was essentially built on a slope she could have followed a general sense of direction towards the sea, but she couldn’t be sure about the layout of the streets, which could form a particularly roundabout and complex network to funnel the traffic through the vertical architecture of the city. Incidentally that also made it a huge bother to walk it with heels, as she was being forced to do now.

    “Uhm, depends, which port do you mean?”

    She threw a measured look his way.

    “The one with a casino floating in it.”

    “Oh, Fem’s Casa! That’s in Port Hercule. I’ve always wanted to go there. Do you think they’ll let me in if I go with you?”

    “I don’t think that’s how it works, young master Escardos.”

    The boy - Flat - made a curious face at being addressed as such, his boundless enthusiasm seeming to deflate for a moment, but only just. In the next heartbeat his smile bounced back and with a few quick steps he walked ahead of the woman, leading her by the hand across a pedestrian crossing to the opposite sidewalk. With Flat taking the lead, the woman could let herself be pulled along and focus her attention on spotting any pursuers; or at least that would have been the case if the boy didn’t insist on making small talk all the while.

    “Still, you picked a weird time to go there, miss Alice. We’ll have to take the long way.”

    “Really? Why is that?”

    She muttered distractedly. The only weird thing was having to go there in the first place. She didn’t make a habit of hand-delivering her products, especially in places where she was unwelcome; but sometimes jobs came up when she didn’t expect them to, and sometimes her client was the kind of person she couldn’t exactly mail a package to.

    “Well, the roads there are closed. Today’s the race day.”

    As if to punctuate that statement, the roar of an engine rose from the lower reaches of the city and the crowd around them cheered in response. It was the simultaneous turning of their heads over the edge of the walkway in hopes of catching a glimpse of a racecar that allowed her to pick out the two that kept their eyes fixed on the pair.

    That, and the disturbance of their activated magic circuits, the tinge in the air around them visible to her augmented sight.

    And then they were off, the woman’s right hand hand already tracing the first runic array on the back of the boy running in front of her. Among whispered words of magic, the woman couldn’t help sparing a wry thought towards the coincidences that conspired to pass for fate.

    Race day indeed.


    Four and a half thousand years ago, he received the blood of the moon. Reflecting on that fact, he wondered if he had any cause to celebrate an existence born from chance that had persisted beyond the allotted limit of anything that could be rightly called life.

    Fulfilling no purpose, pursuing no end, something that couldn’t even be called a phenomenon but rather a nothingness that resisted its own nature - a blight that insisted on inflicting itself on the world; a parasite that could only carry out its titular function - was how he had viewed himself for a long time. Nothing deserving of celebration, surely. But even as the full weight of eternity imprinted itself on an existence that was for no other purpose but to be, and his consciousness aligned with the dark path that he would henceforth never stray from, he would still believe that what had exhausted the definition of humanity and yet refused to return to the backwater of history that had birthed it were in its current course as remoras and barnacles on the underside of a ship, slowing it down and dragging it to the bottom.

    Four and a half thousand years. It was only his estimation, based on what little factual information complemented the lore surrounding the original ones, ancient among ancients. It was ironic that he, the subject of this mythology, had to resort to records and extrapolations, but the truth was that there was no recollection of his own that he could trust as something more than a vague emotion - an impression that evoked recognition or a postulation that was halfway plausible - coagulating into a rough shape that might have been mistaken for a memory.

    For all its infinite capacity, the human mind was not resistant to time. It couldn’t be considered a functional limitation to an inherently finite existence. Nature can make no assurances for an existence that persisted beyond its end.

    So it was that any vampire professing to the elder title who claimed to remember the years when the breath of the planet was rich and children of the moon held the crown of prime was either a liar, senile, or never human to begin with. The farthest reaches of his own memory had frayed and tattered so that nothing concrete could be gleaned from where his mind had painted over the blank expanses eroded by eternity with echoes of shadows of thoughts and emotions that may or may not have once been his own. And even if it could, it would hold no meaning to the person that he was now.

    “Person”, if the word could be allowed. It was a convenience he had stopped debating when he had abandoned that line of thinking altogether. With the erosion of the essential foundations comprising the identifiable self, the core of an endless existence - whether defined as a will, a directive, or a prerogative - was simply a substitute for that which was most indefinable, most precious, and most irrevocably lost to them. Some scholars had posited that the transmissibility of the vampiric condition was a mechanism intended to impose a termination before that point, as child slew sire and brought an end to that which nature could not, but if one did not derive from that an understanding of some manner of species subject to an animalistic order, the cycle of creation and inheritance could be recognised as symptomatic of a single dominant trend. In other words, nothing less than the phantom pain of the human condition.

    What vampires bearing the weight of many centuries constructed their identity around could be considered a poor imitation to which they were compelled by a lingering sense of former humanity. Life-in-death of a being-beyond death; a hollow impulse. Reproduced patterns of a simulated self. The life of the endless was the most transparent of simulacra.

    It went without saying that he was a paradigm of that. The life lost to him had ceased to be even a topic of philological interest. As it did not matter whether a fire that burned down a forest had started from a tree or a bush, the flesh in which a vampire had been born could very well have belonged to a prince or a peasant. When the human self expired, what took its place was an imprint - perhaps what could be considered the single approximation of a fragment of the original - which would sustain the being-beyond-death as a guidepost for the meaningless to persist in persistence itself.

    Still, he mused as he surveyed his domain, he could not claim to understand his own nature completely even now. Even as his kind spent their time mockingly, almost ironically recreating the aspects of human experience that struck their fancy, his relentless fascination with the human subject differed from the predatory fixations one might have expected of a vastly superior predator and its favoured meal. It was an interest that sustained him, a nectar that kept the poison of tedium at bay from a well that never ran dry, yet after thousands of years of drinking from it he still could not say with certainty what primal drive underlay this pattern.

    Existing as a part of human society, interfering with its affairs, changing the course of the ship called humanity down the river of history, however slightly, for so long, and Valery Fernand Vandelstam did not yet know whether he was a mockery of life idly toying with the living or an imitation of it seeking transubstantiation by immersing himself in the genuine article. The bright side was that he had stopped worrying about it.

    What he did worry about was the tingling sensation in the back of his head, a warning that somewhere on his boat someone was doing something they weren’t supposed to.

    Said boat being a casino, he had a likely guess as to what had tripped the bounded field. While mundane surveillance system still found their uses in the game and table rooms that entertained thousands of visitors every week, Fem’s Casa was above all his court - his rendition of the royal charade that the Ancestors had perfected. A moment’s synchronisation with wards that were effectively extensions of his body, like a spider and its web, was enough to pinpoint the exact location of the disturbance: the slots.

    Nothing unusual there. If not for the downtime that followed the mass relocation of the patrons to the boat’s decks, watching the ongoing race with binoculars in one hand and a glass in the other, he wouldn’t have bothered going himself, but as it were it could provide a distraction from thoughts he’d long done away with. It just wouldn’t do for some two-bit spellcaster with a glorified party trick to get themselves fried by the wards just because they thought they could peddle the projected coins they playtested in Monte-Carlo here. Deaths were bad luck and worse publicity.

    What was decidedly unusual was the empty hall that he found when he got there.

    A false alarm? Out of the question. The bounded fields were calibrated to detect any kind of magical energy discharge or interference above that produced passively by a magus’ circuits, a margin calculated over a very long period of trial and error.

    If someone attempted to activate their mystic eyes, he would know. If someone tried to tamper with the bounded field, he would feel it. If someone were to, say, bring a millennium-rank materialised soul on the boat, he’d get a headache the moment it stepped its foot on it. His unflinching confidence in the reliability of his creations was the product of constant refinement, such that once all explanations were exhausted he would sooner assume that someone had managed to outwit or work around them than entertain the possibility that they had malfunctioned.

    As the owner of a world-renowned casino, Van-Fem absolutely did not believe in chance.

    Scanning his eyes over the slots room, he thought exactly that. And even while his examination turned up no suspects, something unusual did come under his notice.

    The room was empty. While most of the visitors had perched themselves on the Casa’s outer railings, the few indifferent to motorsports and pack mentality alike still milled about the game halls, seemingly disoriented by the strange perception of spaces that were almost always brimming with people now appearing vast in their emptiness. The tables weren’t the same without a crowd, that he could understand, but there wasn’t a single casino in Monaco, or indeed the entire world, where one wouldn’t find at least one person haunting the slot machines, the simplest and most accessible of mechanised thrills, at all time.

    Just as he decided to have a look at the security cameras, the slot next to him sprang to life. Fifteen seconds later his shoes were buried under an onrushing pile of coins.

    Most unusual.

    The vampire stepped out of the pile under a symphony of clinking nickel, smoothed his black hair with a sweep his hand, adjusted the lapel of his red suit, and addressed the empty room.

    “Won’t you collect your earnings?

    Silence met him, and he filled it with a sigh.

    “I promise that if you reveal yourself now you won’t get into any trouble.”

    “Do you promise not to eat me?”

    The room itself asked him from nowhere and everywhere at once, taking a conscious effort on the man’s part to not let his surprise show on his face. Whatever manner of sorcery it was that could elude him in his domain, he hadn’t been prepared to associate the infiltrator with the hesitant voice of a young boy.

    “I promise I will do no such thing. Do I really have that kind of reputation?”

    “I don’t know, mister. Your “it” is just steeped in blood.”

    Like a changeling returning from the land of fantasy, as if pulling back a curtain separating this side of the world from an unfathomable yonder, a fair-haired boy entered his perception, appearing in the empty space between a moment and the next so it seemed he might’ve been there all along, sloughing off his unreality, the world rushing in to fill the void left behind him. Seamlessly, but not fast enough to deceive the vampire lord’s eyes.

    “My “it”?”

    “Your...nature, but that’s not exactly it. It’s hard to explain, but I can tell these things just by looking.”

    Making such an extraordinary claim, the boy scuffed his shoes against the ornately patterned crimson carpet, as though it, and not sneaking into a casino and being caught tampering with magecraft, was something to be apologetic for.

    “Is that so? That is a valuable skill to enter priesthood with; that is, if you weren’t already a magus. Being one, you’d understand what it means when I tell you that I’m a vampire, yes?”

    The dead apostle spoke casually, but his crimson eyes were as daggers into the boy’s own blue. Any person with a sense of self-preservation would surely feel the pressure exerted by the man as it resonated with their primal understanding of danger, the dread of impending predation - any, but not that boy.

    “Ooh, you’re a real vampire? I wasn’t sure but that makes sense with how old you are! I’ve always wanted to meet one! These wards are yours, right? Do you own the casino? What’s your name? Is it Fem?”

    In what he would personally rank as one of the strangest moments of his very, very long unlife, the vampire known in notorious circles as the dark lord of the business world, kingmaker, le grand marionnettiste, keeper of the seven keys, peer of the elder title and moonblooded Ancestor weathered a deluge of questions from the excitedly chattering boy who, caring for none of those titles, had wandered into his castle - through the walls and the defences - for no other reason that curiosity.

    How confounding. How novel. There truly was no end to his entertainment.

    “Young man, it is rude to ask so much without offering something in return. You know you’re not supposed to even be here, right?”

    “Right! Er, I mean, I know that. But I just wanted to take a look, and the lady agreed to help me sneak in.”

    “Lady?”

    “Uhm. I’m not supposed to tell you, I think. But she made me this.”

    The boy twirled on the spot, nearly losing his balance and sprawling on the floor in the process. Inscribed on the back of his velvet vest in fine silver filigree, runic arrays of illusion and protection from prying eyes caught the vampire’s keen eye under the gleaming lights of the game hall. Immediately two thoughts sprung to the forefront of the man’s mind.

    One was the simple fact that this historically well-attested combination known as the journeyman’s boon was not nearly enough to fool the detection systems of the automata posted as bouncers in the casino’s ramp, never mind slip under the notice of the network operating in the interior of the Casa. If that was all there was to the boy’s trick, he would have to radically revise just about every magically operated measure to allay his concerns - that, however, he did not yet consider a serious possibility.

    The other was that this scant information had already turned up a hit in the black book of unwelcome visitors that occupied a special place in the man’s memory.

    “Did this lady make you keep secret about her?” With nothing but a single thought, the man summoned his head of security without even waiting for the answer.

    “She said that it would be better for me if I forgot about her. She didn’t make me promise or anything but I got her in trouble with those assassins, and she did so much for me with the runes and the body double and that thing she did with her eyes that froze the crowd and made the cars crash, so…”

    The boy shrugged his shoulders. It’s the right thing to do, his gesture seemed to say, and that childish confidentiality was something the vampire lord didn’t feel like forcing the boy to break.

    “Sounds like a long story, then. Alright, I won’t ask about her,” he conceded. “I would, however, like to know your name.”

    As though the mere act of introducing himself to a stranger was a great pleasure, the young boy took the blood-soaked fiend’s proffered hand and shook it with as much vigor as his tiny frame allowed.

    “Of course, mister vampire, sir! I’m Flat Escardos, a magus from right here, Monaco!”

    For a single moment, something like surprise registered on Valery Fernand Vandelstam’s ageless face.

    Then, as if he was regarding the boy with a new light, it was replaced with a genial smile.

    “Well met, monsieur Escardos. I am indeed the proud proprietor of the Casa, Van-Fem. Since, through one way or another, you are here, would you like me to show you around?”

    Placing a hand on the boy’s shoulder like an old friend, the dead apostle Ancestor ushered him into the grand hall.


    “Then, they’re dealt two cards. The number ranks from one to nine are worth their face value, while the ten and the royals are worth zero. You add their value up, and if two digits you drop the left one. See, that hand is worth four points, so he has to draw a third card. Oho, it’s a four, not bad at all. The highest single digit score wins, so eight is a very good result - we call it a “natural”. Now the banker, who also has four, can draw his own third card...a five! What a draw! That’s the highest possible score, which means the bank wins, and now everyone who bet on that result get it back and win almost as much as what they put in.”

    “Woaaah! I don’t really understand it but it looks so fun, mister Fem!”

    “Isn’t it? I think watching the game being played is entertaining in itself.”

    To the onlookers, the unlikely duo could have been confused for a gentleman entertaining his favourite nephew or grandchild, indulging the boy’s merry chatter about anything that caught his eye - which seemed to be just about everything, judging from the wide-eyed wonder with which he would regard a craps table, a crystal chandelier fetchingly refracting the game floor’s lighting, and a seemingly ordinary potted planet with no decrease in excitement. They roamed from table to table and from corner to corner, the man patiently indulging the boy’s questions, however strange, and in return the boy shared a sliver of his own to satisfy the vampire’s curiosity.

    “Now then, Flat. You were going to tell me about the body double.”

    “Oh, right! We had lost those two in a stairway at the back entrance of the museum for a moment and miss A—uhm...she was like, “this is getting annoying” and just plucked some hairs from my head without warning. That hurt a bit, but she told me to keep quiet and opened her suitcase - you wouldn’t believe how much bigger it was on the inside! - pulled out some kind of blob, stuck the hair in it and told me to pour magical energy into it. I didn’t think it would do anything because I realised it was an ether clump and those things are pretty useless, but it was like it grew and grew and began to take shape as I put in magical energy, and before I knew it the blob looked exactly like me!”

    And then she sent it out as bait and it got eaten by snakes, Flat added with a slightly queasy look. For his part, Van-Fem offered his own commentary on how weird it must’ve been to watch oneself being killed, while internally he rechecked the calibrations he had made to his wards with a specific kind of invader in mind.

    The timing was unfortunate, but he was prepared to give that woman a death memorable enough to stay away for a few hundred years at least.

    “Your turn, again. What would you like to know?”

    Entertaining such dark thoughts he would spare his young friend from knowing, Van-Fem ceded the word to his partner in the little game of secrets.

    “I’m not sure,” Flat began, and the vampire did not for a second believe that the indefatigable boy had run out of things to say; more likely was that he couldn’t settle on any one of the topics he was itching to talk about - as proved the case. “How about that bounded field in the other room. When I touched it, it felt familiar. Like the feeling that some spells deep in my crest give...I think.”

    “Hmm. That was actually something I wanted to know as well. But firstly, I shall answer your question. You see, your name is not unfamiliar to me. I knew one of your ancestors, long ago, well enough to call him my friend, and he made a few...contributions to the construction of the Casa that I believe may have resonated with the magic crest that you possess.”

    Still, that would not result in a harmonic overlap sufficient to fool the ward into believing a foreign intrusion bore the magical signature of its creator. The magus had offered to weave his own spells into the construct but this was fundamentally Van-Fem’s domain - what could be considered an extension of himself. Such a domain was not easily wrested from his control.

    “My ancestor? That’s amazing! That makes you a family friend! How long ago was that?”

    “I am honoured that you would think of me like that, but I must say I hadn’t spoken with anyone from your family for a very long time before I met you. The time I spent with that dear friend of mine is so distant I cannot think of a way to relate it to you, young man.”

    “That’s fine!”

    With a determined look the boy sought to dispel the melancholy feeling that the vampire’s words had stirred, imagining that the other man felt very much the same.

    “Don’t worry, mister Fem! Just being my friend is enough!”

    Completely unguarded, without a shade of doubt, the boy declared the vampire he had only known for half an hour his friend. To this declaration the ancient Ancestor did not laugh. For what was there to mock in that purity of spirit, and on what grounds would he, the shadow of man, deride it?

    No, there was more nobility in a child’s selfless friendship than could be found anywhere in humanity’s ceaseless entanglements or the moonlit world where he stood astride.

    “My thoughts exactly, Flat.”

    The smile the two of them shared would only last a moment, faltering when a streak of pain lanced through the vampire’s head and made him wince, a sign that a spiritual presence of significant magnitude had entered the perimetre of his bounded fields; that was, the boat itself. Hastily he excused himself from Flat, leaving the boy to watch a tense game of blackjack with rapt attention while he crossed the central hall to the stairway the led to the upper level, where the pit manager was stationed to observe the proceedings below. Wasting no time, he took hold of his hand and activated the master terminal of his network.

    In an instant, the vampire lord could see through the eyes of every single employee in Fem’s Casa.

    For a man who had won renown as the premier puppet master of the Old World, that much was natural. The dealers, the waiters, the floormen, the supervisors, the security, the maids, the crew; all of them bore the semblance of humanity and carried out their designated tasks with individual intellect, yet all of them were puppets crafted by the hand and eye of a celebrated flesh architect - perfect in their likeness, though the man himself would dismiss them as nothing more than a necessity. His true talents, and the creations he truly took pride in, lay elsewhere.

    ---Report.

    ---Ongoing investigation first.

    ---Absence of proof does not negate the weight of evidence.

    ---Unlikely, maintain alertness.

    ---Now the primary alarm.

    ---What? Her?

    ---There is no discernible causation...yet.

    ---She is not banned from the grounds.

    ---Just inform her that she’s paying for everything she breaks.

    ---Is that all?

    ---.............................................

    ---Where is he?

    ---...court adjourned.

    The crimson king opened his eyes and surveyed the pit below from the balcony.

    There, the white knight encroaching on his domain caught the stare over his shoulder, inclined his head in a mocking salute, and turned to face the blissfully unaware Flat Escardos once more.

    It took considerable effort for Van-Fem to make a restrained approach when the cold and dark emotion pooling in his chest compelled him to run down the flight of stairs across the room and tear the man’s head off with his bare hands. It would not do, however much he wanted it. Unfortunately, the damned leech had seen to that.

    “Valery, how nice of you to join us. This young man was just telling me how you’ve become friends. I’ve always thought you could use some human company.”

    Under the hand that the man had perched on his head, his spider-like fingers lightly caressing the boy’d blonde locks, Flat was rapidly wilting. Surely he had seen through the man’s nature as easily as he had with Van-Fem, which meant the boy had picked up on his intentions, even if he didn’t understand them. It would almost reassure the vampire lord that Flat did not display unreserved trust towards any random stranger that he met if he wasn’t preoccupied with getting the other man as far away from the boy as possible.

    Even if that meant offering a handshake to that disgusting worm, so that he might remove his claws from his prey.

    “Vova, I wish I could say it’s always a pleasure to see you, but I respect your perceptiveness too much for that.”

    Taking what meagre enjoyment he could from the tightening of the man’s jaw at the casual address repaid twofold, Van-Fem stepped in and placed himself between the white-clad man and Flat without a single care for subtlety.

    “Now, if you could relay that message of yours, I will spare you the consequences that I had promised if you ever set foot in my territory again.”

    “Tut-tut, how boorish. You wish to make a scene here? What will our young friend here think of that?”

    I’m not your friend, was what Flat wanted to say - shout, even - but all he could do under the man’s unpleasant gaze was shrink at Van-Fem’s back. As for the Ancestor…

    The clink of chips and rumbling of pills, the cheers of the winners and the groans of the losers, had all of a sudden ceased. In the grand hall of Fem’s Casa, where the interplay of passion and fortune never ceased, not a single thing moved. Roulettes halted while spinning, dice froze mid-roll, cards stopped sliding on felt, and the hall’s occupants, automata and regular patrons alike, had ceased their activities. The game floor had become a garden of statues.

    Inert puppets hanging from strings.

    Then, the puppeteer’s fingers tugged.

    Four hundred heads turned as one.

    And pinned under four hundred and two pairs of eyes, Count Svelten’s lips twisted in an unsightly perversion of a smile. He placed a palm over his unbeating heart, and recited the message he had been tasked to deliver.


    “Hurry up and finish it, Fem. If you don’t pick a side you will be swept away.”


    “If I might add to my lady’s words? Don’t get too caught up in your puppet play with this cattle, Valery. As you recall, there is no castle that can protect you from me.”

    The white knight immortalised in legend, ancient mariner and demon of song, conductor of the phantom ensemble and gambler of souls, gave a promise of annihilation to a reluctant conspirator that had tarried for too long undecided.

    And yet.

    The crimson king would not abide by an envoy’s ultimatum. Not in his own court, and not from a wretch such as that.

    “You have delivered your message, whelp. Be mindful of a single word more when you’re inside my castle. Now get out.”

    The command seemed to reverberate within and beyond the hall. The entire structure gave a great groan like a beast stirring in the depths, within whose stomach the wicked messenger would be crushed and dissolved for his impudence. In response, wicked fangs were bared under razor-thin lips. A smile like a wound, relishing the words that formed within it and the misery they would inflict on the fellow Ancestor.

    “My duty is not yet done. My lady wishes for me to impart not only words, but a lesson to you.”

    “I do not care what your lady wishes. Your immunity as a messenger is wearing thin. Begone, or perish.”

    “I told her you would say that. I also told her you’d need some incentive. As luck would have it, I found just the thing.”

    It was said that a terrible premonition attracted a terrible reality. Valery Fernand Vandelstam did not believe in chance and put little stock in omens, but he knew all too well that it was the nature of coincidences to align in confluence more auspicious than fate itself.

    Flat Escardos had met a woman that should never have been there, entered a place he should never have been able to, made an impossible acquaintance, and was now being used as a bargaining chip against him. The law of the supernatural, the attraction of like to like, had conspired to set the stage for a farce. To whom could one credit this script for a jester’s tear?

    Van-Fem did not look back to the boy. There was no need to alarm him, and there was nothing he could do in the first place - nothing but to accept the challenge. The mark of the Count on his victims was not something that could be removed in any other way without also exacting a terrible price.

    He could resent this vagary. He could curse his own impotence. But his pride was nothing that flimsy: it ran deep, unyielding, a colossus of eons that would slowly but surely grind down to dust those that would toy with it. Sparking a war among the Ancestors at the cusp of their bid for primacy was an acceptable outcome.

    The puppet master did not speak. The puppets did not stir. Svelten could force him into the gamble but he couldn’t make him put that to words. Indulgently, as if bemused by the elder’s defiance, Svelten broke the stalemate.

    “I take it I was right, then. Good. I’ve always wanted to challenge you at your own game. Will you prove worthy of your title this time, I wonder?”

    With that jeer and a turn of his heels, the Count exited the stage to await the climax.

    “And bring the boy. I promised I would show him a real ship.”

    His parting shot pierced through the grand hall’s reverie, and in his wake it shattered. Roulettes resumed their spinning, dice completed their rolls, cards slid into position, bets were taken and winnings were dispensed, and the din of the crowd washed over the hall like a flood breaking through a dam, the frozen moment promptly resuming with its seams glossed over, unnoticeable to the mind that did not spare a thought to them. In a complete reversal, the only things not in motion in the hall were the proprietor of the casino and his newly acquired charge. Or rather, his responsibility.

    “...I believe it is my turn to ask, monsieur Escardos.”

    “...what is it, mister Fem?”

    Two voices, one timid and the other betraying nothing, broke the stillness.

    “How did you circumvent my bounded fields? What did you do that fooled them?”

    “I just...touched them. Put my own magical energy in them, I mean. I can do that with all kinds of spells so it was easy. Then I thought I could attune the runes I had on me with the wards and it kind of, worked.”

    Flat shrugged his shoulders as if to say that there wasn’t much to it. Van-Fem, having refined that spellwork for thousands of years, knew better. Hearing the boy casually describe such outrageous feats that would make a magus tear their hair out in frustration, a scene dredged itself from the abyss of his recollections in response. Not quite a memory, but memorable nonetheless, a moment of singular quality that could persist untarnished by time even as it resisted the pressure of accumulated experience piled up on itself and crushed the bedrock beneath it to nothingness under its weight.

    A magus transcending the confines of foundations.
    A mind that bent the world itself around it.
    An eye that saw “it” through the illusion of common sense.

    Long ago, a man had dreamt of such things.

    An incomparable
    fool
    genius
    , absolute universal
    failure
    mastery
    , a path to
    unmitigated disaster
    immeasurable fortune
    - none of that came close to the ideal that man had tried to grasp.

    A skeleton key to truth itself.
    A system beyond systems.
    A contradiction strong enough to become its own reality.

    It was a wish that could only be fulfilled after it had been forgotten. Looking at the young man that embodied a thesis 1800 years in the making, Van-Fem sincerely congratulated his old friend, whose goal even he had almost forgotten.

    Saving his descendant from a horrible fate would be a good start for his atonement, he thought.

    “Thank you for indulging an old man for so long, Flat. Now, let me return the favour. I’m sure you still have many questions for me, and I dearly wish to show you the Casa’s upper decks.”

    “It’s a pleasure, mister Fem! I’m glad you’re not angry that I messed with your boat. So, uhm, who was that creepy man? He was a vampire too, right? But he was all messed up, not at all like you. Do you know him? Who’s that ‘m’lady’ he mentioned?”

    Three hours to the Casa’s weekly challenge. He couldn’t be sure, but they felt like the longest three hours of his four and a half thousand year long existence.


    There was a room in the floating casino known as Fem’s Casa where it was said that cheating was completely allowed.

    A relatively small space that could be considered a private game room, its velvet-lined walls enclosing little more than an elevated pedestal on which a felt-topped mahogany poker table girdled by high-backed chairs with supple plush lining the seats were placed - all fabrics dyed a deep red befitting its owner. Situated away from the hustle and bustle of the great game halls, it would be difficult for one to imagine the purpose of such a room that seemed to ran contrary to the conventional practices of a casino. Perhaps it was a space where the owner and his friends could ensconce themselves and enjoy a friendly game, finding entertainment not in the stakes but in digging into their bags of tricks and deceiving each other while avoiding deception themselves, but that was only a reductive conjecture, projecting a lack of meaning born from eccentricity to that which could not be otherwise understood. Therefore, it came as a surprise to the few men and women that set foot in that room once a week that Monaco’s most infamous gambling challenge took place in that modest chamber.

    Surely there was some kind of catch? What level of skill did the proprietor and host of the challenge possess to have maintained a dominant winning record, when by refusing to disqualify or punish the cheaters he was openly daring his opponents to rob him blind? Did he somehow cheat as well? Was that isolated room the source of his luck?

    Such rumours came and went in gambling circles. This was by design.

    The sensational nature of a room where the gravest offences in gambling were permissible - the paradox of the house putting itself at a clear disadvantage - dominated the thoughts of would-be players. It was a forbidden fruit dangling before their eyes in a garden of sin where they could blaspheme to their hearts’ content. Should they, should they not? Could they? What to even use? Embroiled in thoughts of the impermissible that would, for a single night, be allowed, they failed to realise the simplest, most basic of truths.

    There was nothing in a casino that would generate a loss. In order to unravel the mystery of the red room, one would have to tackle the question of what the Casa could possibly stand to gain from the rules of such a game.

    Rarely anyone ever did. The ones that had seen through its nature had walked away rich in coin, but having gained an even more valuable friendship with the host. Tonight, three of the four challengers had already walked away in defeat, and the other was very much unlikely to ever win Van-Fem’s friendship.

    “Check.”

    “I check.”

    “Bet. Three hundred thousand.”

    “Sir? Your call.”

    “Three hundred thousand, call.

    “Hear, hear.”

    “Very well. Gentlemen, your discards please.”

    Detaching his right hand from his brow, the black-haired Apostle picked out two cards from his hand and tossed them at the dealer. Soon they were replaced by another pair, and Flat Escardos craned his head from his seat, dragged from its proper place in the table to sit at the vampire’s right, to peer at them. To his left, a thin young man with sunken cheeks and a crumpled suit that ill-fitted his shoulders received the card slid towards him in replacement of his sole discard, holding it gingerly between his fingers. At the far end of the table, the immaculate Count in his pristine white suit eyed his hand while a spindly finger toyed with the end of his blonde locks.

    “Hey, mister Fem, is this a good hand?” Flat’s attempt at a conspiratorial tone easily carried over across the table. The vampire replied at a much more guarded volume, not taking his eyes off his cards.

    “Never mind that, Flat. Did you pay attention to what I told you?”

    “I saw it,” came the answer in a whisper. “You were right, he’s doing it slowly to minimise the trace.”

    “Can you disrupt it?”

    A head bobbed in his peripheral vision. Satisfied, Van-Fem tuned out the mumblings from somewhere behind his back and focused his mind on the game.

    “We will begin the bets. Sir?”

    Tap tap, the opener checked.

    “Tsk tsk, do you really have to make me come for you? I’m beginning to think you don’t actually enjoy gambling at all.”

    “When you do something for as long as I have, even a passion becomes routine. Your bet?”

    “Three hundred thousand. Don’t keep me waiting, Valery.”

    “...raise, five hundred thousand.”

    “Very nice. I like the spirit of this one. Maybe you should take a hint, hmm?”

    “.........”

    Giving one last appraising look at his hand, Van-Fem folded it together and flopped it onto the table to the sound of jeers that the other vampire seemed to possess an unlimited capacity for. Rising to any of it would serve no purpose, not even to satisfy his ego - the stakes he played for were too high to stray from his decided course of action.

    Once he had eliminated all the other participants of the game, clearing the stage and removing them from danger in the process, he could begin his showdown with Count Svelten in earnest.

    If the magus between them had realised that he was the third wheel in an impending train wreck, the strained demeanour he had displayed from the beginning of the game hid it well. After all, he had a very good reason to be tense and concentrated at all times, and he stuck to it admirably throughout the game.

    Until now.

    “Very well. Reraise, one million.”

    “We have a reraise, one million. Sir, your response?”

    “I-I, ah, I…”

    The man stammered incoherently, holding his cards with both trembling hands and staring at them wildly, as if he expected them to change before his eyes - much as they had done for the entire game up to that point.

    “Sir?”

    “A-a-ah, f—fo-fold!"

    “Fold. The pot goes to monsieur Svelten.”

    The cards fell between his fingers and scattered on the table. While the dealer pushed the pile of chips towards Svelten with his rake, Van-Fem took the opportunity to face the architect of the latest hand with words of praise on his tongue.

    “Well done. Did you have any trouble with it?”

    “Nope, it was really easy. His repositioning of the ink was so slow that I couldn’t miss the timing if I tried.”

    Against a magus that ran preset formulas of minute fluid manipulation corresponding to the patterns of the fifty-two cards in the deck, aiming to keep the magical energy residue as small as possible by channeling it in trickles through direct skin contact and transforming suits only to the same colour, it could be said that putting a stopper on the running magic formula was like damming a stream flowing in slow motion: child’s play, so long as one knew the method.

    To Flat Escardos, who had never been able to consciously perform a spell in his life and whose magic was a seemingly untameable force responding to his whims with no rhyme, reason, or understanding, his success in following Van-Fem’s instructions and directing his magic as proper magecraft was a miracle of miracles. If not for the tense atmosphere in the oppressive room he would have been jumping and shouting in joy, but he knew that until the plan that the older man had entrusted with him had been carried out there was no time to express his inner joy.

    Nevertheless.

    In the nine years of his life, it was the first time that his magic had not branded him a failure or a monster.

    For the first time in his life, Flat truly felt like a magus. For the sake of mister Fem who had made that possible he would have to take those duties seriously.

    Unsurprisingly, the magus bowed out after only a few more hands. Perhaps the reality of his situation, caught between two dead apostles, had set in after his trick has been thwarted, as he almost sprinted out of the room, the door slamming behind him out of sheer momentum.

    And then there were two.

    ““Finally.””

    With very different intents, two voices settled on the only thing they would agree on.

    “Gentlemen, ante up.”

    The dealer’s automated line was met with only half the required clinks of ivory chips.

    “Sir, place your ante bet, if you please.”

    Ignoring the automaton completely, the Count bridged his hands together and leered the fellow vampire over his small mountain of chips.

    “Let us dispense with the trivialities. This is hardly a game that befits the two of us.”

    Across the table, Van-Fem mirrored his stance, the grim line of his lips hidden behind gloved hands.

    “A game you asked for and a game we play.”

    “A game is an idle pastime. No, this is a gamble.”

    “So it is. Then why won’t you bet?”

    “No, no, no,” the Count shook his head, the first sign of frustration that the vampire had shown in the game. “How can you not understand this? Gambling isn’t about determining a winner and a loser. It’s about the stakes and only the stakes. And this,” he picked up a single chip, “is nothing. It represents nothing.”

    “Actually, it represents ten thousand francs.”

    “What if I told you…”

    With a sharp crack, the chip was broken in half and ground to powder between Svelten’s fingers.

    “...that this was actually ten thousand human souls?”

    Van-Fem’s dark eyes were inscrutable even as a knot of dread tightened in his gut.

    Wiping his hands from the residual dust, the Count opened his arms wide as if to embrace the stack of chips before him - or devour it.

    “It changes everything, doesn’t it? Every hand becomes important. If every single one of these ivory pieces represented a soul under your control or mine, I should think you wouldn’t let me amass a hundred million of them, no? And would you still trust your precious scales of balance to swing the odds your way?”

    Almost in an afterthought, he unmasked the mechanism of the fabled crimson room as though it was a petty trick beneath his notice that he was being forced to point out; and in a way, that made it all the more insulting. Behind him Flat gave a guilty start, but Van-Fem knew they had even greater concerns at hand.

    A terrible premonition beckoned a terrible reality. Being forced into a gamble with the white knight was like betting against the devil himself. Within the limits enforced by the room, the other players, and the nature of the game itself, forcing a confrontation of minimal risk with clear win conditions could have ensnared the devil in a game with no other stakes or collateral damage - a clean win-or-lose scenario for the soul of Flat Escardos with the odds stacked in his favour.

    Now, watching Svelten rise from his seat and send his castle of chips flying in all directions with a ten-count at the tip of his tongue and an army of automata waiting on the other side of the door, the vampire lord couldn’t say with certainty the boy would make it out of the room in one piece.

    “A probability field? A chance equaliser? Truly you’ve been hiding here for so long you’ve become indistinguishable from your Casa! The house may win, Valery, but you will not!”

    “Sir, please return to your seat, or else you will be disqua—”

    With a flick of the arm and a silver flash, a head still mouthing the words it no longer had the air to pronounce rolled on the table’s felt, green darkening to black wherever ichor seeped into it. Before the grotesque pinwheel had even stopped its rotation, the door of the room was thrown open and members of the Casa’s personnel from all stations poured into the room in full combat alertness. Maids in picture-perfect outfits balanced on stiletto legs, tall security guards levelled the machine guns that had unfolded from within their arms, and even the cook unravelled his extra appendages, each brandishing a freshly sharpened implement, formed a protective walls between their master with his protégé and the enemy.

    Yet, even before that. In the same moment that Svelten’s cutlass cleaved synthetic flesh, bone, and wire, the room itself sprung into action.
    In response to the will of its king, the fourth demonic castle
    Fem’s Casa
    Rahab
    activated its automated defences to destroy the invader.

    Sublimation in an instant. Within the conceptual space of the
    belly of the beast
    crimson room
    , the body of the white knight was reduced to nothingness never having known peace from his purification.

    Or at least, never getting the chance to. There was, after all, no purging fire that could cleanse his miasma, and a preemptive strike could never hope to extinguish such an existence as a singularity among the Ancestors.

    Shedding his unreality, the ghost captain stood tall and terrible against the red backdrop of purgatory. The point of his hoarfrost-cloaked blade never wavered from the straight line to its mark; Van-Fem, in turn, regarded his fellow dead apostle with weary finality.

    “Vlad. You have forfeited the gamble to which you had agreed. Lift your mark from the boy, now.”

    The shivers that wreaked through Flat’s body could have been any combination of fear at the implications of Van-Fem’s words, revulsion from the otherworldly visage of the Count, and cold from the encroaching frost that had begun to cover the room.

    “A lesson I promised and a lesson I will impart. I will show you a true gamble.”


    “Come into my world, Valery.”


    “Won’t you join the Parade?”




    [TO BE CONCLUDED…]

    Spoiler:
    "O Fortuna, velut luna statu variabilis!" The element of chance in human life is a source of endless fascination to mortals as it is alike to those substantially less mortal. All worldly success and utter ruin can be separated by as little as single roll of the dice. Use the premise of a high-stakes game at Van-Fem's casino to explore this. Tsukihime only. (Fate is the antithesis of chance.)
    Quote Originally Posted by Dullahan View Post
    there aren't enough gun emojis in the thousandfold trichiliocosm for this shit


    Linger: Complete. August, 1995. I met him. A branch off Part 3. Mikiya keeps his promise to meet Azaka, and meets again with that mysterious girl he once found in the rain.
    Shinkai: Set in the Edo period. DHO-centric. As mysterious figures gather in the city, a young woman unearths the dark secrets of the Asakami family.
    The Dollkeeper: A Fate side-story. The memoirs of the last tuner of the Einzberns. A record of the end of a family.
    Overcount 2030: Extra x Notes. A girl with no memories is found by a nameless soldier, and wakes up to a world of war.

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    好き! Kirby's Avatar
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    Kara Kara

    Author's note. Notwithstanding that the contest period has been extremely valuable for developing the ideas underpinning this work, at the end of a long night of procrastination, I was faced with a choice: To produce something rushed and substandard for contest submission, or to flake and work on the idea in my own time. I chose something in-between. I split the difference, unequally as it happened. This, below, is not the fic. This is a glorified synopsis. Think of it whatever you want. The recipient understands the circumstances; it is being worked on in secret, like a nuclear weapon.

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

    Kara, Kara

    Find the girl in an alcove of the chapel, at night when tallow candles describe the innards of that hollow place of Gothic stone the shade and shape of battered steel––praying with hands wrapped in gauze, to close the wounds of the week. Kneeling, the eyes clenched shut on this stubborn face, this measured brow and thin-pressed lip, this hard and wordless visage. They see her often. In the hours she is left alone. Downcast, unmoving before unmoving icons which seem in their artful splendour such lively things before this solemn, silent child. Her figure is bent like a question-mark. Her question is asked, plaintive unworded, to the cold stone reissued night after night. In a while she is gone. Back to where the other novices repose, along worn brick paths, to where she'll lift the latch and whisper by the common hall and steal up ancient stairs to her cell to sleep, such as she can, before the bells ring for Lauds. In the night––it seems––the many forms of scriptoria and gymnasia and schola proper, the offices, towers, walls and their battlements, the gardens, outbuildings, sculleries and granaries, all are retained in a silvery cast as if hot-forged and let to cool in the mountain air. The wind, which casts snow off the heights in great tongues and filaments like Oriental flags, suffuses a tone at the threshold of hearing, the baying of a distant mournful thing. The driven clarity of the air of Hautes-Alpes preserves a sky overfilled with stars, vast bands and globules of them, dust lanes and nebulae, constellations in their in improvident grandeur, names of myths learned as children, a total work testament to the incommensurability of what men create with the Creation. And God made sterris; and settide tho in the firmament of Heuene, that tho schulden schyne on Erthe, and that tho schulden be bifore to the dai and nyyt, and schulden departe liyt and derknesse. And God seiy that it was good. But the girl who figures in the shade of starlight, quiet passing beneath moss-covered eaves and Crusader stone––she sees nothing there at all.

    I.

    They are all dead now, so we are free to speak of them. Perhaps you disagree; you, for whom questions of death and life were so profoundly articulated. Perhaps what harm there is in speech is multiplied in the absence of its object, for such hearsay, lies, ignorance as we bring forth will find no correction if the persons themselves cannot speak on their behalf. But they are dead and there is no chance of that. And we must speak, you and I, and we must speak of them, that doomed trio who are all, to a man, to the last, all and every and each in their particulars, whose habits and wants and motive passions are uniformly extinguished and brought to ruin. We must speak to at last clarify matters between us. At the end of the great experiment, in what I discern to be the last analysis, we must speak. And if to speak is also to sin – then I will sin. I will not call down the Muse and bid her sing to me, make myself open to inspiration, empty vessel for another who I serve as executor. Nor will I draw up that Luciferian irreverence, withdrawing into myself, my own will to the exclusion of all other claim on my words. I will do neither. That is my nature and calling, my fate to use an unkind word. I will speak, sin, and be damned. Listen to me.

    §

    In the summer of the year of our Saviour 1898, two Executors were sent forth from the Order of St. Pallade in old Dauphiny. They were Père Achille Bergamo, an instructor at the Travellers' School, and Sœur Sofia Teodora, a matriculated sister of the Convent. By rail they traversed as far as Livonia, in European Russia, where they met with the mage von Brocken-Üxküll, with whose family the faith had attained to a certain understanding, and who could for the strictly delimited purposes of this mission be counted as their confederate. From Riga they set sail across the Baltic Sea, up and through the Norwegian fjords to the North Cape and thence eastward by the peninsula of Kola through the Barents to the Karskoye More, beyond the mouth of the Yenisei and ultimately to the barren expanse of Taymyr, the northern extreme of Siberia. Thus far had been traced – by signs and signals – the last spawn of Kara-Kara, which they three were dispatched to seek, to find, to hunt and exterminate. For many days they traced its workings across the Arctic waste; at last they found it, in company with a Samoyede witch, a shamaness with whom no compromise would be found. They came to conflict, and all perished. Their corpses are unfound. Their bones are crushed and bleached white. The flesh was driven across the vacant soil and nothing remained. And no more was ever heard or seen of Kara-Kara.

    §

    Kara-Kara. One of many names, its provenance unclear. There is a word among the Letts, 'kars' or 'karas', 'karyas', and its meaning is 'an army.' There is a word among the Rus, 'kara', and its meaning is 'a punishment.' There is a word among the Tatars, 'qara', and its meaning is 'black.' And there are words among the Greeks, 'kara' and 'keras', and their meanings are 'the head' and 'the horn.' But there is no meaning to be found in Kara-Kara. It is merely the name given the creature, the primaeval beast, by chroniclers of the Baltic Crusade whose work was later expurgated to keep these tales hidden. They themselves, stalwart monks in the main, took down what they heard the pagans call it. And who can say where the pagans took that name. But there is no doubt that Kara-Kara first rose among them. What the sacrifice of the Öselians called up, a heathen godling bound by harsh injunction to kill and desolate their enemies, was not easily put down. So many Christian souls were commended to the battle against that which rose from the blackness of innumerable centuries, the splinter of an ancient presence somehow lodged in the opening of the thirteenth century. Father-Mother, Silverbeast, bellua magna luci. The Crusaders despaired before it. They called out to Rome for one to aid them. From the Office of Burial, Nur Barukh answered.

    §

    In that war Kara-Kara died, and dead Kara-Kara remains.

    In that war Nur Barukh died, yet Nur Barukh lives even now.

    How is one to understand this?

    Listen to me, Mihael. I will tell you why I have outlived you.

    Spoiler:
    Narbareck. A name that could just as well be a title. Is it by some means inherited, passed down from parent to child, pried from the cold dead hands of its previous owner, or transmigrated to suitable vessels by divine providence? Is its holder an individual, amalgamated from the memories of a thousand years, or perhaps not even human at all but a weapon of God? Explore the possibilities in a piece that delves into the matter of the leader(s) of the Burial Agency.
    Quote Originally Posted by Dullahan View Post
    there aren't enough gun emojis in the thousandfold trichiliocosm for this shit


    Linger: Complete. August, 1995. I met him. A branch off Part 3. Mikiya keeps his promise to meet Azaka, and meets again with that mysterious girl he once found in the rain.
    Shinkai: Set in the Edo period. DHO-centric. As mysterious figures gather in the city, a young woman unearths the dark secrets of the Asakami family.
    The Dollkeeper: A Fate side-story. The memoirs of the last tuner of the Einzberns. A record of the end of a family.
    Overcount 2030: Extra x Notes. A girl with no memories is found by a nameless soldier, and wakes up to a world of war.

  7. #7
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    A DELIBERATELY SHORT THREE-ACT, FIVE-CENT TRAGEDY OF COMEDY

    Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Set Us Up the Bomb

    Warning: All canon characters (well, the only canon character) present in this fic are really OOC. Also, I “borrowed” liberally from Highlander (both the screenplay and the finished film), various pop-nerdery stuff (Ghostbusters, Castlevania, Terry Pratchett, etc.), and even a bloody Vampire: The Masquerade rulebook.God, I’m a hack. I’m going to drown myself in vodka, now. Grey Goose. The good stuff.

    New York, the Year of Our Lord 2018, Madison Square Garden. Thousands of screaming fans leap to their feet as they watched a well-muscled man with glistening skin and in gaudy tights put another in a headlock, screaming their adoration for Bone Grinder, or Bone Griddle, or Mungojerry, or whatever the heck was the guy’s name – Ciel wasn’t really paying attention. Instead, she seemed focused on somewhere else, unmoved by all the din, until suddenly she stood up and left just as swiftly, like a predator catching the scent of prey.

    She strode past the rows of cars, her footsteps echoing in the Garden’s underground garage. She could sense the enemy’s presence, it was so close. Where…

    Oh, there he was. Long, silken black hair tied in a ponytail, wearing a black leather trench coat open with the belt dangling, a black silk shirt underneath, looking for all intents and purposes like someone LARPing a character named “Bloodraven the Celtic Swordsman” or something. And oh, look, he even had a black-bladed broadsword “hidden” under the coat! How he hadn’t been stopped by the police on the way there would have been a mystery if he, too, had been black. Ciel merely rolled her eyes inwardly, all previous tenseness vanishing in a sigh of disappointment.

    For his part, “Bloodraven” seemed pretty pleased with himself, grinning so much it looked as if his face would split int two.

    “Ha ha ha!” he said. (Yes, “said”, not “laughed” – a sure sign of an imbalanced mind.) “Finally, I meet the legendarily infamous Bow, formerly-immortal slayer of the Children of Night! What were you doing here, Miss Bow? Reliving your past full of bloodshed?”

    “Are you kidding? Wrestling is phonier than an otaku’s girlfriend.”

    “…What?”

    “Because she doesn’t exist. Try and keep up! No, I was here to watch hunky men being all touchy-grabby with each other in a not-so-vaguely homoerotic display.”

    “What?!” “Hey, don’t judge! Sure, I usually like my men cuter and more delicate” – images of an anaemic Japanese student flashed in her mind – “but I think it’s healthy to keep varied interests, you know?”

    “What are you… Why are you… Are you mocking me?!”

    “Oh, honey, with those clothes, you’re mocking yourself. Anyway, I was actually having a reasonably good time before you interrupted me, so you don’t get to be pissy about anything. Who are you, anyway?”

    “Hah! Fool! I am your doom!”

    “Oh, boy…”

    “I am he who has slain ten thousand challengers as he clawed his way up the unholy hierarchy of Dead Apostles!”

    “Yeah, that doesn’t narrow it down.”

    “He who has mastered the Art of the Sword, every secret, spell and technique for every blade in existence!”

    “Sounds derivative, to be honest.”

    “Shut up, I’m 800-years old, I did it first!”

    “Look, can’t you just cut to the chase?”

    “Fine! I… AM… BLOODRAVEN THE IMMORTAL!”

    “…Wait – you’re actually named ‘Bloodraven’? Who the hell thinks that’s a cool name?!” Then something in her memory clicked. “Hold on… You’re Sword-Man the Sword Guy!”

    “How dare you use my Church name! I’m Bloodraven the Immortal!”

    “Yeah, whatever. I’m actually a bit happy, now,” she said as she drew dozens of Black Keys seemingly from out of nowhere. “I mean, I already have enough fuel for ‘happy fun times’ for later, but killing you might just get me that Christmas bonus I’ve earned a hundred times over and still haven’t gotten! Besides, the food in there was lousy. They didn’t even have curry dogs, can you believe that?”

    “Those sound disgusting, actually.”

    “DIE, MONSTER! YOU DON’T BELONG IN THIS WORLD!”

    And they fought. And it was awesome! High-speed acrobatics, exploding Black Keys flying everywhere, lightning bolts and magical crows made of solid shadows with talons that could cut steel (Ciel had gotten a lot better since the fight with Roa at that Shinto temple in Misaki City), extradimensional slashes which warped space, Sword-Man – I mean, Bloodraven summoning extradimensional copies of his black blade in what was totally not a rip-off of Stormbringer, and even a swordfish (!) being used as a melee weapon… It had everything! It ended with Ciel using the Black Keys to do a cross-cut slash on Bloodraven’s neck, Wolverine style, and some kind of shimmering energy surging from the bloody stump alongside a sudden gale, energy which took the form of roaring, eldritch spectral beings; the lights flashed, windshields exploded, car alarms honked off, Ciel glowed as she yelled “THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!”, cats and dogs lived together, mass hysteria!

    And then, after the pillar of crackling energy subsided, there was only Ciel, breathing heavily but also smiling. Terrible fashion sense and even worse naming sense aside, Bloodraven really had been quite the catch; she felt certain killing him would bring not only financial rewards, but also upholster her reputation in the Burial Agency, which took an extreme hit from her losing her immortality. All in all, she was pretty pleased with herself.

    ***

    Ciel wasn’t pleased. At all.

    Really, it wasn’t her fault! How could she have known that weird energy which came out from Sword-Man’s body would have caused such damage not only in the Garden’s garage, but also in the surrounding area? Cars, street lights, neon signs, manhole covers, a whole lot of things spontaneously exploded, causing large amounts of property damage – enough to go over the Church’s repairs budget for New York City three times over (or so the Archbishop had said).

    And that was why she was now in this podunk town called Guaratinguetá in the State of São Paulo, Brazil. After ten hours in a plane sitting next to a loud, overbearing businessman on his first vacation from the family’s company, and two hours in a bus next to a chatty old lady and her farting grandkid.

    The city actually wasn’t so bad. It was a small city, for certain, and it was very far from the large urban centres, but it was also clean and cosy. Quaint, even. She could see herself spending a week here, maybe even two. She definitely couldn’t see herself spending three whole months here, as she calmly – ok, angrily explained to Mother Alba Valéria, the voluptuous raven-haired beauty that was Mother Superior to Guaratinguetá’s Convent of Immaculate Conception, and Father Fernando, the young Afro-Brazilian priest in charge of the Church of Saint Anthony of Saint Ann, the first Brazilian saint.

    “But Miss Ciel, you are here to hunt for one of the degenerate creatures commonly known as ‘vampires’, are you not?” asked Father Fernando placatingly. “Certainly, the importance of such a task far outweighs any misgivings you may have about our, frankly, lovely city?”

    “Indeed, Miss Ciel,” said Mother Alba in a breathy voice which could bring life to an old man’s manhood. “And we are certainly very grateful for your help.”

    “Oh, please! Lukt Vassilissimo Gatevolt Makabra barely even counts as a vampire! I’ve seen politicians who are better at sucking blood than him!”

    For a moment, Father Fernando’s eyes flashed with annoyance, but the young priest was too polite to let it show. “He has survived for over five hundred years, Miss Ciel.”

    For her part, Ciel wasn’t even bothering to hide her annoyance. “Yeah, by being so insignificant no one wants to bother going after him! The guy’s name is Murderbreath von Deathcloud, for Heaven’s sake! He’s a putz with an annoying powerset!”

    Mother Alba giggled at Father Fernando’s consternation even as she sidled to Ciel’s side, took hold of her hand and started caressing it. “There, there, child. Don’t fret, there’s a good girl. I’m sure I’ll… We’ll find ways to keep you… ….busy while you stay here.”

    Ciel simply sighed, accepting defeat. ‘Oh, great, I’m stuck in a B-grade buddy cop movie,’ she thought. ‘He’s going to be my plucky partner who’s going to teach me how to loosen up, she’s going to “reveal” herself as the real bad guy… Maybe she’s Gatevolt’s partner or something… And I’ll be so shocked even though she might as well be wearing a plaque saying “True Villain” or something. I can just see it coming!’

    ***

    Ciel did not see that coming.

    Contrary to her expectations, Mother Alba had not, in fact, been the bad guy – she really was just a hardworking, devoted nun who people kept thinking of as a femme fatale just because of her looks. Meanwhile, the eager, oh-so-earnest Father Fernando had revealed himself as the body puppeteered from the inside by Lukt Vassilissimo Gatevolt Makabra, a.k.a. Murderbreath von Deathcloud, a.k.a. the Dead Apostle standing smugly over her as she laid poisoned on the church’s floor.

    Her breath came in ragged gasps, but she otherwise hid her pain well as she said: “You know, you really ruined a good thing, Murderbreath. We were buddies! True compañeros, you know?” Makabra simply rolled his eyes, however. “For the last time, we speak Portuguese here, not Spanish!”

    “Ok, but the point is that we were partners! You were like Danny Glover, only less black…”

    “No, my skin is just as dark as his.”

    “…and I was like Mel Gibson, only less racist.”

    “Hm, probably just as much.”

    “You’re a pain in the ass, you know, Murderbreath?”

    He winked. “Nah. If I were a pain in your ass, you’d like it.”

    “ENOUGH TALK! HAVE AT THEE!”

    ***

    “After all that, you know what I learned, Mother Alba?” said Ciel as they walked in the convent’s private garden.

    “What, my dear?”

    “That you shouldn’t judge a book by the cover!”

    They both laughed heartily at that.

    And then they fucked.

    Spoiler:
    After a mission gone wrong, Ciel gets reassigned to a podunk town in the middle of South America to exterminate glorified mosquitoes, but soon finds she's gotten into more than she's bargained for... (A semi-comedic work, in the vein of Hot Fuzz. The nature of the complication in Ciel's otherwise insultingly simple mission is up to you.)
    Quote Originally Posted by Dullahan View Post
    there aren't enough gun emojis in the thousandfold trichiliocosm for this shit


    Linger: Complete. August, 1995. I met him. A branch off Part 3. Mikiya keeps his promise to meet Azaka, and meets again with that mysterious girl he once found in the rain.
    Shinkai: Set in the Edo period. DHO-centric. As mysterious figures gather in the city, a young woman unearths the dark secrets of the Asakami family.
    The Dollkeeper: A Fate side-story. The memoirs of the last tuner of the Einzberns. A record of the end of a family.
    Overcount 2030: Extra x Notes. A girl with no memories is found by a nameless soldier, and wakes up to a world of war.

  8. #8
    Thread moved to Fanfics because no one actually browses Events and Gatherings.
    Last edited by Leftovers; December 28th, 2018 at 08:51 PM.
    Fanfiction, on occasion.

    /Ep.in lost dream.
    Decoration Disorder Disconnection. Ishizue Arika and Mato Touma. An episode from a hypothetical future.

    Pseudepigrapha
    Snapshots from the world on the eve of the Third Crusade. A Tuitio Mysterii et Obsequium Reliquiarium prequel.

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