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Thread: Beyond Emptiness: Touko x Ryougi

  1. #21
    死徒(下級)Lesser Dead Apostle
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    Chapter 2


    “Tohno, I need not remind you that this is a matter of utmost importance to both of us. You say that one of your observers detected some sort of magical creature appearing inside the hospital, but your response has fallen far short of what was stipulated in our agreement. To think that my work might unravel for lack of reliable assistants in this backwater of a country!”

    Cornelius Alba, whose customarily refined persona was fraying under stress, was positively spitting into the telephone receiver. How could Tohno SHIKI have allowed an outrage like this to happen? The young Tohno family head's responsibilities were not difficult: Alba had instructed him to maintain a covert perimeter around the hospital and to intercept anyone who tried to move the Ryougi heir without prior consent. Alba's ally owed him a debt of gratitude, and yet the once and future successor to Sponheim Abbey was reduced to begging for help.

    He had hoped to use Ryougi as a living bargaining chip that would make up for his recent fall from grace. Alba had nothing to show for his three-year pursuit of Aozaki Touko, as her trail had led him on a so-far fruitless chase throughout Japan. The Clock Tower’s higher-ups might overlook Alba’s extended absence from Europe if he returned bearing a gift; indeed, a mysterious demon hunter in a state of semi-suspended animation would have stolen the show at most Department of Universal Research symposia. Instead, he would have to find another treasure with which to impress his colleagues; he fumed at the wasted effort.

    Also irritating Alba was Tohno SHIKI’s continued arrogance, a trait that the mage could only tolerate in himself.

    “Shinzo and Kakue are as good as anyone you can expect me to find in less than ten minutes, Alba. They’re some of my more…rugged…relatives, and it’s only by chance that they were close enough to answer the call in the first place. From what I’ve read in father’s journals, their cousins from the Kishima branch were some of the few who opposed our truce with the Nanaya ten years ago.”

    Alba knew better than to trust SHIKI's calm words at face value. A demon’s combat potential tended to rise in direct proportion to the quality and quantity of nonhuman blood flowing through his or her veins. Though the Kishima lineage excelled in this regard, the same did not necessarily apply to every member of that family. The two street toughs that Tohno had rounded up might be trained killers, or their talents could end at extorting protection money. No, Alba thought, those two substitutes would not do at all; he would have to remind the demon who was serving whom.

    “You promised to assist me yourself, or to call upon that Kouma madman as your representative. I now see how little trust I should place in your words.”

    Alba’s tantrum had reached its crescendo. As if he were speaking to Tohno face-to-face, he pointed his index finger at the air in accusation.

    “Both your current position of authority and your sanity are my doing, Tohno. Just as I have raised you up, I can cast you down.”

    Alba waited for a reply but heard nothing. Perhaps he had struck a nerve, and the demon whelp on the other side of the telephone regretted his mistakes. Unfortunately for Alba, Tohno SHIKI seemed even surer of himself than he had before.

    “If I remember correctly, you claimed that my people were a precaution, since your magical ward could keep anyone from noticing anything unusual about the Ryougi girl. I cut down the size of the security perimeter because it seemed redundant. I also needed the extra hands watch over my younger sister, who just hasn’t adjusted well to our father’s death. It’s funny, really, the way she can’t let go of the idea that I had a hand in his passing.”

    The demon laughed, a thoroughly unpleasant sound to Alba’s ears even from hundreds of kilometers away. Not for the first time, Alba wondered if he should have left SHIKI to cope with his own insanity and instead backed Tohno Makihisa in the family power struggle. Old Makihisa had seemed too infirm to last much longer, however, and so Alba had rehabilitated SHIKI and watched him push his father aside. If anything, the plan had worked too well: SHIKI did not limit himself to his intended role as Alba’s pawn, preferring instead to consolidate control over the Tohno branch families. The situation troubled Alba, but he had few other choices but to accept it for the time being.

    “As for Kishima Kouma, he’s still barricaded up at his place in the mountains. He hasn’t been on the best terms with the main family since the Nanaya raid was called off, and I haven’t been able to smooth things over with him yet. So there you have it: I did the best that I could under the circumstances.”

    With that, the line went dead, and Alba could only pace his hotel room in silence. After a few minutes, he sat down and pounded the arms of his chair in frustration. Seeking the root of his troubles, Alba's thoughts followed a well-worn path back to his quixotic hunt for his old rival.

    It’s just like her to choose a hiding place so far away from the heart of civilized magical society! Demons, demon hunters...the Tohno, the Ryougi...I won't forgive her for making me waste my time on them.

    No, he would not consider bringing Touko back alive even if Wizard Marshals Barthomeloi Lorelei and Zelretch themselves wanted to study her. Letting her live struck him as too benign a punishment: instead, he would erase her completely and prove once and for all whose brand of magecraft was superior.

    “This line of thought is fruitless. I will not allow that woman to distract me further. Retaining Ryougi takes precedence, and the matter with Aozaki will have to wait.”

    Alba calmed himself with a few deep breaths, allowing him to return to lamenting Tohno's failure.

    How could such a promising side project become such a nuisance? If I were predisposed to paranoia, I would suspect Touko’s hand in this.

    Unaware of how accurate his prediction truly was, Alba waited for SHIKI to call back. He did not have high expectations.

    ***

    Shiki’s most recent memory had been of resignation, followed by an indeterminate period of darkness. Suddenly, she felt herself being thrown forward and then pushed back into a sitting position: something—no, make that someone—had softened the impact. Still unwilling to open her eyes, she felt a hand insistently tapping her on the shoulder.

    “It’s your lucky day, Shiki. Think of this as a remedial exam: you failed on your first try, so here’s another version of the test. I even gave you a cheat sheet this time, too.”

    This voice belonged to Aozaki Touko, the magician who had apparently disregarded Shiki’s will by saving her from the possessed corpse. Shiki had nothing more to say to this person. Touko had already given enough unwelcome advice, and Shiki had rejected it. Further discussion was pointless, especially if it came in the form of a lecture. Yet despite the fact that Shiki still feigned sleep, Touko pressed on.

    “Or perhaps it’s more emotionally evocative to imagine yourself stuck inside a modified cycle of reincarnation. To make a convoluted story extremely short, the choices you make usually determine where you end up on the next spin of the wheel. Make the right choices, and you can break the cycle. Except the higher powers got impatient while they were waiting for you to ascend to enlightenment, so they threw away all the choices but the correct one and added a time loop for good measure. Meaning that you can either take the path they laid out for you, or you can spin again and end up in the same one-choice decision set ad infinitum.”

    There was a slight pause, and Shiki heard the click of a cigarette lighter.

    “On second thought, I should have probably stuck with the first example; you never struck me as the religious type. I can come up with a better analogy, though, if you just give me a second--”

    She’s actually having fun with this. That’s the kind of person I’m up against: someone who wants to save my life by talking me to death.

    Sensing that Touko might continue this line of conversation unless Shiki demonstrated her understanding, she made eye contact with the mage and summarized her words.

    “You could have just said that you’re set on annoying me, and that I can’t change your mind.”

    Speaking hurt her throat, and Touko had gotten on Shiki’s last nerve. If Shiki’s soul were a placid reflecting pool, then Touko was intent on skipping rocks across it. Perhaps by some miracle, the other woman would take the hint and shut up. This place—a parking garage, apparently—was as good as any other for resting alone with her thoughts. And she truly would spend this time alone: SHIKI was still gone, and she saw no more purpose to his sacrifice than she had back inside the hospital.

    “Harsh words for the person who’s spent considerable time and treasure to help you. Still, that’s roughly the response I should have expected.”

    The magician removed her glasses and exhaled a cloud of strange-smelling smoke; with a practiced nonchalance, she gestured toward the rear window of the car.

    “By the way, we might have picked up a tail on the way out of here. If it’s not too much trouble, take a look at what’s waiting behind us.”

    Shiki caught sight of something red several meters away. After taking a second look, she identified it as the close-cropped crimson hair of a sturdily built man standing motionless near one of the garage walls. Though his features were indeed unusual, Shiki’s eyes immediately focused on his bloody left arm. The stranger had torn off the left sleeve of his tailored gray three-piece suit to form a crude tourniquet, revealing a deep cut just above his wrist. Blood loss of this severity would put the life of a normal human in serious jeopardy, yet the lines of death on this man appeared smaller and fewer in number than any Shiki had seen. They shimmered differently, too, as if the entropy inherent in him were somehow abnormal. This particular detail flipped a switch deep inside her psyche, and the killing impulse that had seemed so faint earlier that day rose back to the surface.

    “Considering your ancestry, Shiki, you should definitely recognize him for what he is. If it helps jog your memory, the cut on his arm has already started to heal even though I hit him with the car less than a minute ago.”

    The last puzzle piece clicked into place, and Shiki saw a reason to stay alive, at least temporarily. Actually, perhaps the word reason gave what was driving her too much credit, masking her motivation’s primitive roots. She still felt a certain ambivalence to death; that hadn’t changed. Rather, another drive had taken hold of Shiki and overridden her uncertainties. For a moment, she could stop asking who she was and what her chaotic memories really meant, if they meant anything; her current state of heightened awareness precluded that kind of indecision. Killing promised pure ecstasy, and no one could consider this an act of murder. Yes, here was a perfect chance.

    A demon, maybe a powerful one. That coma must have really done a number on me if I didn’t notice what he was before now. I never enjoyed my father’s old stories about the Ryougi dynasty's previous line of work, but I remember the signs that set the nonhuman races apart.

    Touko pulled an unadorned but well-made knife from her pocket and pressed it into Shiki’s hand. Before she tuned out rational thought entirely, Shiki took note of an unexpected brightness to Touko’s eyes. The two of them certainly didn’t share the same taste for murder, Shiki was almost sure of that, so this fight must have excited the magician for different reasons. Teasing out what those reasons were, however, didn’t seem worth the effort. After a few moments, Touko broke the silence.

    “I take it that you’re ready to give this another shot. I’ll be right behind you, but in a support capacity only. This is your fight: own it.”

    Touko’s words barely registered with Shiki as she examined the knife and felt its weight it in her hand. Its sharpened blade appeared well matched to its task, and it heightened Shiki’s anticipation of the approaching confrontation. With the unsheathing of the knife as an unspoken signal, both women stepped out of the car.

    I’ll keep it simple and cut his clearest line first. That means a slash across the chest. He’s 30 meters away, give or take. I can cover that distance in a few seconds.

    Shiki gripped her knife firmly, since her first strike would likely provide her best chance at eliminating the abomination standing in front of her, and began her sprint. The demon still betrayed no emotion on his face, as if the knife about to plunge into his chest posed no danger whatsoever. Shiki dismissed this as either insanity or ignorance and prepared to plunge the blade home. She had been bred for this moment, and she felt neither conflict nor emptiness.
    Yet this monster would not die. More precisely, Shiki’s blade had missed the demon’s lines of death because he had deflected the blow by drawing a weapon of his own. Shiki noted a short length of steel protruding from the man’s right sleeve: he had evidently hidden a retractable blade under the bulk of his suit in order to lure Shiki in and facilitate a counterattack. Once she had approached close enough, he drew it out with inhuman agility and used his superior bulk and leverage to halt her advance.

    Shit, I was having too much fun with this. He has the quickness to match me even if I were at my best, which I’m not. If I can just hold out until I get an opening--

    The demon jumped backwards before Shiki could attempt to trace his lines of death again, causing her to belatedly shift her weight forward in order to give chase. This dance continued, with Shiki’s surprisingly mobile opponent blocking each of her slashes and stabs while retreating a half-meter each time. Soon, Shiki realized that these haphazard retreats formed a larger pattern.

    He’s drawing Touko and me toward the garage exit instead of fighting offensively. With his size and speed, he should believe that he has the advantage; instead, he’s falling back. It doesn’t make sense.

    Shiki sensed that her opponent had more in mind than simply killing her, but speculating on his motives occupied a lower priority than ending the demon’s life. Unlike during her initial charge, Shiki now understood how to use her Eyes to their greatest effect: since the demon believed that his wrist-mounted blade could neutralize her attacks, gaining the element of surprise was as simple as cutting the lines of death on her adversary’s weapon. Those lines had not been apparent to her during her initial headlong dash, but the demon’s feints had given her time to regain her concentration. What had once seemed like an unblemished length of steel now looked fragile and flawed, its ugly entropy begging to be brought to the surface. Doing that, of course, required that she catch the demon first. As he paused after backing into a parked car, Shiki saw her chance. Her sleep-dulled legs had so far prevented her from landing a decisive blow in the open space of the garage aisle, but if her adversary’s speed was taken out of the equation, then their game was all but over. Shiki vaguely registered the shape of Touko a short distance away, apparently acting as a spectator, but her presence did not seem important. She was well out of the way, in any case, so Shiki’s path to the demon was clear.

    ***

    Though Touko would be loath to admit to forgetting the gravity of the situation, she probably would agree that seeing Ryougi Shiki in full motion was at least somewhat distracting. Touko’s previous interactions with the young woman had all been under the auspices of treating Shiki’s supposed aphasia; in that context, Shiki had little incentive to shake off her lethargy and walk around. Still, Touko had developed a certain appreciation for Shiki’s slender form even if it largely remained static. But seeing Shiki sprint, shift, and twist her body in the way that she was currently doing was another experience entirely. Though the magician remained ready to offer assistance if needed, drinking in the kinetic display in front of her occupied most of Touko’s attention. Even she, whose knowledge of the human form usually demystified any display of physical prowess, found Shiki uncommonly beautiful.

    Nietzsche was right to believe only in a God who could dance, Touko mused as she followed Shiki and the demon across the garage floor.

    Even the fight’s conclusion impressed her. Evidently Shiki’s eyes could see the death of physical objects as well as living creatures, allowing her to slice through her opponent’s wrist-blade once his retreat slowed down. With no way to defend himself, the larger man could only watch as Shiki drove her blade home through his heart. As she watched Shiki wipe the knife clean on the demon’s lapel, Touko found herself wishing that the confrontation could have lasted longer. Still, she reflected, she should not complain. The demon’s presence had seemed an unwelcome intrusion at first, but killing it had given Shiki a much-needed emotional uplift. Moreover, a dead adversary could hardly betray her location. Touko decided to walk closer to the entrance and congratulate her future employee.

    “Excellent work, Shiki. Keep that up, and—”

    Touko never finished her sentence, since Shiki’s kimono-clad shoulder knocked the air out of her chest and sent her sprawling onto the concrete floor. Touko briefly wondered if Shiki truly had gone insane, until she heard two muffled pop sounds from outside the garage and saw two small holes appear in one of the concrete walls. A moment later, she heard the squealing of tires.

    Putting the evidence together, Touko quickly grasped what had happened: the demon that Shiki killed hadn’t simply appeared out of thin air; instead, another of his kind had driven him to the garage in order to spring an ambush. The driver had taken advantage of Touko’s inattention and fired at her, evidently hoping to take her out of the picture and recapture Shiki. Had Shiki not intervened, the consequences might have cost Touko another puppet body. Some mages could maintain a moving barrier around themselves to repel physical attacks, but Touko was not among their ranks.

    I’d like to ascribe this to enchanted bullets, or some other sort of cheap trick, but the fact of the matter is that it’s all on me: I lost focus and failed to account for the possibility that the demon didn’t arrive alone. This has just not been my night.

    Before Touko could lever herself up off the ground, Shiki stood over her with an angry stare.

    “So you wanted me give me advice, huh? I’m sorry, but I have trouble trusting a so-called expert mage who nearly got herself sniped during a fight. You expect me to listen to someone like that? Thanks to you, the other guy who was after us just got away.”

    Touko wanted to smile, but fought off the urge.

    Feeling feisty now, aren’t we? Well, I suppose it’s better than the alternative, but I can’t let her get the wrong idea.

    Touko wordlessly returned to her feet, her high-heel footwear allowing her to cut an imposing silhouette in the arc sodium lights of the garage. With her glasses stowed in her pants pocket, Aozaki Touko, false speech therapist had completely vanished; left behind was Aozaki Touko, sorceress.

    “You’ve been taking me too lightly; that ends now, Shiki. If you only remember one thing about today, make it this: even if the other demon had shot me, I still would have had the upper hand. Do you know why?”

    The change that Touko had just undergone grabbed Shiki’s attention; she remained silent because she honestly did not know the answer to the magician’s question.

    “I didn’t think so. I’ve spent years refining my craft, so I had several layers of fail-safes already in place. The first is rune magic: had I been wounded, I could have woven a spell to concentrate as much energy as possible on stopping the bleeding and healing my injuries.”

    Shiki seemed eager to find a fault in Touko’s argument, and she pounced.

    “Last time I checked, the dead can’t do any of the magecraft stuff you seem to enjoy so much. A sniper usually aims for the head or heart, Touko.”

    “True, but I had a fail-safe beyond the rune spell. Can’t talk about it, though; let’s just say that the demon’s friend caught me at a bad time, but under no circumstances was I in any real danger. Got it?”

    Shiki seemed unimpressed, but Touko continued. She was on a roll.

    “You, on the other hand, have nothing to fall back on. That means that whether you have the Mystic Eyes or not, one mistake during a fight and you’re through. Worried about the hole inside that SHIKI left behind? Then don’t desecrate his memory by dying before you have to. I can show you how to use your Eyes, and you can compensate me in kind. I do detective work on the side, and dealing with nonhumans is an occupational hazard; that seems right up your alley. So, are you in?”

    Shiki looked away, though Touko remained unsure of whether the younger woman was considering the offer or had simply tired of listening. After a few seconds, Shiki spoke again.

    “I suppose whether you can defend yourself or not isn’t my problem. You said you have a job for me, right? As long as you stay alive long enough for me to track down the demon who got away, then I accept.”

    This satisfied Touko, who nodded in agreement before walking back to take a final look at the demon’s body and her wrecked car. The vehicle was registered under an alias, so she could leave it here without drawing suspicion. Even better, the Ryougi family could afford to bribe the hospital into erasing any inconvenient security recordings. This meant that the two of them could escape police scrutiny simply by taking a walk to the nearest train station. Although Touko did have questions of her own for Shiki, returning to her workshop and getting the two of them some well-earned rest took priority.

    Last edited by Highwayman; March 11th, 2013 at 03:18 AM.

  2. #22
    nicht mitmachen Dullahan's Avatar
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    Relevant Fanart

    Wow. I mean, really...wow. Very good. The tone and characterisation are spot-on with my impression of cokesakto's translation of the novels. (Your Touko is best Touko.) I praise you with great praise, and expect more. Expectantly.
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  3. #23
    死徒(下級)Lesser Dead Apostle
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    Quote Originally Posted by Dullahan View Post
    Wow. I mean, really...wow. Very good. The tone and characterisation are spot-on with my impression of cokesakto's translation of the novels. (Your Touko is best Touko.) I praise you with great praise, and expect more. Expectantly.
    Thanks for commenting and posting that super-relevant image. It's a shame that there aren't more like it.

    As for Touko, I just wish that I could draw on her dialogue in Mahoyo as added inspiration. Come on, cokesakto, we're all rooting for you!

  4. #24
    死徒(下級)Lesser Dead Apostle
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    Chapter 3

    Just as he had done in his student days, Cornelius Alba stalked the halls of the Clock Tower Library. Yet this was not a triumphant homecoming. Two days earlier, a report from the surviving Tohno demon had thrown his plans into disarray: Ryougi had escaped, and she had done so with the help of someone who matched Touko's description. If he were a less experienced mage, Alba would have returned to Tokyo immediately to confront his prey; instead, he forced himself to remain cautious. He did not doubt his own competence in the face of danger—far from it. Rather, he feared that further mistakes on Tohno’s part might ruin him even as his adversary's camp grew more formidable. Ryougi's apparent partnership with Touko had been an unknown unknown, a wildcard with implications that neither he nor his demon allies fully understood. For this reason, he had left SHIKI to do as he saw fit while he returned to Europe to expand their partnership into a triumvirate.

    Yet most Association magi were too absorbed in their own studies to involve themselves in another mage’s personal vendetta. Others, cowards in Alba’s estimation, seemed too wary of Touko to confront her directly; instead, they preferred to sit back, let the Enforcers do their work, and wait for someone more reckless to uncover her secrets. With his pool of potential allies shrinking, Alba now turned to the library's listing of magical bloodlines in search of someone—anyone—with the skill and nerve to match him. He rifled through books two at a time, his haste allowing him to fill an empty re-shelving cart after only an hour.

    The Einzbern have their own obsessions, as do the Makiri. The Edelfelt have already declined my invitation. The Fraga are just as provincial as any of the magicians I encountered in the Orient. The Zepter…are dead.

    Alba let out a dry laugh, revealing the years that his youthful features usually kept well hidden. Yes, the house of Zepter had died out a decade or so earlier after Heinrich committed obscenities so outrageous that the Association could no longer ignore them. To refresh his memory, Alba pulled the Zepter family records off the shelf. With his search for allies bogging down, the details of Heinrich’s demise could provide him with a refreshing break.

    “Hmm…so in place of reaching Akasha by resurrecting the dead, Heinrich Zepter transformed his own body and enslaved an entire town. Ambitious, though the execution certainly lacked elegance. Ah, it says here that he was ultimately burned to death for his crimes; perhaps I ought to do the same to Aozaki.”

    No, he had to strive for greater creativity, greater impact. He owed himself that much.

    Just as Alba prepared to throw the Zepter family history into his stack of discarded books, he noticed that some librarian had pasted an addendum sheet onto the back cover.

    “‘Further artifacts are available in the basement level, for reference use only.’ Odd, considering that Heinrich took his crest and records to the grave with him. I wonder what could be down there, then?”

    A few minutes later, Alba’s credentials had granted him entry into one of the library’s restricted sections. Unsurprisingly, the room contained shelf upon shelf of books. More interesting to Alba was the insignia that was embossed on each one, the golden seal of the Atlas alchemists. Even in their glory days, the Zepter had worked alone, and alchemy was not their specialty. Alba opened one of the volumes, only to find that it contained words written in a type of shorthand he did not recognize. There appeared to be some French in it, which he could understand, but the rest of the tiny text had formulas, symbols, and numbers arranged in some sort of code. Putting the volume back on the shelf—he felt it unwise to throw it aside as carelessly as he had done with the family histories upstairs—Alba noticed an ornate desk in the middle of the room. There were several sheets of blank parchment sitting on it, as well as a fountain pen. Well, that made sense: these were reference books, so library patrons were encouraged to make their notes here instead of checking out any of the volumes.

    The contents of these books are of no use to me. Still, I can at least take advantage of the peace and quiet that this place offers.

    Satisfied with his decision, Alba sat down and wrote a summary of his efforts to find Touko so far, ending with Ryougi’s escape. In the end, Alba found that this exercise was a waste of time. He had already completed painstaking research into Touko’s past and known magical abilities, and Shiki’s escape rendered all of Alba’s theories about her coma moot. He crumpled up the sheet and stood up to throw it away. No, better to tear it into pieces…

    Suddenly, the words Alba had written began to move across the page by themselves, the letters breaking apart and forming new sentences.

    I believe that we may share a common goal, magus. You wish for the destruction of Aozaki Touko, and my purposes require her demise as well. For this reason, do we not both desire her death?

    Alba jumped away from the desk, knocking over his chair in the process, and prepared to recite a lorica that could turn the entire room into a furnace. He had encountered enchanted books before, but none that seemed as sentient, as dangerous, as this one. Besides, this piece of parchment had seemed entirely empty of prana when Alba used it to scratch out his thoughts. The fact that it could respond to him so lucidly implied an enchantment beyond his understanding. Yet he checked himself, hoping desperately that he had stumbled into another mage with a grudge against Touko comparable to his own. Alba sat back down and wrote out his affirmative reply.

    Even if we both work towards Aozaki’s death, you have me at a disadvantage. Tell me; are you a member of the Association? If so, then why have you resorted to this much secrecy?

    I held the title of Atlasia once, and I do not communicate this way by choice. Had Heinrich Zepter not betrayed me, I would not be confined to this library. However, the Zepter strayed from their path to the Root before they could fashion the vessel I required. I am now bound inside these books, existing only in mind. My physical form has long since decayed.

    These words excited Alba: here was an ally that Aozaki would never expect: a ghost, and one with an impressive pedigree at that. Alba rushed to write down his half of the conversation, dropping a few splashes of ink in the process.

    As a former director of Atlas, you must bring invaluable skills to the alliance that I established with the Tohno. I presume that you covet Aozaki’s knowledge of puppet making, or that you intend to kill her after forcing her to rebuild the body you once lost.

    You misunderstand. I cannot possess an inanimate object, for I am a consciousness rather than a soul. I am the sum total of the experiences, ideas, and motivations of one of Atlas’ founders, set down in book form. I am a prediction engine that has achieved sentience. Because of my peculiar nature, I risk corruption unless I enter a living mind that is as empty as the pages of my books once were.

    Alba was puzzled, though he had some intuition of what the ex-director of Atlas was hinting at. His heart sank at the realization.

    You are a small-scale implementation of Laplace’s Demon, then. By copying down the state of his mind down to the smallest detail, your creator intended to build an artificial intelligence that could simulate his own responses to external stimuli even after death. Apparently he did his work too well, since you now wish to senselessly return to corporeal form. In the state you are in now, how can you wish to enter a partnership with me?

    The parchment wrote its reply quickly, as if insulted.

    Atlas once tried to predict the end of the world; that was folly. By understanding my own mind rather than acquiring data on an entire planet, I developed the ability to predict the motives and actions of others. Aozaki Touko. Ryougi Shiki. Tohno SHIKI. Cornelius Alba. Given some simple information, I can understand them all. Yet after so many years, foreknowledge is no longer enough; I now wish to influence the world directly.

    Aozaki Touko currently holds power over a vessel that is the equal of my ambition. It is a living body, yet you and I can also bring its mind to a state of perfect emptiness.

    I understand you better now, Atlasia. The Ryougi dynasty’s mental characteristics make Shiki your ideal host. You intend to guide my revenge against Aozaki, allowing you to find Ryougi in the process. A fair trade provided that Touko does not survive.

    Alba believed he finally understood the parchment’s intentions, and its reply pleased him.

    To attain Ryougi requires the elimination of Aozaki and vice-versa. I will accomplish my purpose, you will accomplish yours, and there is even room for Tohno to accomplish his. In the end, I will inhabit a suitable body. The Zepter were bound by geas to fulfill this task, but they preferred to occupy themselves with monsters. I trust that their foolishness has caught up with them.

    The words on the page shifted again, and Alba felt a thrill of excitement as he recognized precisely what kind of document was now staring back at him. Using only the bare facts that Alba had first written down, Atlasia had formulated the skeleton of a plan to locate and defeat their mutual enemy. Atlasia had made some rather fantastic logical leaps, and some of the magical techniques required to bring the plot to fruition barely seemed possible in this day and age. On the whole, however, Atlasia’s strategies compelled Alba to take a chance. A line at the bottom of the document called for his signature, which he provided with a flourish. An effectively unbreakable contract now bound him to assist Atlasia in its search for a physical body. If he failed to do so, a curse would follow him and any inheritor of the Alba crest.

    That possibility stuck in Alba’s mind even after he had shipped all of Atlasia’s 2000-odd volumes back to Japan for the sake of resuming the pursuit. No one seemed to miss the books; in fact, the Clock Tower librarians seemed eager to rid their collection of them.

    ***

    “This time, I would like to see how you do against a series of visual distortion spells. Your Mystic Eyes should be able to find a way out of this, but the disorientation might slow you down a little. I’m ready to begin whenever you are.”

    Shiki nodded her head as a signal for Touko to get on with the day’s lesson. The two of them were on the dimly-lit second floor of the abandoned building that doubled as Touko’s hidden atelier; as of five days earlier, the third floor of this same office had become Shiki’s temporary home. Her employer was sitting in a swivel chair at the center of the room, the edges of which were predominately filled with stacks of coffin-sized wooden boxes. Given the sheer variety of rune magic that Touko evidently knew, Shiki wouldn’t have been shocked if the crates did in fact contain the remains of the mage’s past opponents.

    The lit end of Touko’s cigarette traced out a series of shapes, and suddenly Shiki’s view of the room began to shift and fragment as if she were looking through a kaleidoscope. But this was simply disguising the same tired trick: just as she had done yesterday and the day before, Shiki searched out the entropy at the heart of Touko’s magecraft. Although she could no longer trust what her normal sense of direction told her, she knew that her Eyes would guide her in the correct direction whether the concrete below her seemed solid or not.

    After a few seconds of straining, she identified the sources of the distortion: Touko’s runes had produced a four-sided magical construct hovering a few paces in front of her. Shiki stepped forward cautiously, her focus trained on the orange-white parallelogram rather than the swirling room. Cigarette smoke seemed to surround her, and Shiki was thrown off balance by a steadily unblinking gaze—or gazes, really, since the prism effect had replicated Touko’s face several times over. The look in Touko’s eyes had been disconcerting her for the past hour, but seeing it multiplied made it even worse.

    The demons haven’t shown up since I got out of the hospital, which neither of us expected: the lack of activity put Touko on edge. With no leads on the people who attacked us, she suggested that I keep a low profile until my neck healed. I didn’t care enough to refuse at the time. Unfortunately, that means I’ve spent the past few days either dozing off in my room or working on my technique in here with her. I wanted training, but I still can’t stand being confined and watched like this.

    Shiki moved to end the exercise, which could only conclude after she cut through each of the four sides of the illusion. Although it had taken some time to identify and approach the spell, the physical effort required to sever it was minimal. As soon as she dealt with the final segment, Shiki saw her view of the room accordion back to normal. This view included a disappointed Aozaki Touko.

    “Fifteen and one tenth. One and four tenths. One and seven tenths. One and one tenth. That makes 19.3 seconds to work through the entire field. Not fast enough, Shiki. You’ll need to respond to a variety of threats from multiple angles if you’re ambushed by a competent mage; we’ve been practicing defensive techniques for a while now, but you still aren’t reacting as fluidly as you should be.”

    Touko finally stopped scrutinizing Shiki long enough to write down the results of the practice session in a small notebook. Instead of conjuring up another opponent, though, the magician focused her attention on the large gold pocket watch that she had used to time their training session.

    “If we’re finished here, then say so. Spacing out and watching the clock usually means it's time to wrap it up.”

    Sensing that Shiki’s patience was running thin, Touko held up the watch by its chain so that Shiki could see it more easily. It had a glass front and back that revealed a fine mesh of gears and springs, and Shiki could perceive a slight aura of magic around it. Still, she refrained from asking any questions about the object; past experience had taught her that showing interest in Touko's work was a quick recipe for boredom.

    “Oh, this? I doubt you’ll find it interesting, but I’ve been testing its accuracy and it’s quite the precise little piece. It’s a modified Breguet watch with an integrated mana compass. That last complication alone makes it a valuable magical artifact, but take a look at these four chronographs: each starts in sync with the casting of a spell, and each one stops once the spell is no longer in effect. On a strict value per weight basis, this might be the third or fourth-most expensive object in my workshop.”

    While the older woman took a small cloth out of her pocket to lightly polish the watch’s crystal face, Shiki let out a frustrated sigh and slumped down on one of the crates opposite Touko’s chair. It wasn’t that the heat had gotten to her; rather, the dusty air didn’t do her healing throat any favors, and she was ready for this three-hour training session to end.

    “That’s fascinating, but if the two of you needed some time alone with each other, all you had to do was ask. Now if you don’t have any other trinkets to show me, I’m headed back to my room for some water.”

    As Shiki got up and turned toward the door, two ceiling-high pillars of twisting purple smoke materialized to block her progress.

    “A little early in your career to start slacking, isn’t it? We’ve gone through 39 repetitions this afternoon, and I’d planned for an even 40 to make sure that the movement of the Breguet is working correctly. I don’t mind overpaying for a genuine rarity, but if there’s something amiss with the spell timing system, then I might have gotten stuck with a counterfeit. So just imagine that those are actually two demons standing in front of you and slice them to pieces; I need the data.”

    Testing that pointless toy has been Touko’s game all along. Cast a spell, challenge me to see the imperfection in it, then record how long the process takes. Then repeat until I want to throw up. It’s just a diversion for her—she’s even smiling. Well, I’m done for the day, and she can do as she likes.

    Shiki wordlessly ignored Touko’s instructions and walked towards the smoke that was guarding the door. To use the English idiom, she had decided to play a game of chicken: given Touko’s prior actions, Shiki knew that the magician had stubborn as well as protective streaks to her personality. While Touko had apparently settled on an arbitrary 40 reps as Shiki’s goal for the day, she also seemed unwilling to put her guest in harm’s way; if Shiki pushed her, she knew that Touko would dispel the barrier.

    As it turned out, Shiki very nearly miscalculated. As her left hand entered the smoke cloud, she felt a cool numbness spread up her arm. But before she could slash the spell apart into its component runes, the smoke ebbed away.

    “So you were that tired, huh? Not a full day’s work, but not bad, either. Catch!”

    Shiki’s reflexes kicked back into full gear, and she was able to cradle a slightly cool metal cylinder to her kimono-clad chest before the projectile could drop to the floor. A look of surprise replaced her scowl when she realized what the object was.

    “Iced coffee? You’re always drinking these, and I didn’t see any more cans in the office fridge yesterday. What gives?”

    Touko, looking annoyingly pleased with Shiki’s reaction, got up and stretched her arms.

    “Very observant of you: this is my last one. That aside, I also knew that you’d need something to drink after today’s training. I stocked your minifridge with bottled water, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have something else for a change.”

    Shiki again had the odd feeling that Touko was watching her too closely. Was there something abnormal about the coffee? While Shiki couldn’t think of a reason for her employer to poison her, she used her Eyes to check the can for any magical abnormalities. She found nothing: while the flavor probably wasn’t to her taste, the beverage was otherwise safe. Yet Shiki got the odd feeling that Touko would be disappointed if she didn’t at least try it. Touko had already put her watch away, but she was looking intently at Shiki with her hand on her chin just as if she were still conducting an experiment. In the end, Shiki flipped a mental coin and rejected the offer on that basis alone.

    “No, this is some pretty nasty stuff. It’s not even cold, and it has too much sugar and caffeine. I couldn’t stand it when Mikiya used to buy it for me at the high school canteen, either.”

    Shiki looked away from Touko and thrust the can back in her. She did so with some reluctance, as her mentor had seemed genuinely concerned for her wellbeing. Then Shiki felt the other woman’s hand brush against hers as Touko reclaimed her failed olive branch.

    “You’re right: if the coffee isn’t chilled, then it isn’t worth drinking. Still, they say that it’s the thought that counts.”

    Touko walked past the still-puzzled Shiki, then called out to her from the staircase to the fourth floor.

    “Speaking of things that aren’t worth eating or drinking, my financial liquidity isn’t where I’d like it to be right now, and I can’t stomach another take-out meal as tonight’s dinner. Rest for a while, then pick up some ingredients with the advance I gave you on this month’s salary. Mikiya told me you’re good with traditional cuisine, and I’d like to put that to the test.”

    The five days I’ve spent cooped up in here were supposed to be for my own safety, but all that goes out the window as soon as Touko wants something to eat. She doesn’t want a bodyguard or an assassin; what she really needed to hire was a cook.

    That said, Shiki couldn’t turn down a chance to exercise her legs and get back out into the city, even if it came at the price of running an errand.

    ***

    As she roughly sliced into the chicken breast she’d purchased, Shiki couldn’t help but notice the contrast between how her new job was turning out and what Touko had originally promised. Five days earlier, she had seen no reason to continue living, and only the chance to kill had been enough to temporarily change her mind. That had been the sole appeal of Touko’s offer: if she worked for the magician, she could murder without murdering, staying true to her grandfather’s warning in fact if not spirit. And yet here she stood, grudgingly preparing oyakodon in Touko’s makeshift kitchen. Such a simple task did not completely distract her from her unfulfilled impulses, but the meal ended up occupying more of Shiki’s attention than expected.

    I remember hating this domestic stuff when my parents made me learn it—still do, in fact. At least that much hasn’t changed.

    Small bubbles began to form in the saucepan that contained the meal’s fish stock base, which was Shiki’s signal to add in the sliced chicken along with some eye-watering onion slices. It would be a simple meal, as Shiki hadn’t had enough advance notice to make the mild congee that she was accustomed to eating at home.

    Touko barely had any ingredients in this place, so this food won’t end up any cheaper than beef and noodles from Kongetsu. She’s just my boss—how the hell is it in my job description to cook for her?

    Shiki checked the rice cooker, noting that the dinner’s staple ingredient still had a few minutes left before it was ready.

    Maybe I’m looking at this from the wrong perspective: the sane perspective. Touko has perfected the fine art of speaking without actually saying anything, then cutting right to the point after a normal person has already lost interest. Until now, I’ve made the mistake of trying to follow her train of thought from thaumaturgy to French stopwatches, which ignores how much she likes pointless obfuscation. I haven’t gotten any closer to understanding her reasons for keeping me here. She probably wants it that way.

    Instead of placing stock in Touko’s words, Shiki analyzed the other woman’s actions. As her employer often reminded her, Touko had spent numerous unpaid hours as Shiki’s speech therapist; moreover, the mana she used up during their daily practices was not insignificant. These sacrifices might have qualified as the price of a particularly useful human resource but for one inconvenient fact: Touko had risked her own life while keeping Shiki from giving up her own. Only emotion could prompt so reckless a decision, she reasoned, and that worried her.

    And when I saw a sniper across the street from the garage, I returned the favor. Just what was I thinking? I didn’t owe her anything, since I never asked for her help—exactly the opposite, in fact. That’s why I could only explain to Touko that I pushed her to the ground on instinct: I had no other possible reason for acting the way I did. If I had to pick an after-the-fact justification, then I’d settle on denying her would-be murderer the satisfaction of such a casual kill.

    “Friends? Touko and I? Not in this lifetime.”

    As Shiki slid equal portions of chicken-and-egg topping onto two bowls of steaming rice, she briefly wondered where her not-friend had gone. The main area of the fourth floor was chaotic, with stacks of files and other assorted junk blocking the sightlines from the kitchen to Touko’s cluttered desk. Perhaps the décor of the magician’s workshop worked in the same way as her speech: both were full of red herrings used to obscure her boss’ real intentions.

    Or more likely, she can’t stop collecting all these souvenirs and hasn’t bothered to clean the place out since she got here.

    Then she heard a voice from the corner that housed a flickering bank of old TV sets. A small wooden table and some leather chairs occupied this corner too, and Shiki realized that Touko had been waiting there for her to finish cooking.

    “I hope you don’t mind if I leave these news programs on while we eat. With all the time I’ve spent on your case over the past few weeks, I’ve fallen a little behind on what’s supposed to be important these days. Given the kind of business I run, I have to stay informed: it’s a trick of the trade.”

    The first few minutes of their meal passed in silence, which came as something of a relief at first. Touko seemed intent on the televisions, allowing Shiki some peace. After a while, though, her eyes stopped focusing on the eclectic contents of the room. Instead, she recalled an afternoon when she and Mikiya had eaten a greasier version of this same dish at a café near campus. She remembered that the sun was unusually strong for May, which meant that Mikiya’s little sister had been away from home for over a month. Mikiya and Azaka used to be inseparable, according to the stories Shiki had heard from him, so she knew that the younger girl’s frequent bouts of illness and therapeutic move to the countryside must have worried him. Yet even so, he took her out for their weekly snack like always, an honest smile on his face. Had Mikiya learned about SHIKI’s existence by then? The answer likely lay fragmented between SHIKI’s missing memories and her own, but she knew that she didn’t need to find it. Mikiya accepted her into his everyday life before and after he learned of her dual personality. No, they had drifted apart for other reasons, and Shiki couldn’t quite place what they were.

    Her reverie was broken when she saw Touko turn away from the newscasts.

    “Mmmm… OK, after half a bowl of this, I have to admit that Mikiya was right about your skills: the complexity of flavor in this is superb, and it was very neatly presented, too. How a meal is prepared and whom it’s shared with both have social significance, and you made some interesting choices here. Breaking bread with acquaintances is a sign of acceptance or trust; among friends, the experience deepens the social relationship. I can see what anthropologists are on about when they say that gastronomy defines a culture more thoroughly than language or philosophy.”

    “Whether you liked it or not is up to you, but leave Mikiya out of this. I’m finished talking about him.”

    Touko’s offhand mention of Mikiya had pushed Shiki back to the present, and her glare proved that she wasn’t happy about it. Touko, on the other hand, wore a playful expression behind her glasses.

    “Oh? I wasn’t planning on antagonizing you about this, but since you’ve brought him up, I’ll let you know right now. Your Prince Charming called again to ask about you while you were at the store, and he wouldn’t let me brush him off this time. He sounded like he had something urgent to tell you, although if he’s been waiting two years to say it, then his message must not be time-sensitive. Still, I—”

    “What happened between us isn’t your business, Touko. Friends have arguments: sometimes they make up, sometimes they don’t. Right now, Mikiya is one more person I’m better off leaving in the past.”

    Touko spent a thoughtful moment balancing a bite-sized piece of egg on her chopsticks, then dropped a bombshell onto Shiki’s lap.

    “As of tomorrow, how well you get along with Mikiya actually is my business. We haven’t made much progress waiting for the demons to come to us, so I’ve decided to take a less passive approach. That means a hands-on, in-person investigation of all the demon families active in this region, which is something that neither you nor I are really suited for. I don’t have unlimited time to spend on this, and you’re more inclined to cut a potential source of information apart than ask it any questions. Mikiya, on the other hand, doesn’t have any unusual quirks that could tip off the people we’re after, his university gives him the weekends off, and he really wanted to meet you again. Since that last point mattered to him more than his salary, I couldn’t help but take him on as a part-time assistant.”

    Shiki was left speechless, so Touko turned up the volume on one of the clearer TVs to catch the conclusion of the news report.

    “And in Shinjuku, the staff of the Star-Continental Hotel made a grisly discovery late this morning when one of their guests missed his check out time. Two dead bodies were found inside a suite on the hotel’s sixth floor, the apparent victims of foul play. While police have declined to comment on the case, an unnamed source close to the investigation identified one of the victims as financier Kugamine Tonami. The identity of his companion, said to be a woman in her mid-twenties, remains unknown.”

    Touko pressed a button on the remote, turning all of the televisions off at once, and removed her glasses. Shiki understood the significance of Tonami’s surname because of her demon hunter background. The mage appeared to know the history of the Kugamine clan as well.

    “If anything, I should have asked Mikiya if he could start work one day earlier.”



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

    As always, please be honest if there's something in this fic that's not working for you, or if there's something you'd like to see more or less of in future updates. It's even OK if you just post "write better!"

    ...

    Well, that might be pushing it, but my main point still stands.

  5. #25
    Preformance Pertension SeiKeo's Avatar
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    Keep writing?

    I do like the book - it's very much the kind of thing a Nasuverse magi would manage to do, I think.

  6. #26
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    Chapter 4, Part I

    After the news report finished, Touko watched as Shiki wordlessly rose from the table. A few quick strides carried her to the office door, where she paused to lace up a pair of rugged boots. Judging by the sheathed knife tucked into Shiki’s blue kimono and the slight frown on her brow, her intended destination was obvious.

    Hmm…there’s no real point in telling her to be careful. That would have as much effect as reminding her not to scratch the paint when she unmounts the Harley’s sidecar.

    Touko knew that investigating the hotel barely qualified as a challenge for someone with Shiki’s talents. The young woman’s physical health had improved since their escape from the hospital, and her mental state was stable. Demon hunting had given Shiki a purpose, if an incomplete one, and that was almost enough. Perhaps if Aozaki Touko were capable of her usual magician’s detachment, she could have dismissed the risk that Shiki was about to take as inconsequential. As it was, though, a frustratingly vague uneasiness prompted her to offer a few nonchalant words as Shiki pulled open the office door.

    “Kugamine Tonami’s been dead for hours by now. Even if I wanted to fly the two of us to the crime scene, the killer’s already gone. No need to rush.”

    The remark about flight failed to interest Shiki, who did not even turn around. Her reply sounded flat and uninflected, as if calculated to cut off further discussion with the barest possible effort.

    “Sorry, but we’ve wasted enough time.”

    Shiki was now halfway across the threshold.

    So I’ll have to pull rank. I can play that game.

    “If you’re going to the hotel, then I’m going with you. Call it the boss’ prerogative.”

    These firmer words had their desired effect, and Shiki gave Touko her full attention. Her eyes seemed brighter than usual, almost predatory. Touko briefly wondered if SHIKI had worn a similar expression when he was alive.

    “I can handle this one alone. Don’t tell me you’re forgetting your half of the bargain? Does ‘Work for me, and you’ll have a chance to kill’ ring any bells?”

    Although Touko’s pride made her reluctant to admit it, Shiki had a point. The terms of her employment guaranteed a certain amount of autonomy, so much that calling Ryougi an “employee” didn’t provide an accurate enough description. On a more self-interested level, Touko knew that trying to restrict Shiki’s independence would ultimately backfire.

    “Anyway,” Shiki continued, “I don’t expect to meet the killer there. But Tonami’s murder is too strange to let go.”

    “Oh is it, now?” Touko asked coyly, again trying to delay. “Aren’t you getting a little too worked up about this?”

    Shiki looked at Touko with disbelief bordering on exasperation. Touko’s protest was weak, and both of them knew it.

    That’s the kind of transparent misdirection that barely works on Detective Akimi. I should have known not to try it in front of someone more perceptive. And if anything, it’s my fault that this case has dragged without any breakthroughs.

    Under different, less-distracting circumstances, a dead demon and a suspicious bounded field would have set Touko's deductive gears in motion. That hadn’t happened. She allowed herself a small smile, suddenly aware of how uncharacteristically poor her progress had been.

    After an awkward pause, Shiki raised a hand and massaged the bridge of her nose.

    “Is this some kind of test? Look, the demon hybrid clans don’t like exposing themselves any more than we demon hunters do. So far this week, their kind have been involved in two deaths. I don’t need to tell you that that’s not normal.”

    Shiki crossed her arms; Touko could tell that she was impatient for a response, but her own train of thought took priority.

    Perhaps it’s a question of conflicting priorities: Shiki’s payoff is a confrontation with the people pursuing us, but the demons aren’t much more than a second-tier threat to me. I’d rather focus on…

    Sensing that she was losing the thread of the conversation, Touko lit another cigarette while mentally replaying Shiki’s words. If she's already set on going out tonight, better to send her off with the relevant facts.

    “I understand that the Ryougi don’t involve themselves with hands-on work anymore, but there are other families that do. The Demon Hunter Organization has had a busy two years, which means that anyone with ogre blood has a reason to stay inconspicuous. That’s what Tonami was up to when he was killed: for a keiretsu brat, it’s standard procedure to unwind with a call girl after a rough day in the boardroom.”

    “So you’re saying that since the Kugamine clan’s demon blood is thin, they would be smart enough to stay out of trouble.” Shiki then narrowed her eyes and leaned against the door. “But that doesn’t tell us much, Touko. Because if Tonami was such a boring guy, who’d want him dead?"

    The tobacco had had its desired effect: Touko was back in her element, wrapped up in her usual cloud of smoke and ideas.

    “In an ideal world, the same people who tried to kill us. We don’t have enough basis for that assumption yet, though, and I doubt the real situation is that convenient. We can’t rule out the more mundane motives, either: someone might have killed Tonami after a deal went sour, or because of some personal insult.”

    “If you want to call it a coincidence, go ahead,” Shiki replied as she opened the door for a second time.

    “Don’t expect me to come back before tomorrow morning.” With that, the door clicked shut.

    Touko surveyed her suddenly quiet office, taking note of two half-empty bowls of noodles. Cleaning up could wait, and not only because she was feeling the aftereffects of casting 40-odd spells earlier that day.

    This isn’t the same Shiki that surrendered five days ago. Not on the surface, anyway. But filling the hollow in a soul and compensating for it are two distinct responses. One can follow from the other, but they aren’t substitutes.


    Touko leaned back in her swivel chair and enjoyed a final breath of tobacco before sending her spent cigarette to join its brethren in the overflowing ashtray. Mentoring Shiki was supposed to have been a side project only—a fascinating one, yes, but still something ancillary. The Ryougi girl wasn’t a familiar like a certain wolf spirit she once knew, nor was she even an apprentice, but that didn’t matter. Shiki still occupied too many of Touko’s thoughts.

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

    It's been too long since I updated this, but putting the fic on hiatus did allow me to do some much-needed planning.
    Last edited by Highwayman; November 14th, 2012 at 03:20 PM.

  7. #27
    Κυρία Ἐλέησον Seika's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chacho View Post
    something ancillary
    It's been a while since I last saw this word. Just realised its etymology. Hm ... degrading or kinky?

    Anyway, silly Latin asides, er, aside, it's still good. Keep it up.
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  8. #28
    nicht mitmachen Dullahan's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Seika View Post
    It's been a while since I last saw this word. Just realised its etymology. Hm ... degrading or kinky?

    Anyway, silly Latin asides, er, aside, it's still good. Keep it up.
    I see where you're coming from (nudge nudge, wink wink).

    Anyway, another good update, Chacho. Your Touko and Ryougi are spot-on.
    すん
    そう
    しゅん


  9. #29
    Preformance Pertension SeiKeo's Avatar
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    So, so jealous of how you can do Touko.
    Quote Originally Posted by asterism42 View Post
    That time they checked out that hot guy they were just admiring his watch, yeah?


  10. #30
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    Quote Originally Posted by Seika View Post
    It's been a while since I last saw this word. Just realised its etymology. Hm ... degrading or kinky?
    ancula (genitive anculae); f, first declension: maidservant

    For some reason, I immediately imagined Ryougi as the maid.



    And thanks for the encouragement. I read Sol Stein's How to Grow a Novel (among other reference books) before writing this update, so it's good to hear that the quality of the fic is at least holding steady.

    So, so jealous of how you can do Touko.
    Says the guy with the Touko avatar! I like the image, by the way. It's your best one since "drunk chessboard" Shiki.

    In all seriousness, I wish I understood Ryougi as well as you do. Let's call it even.

    Your Touko and Ryougi are spot-on.
    That's my #1 concern in a story like this, so thanks. I'm still amazed at how well you write Touko's dialogue in MIAL.

  11. #31
    Κυρία Ἐλέησον Seika's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Chacho View Post
    ancula (genitive anculae); f, first declension: maidservant
    Classically, it was ancilla and ancilliary obviously takes its derivation from that more direct route. ancilla is also more bluntly 'slave-girl' as opposed to ancula. One of the first Latin words I ever learned.
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  12. #32
    Preformance Pertension SeiKeo's Avatar
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    How decidedly lewd.
    Quote Originally Posted by asterism42 View Post
    That time they checked out that hot guy they were just admiring his watch, yeah?


  13. #33
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    Quote Originally Posted by Seika View Post
    Classically, it was ancilla and ancilliary obviously takes its derivation from that more direct route. ancilla is also more bluntly 'slave-girl' as opposed to ancula. One of the first Latin words I ever learned.
    Damn, and I was so pleased to find a maid image, too.

    I should write a complaint to my junior high Latin teacher. Why didn't our classes cover any of the fun vocabulary words?

  14. #34
    Κυρία Ἐλέησον Seika's Avatar
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    I should write a complaint to my junior high Latin teacher. Why didn't our classes cover any of the fun vocabulary words?
    Not even the classic 'six high pine trees'? (That requires messing up your grammar to sound properly dirty in English, but never mind). Or the one that every Latin teacher must dread - Catullus' sixteenth poem.
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  15. #35
    夜魔 Nightmare Olive's Avatar
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    Nice chapter, great to see this still going.

    I don't have any experience trying to write Touko or Ryougi, but I can certainly imagine it being a challenge. Great work on them.

  16. #36
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    I'm going to lurk around on this thread. As practically everyone said, your characters are spot-on. The story itself is interesting as well. Good job!
    "Everything in creation is flawed. Humans don't need to be mentioned. Air, intent, and even time. My eyes can see the death of things. They're special, like yours. So I can kill anything that lives. Even if that thing is God."

    Spoiler:
    Quote Originally Posted by nununu View Post
    Australia sure has some mighty mojo, no?


    What Fate/Stay Night character are you?

    Emiya Shirou

    Mafia Game if interested





  17. #37
    死徒(下級)Lesser Dead Apostle
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    Chapter 4, Part II

    From her vantage point in front of the building’s plate-glass façade, Shiki could see two doormen ushering in one of the hotel’s guests. The refined cut of the tall man’s suit matched the hotel’s reputation, but he still seemed out of place. He looked tense even when seen from behind—in fact, both he and the doormen were moving mechanically.

    I guess he couldn’t cancel his reservation here, huh?

    In the time it took her to walk through the expansive front garden, she counted four people checking out of the Star-Continental and none checking in. From that admittedly unscientific sample, Shiki concluded that most of the hotel’s guests had decided to spend the summer evening elsewhere.

    Well, that’s no surprise: normal people find the idea of murder exciting, but their taste for it ends there. If a newspaper article about a gruesome crime shocks them, they might gossip about it with their friends. But when a killing happens in their own backyard? Forget it.

    The fact that she was walking toward the hotel entryway rather than away from it marked her as unusual, but noticing her own apartness was nothing new. Shiki understood that if Mikiya’s cousin Daisuke were here on police business, or if Touko had won their little argument and tagged along, neither would derive any visceral enjoyment from the particulars of Kugamine Tonami’s death. Tonight’s work would remain an unpleasant part of the job for Daisuke or Touko, nothing more.

    I can be damn sure that tonight wouldn’t be the highlight of their week.

    Shiki looked toward the garden’s reflecting pool and shook her head, making her roughly-cut hair a fraction messier. She recalled the words of her old martial arts instructors: first strive for clarity of thought, but make use of any extraneous emotions that remain. Could she put them into practice? Aggression could be channeled more productively than bitterness, but without an immediate target, summoning the right emotion proved difficult.

    Just who was I expecting to look back at me?

    No longer interested in the glass-smooth water, she continued walking toward the lobby’s doors. The older of the two attendants stepped forward to greet her but then pulled back, wisely deferring to the dark-haired woman. As she approached the check-in counter, she mentally rehearsed her plan: rent a suite for the night to avoid drawing suspicion, locate and survey the murder scene, then wait until morning for the murderer’s unlikely return. Perhaps the lure of the crime scene would prove too strong for him, and he would sneak back to some blood-spattered corner of the building and relive the excitement of the kill.

    After all, SHIKI couldn’t stay away from places like that.

    SHIKI had thrown that desire away. He had sacrificed himself, if not for Mikiya, then at least for Shiki’s chance at reaching the normalcy that Mikiya represented. Her disordered memories went that far. Yet in what Shiki considered one of life’s crueler jokes, the span that separated her world from Mikiya’s had widened. Her new eyes accounted for only a small stretch of that distance.

    SHIKI and I were cut from the same cloth. It’s something he understood, even if I wanted to pretend that suppressing the impulse to kill began and ended with denying SHIKI. Deny him, kill him over and over, and the desire could lie dormant for another day. That I saw the situation in violent terms should have tipped me off: SHIKI tilted toward murder more strongly than I did, but we both leaned in that direction.

    Without noticing it, her feet had carried her to the counter.

    “Good evening and welcome to the Continental. How may we be of service, miss?” The middle-aged attendant bowed and looked at her expectantly. He would have to wait.

    SHIKI’s absence is the reason why I’m alive and standing. It’s also the reason why I’m standing here, trying to satisfy a craving that’s better left unsatisfied.

    Shiki’s pulse quickened as she allowed her frustration to boil over into aggression.

    What SHIKI’s reasons were don’t matter. As long as I’m here, I’m going to hunt.

    ***

    If the attendant noticed anything odd about his guest’s vacant look, he didn’t show it. Shiki decided to get on with the transaction in order to keep things that way. She handed him a false ID along with one of the credit cards Touko had given her.

    “I need to rent an executive suite for the night. Is that a problem?” Her calm voice had a commanding edge to it. Growing up as the Ryougi successor had its uses.

    The man frowned, tenting his fingers.

    “Unfortunately, the top floor rooms are closed at the moment. Please accept our sincere apologies. May I offer you a suite on the next floor down?”

    And that’s all the confirmation I need.

    Shiki nodded in assent and accepted a room key that she had no intention of using. Her night would be spent on the hotel’s suspiciously-closed penthouse floor. Unless the Kugamine family had suffered some severe financial reversals, their heir would have insisted on the best.

    It did not take long for Shiki to reach her objective. She hadn’t noticed any surveillance cameras during her walk down the dimly-lit 19th floor hallway, which meant she could safely slice through the lock to room 19E. And while the police had pasted a No Entry notice on the door, they had taken no further action to secure the evidence within.

    The lock’s broken tumblers clinked apart, and Shiki swung the door open. What she saw after flipping on the lights struck her as an anticlimax: the serial killings two years prior had been much gaudier, much less sane. What lay before Shiki was clinical by comparison, as if the murderer were a surgeon sworn to do no harm to the contents of the suite aside from its human inhabitants. She surveyed the room: sleek lacquered dressers, a full-length mirror, some bottles of alcohol...and something white.

    A wide chalk outline near the minibar marked where Tonami had fallen. From the position of the blood stains relative to the chalk, she guessed that he had been stabbed in the chest. Her left boot crunched on something: a shard of glass. A meter away from the outline of Tonami’s arm, Shiki saw the remains of his final drink.

    It looks like Tonami didn’t even try to stop his own murderer. The two of them might have known each other; that’s why there wasn’t a struggle.

    Shiki filed this hypothesis away and stood back up, turning toward the room’s circular bed. Its sheets were tangled but clean: Tonami’s companion had been killed somewhere else. Shiki walked over to the bathroom door gingerly, careful to avoid disturbing any more evidence. The only sign of foul play was a reddish tint near the drain of the combination shower-bathtub. Committing the second murder inside the shower stall had made for easy cleanup while muffling the victim’s cries at the same time: it was a perfectly premeditated act.

    I have to give him credit: whoever did this was no amateur.

    The killer wasn’t some crazed psychopath, and that posed a problem: a genuine professional would not push his luck by returning to the hotel. Still, Shiki would wait on the off-chance that she had misjudged him. As she pulled her knife out of its hiding place in the front of her kimono, she noticed how light it felt, as if the brass handle were an extension of her hand.

    I’ll kill him. And if I don’t, that means he’s skilled enough to turn the tables on me. No matter how it plays out, I can't complain.

    ***

    “It is an extraordinary feature of perspective that it includes a finite point which represents infinity…”


    Touko idly paged through a back issue of one of her architectural journals, pausing to glance at two black-and-white diagrams of intersecting planes and cubes. The sunset was barely enough to comfortably read by. But the angle of the fading orange sunlight irritated Touko enough that she got up from her swivel chair and closed the blinds.

    Tch. Where was I?

    “Conversely, however, axonometry removes the vanishing point to infinity and thereby takes it out of the picture. For this reason it has been suggested that Lissitzky saw axonometry as a way by which we might apprehend infinity.”

    On a different night, she would have dismissed the old artist’s techniques as inadequate, perhaps amusingly so. Instead, Touko found herself in a more reflective mood.

    We’re limited by the tools we have at hand. Keeping historical context in mind, Lissitzky’s art did break new ground. The mages at the Association would disagree , but if Lissitzky saw something of the infinite in all of this, then who are we pass judgment on him? He was no further from ascension than we were.

    Without any warning, the phone on Touko’s desk rang. The caller ID system flashed a familiar name, eliciting a small sigh. Her contact at the police department had returned her call an hour late.

    She didn’t dislike Akimi Daisuke; actually, she respected how seriously the detective approached his job in spite of his outwardly casual demeanor. The amount of insider access that Akimi offered her was also difficult to replace. Like anything else valuable, though, that access came at a price.

    “Aozaki, it’s been a while. Taking your call would have been a nice break; the superintendent read me the riot act this afternoon. So all in all, just another day at the Metro PD.”

    As usual, Daisuke would be more willing to discuss his current cases if she found a way to improve his mood beforehand. It would be best to begin the call cheerfully before moving on to more serious business.

    “Oh, don’t worry about it. Hmm…that was the same superintendent you had a nickname for, wasn’t it? Let me see…you called him ‘Pensioner Maeno’ the last time we met.”

    This was one of the few personal details Touko recalled from their lunch date the previous month. Touko adjusted her glasses, preparing herself to sound more interested in Daisuke’s words than she actually was.

    “Yeah, that’s the one.” She could picture a crooked smile forming on his unshaven face. The appeal of a joke at a superior’s expense was universal.

    “The old man doesn’t interfere with detectives’ work as much as he used to. But today, I try to get an early start on investigating a double murder, and Maeno goes crazy. He tells me that he’s going to handle the case himself even though he hasn’t been in the field for years."

    Touko’s grip on the receiver tightened. During the time she had known him, Daisuke had always been first in line for the department’s most important cases. Shiki was right. The coincidences are accumulating too quickly. Unaware that he had said anything surprising, Daisuke continued.

    "He’s the kind of guy that outlines the vic’s body in chalk, like it was still standard procedure. Forensics will give him an earful for that.”

    I promised her a challenge, didn't I? And the best lessons are rooted in independent experience. Even so...

    With her free hand, Touko removed her glasses and folded the temples shut.

    “Leaving his skills aside, I take it that Maeno didn’t go over your head by accident. Can you think of any reason why he might not trust you? Or maybe it was a characteristic of the crime itself—the victims’ identities or the location.”

    Daisuke paused a moment. It was not obvious whether he was taking time to analyze the situation or if he was merely surprised at Touko’s insistence. When he finally began talking again, he spoke much more quietly.

    “If I had to guess, it wasn’t the superintendent’s idea. I’d like to say that no one is above the law, but Tonami was a Tohno first and a Kugamine second. It’s also an open secret that the Tohno family has ties to certain antisocial forces. If Tonami was involved with organized crime—I don’t have any proof of that, but let’s work under that assumption for now—then the Tohno family wouldn’t want us to look into the motive too closely. They might have asked Superintendent Maeno to keep the details of this case quiet to protect their reputation.”

    The temperature of the office seemed to drop by a few degrees. Although the Tohno family’s influence made Daisuke’s scenario plausible enough, Touko had thought of another possibility.

    “So Kugamine Tonami is dead, survived by a family with yakuza connections. And that isn’t the half of it. The Tohno themselves arranged it so that the lead investigator is an over-the-hill pencil pusher. Now step into Tohno Makihisa’s shoes. If you’re the Tohno family head, what’s the next logical move?"

    As she saw it, the Tohno had received carte blanche for indiscriminate revenge; that latitude might extend to setting a trap for Tonami’s assassin. Nothing compelled them to respect the country’s firearm laws either, not when one of their own had been slain and the authorities were compliant. Touko wondered how many armed opponents Shiki could handle simultaneously. It was a valid question: an inherited affinity against demons and a devastating advantage against magical constructs gave Shiki protection only to the extent that her enemies played by the same rules.

    Shiki might be the owner of the sharpest knife in a gunfight. I can’t forget that she has the eyes of a god but the body and reflexes of a human.

    With audible disgust, Daisuke gave her the answer she expected.

    “Well, I would look for payback as quickly and quietly as I could. Pulling the police off the case—or assigning the superintendent to it, which works out the same—gives the Tohno a free hand to operate. I don’t like it, but what can I do?”

    In other words, you aren’t willing to put your career on the line over this. Far be it from me to fault someone else’s pragmatism.


    “Anyway, Aozaki, you sound like you have more than a passing interest in this mess. My advice, from one detective to another? Stay away. You’ll live longer.”

    It’s not my safety that’s the issue. But I do appreciate the sentiment.

    “No one hired me to look into Kugamine’s death, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

    The haphazard array of clocks mounted on the opposite wall indicated that Shiki had left for the hotel an hour and a half prior. Fifteen minutes away by motorcycle. There’s still time. But before deciding to invade Shiki’s privacy, Touko wanted additional confirmation. The presence of a policeman at the hotel, even a corrupt one, would lower the chances that the Tohno were planning an ambush.

    “As a matter of professional curiosity, though, you have to admit it’s a fascinating crime. Even for someone like your superintendent. It wouldn’t shock me to learn that he was still at the hotel right now.”

    “Pensioner Maeno? He’s already done for the day. And I can’t blame him for leaving that hotel early. It’s a classy enough place on the outside, but it’s gang territory.”

    Touko got up and began putting on her coat while half-listening to Daisuke’s voice through the speakerphone. She opted against bringing the suitcase; it was conspicuous, and there was no easy way to carry it without attaching the sidecar. More than that, it was probably unnecessary. Perhaps a microcosm of this trip. I’ve seen what she’s capable of. I should just leave Shiki alone to do the job I hired her for.

    Then, although there wasn’t much humor in the situation, Touko grinned. With all the second-guessing now behind her, she felt alive.

    You must enjoy making me chase after you, Shiki. That must be it.

    Daisuke continued carrying on his half of the conversation.

    “There was probably a fly on the wall watching the superintendent’s every move while he was there. It’s enough to set anyone on edge.”

    It took a few moments for Daisuke to realize he was talking to air.

    __________________________________________________ _______________________________________

    I can't believe it's been two months since I updated this.

    My knowledge of architecture is not what it could be, so I had to use some direct quotes for the article Touko was reading in the middle of the chapter.
    The article was Proun: an exercise in the illusion of four-dimensional space by Richard J. Difford. It was published in the Journal of Architecture, Volume 2, Summer 1997.
    Last edited by Highwayman; January 28th, 2013 at 01:30 AM.

  18. #38
    nicht mitmachen Dullahan's Avatar
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    I'm green with envy as to how well you write Shiki and Touko. I wish I could do her as much justice in MIaL. A damn good update!
    すん
    そう
    しゅん


  19. #39
    死徒(下級)Lesser Dead Apostle
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    I might have said this before, but Touko's dialogue in MIaL was one of the inspirations that helped get Beyond Emptiness off the ground.

  20. #40
    Preformance Pertension SeiKeo's Avatar
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    Those internal monologues
    Quote Originally Posted by asterism42 View Post
    That time they checked out that hot guy they were just admiring his watch, yeah?


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