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Thread: Secret Santa Contest (2019) Entries

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    woolooloo Kirby's Avatar
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    Secret Santa Contest (2019) Entries

    Christmas has terminated. Fanfics shall begin.

    Voting will begin in about a week, on New Year's. Each fic will have the prompt at the end, in a spoiler tag. Both the prompts and fics will remain anonymous, for now.

    The Wall of Shame, for the first time ever, is empty!

    Table of Contents:

    Last edited by Kirby; December 25th, 2019 at 05:36 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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    woolooloo Kirby's Avatar
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    Eyes

    "There's something wrong with this town."

    I couldn't help but burst out laughing when I heard that, though seeing the serious expression on his face, I quickly tried to cover it up with a cough. Too late, evidently, as he turned to look at me with a frown.

    "What, you don't think so?"

    "Of course there's something wrong with this town," I answered, rolling my eyes to avoid meeting his gaze. "And there's something wrong with the next town over, and with Japan, and with the whole world."

    "That's not what I meant," he muttered under his breath, turning his attention back to his shoes.

    A soft evening light filled the park around us. With the sun only a few inches above the horizon, most of the town was cast in shadows at this point, but whether by some point of genius design or sheer coincidence, the suburban landscape surrounding it opened just enough to let the evening sun illuminate it clearly.

    Though calling it a park was a bit of a stretch. Sure, it had the pair of swings we were now sitting on, and it had a small sandbox for kids. The rest was just grass and a couple trees, a rare enough sight in our town, but altogether I would have been surprised if the whole park was twenty steps across.

    That being said, it was small enough to not be all that popular, and that made it a good haven for us after school, looking for any excuse to avoid heading home.

    "I heard people have been going missing," he muttered again, his tone making me feel guilty again for having laughed at him.

    "Who?" I decided to indulge him.

    "I don't know."

    "And who told you?"

    "The other guys at school."

    I gave him a flat look, though he was still too interested in his shoes to notice it.

    "Rumors about people going missing, from the kids at school. Sounds like a classic urban legend. Let me guess, the people disappearing are all around our age, too?"

    He suddenly snapped his head up, shaking his head vigorously. "No, actually. The people disappearing are supposed to be entire families."

    "Entire families? That's just ridiculous. Even if just one whole family disappeared, the police would be all over it."

    "...and haven't you seen a lot of police around recently?"

    At that I paused. Stopping to think about it, we did come across a police car on the way here after school today. Had we seen one yesterday too? Maybe. Or maybe I was just remembering something that didn't happen, because Haru had mentioned it.

    "I guess we're safe then," I answered instead, "as long as we don't go home."

    Haru frowned, indicating I had most definitely said something I shouldn't have.

    "Kana..."

    "Shut it," my reply was instant.

    "...was it really that bad?"

    "None of your business."

    I wanted to say so much more, but forced my mouth shut anyways.

    "...can I see it?"

    Turning slowly, I gave him a sidelong glare, but for once he returned my angry look with a look so determined it was almost defiant.

    After a long moment, I finally gave up. With a dejected sigh, I swung my backpack around to my front and began digging through it.

    It was a long time coming, honestly. Though I doubt he would ever admit it, this was the only reason he had come here with me today.

    I knew he'd rather be with his other friends, doing whatever it is boys do after school. He'd rather be at home, basking in the praise of his family. He'd rather be anywhere else, doing anything else. But instead he was stuck here with me.

    Pulling out a paper envelope from my bag, I threw it on the ground in front of him. Or at least I tried to, as he snatched it out of the air.

    I couldn't tell you why, but he always acted like this. Like he was somehow responsible for me. Whenever he thought I was having a bad day, whenever he thought I needed the company, he would drop everything to come and sit here with me. We'd talk for hours and hours about anything. The dumb things his friends did at school. The stupid homework we had to do before tomorrow. Games, TV, books, local rumors. Anything at all.

    Anything at all, except for this. But I guess now the time had come.

    Out of the corner of my eye, I watched him open the envelope and glance over the report inside it. He wasted no time looking over the grades that made up most of it - he knew exactly what they were going to be, and the bare minimum of attention he paid to them was enough to prove that his expectations were correct.

    But at the very end, he stopped. His face betrayed nothing, but the way his eyes fixed to the bottom of the page, I knew exactly what he was looking at.

    Finally, he turned to look at me, disbelief barely showing through his poker face.

    "That can't be right." Apparently, he took the flat look I gave in response to be a prompt to continue. "There can't be nothing! No matter what your grades say, everyone knows you're not an idiot. There has to be somewhere you can go, right?!"

    I shrugged. "The teachers obviously don't agree." As he continued to stare at me in disbelief, I took the paper out of his hands, returning it to its envelope and the envelope to my bag.

    "Did they say anything to you about it?" he continued, still incredulous. That was something I could always count on. No matter what I showed him, I knew he wouldn't judge me. When I had my angry outbursts, he'd scold me like he was my dad. But when it was something like this, he'd bend over backwards to find someone else to blame.

    "They said, 'maybe High School isn't for you,'" I said flatly, checking my phone for the time. It was well past five at this point. Even though home was only ten minutes away from here, it would likely be totally dark by the time I got there at that point. My parents would be furious about that.

    Ignoring the eighteen messages and six missed calls, I slid my phone back into my pocket.

    Turning back to Haru's incredulous expression, I spoke again. "Anyways, it's getting pretty late. I should get going. Thanks for hanging out." With a half-hearted wave, I left the park, speechless Haru just watching me from where he sat on the swings.

    I could hardly blame him for being so shocked. Everyone went through high school. Everyone. But on the report I showed him, the last grade report we'd get before we started applying for High School ourselves, that box at the end had been left conspicuously blank.

    Of course, the grades throughout the whole report were terrible. Though I tried my best in class, and if forced to assess myself would say I understood most of what was taught, I just couldn't stand tests. Doing homework at home, or studying in class, I'd do fine. But once that paper was in front of me, once the clock had started and the class descended into silence, my brain just turned off. Even if I understood everything on it, I don't think I had scored higher than twenty percent on a test since the beginning of the year - and that twenty had been an outlier.

    So when the grade reports had been handed out, and the teachers had to write what local schools they recommended I apply to, they had just left it blank. High school isn't for you, they said. Find another way, they said.

    Though I was well aware that my grades were terrible, even I thought there had to be somewhere I could go. There must be some school that would take complete dropouts like me. But apparently the teachers disagreed. So now here I was, trudging my way home in the dark, trying to figure out how I would explain that to my parents.

    They knew, of course, that I sucked at school. But that wouldn't stop them from being furious once I showed them the report. And unlike Haru, they would have no qualms with dropping the blame squarely on my shoulders.

    That was why we had spent so much time at the park. I don't know if Haru only wanted to help me stall for time, or if he thought he could somehow make the reveal easier by talking about it with me beforehand, but either way my goal of not going home had been accomplished.

    And it wasn't like the time wasted had been useless. Beneath the current of our meaningless conversation, I had in fact come up with a strategy to deal with things at home. And believe it or not, getting home two hours late was part of that strategy.

    After dragging out the ten minute walk to fifteen minutes, I finally arrived at home. Never before had this tiny little house seemed so foreboding. Despite being two stories, it still felt particularly cramped for our family of five, but even that wasn't something I normally felt a need to complain about. No, what was scary about this house tonight was the inevitable conversations that waited inside.

    Putting my hand on the door, I stopped.

    Deep breath.

    Head up.

    Chin out.

    After taking a short moment to shore up my resolve, I pushed the door open.

    And was immediately greeted by the face of my mother glaring down at me.

    "Where on earth have you been?!" I could almost feel the rest of the house grind to a halt as she shouted.

    Looking up at her with the best expression of innocent ignorance I could manage, I answered. "At school?"

    "At school my foot! Do you have any idea what time it is?!" As she yelled, I turned to close and lock the door behind me. And though it took every ounce of self-restraint I had, I answered her again in a level, almost demure voice.

    "I don't know what you want me to say. I finished class. Then the teacher stopped me after school to talk to me about my Report Card." Then I spent two hours in the park talking to Haru. "Then I came home. And here we are."

    The look of confusion that struck my mother then made me want to burst out laughing. Ah, Haru had been right. Whenever my mother yelled at me for anything, my fault or not, I always just instinctively responded in kind. Now that I was answering her anger with calm, she didn't know what to do.

    After taking a moment to recover, however, she continued with her yelling. "You expect me to think they kept you for two hours?"

    I shrugged. "I'm not the only student in the school, Mom." I had almost chided myself for celebrating too early, but once again I could practically see her reeling internally from my calm reply. That stunned look quickly dropped into one of suspicion, though I could tell she didn't know quite what was wrong yet.

    "Well, let's see it then," finally she spoke in an indoor voice.

    As nonchalantly as I could, I took off my backpack and began searching through it. Of course, I knew exactly where the Report Card was, having just put it back after showing it to Haru, but I was sure she wouldn't mind waiting a bit. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my little brother peaking his head around the corner, watching us with a concerned look.

    Pulling the envelope from my bag, I handed it over, giving my brother a nod small enough that my mom wouldn't notice while she was opening the Report Card. Nodding back, he ducked away. And with timing that I couldn't have planned if I had tried, he shouted from the other room just before my mother could read anything on the paper in her hands.

    "Mom!"

    She caught herself before rolling her eyes. "I'm busy talking to your sister!"

    "Cool," his response came back. "I think the food's burning though!"

    She jumped with a start, giving me a glare over her shoulder as she rushed to the kitchen as if it was my fault. "This conversation isn't over!"

    "Pretty sure it is," I said, turning around to hide my smile as I bent down to take off my shoes.

    "Oh no it's not!" She stopped, turning to shake the paper in her hands at me. "You're not getting a bite of dinner until we've talked about this!"

    "Deal," I said under my breath as she stormed out of sight. Once I was sure she was gone, I picked up my shoes off the floor and made my way into the house. As I passed the room my brother was in, he poked his head out again.

    "Bad day?" he said quietly, looking behind me to make sure our mother hadn't come back yet.

    With a tired sigh, I used my free hand to pat him on the head. "You are too good for this world, Ken. Thanks."

    "Going somewhere?" he said, eyeing the shoes in my other hand.

    "Mom said no dinner for me tonight, so I guess I'll have to go get something myself. Anything you want while I'm out?"

    His face lit up. "Anything chocolate sounds good." Giving him a thumbs up and a wink, I continued on, making my way to my room.

    Gently closing the door behind me, I dropped my shoes and my bag onto the floor before dropping myself face-first onto my bed.

    Normally that was the part where I would have started screaming into my pillow, but today my anger felt much more muted. Probably overshadowed by the runaway success of the previous conversation.

    I didn't have to talk about the Report Card at all.

    No accusations of slacking off in school.

    No comparisons to my sister.

    No threats to punish me for things I couldn't change.

    I expected the conversation to progress much further, but luckily Ken was there for the save.

    Sitting up, I looked around the room, savoring the victory - as short-lived as it would be. It wouldn't take all that long before my mother came storming back in here, and we'd start all over.

    While this room was the best thing I had for a refuge in the house, it wasn't particularly great. I didn't need all that much space, so the room for a bed, a desk, and a chest of drawers was enough. But with no lock on the door, I hardly had any privacy. And with the living room only one wall away, the incessant murmur of the TV reminded me I was never quite as alone as I wanted to be. And even at night, when everyone was asleep, I still had to worry about the janky window with the lock that always looked closed, but was more than happy to open anyways. Being on the first floor, that meant I spent just about as many nights sleeping under my bed as on top of it.

    No, there was a much better place for me outside.

    Though I probably should have rushed, I took my time changing out of my uniform. After she finished dealing with whatever emergency was or wasn't in the kitchen, she would likely want to work herself up into a frenzy over my Report Card before she charged in here. Meaning I probably had a few minutes.

    Once changed, I took my phone from my uniform pocket and slipped it into a more useful one. I then popped open my wallet - not great inside, but enough for tonight - dropping it into my pocket as well as I slipped on my shoes. I then carefully slid the window open and hopped outside. Sliding it shut again, I checked to make sure the lock at least looked like it was in place, before I headed out into the street.


    *************


    With a yawn, I crumpled up the garbage from my convenience store dinner before throwing it back in the plastic bag it had come in.

    Making a mental note not to forget it, since it still held a couple of chocolate bars I had picked up for my brother, I set it on the ground beside me.

    I had completely lost track of time since I had left my house. I hadn't been all that hungry at first, so I wandered off around the nearest train station where there was a bit more energy than our suburban neighbourhood. All the while, I kept an eye out for Haru's police that had apparently been out in force, but as I thought, I didn't see a single one. Once my stomach was finally in the mood for refilling, I dropped into the first convenience store I found, grabbed a couple rice balls, and made my way back to the park.

    Taking my time eating, I enjoyed the evening atmosphere. The park itself was small enough that it didn't have its own light, meaning most of it was just illuminated by streetlights. There was one convenient blindspot, however, overlapping almost exactly with the swingset I was now sitting on, meaning passers-by wouldn't notice me unless they were actively searching through the park.

    The harsh white light of the streetlights, melding with the heavy darkness that wrapped around me where I sat made me feel many times safer than my house ever did. Invisible in the dark, light all around me to reveal anyone who tried to approach. That feeling of being able to see the world, but the world being unable to see me, was almost intoxicating.

    The best part, of course, was that no one knew to find me here. Except for maybe Haru, while my family knew I often snuck out at night, they had never managed to figure out exactly where I went. I hadn't even told Ken, not that he would have ratted on me if I did.

    I felt a little bad for him. In just a few months, he'd be enrolling in the same hell - I mean Junior High School that I was about to leave. As his older sister, I felt bad letting him go into that mess. Though he wasn't half as dumb as I was, so he probably wouldn't have nearly as bad a time of it as I did.

    That's Kana for you, though. The idiot middle child of the Kurahashi family. Spends four hours a day studying, and celebrates if she can manage double digits on her tests. Teaches all her friends when they don't understand, but couldn't write a birthday card if it was being graded.

    Lightly I slapped myself on the cheek. I'd get enough of that when I got home, no need to bring it up now.

    Speaking of judging myself, I remembered suddenly the events from the park earlier. A new wave of guilt washed over me as I recalled the astonished look on Haru's face as I left him behind, barely giving him so much as a goodbye. No matter how upset I was at the time - and no matter how much it was his fault - thinking back on it now, it seemed a little uncalled for.

    Pulling my phone out of my pocket, as I flicked on the screen my eyebrows shot up.

    Apparently I had been walking around town a lot longer than I thought I had. It was just before nine o'clock now, meaning I had left home over three hours ago. While I knew I hadn't been paying attention to the time, I hadn't expected it to be anywhere close to that late.

    Beyond that, perhaps even more surprising.

    18 new messages, 6 missed calls.

    The same as before.

    I had been gone for over three hours, and I didn't have a single new message from anyone.

    Maybe they're happy I ran away after seeing that Report Card, I thought with a mean-spirited giggle as I dismissed them all and shot Haru a text.

    -Sorry I ditched you at the park earlier.
    Was pretty upset, but didn't mean to be mean.


    His reply came back so fast it was almost concerning.

    -Np! Everything ok at home?

    -I'll let you know when I get there. ;)

    I couldn't help but laugh at the disappointed-face emoji he sent back.

    Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone walking up the street beside the park, so I turned off the screen of my phone. It made me feel like a five year old, trying to hide from random strangers in the park at night, but if no one saw me, there was no one to judge me either. Everyone needed their own little guilty pleasures after all, right?

    Watching the stranger walk up the street, I frowned as he stopped in front of one of the houses. I had no idea who lived there, or who he was, but the way he looked over the house was immediately suspicious. Being the only house on the street with all the lights off, I immediately heard alarm bells in my head as he started peaking in windows, giving each of them a gentle rattle to see if they opened. When they didn't, he walked over to the front door.

    Though I was far enough away it didn't matter, I pressed my hands over my mouth. Was I witnessing a live burglary? It was hard to see, as the lights from the street didn't reach the house, so the man was entirely in the dark, but I could barely tell he rustled around in his pockets for something, and then watched him fiddle with the door a bit. Almost immediately, the door swung open, and he tiptoed inside, closing it gently behind him.

    Dropping my hands into my lap, I let out the breath I hadn't known I was holding. There was no way it was a burglary. With how fast he opened that door, he must have had a key. There was no way someone could pick a lock that fast.

    ...could they?

    Though he had gone inside, none of the lights in the house turned on. One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes. No lights came on, no indication that anyone was home. Either he had fallen asleep on the floor immediately after walking in, or he was trying to be sneaky inside. The more I thought about it, the more I was sure something untoward was going on.

    After a little more than five minutes, the front door creaked open, and I saw the same man step outside.

    Definitely. He was definitely doing something illegal. Unlocking my phone again, I switched to the camera. I wouldn't be able to take any pictures without him noticing, but if I recorded a video, maybe I could catch a glimpse of his face as he stepped into the lights on the street. Then I could send that to the police.

    Closing the door behind him, he slowly made his way back to the sidewalk. Perfect, right where I needed him to go. Once he was a couple steps away from the pool of light of the closest lamp, I tapped the record button-

    -and a flash of blinding light filled the air.

    Instantly, my heart jumped into my throat. I had hit the wrong button.

    I missed the record button, and hit the button to take a photo.

    As I saw his face snap in my direction, I immediately jumped to my feet and sprinted away. Through the dark, as much as I could, before I hit a parallel street to the one he was on, and then I ran as hard as I could.

    Every second that passed, the fear clenching my throat tightened.

    In that split second of light, I saw him clearly. A young man, perhaps college age, with a moderately attractive face and a healthy build. If that had been all, maybe I would have stopped and tried to hide. But I noticed two very, very important details on top of that.

    The first, his eyes were entirely wrapped in bandages. Had he just had surgery on his eyes? He seemed to get around just fine with his eyes covered, making me wonder if he was actually blinded by those bandages, or if he could somehow see through them.

    And the second. In his hand, the object he had pulled from his pocket. Not a key at all, but a knife.

    Streaked thickly red.

    With a combination of my desperate sprint and the terror choking me, every step made it harder and harder to breathe. But as if unaware of my desperately struggling lungs, my legs propelled me down the street as fast as humanly possible.

    I was not a runner. I was distinctly below average in PE. But if anyone from my class had seen me tearing through the night streets at that time, I might have gotten into High School on a Track and Field scholarship alone.

    I had no idea if the man was following me, nor did I have the composure to check. Neither was my brain able to process what I had seen. But the image of that bloody knife was burned into my eyes. Everywhere I looked I saw it - that, and those masked eyes turning to look at me.

    I had to get away. I had to get anywhere. Anywhere where I wasn't alone. I had to scream, but I didn't have the breath.

    Before I even realized where I was going, I saw my house come into view. And once I stepped onto the property, it felt like everything that had been pushing me so hard to run disappeared.

    Struggling to stay on my feet, I suddenly became keenly aware of the burning pain in my chest. Had I the breath to do so, I would have breathed a sigh of relief as I stumbled my way to the door.

    ...which was open.

    Immediately, the feeling of safety, of having made it home, was replaced by alarm.

    Quickly, I looked around. My dad's car was home, so it didn't look like anyone had gone out. But now that I looked, all the lights in the windows were out as well. No one in my family would leave the door wide open like that, not with the way my mother shrieked when we just forgot to lock it.

    A brand new terror burst to life in my chest, once again warring with my desperate lungs.

    No more messages. No more missed calls. No lights on at home, with the front door wide open.

    ...and that man, with that blood-stained knife, had definitely come from this direction.

    No, actually. The people disappearing are supposed to be entire families...

    Was that why he was near the park? Looking for me?

    Looking to finish the job?

    Leaning on the door frame to help support my weight, I tried to quietly step into the house - an attempt ruined by my ragged breathing, I only noticed once I had made it inside. All the lights inside were off, but I still heard the soft chatter of the TV in the other room. Sliding along the wall to keep myself standing, I made my way to the living room and, after taking a moment to steel myself, peaked through the door.

    Once again, I would have sighed with relief, had I the breath to do so. Though I couldn't make out any detail in the soft light of the TV, I could clearly see four people. Ken, my sister, and both my parents. It looked like all of them had fallen asleep watching TV.

    "Geez. It's not that late, what are you guys sleeping for?" Though I muttered it under my breath, the moment I had finished speaking, one of the sleeper's heads snapped in my direction.

    Though I couldn't see anything, once again alarm bells rung.

    As the person - my father, I thought - scrambled to their feet, I instinctively jumped back from the door, heading back down the hallway to the front entrance. At this point, with my emotions having ridden such a roller coaster to get here, I couldn't feel anything but bewilderment as what definitely looked like my father stumbled out of the living room in front of me.

    What looked like my father. Because, now illuminated in the light cast by the TV in the other room, it was clear he wasn't.

    Because my father wasn't missing his left hand.

    My father didn't wear clothes soaked in his own blood.

    My father didn't have a gash wide enough for my hand to fit into in his neck.

    And my father, had he all of those characteristics, wouldn't have been able to stumble towards me, with nothing but unrestrained hunger in his eyes.

    As the walking corpse impersonating my father lurched towards me, I turned and ran. Back to the entrance.

    I made it all of three steps before freezing again.

    Standing in the doorway was that man. Bandages covering his eyes, blood-slick knife in hand, he was already barreling down the hallway towards me.

    At that moment, I felt my brain short circuit.

    Too much. This is too much.

    I couldn't breathe. I couldn't think. I couldn't move.

    I could feel my brain switching off as my legs collapsed out from under me. I couldn't even bring my arms up to cover my head as I fell to the floor.

    The last thing I saw before I completely passed out was the bandage around the serial killer's eyes coming slightly unravelled, a single shimmering blue eye streaking through the darkness.


    ***********


    A dull, mid-morning light greeted me when I finally awoke.

    Though I felt like I probably should have been panicking, I found myself strangely calm as I opened my eyes, turning to look out the window beside me. Though it was hard to tell behind the overcast sky, it was at least well into the morning. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I recalled that it was the weekend, and so I hadn't missed any school by oversleeping. What a shame.

    The next thing I noticed, something I probably should have noticed first, was the cat sitting just outside my window. Though it was obviously watching me, the moment I made eye contact it seemed to lose interest, hopping off the window sill and out of sight. While it wasn't particularly unusual to see stray cats around my neighbourhood, they didn't usually spy on me while I was sleeping. And besides, the cute little ribbon it wore, combined with the soft tinkling of the bells hung around its neck when it moved, seemed to indicate it wasn't a stray at all.

    As strange as that was, being spied on by a cat was the least of my worries at the moment. As I sat up in bed, the oddities of my situation rolled over me one by one.

    The last thing I remembered was collapsing in the hallway, so why was I asleep in bed?

    If I had just gone to bed and forgotten, why wasn't I in my pajamas?

    If I had been running away from that guy with the knife, why was he just nonchalantly sitting in my bedroom?

    ...and why was I not scared of that at all?

    For a while, I watched the man sitting on my floor, back against the wall. He wasn't moving at all, and he still had those bandages completely covering his eyes, so it was hard to tell if he was even awake. The fact that he hadn't reacted to me waking up made me think he wasn't, though I didn't really have the energy to push my luck and try and sneak past him at the moment.

    With a heavy sigh, I flopped back onto my bed. Clearly something had messed up my brain the night before. Here I was, sleeping not ten feet away from someone who looked every bit a serial killer, and I felt nothing.

    No fear, no panic, no anger. Just...empty.

    Though I was asleep the whole time, it felt like last night had lasted forever. Like all the feelings had been wrung out of me while I slept, and now I was just an empty shell.

    Even now, as the serial killer beside me stirred to wakefulness, I couldn't bring myself to panic.

    "Good morning," I called out from my bed, turning over only enough to see the man's reaction.

    Which was, of course, impossible. With his eyes covered by those bandages, he could have been still asleep for all I knew. I was beginning to think that was the case when he didn't respond, but after a long pause, he finally spoke.

    "...are you okay?"

    Had I not been feeling so lethargic, I might have laughed at that. As it was, I settled for rolling my eyes. "Well, that's kind of up to you to decide, isn't it?"

    Despite his eyes being covered, he looked away. "Don't worry. I'm not here to hurt you."

    Well that raises all sorts of questions, I thought to myself. "Pretty bold of you to come into a girl's room uninvited, then," I said instead.

    Finally, he gave a wry smile, the first expression I could actually see on his face. "I figured you'd prefer not to wake up alone, considering...what happened last night."

    Pushing myself up again, I moved to sit on the edge of my bed. As much as I tried, it was hard to recall exactly what had happened the night before. While I could put it in words - I had come home, was attacked by some zombie-looking thing, and then this guy showed up and I passed out - recalling the images was actually quite difficult.

    "I take it you saved me, then?" I muttered. "Thanks, I guess."

    His smile seemed to widen at my noncommittal appreciation. "My pleasure. My name is Shiki. Circumstances aside, it's nice to meet you."

    Turning a suspicious look on him, I ignored the unspoken invitation to introduce myself. "So if you're not here to hurt me, why did you follow me home?"

    Grabbing a plastic bag on the floor beside him, he tossed it over to me. "You forgot this at the park last night. I was just going to leave it in your mailbox, since you seemed pretty unhappy to see me. Something seemed very off when I got there though, so I wanted to make sure you were okay."

    Something in my head clicked off as the bag landed in my lap. I didn't need to look to know there were two chocolate bars inside. As he said, I must have forgotten them in the park when I ran home the night before.

    "I guess it's a bit late for the midnight snack you were planning," he said, "but I figured you'd rather have them back."

    Slowly, I shook my head. Gently, I took the plastic bag in my hands, wrapping it tightly around the candy inside, clutching it tight to keep my hands from shaking.

    Finally, something was starting to break through the swamp of apathy in my brain.

    "...these were for my brother," I whispered.

    The silence that followed was enough of an answer to the question I was too afraid to ask.

    I didn't know what happened here last night. But the result was easy enough to guess from what little I saw.

    I was completely alone now. Once the serial-killer-looking guy left, there would be only me left in this house. As the waters rose, beginning to drown out the swamp, I felt myself start to sink all over again.

    "I imagine you're pretty hungry," Shiki said, reaching for the door. Apparently at some point he had stood up. "I'll go get you something to eat. I'll be back in a minute."

    As the door closed behind him, the rising waters surged forward, and the swamp was washed away.


    *******


    "So wait, was that actually a zombie or not?" Speaking around a mouthful of food, I posed the question for the third time.

    Though it had taken me a bit longer to recover than I would have liked to admit, the sudden breakdown upon being reminded of my brother came as a relief. It was a bit embarrassing to have such an outburst in front of a stranger, but considering the circumstances, I felt like it was well earned. I had been much more worried about the pervasive numbness I had been feeling before, so finally breaking through that made the whole situation feel...a lot more real.

    Even then, there was a lot less shock than I had expected. The fact I was able to sit here and calmly discuss the situation still had a bit of an unnatural feeling to it, like a great deal of time had passed between now and last night that I wasn't aware of. But having even that small amount of control made things much easier, especially, it seemed, for Shiki.

    "Well...zombie isn't really the right word," he said, scratching the back of his head behind the bandages. "Undead, I suppose. But even then, they are more like puppets than the monsters you would see in movies."

    Putting aside that I had seen plenty of movies where 'puppets' were in fact the monsters, I pressed on. "If they are puppets, who is controlling them?"

    Once again, Shiki averted his eyes despite the fact they were covered. I was beginning to think he could see through those bandages after all.

    "I don't know precisely..." he hesitated, as he had for the entire conversation. He didn't seem thrilled to be sharing the information with me, but he also seemed a bit too good-natured to leave me entirely in the dark. "...but at the very least, we can be sure it's a vampire."

    Despite what I had seen with my own eyes the night before, I still felt at times like he was messing with me. "Right. A vampire that attacks people with zombie puppets. Why didn't I think of that." My flat tone was hopefully sufficient to communicate I wasn't entirely sure he wasn't.

    "To be honest, I don't know all that much about them myself," he said, his tone suddenly defensive. "Vampires kill people to feed on them, then turn them into undead puppets. Then they use the puppets to gather more food so they don't have to put themselves at risk."

    Still watching him with a frown, I took a sip of the bottled tea he had brought me with breakfast. It had only been a few odd pieces of food that had been lying around the house anyways, but it's the thought that counts I guess.

    "And that's why you're here? In town, I mean. You're chasing this vampire?"

    "No, actually...well, yes in a way. Not really, but kind of. Yes and no?"

    Nodding, I packed up the garbage from breakfast. "Right. Got it. Crystal clear."

    After talking to him for a short while, I was slowly starting to pick up on reading his facial expressions through his eye bandages. Now, he seemed superbly defeated.

    "I'm actually here looking for...a friend. Who she is isn't really important, but she tends to show up where strong vampires do, so I figured I might find her here."

    "So she's some sort of vampire hunter?" I said, my voice a little less convinced than I had intended. "And you're here because of the vampire that she's chasing?"

    "...I guess you could call her a vampire hunter," he said, a strange undercurrent of nerves in his tone. "But it's not about one vampire. This town...I'm sure you've heard lots of rumors going around, haven't you? About people going missing, or some sort of serial murders taking place?"

    "I guess you could say that," I said dryly, memories of my conversation with Haru yesterday jumping to the front of my mind. "Are you saying those are true? And they're caused by a vampire?"

    Shiki shook his head. "Not a vampire. Three of them."

    With the way he spoke, it sounded like that was supposed to be where the 'dun dun dun' went, but as far as I was concerned the difference between one and three wasn't especially big. One seemed plenty enough to have me worried.

    "And your friend is going to do something about them?"

    Though I'd be ashamed to admit it later, there was very little concern in my voice. Rather than fear about what these vampires might do if left to their own devices, I was hungry to hear something more.

    That punishment was coming for them.

    "...I hoped so," Shiki answered quietly, "but it's starting to look a lot less likely."

    "So what, we're just supposed to wait around for them to kill us all?" I said, the bitterness in my voice surprising me.

    At that, Shiki slowly shook his head. "No, we can't afford to wait any more."

    With those words, I felt a fire light inside me.

    "I was being cautious before," he continued, "trying to avoid giving myself away. But they've gotten too bold, too aggressive. If I don't do something about them now..."

    Jumping forward, I slammed my hands on the floor in front of where he was sitting. "Let me help!"

    Despite his eyes being covered, the surprise was clear on his face. "W-what?"

    "You're going to go kill those vampires, right?" I said, unmoving. "The ones that...did that to my family? I want to help!"

    Shiki stared at me for a while, his expression unreadable behind those damn bandages.

    "You know I can't let you do that," he finally said with a sigh. "I can't guarantee I'll be safe. There's no way I could guarantee I could keep you safe as well."

    "I don't care!" I shouted back, letting the fire in my gut fill my voice. "I don't care if I get hurt, or if you just use me as bait, or whatever! I just want to help!"

    "Even if it means you will certainly die?" In contrast, his voice dropped to a frigid cold. "Even if I guarantee, no matter what happens, you will definitely die?"

    Taken aback by his sudden shift in tone, I leaned back to sit properly on the floor.

    A part of me knew that he was obviously right. What could I even do? I was just some random kid, only interested in fighting because I was angry. Because I didn't know what else I could even do. All I would do is get in the way.

    But no amount of that kind of thinking made the fire in my stomach recede. And its voice was as a silent roar.

    So what if I died? School didn't want me, nor did it care what happened to me. My family was gone.

    What difference did it make if I died too?

    "I want to help," I said again, much quieter but still forceful. "They k...they got my family. I refuse to let them go free."

    "But are you willing to die for that revenge?" he said again, the ice in his voice less intimidating the second time.

    "I have no intention of dying," I said, not bothering to think whether that was true or not, "but if that's what it takes...then yes."

    For a long moment, he just watched me, saying nothing.

    I knew that it was a mistake. That he shouldn't let me help him at all. That I would regret it if given any time to think about it, and that I would change my mind.

    That's why I had to decide now, why I had to commit now. Before I had thought it through. Otherwise, who knew what that fire inside would do to me?

    Eventually, he dropped his head with a sigh. "One condition."

    "Done."

    "...you do exactly as I say, no matter what. Even if that means you never even see the vampire."

    Even as he explained, I was already moving. Looking for a new outfit that would be more appropriate for hunting monsters. My head racing, thinking of what weapons there were around the house I could be useful with. Wracking my brain, trying to think of what you needed to kill a vampire in the first place.

    Somewhere inside, part of me was laughing. What was I but just some dumb middle school kid? There was nothing I could do against a vampire. And Shiki had even said it almost as plain as could be that I wouldn't actually be involved in the fight.

    But that didn't matter. As long as that fire still burned inside, keeping the grief at bay, I would do everything in my power to take that vampire down. To get revenge.

    It could kill me and drink every last drop of blood I had for all I cared. I would just burn it to death from the inside out.


    ************


    The rest of the day passed with agonizing slowness.

    By the time we had finished eating 'breakfast,' it was already past eleven. And while I had been ready to go right at that moment, Shiki was quick to deflate me.

    We can't do anything until sundown, since we don't know where the vampire's lair is.

    After that, and an unnecessarily long explanation about the plan for that night, Shiki had left.

    He spent a lot of time explaining, but the plan was really fairly straight forward. Make sure I leave the house exactly one time during the day, and then return. Then meet him at the park just as the sun set. He also made it abundantly clear that I was welcome to back out at any time, to run away and hide anywhere I could find with other people.

    That had given me an unfortunately long period of time in which to think of what exactly I had signed up for.

    The biggest question I had was, if we didn't know where the vampire was during the day, how would we find it at night? Would we just wander around town, hoping we stumble on it while it's eating some other family? And if, like he said before, it just sent its zombies out to gather food, it would be impossible for us to find it. The endeavour just seemed...hopeless.

    Maybe I was just thinking about it wrong. I was under the assumption that we were going to go kill it tonight, that it would be a one-and-done affair. Maybe that wasn't the case at all. Maybe tonight was just an investigation, trying to find clues as to the vampires whereabouts. Significantly less exciting, but a tad more realistic, I guess.

    The second question I had was, why was he so willing to let me help?

    He had to know I was just going to be a burden. What could I do against a vampire? An actual monster? I would probably die to the first one of those zombie things that came my way, if Shiki didn't come and save me first. And he was so gentle, so concerned about my well-being despite never having met me before. Why was he so willing to put me in harm's way?

    The only thing I could think of was...maybe he understood. How I felt. How much I needed that revenge. How I would never be able to sleep again with that fire burning in my gut, and that the only way to put it out was with vampire blood.

    ...did vampire's bleed? Nevermind. Off topic.

    The only other explanation I could think of was that he actually just didn't care if I died. Maybe he had his own fire, his own burning need to slay these creatures, and I was just an acceptable sacrifice to reach that end. But that of course made me wonder, how could I actually contribute?

    Ah, I thought as I walked home from the convenience store with what would become my dinner. A final possibility, and maybe the most likely of all.

    He lied to me.

    He wasn't going to the park at all. He was just going to send me somewhere he thought was safe, while he disappeared from my life forever. He didn't mind caving to my selfish request to join the hunt because he never intended to let me go anyways.

    This occupied my thoughts as I slowly chewed my way through the boxed meal I got from the convenience store - cold, since I was too afraid to go anywhere in my house except my own bedroom. Maybe afraid wasn't the right word, but...the idea of going anywhere else made me feel uneasy. Shiki told me he had moved the bodies further into the house, hidden them so I could move freely around, but I elected to hide myself away in my bedroom anyways, using my window as my entrance and escape route.

    Outside that window, I watched the sun slowly creep down to the horizon. Was I going to go to the park? The more I thought about it, the more sure I was that I'd never see Shiki again. I'd just feel like an idiot, showing up at the park, only to find out he had lied to me all along. He wasn't going to be there. There was no point in me going at all, was there?

    There was no point, I thought to myself, as I finally worked up the courage to open the door to my bedroom. Covering my eyes so I could only barely see where I was going, I slowly made my way to my brother's room, careful to avoid the living room I had seen everyone in the night before. Even if they weren't in there anymore, I had no desire to see what had been left behind. And if Shiki had lied about tonight, why wouldn't he have lied about moving the bodies?

    Painfully slowly, I reached my brother's room, tentatively looking inside. I didn't know why there would be anything untoward in there, but something something caution valor.

    There was no point, I chided myself, as I found what I was looking for inside - a hefty aluminum baseball bat. Not particularly heavy, but solid enough that it could probably break a skull if that's what you were trying to do. After swinging it a few times to get a feel for its weight, I covered my eyes again, and slowly crept my way back to my own bedroom.

    "No point at all," I muttered to myself as I grabbed the plastic bag holding snacks I had picked up at the convenience store as a thank-you gift for Shiki saving me the night before, lifted the bat over my shoulder, and hopped out my window into the twilit city.

    Because if there was one thing I was good at, it was this.

    I was often scolded, both as a child and now, for not thinking before acting. About being too rash and reckless. But I knew that wasn't actually the case. I knew my ultimate strength was this: doing stupid, reckless things despite thinking them through.

    Shiki had told me to absolutely make sure I was in the park before sunset, but as much as I was still going, I had lost most of the energy driving me. So in no particular hurry, I trudged my way through the rapidly darkening town, unable to disentangle myself from the notion that I was being played.

    Even if I wasn't going to be involved in fighting the vampire, being out here at night put me in danger from just your average, run of the mill perverts. It would have been a lot safer to just stay home. Call the police. Who knows what would happen to me then - none of my extended family lived nearby, so I'd probably be shipped off to some city a thousand kilometers away. Start a new life with a bunch of people who I had met maybe twice. If they even wanted me in the first place - but would they bother to put a fifteen-year-old in foster care?

    As I finally reached the park, only the barest glow of the sun still visible over the horizon, I sat down on one of the swings. I had grown so certain in my expectations of Shiki's betrayal that I wasn't even disappointed when I saw he wasn't there.

    I felt so pathetic. I had bought the lie so easily, I didn't question him at all about it.

    The fire in my gut burned hotter, now knowing there would be no outlet for it. I would go home tonight, call the police, and then the rest was up to chance. Would I tell them about Shiki? 'Yeah, some serial killer-looking dude showed up and killed the zombies before they got to me. He then left to go hunt some vampires.' Maybe seeing a psych ward from the inside would be an interesting experience.

    The other option would be to say I ran away from home last night, and didn't come home til now, discovering what had happened then. As much as it was much more believable than the truth, I wasn't confident I could sell the lie. What were they going to do though, arrest me? Send a fifteen year old girl to prison? I could barely cut vegetables, good luck convincing a jury that I killed my whole family.

    Staring listlessly at the park, I barely noticed as the street lights snapped on, standing in for the now absent sun. Once again, I was gradually concealed in darkness, sitting on the swings.

    How long should I stay? I suppose it would be safer to go home sooner rather than later, as most of the perverts probably wouldn't be out until around midnight. Home wasn't that far away though, and I was safe here in the park, so I felt no urge to go now.

    And now that I thought about it, this very well could be the last time I came here. Who knew where the police would spirit me away to? This was likely the last chance I would get to hide in my little park sanctuary.

    ...I guess that meant I'd be saying goodbye to Haru too. That realization stung a bit, but he would probably be better off for it. I knew he'd rather hang out with the other guys, and we definitely weren't going to the same high school anyways, so it probably would have turned out that way anyways. Breaking the news to him would be hard, but it would be for the best.

    I smiled to myself over that. It felt like I was releasing a beloved pet back into the wild. A totally stupid thought, but I now kind of knew how those people felt.

    Pulling out my phone, I stared at the dark screen for a moment. Should I tell Haru before I call the police? Should I contact him at all? Undecided, I switched on the screen - as if staring at our text conversation would help me decide - but instead took a punch to the gut.

    18 new messages, six missed calls.

    Of course, I knew without checking that every single one of those was from my mom.

    Switching off the screen, I held the phone to my chest, struggling to keep the tears back.

    The last I had seen of her, she was scolding me. Threatening to make me go hungry, over that stupid report card. Yelling at me for being home late.

    What was she thinking, in those last moments? Relief, when she realized I had snuck out and so would be safe from whatever disaster had taken the rest of them? Or was she bitter, that of all of her children, it was useless old me that was going to make it out okay? Did she think about me at all?

    Did she even know I had left?

    Ah, that wasn't good. There was no point to hiding in the shadows of the park if I was going to make all kinds of noise sobbing like this.

    But it was already too late. As some middle-aged man stumbled drunkenly into the park, it was clear that my cover was already blown.

    Wiping the tears from my eyes, I frowned at him. Sure, it was past sunset, but it was still a bit early to be so obviously drunk, wasn't it? As I saw his eyes though, it all became clear.

    He wasn't drunk at all. Those eyes, looking directly back at me - there was no way a normal person could see through the darkness. Even if he knew generally where I was, he shouldn't have been able to make eye contact so easily.

    But he did. And those eyes burned with a violent hunger. Exactly as the monster I had seen the night before.

    The fire inside me flared up to match it.

    Perfect.

    Grabbing the aluminum bat from the ground beside me, I walked towards the zombie. Obviously a zombie, once I had a better look at it. The awkward stumble it walked with, the dried blood from old, open but unbleeding wounds covering its whole body. The single-minded hunger with which it stared at me.

    Maybe I wouldn't stand a chance against a vampire, but I'd be damned if I was going to die to a walking corpse.

    As I stepped forward into the light of the street lamps, the fire inside me grew further, burning away all other thoughts. In moments, I had become just as single minded as the corpse in front of me, and I had to imagine my eyes must have shone with a similar hunger.

    Just as single-minded, but not nearly as stupid.

    As I reached batting range, I quickly stepped to the side, dodging out of the way as the zombie lunged towards me. Though it was never really balanced to begin with, the failed lunge threw it off even more, and with just a bit more help from a two-handed swing of my bat to the back of its head, it fully collapsed forward, falling on its face.

    "You come into MY PARK!" I shouted at it, giving a second swing for good measure. The skull was unexpectedly soft.

    After the second swing, the zombie stopped scrabbling at the ground and fell completely still. I had watched more than enough zombie movies to know how to deal with them - smush the brain, nothing else would work. Except fire maybe, but I didn't have any of that on me. Unfortunate.

    For a moment, as I looked down on the now twice-dead corpse, a chill ran through me. It did look an awful lot like a person. And I had been worryingly quick to smash its head in. Maybe I did belong in prison after all.

    The chill was soon swept away by the sound of further footsteps.

    Two more zombies shuffled out from the darkness and into the light of the street lamps.

    As I hefted my bat and began walking towards them, the alarm bells in the back of my head started ringing. It was bizarre enough for there to be one zombie here, but three? Either things were escalating rather quickly in this town, or...

    ...they were following me specifically.

    "Here to finish the job, huh?" I muttered, jumping forward as fast as I could.

    Even two against one, against mindless opponents like these, the bat was more than enough to even the odds. One at a time, I stepped just in range of the zombies, jumping back as soon as they lunged at me. A few swings to the head and they went quiet like their friend. Once I was sure they wouldn't get back up, I stepped back.

    "Three down," I said through heavy breaths, as much from the exertion as from the frustration that refused to lift. My fingers were getting sore from how hard I had been gripping the bat, but the fire inside wouldn't let me loosen them. "One more, and we'll be even."

    The sudden sound of laughter made my hair stand on end.

    "Even? You'd be satisfied killing the Dead, of all things?" Stepping out from the darkness, exactly where I had been hiding before, was an unfamiliar man.

    ...man? Maybe. He was clearly not a zombie - his pristine clothing, well-kept shoulder length hair, and notably intact, startlingly pale skin made that clear, if his ability to speak hadn't been evidence enough. On top of that, his eyes possessed a clarity, a brightness that spoke of intelligence far beyond the animalistic drive of the zombies I had just smashed.

    "I wondered what had happened to all my Dead last night. I thought it absurd that you had dealt with them yourself, even after seeing you still walking around all day today, but I guess I underestimated you." He spoke as if to himself, a smile completely devoid of humour or friendliness on his face. It took a few moments for my brain to understand the instinctual fear in the rest of my body, but the moment it did, the fire inside me instantly turned to ice.

    "Vamp-!!" My throat closed up mid-word as I finally realized what was standing in front of me. Even unfinished, the word still caught the man's attention, as he frowned at me.

    "Odd," he murmured, blood red eyes looking me up and down. "No matter how I look at you, you are just an ordinary human. Impressive that you could keep a cool head long enough to deal with the Dead I sent last night, and these three just now. But to even recognize a vampire on sight...most unusual."

    As he stepped closer, I involuntarily stepped back. "No, you've been touched by something...a succubus, perhaps," he continued, a smile returning to his face as he saw me retreat, "but you're a normal human, through and through. I don't know why you know of us, but it seems that knowledge didn't do you any good."

    I had to get away.

    This...thing. Those eyes. The ivory glint of fangs behind that sadistic grin. All of it screamed at me to run away.

    I was going to die. I didn't know anything about this vampire, and yet I instinctively knew that if I didn't immediately turn and run as fast as I could, I would die. At the same time, I knew I couldn't run. The moment I tried to flee, he would catch me. The moment I took my eyes off of him, my life would end.

    There was no way out. Either way, I was dead. And as if my body had already surrendered to that fact, the muscles in my legs had grown weak, threatening to drop me at any moment.

    "I'd be disappointed at your reaction," he said, the sigh betrayed by his unchanging grin, "but it's as expected. Even if you are capable of dealing with the Dead, in front of a true Dead Apostle, even a child like you can understand your place."

    He then closed his eyes and raised his hands, as if in surrender.

    The moment his eyes were off me, my frozen-up body suddenly loosened. The breath I didn't know I was holding was released, my weakening legs found their strength, and my arms instinctively drew the aluminum bat up between us.

    "But I am nothing if not gracious," the vampire said, chuckling at some private joke. "You have done very well. Far better than even most adults, in your situation. And so I give you your reward." He turned his hands forward as if offering me something.

    "One more and we're even, I believe you said. Go ahead, then. Take your revenge."

    With some effort, I managed to remove one of my hands from the bat to wipe the tears that had started again from my eyes. This must have been some sort of sick joke. There was no way I could kill a vampire. It was stupid of me to ever think that I could. Even with his eyes closed, pretending like he was going to let me hit him, I knew the only one dying if I attacked him was me. But at the same time, I knew I couldn't run away. Who knew how many of those zombie puppets were around, waiting to catch me if I fled? And where could I go that he couldn't find me, or catch me before I got there?

    He was toying with me. I understood that. But there was no other option for me.

    The fiery rage that had pushed me to kill the zombies earlier had long since vanished, replaced by sheer terror. And so I channeled that terror into my hands, into my arms, into my legs, and I ran at the vampire with a scream.

    This was the end. But I wasn't going down without a fight.

    Blinded by my tears, I could barely see what I was doing, could barely see that the vampire didn't move as I ran towards him. And so, with everything I had, I swung. Closing my eyes, I mustered every ounce of strength I could squeeze out of my terrified muscles, and threw it all directly at his forehead.

    A solid thunk, as the bat impacted hard, sent a painful jolt up both my arms.

    In disbelief, I opened my eyes. It was nothing like the feeling of hitting the zombies. It was more like I had hit a brick wall. And as soon as I had blinked the tears out of my eyes, I saw why.

    He had caught it.

    The heavy end of the bat sat in his open hand, as if I had just handed it to him. Even with his eyes still closed, he had caught my swing, stopping my full strength as if grabbing a leaf falling from a tree. And as I stared, he squeezed, crumpling the aluminum like it was no more than paper, squeezed until the heavy end of the bat snapped and fell to the ground, leaving only a few inches of twisted, jagged metal past the handle in my hands.

    The next thing I knew, I was flying through the air. Though I mercifully landed in the soft ground of the park's sandbox, I barely noticed my good fortune thanks to the exploding pain in my stomach. The agony radiating out filled my mind, bringing me to the edge of consciousness as I violently threw up.

    After what felt like forever, the pain lessened to a degree that allowed me to breath, and I slowly uncurled myself. Fighting my own wobbly limbs, I pushed myself up to my knees, and then to some semblence of standing.

    "That," the vampire spoke, the laughter clear in his voice, "was for destroying so much of my property. Though I think you'll agree, that was rather light punishment, all things considered."

    While I had been seized up with terror earlier, now that I had made the decision to fight back - and understood full well that I was going to die whether I did or not - I was struck by a feeling of fearful clarity. Or maybe it was the excruciating pain in my gut, forcing all other thoughts but immediate survival from my mind. While I heard what he was saying, it didn't really register. All I could think of was that my bat was now a sharp metal stick - considerably shorter, but maybe more useful. Thankfully, my inability to loosen my grip on the bat earlier had held up until I impacted the sand, so it was already nearby, ready to be scooped up.

    Seeing me stumble over to pick the bat up from where I dropped it, the vampire laughed again.

    "Yes, stand up. Keep fighting. That attitude will serve you well in the future!"

    Had I not been half-doubled over in pain and already scared witless, I likely would have replied something like 'What future?' But as that thought crossed my mind, a dreadful calm passed over me.

    What future?

    My family was dead. My school wanted me to give up and drop out. The one guy who seemed to know what was going on around here looked like a serial killer, and he had abandoned me anyways. I had no prospects, no hope. Getting through the present was such an everyday challenge that I hadn't even had the freedom to come up with a dream for the future. Even if everything turned around immediately and started going perfect, I had no idea where I even wanted to go.

    And now, standing in front of me, was the whole world. Condensed, packed into the form of a B-rated horror flick. Lording his superiority over me like this was all some grand drama, like any of it would matter this time tomorrow. As if the world was trying to say, sorry for torturing you for so long, but we've had our fun. We'll put you out of your misery now.

    I looked up.

    His eyes were open again, but they didn't have the same petrifying effect as before. Sure, my legs were still shaking as much from fear as the pain, but this time I could move.

    The fire in my gut burst back into life, consuming the pain that had tried to take its place.

    This time, I wouldn't miss.

    I would show the world just what I thought of its stupid games.

    For a fraction of a second, I saw what looked like surprise in the vampire's eyes as I suddenly dashed forward, holding the jagged remains of the aluminum bat in front of me. The last thing anyone would see of them, as I was about to stab this stupid metal bat right through his stupid eyes-

    -his...eyes?

    After barely four steps, I stumbled to a halt. The blood-red eyes that had been mocking me up until now were gone, replaced with a vivid, almost glowing gold.

    The moment I saw those eyes, everything else seemed to disappear. My blood seemed to slow, my muscles went lax, the rest of the world seemed to lose its colour.

    "Come," the vampire murmured, offering me his hand. "The transition will be excruciating, I'm sure, but you'll thank me once it's over. I think you've earned at least this much with your bravery tonight."

    As soon as he uttered the words, my feet began shuffling forward. Though it was against my will, I recognized at the same time I didn't have the will to stop them, either.

    The fire in my stomach demanding revenge, demanding an outlet to my life of frustrations, still burned. But it was now powerless, trapped inside the cage of my body. My will, my thoughts, everything inside felt like they were chained up, bound to follow what my body did, rather than the other way around. Even if I screamed at my legs to turn around and run, I knew they wouldn't listen. Not that I was able to do it anyway.

    The twisted remains of the bat slipped out of my hands and dropped to the ground.

    The longer I stared into those eyes, the tighter the chains around my heart grew. The less I cared about them.

    A perverse warmth flooded my limbs. A feeling I knew I should hate, but relished nonetheless. Somewhere inside I knew I should be terrified, knew I should be trying to resist, but instead I felt...hope.

    Those eyes. Those beautiful, golden eyes. As if salvation was only one step away-

    But the moment before I took hold of it, when my hand was a hair's breadth from his, it snapped away from me.

    Hah, just kidding, said the world. There's still a bit more torture to go.

    I could feel my heart break as he turned away from me, as his eyes left my vision. But before I could react, his other hand planted firmly into my stomach and hurled me away again.

    For the second time, I landed in the sandbox, the jarring pain of the landing briefly paralyzing me. However, he had apparently been gentler this time as the pain quickly subsided and I scrambled to my feet.

    He was fighting.

    Whoever the assailant was, they were certainly faster than the vampire. But he didn't entirely seem to mind - again and again, the assailant's knife plunged into joints, took off fingers, and intercepted counter-attacks, but it all seemed for naught. Just as quickly as the knife cut through him, the vampire's wounds closed up of their own accord. Lost fingers returned as if drawn in by some cosmic artist. Pierced joints moved as if unaware of their injury.

    Even with his superior speed, it was clear that the assailant couldn't win. His knife couldn't inflict any meaningful damage, and the more it tried, the more it was clear that the vampire was toying with him.

    And then I noticed a pattern. Little by little, those strikes were getting closer to his eyes.

    No. No, I couldn't let him hurt those eyes. I had to stop him.

    But as I stepped out of the sandbox and onto the park grass, I was interrupted by the sound of a bell.

    A light, faint tinkling, yet it overpowered everything else.

    Glass shattered, and I felt myself rush back into my own body.

    And then promptly collapsed to the ground, vomiting whatever was left in my stomach.

    What was that? What happened to me? Some kind of hypnosis, or mind control? I never felt like my will was being violated, but there was no way that was what I actually wanted to do, right?

    Those eyes. It must have been the golden eyes. It was no wonder that the assailant was trying to get to them-

    Immediately, my head snapped up. Assailant - it was Shiki. Though the vampire was between us, and he kept flitting in and out of the dark sections of the park, I would recognize that bandage-covered face anywhere. Eyes still covered, he was dismantling the vampire piece by piece - though, as I noticed before, not as fast as the vampire was putting himself back together.

    As Shiki struggled, pushing himself to his limits - which were indeed quite impressive, the way he moved making it almost impossible for my eyes to track him - the vampire only laughed. As far as he was concerned, he was invincible. No matter how many times he was stabbed or cut, no matter how many fingers or toes or hands or feet he lost, he would recover almost instantly.

    The knife clearly wasn't working. But how did you kill a vampire?

    Even if I had garlic or a wooden stake lying around, there was no way a real life vampire would die that easily. Shiki was here specifically hunting vampires, so he should know, right? Then why was the fight taking so long-

    Suddenly, everything clicked.

    Those bandages.

    Shiki must have known about those mind-control eyes the vampire had, so he covered his own eyes so they wouldn't effect him. But obviously, blinding himself was also preventing him from killing the vampire - at this rate, even without mind-control eyes, the vampire was obviously going to win. Just like the night before, where I saw him take off the bandages for a split second to kill the zombie, he probably needed clear vision to make sure he hit the right spot - but he couldn't do that against those eyes.

    A shudder passed through me as I recalled them. I had to do something about those eyes, or Shiki was going to die. And if Shiki died, then it went without saying that I would too - or worse, the vampire would use those disgusting eyes on me again.

    I had to do something. Even if he cut those eyes out with his knife, they would grow back right away. There had to be another way...

    Even if it means you will certainly die?

    I felt my insides freeze up.

    I had to do something, but suddenly, I couldn't get Shiki's words out of my head.

    Even if I guarantee, no matter what happens, you will definitely die?

    Was there anything I could even do? Even if I threw away my life in the process, would it change anything?

    ...if that's what it takes...

    My own voice, my own resolve from earlier that day, reignited.

    If that's what it takes. Then yes.

    Gladly.

    Pushing myself to my feet, I wobbled backwards a little, stumbling back into the sandbox. Reaching down, I grabbed two handfuls of sand, and then sprinted forward.

    What a stupid plan. This was a blood-drinking, invincible undead monster. What would sand do to it?

    Distract it long enough, I hoped.

    "You're quite impressive for an ordinary human," I heard the vampire snicker. "But you should have left this to the Church, I'm afraid. Even with Mystic Eye Killers, you're no match for a Dead Apostle."

    He was gloating. That meant there must have been a lull in the action.

    My only chance.

    I screamed.

    I tried to think of something to shout, something that would get him to turn around, but I couldn't, so wordless noise was the best I could manage. And sure enough, once I did, both Shiki and the vampire turned to look at me.

    At which point I shut my eyes.

    I couldn't look at those mind-control eyes again. If I did, it would all be over. Shiki was having enough trouble with the vampire alone - he would have to kill me if he was to have any chance at winning. There would be no saving me. So I shut my eyes tight, and hurled the sand at the vampire's face. But that wouldn't be enough. If he was blinded, he would just run away. I had to stop him.

    At the vampire's surprised grunt, I threw myself forward. Aiming for the source of the vampire's voice, I threw my arms forward, wrapping them around his head and eyes.

    Being more than a foot shorter than him, as I dropped back to the ground, I pulled him with me, bending the vampire's back awkwardly. Throwing him off balance so he couldn't escape.

    "Shiki, now!" I screamed again, grappling the vampire's head as tightly as I could manage, bracing myself for the attack I knew was coming.

    But it never came. A blast of frigid air passed over me, and then the vampire's furious, muffled cries abruptly cut off.

    The struggling stopped, and I felt the vampire's body collapse.

    A moment of sheer quiet, broken finally by the sound of Shiki's long, drawn out sigh.

    "It's okay," Shiki's voice reached me through his heaving breaths. "You can let go now."

    Slowly opening my eyes, I let go of the vampire's head, letting the rest of the body finally fall to the ground, at the same time letting my breath go.

    Not that there was much body left. Except for the head and shoulders I had been holding up, and the extreme ends of its limbs, the vampire's body had already completely crumbled to dust. Jagged shards of ice marked the spots where the vampire's severed arms had fallen, though when that had happened was completely beyond me.

    Stumbling backwards a few steps, I fell to my knees.

    "I'm impressed," Shiki said, pulling my attention from the rapidly disintegrating corpse with a voice as short of breath as mine. "Not the smartest plan, I have to say, but I'm not really one to talk."

    I looked up at Shiki in stunned amazement. He was right. That was a stupid plan. I had fully expected to die in the process of it, but somehow I had managed to come out unscathed.

    Well, except for the monster bruises I was going to have on my stomach from getting punted earlier.

    My thoughts quickly snapped off as Shiki returned my gaze. The bandages were loose, revealing both eyes - a shimmering, shining blue, as if filled with an inner light. A piercing gaze, as if it saw through every part of me, witnesses every secret I tried to hide, but still kind - accepting those darker parts of me without question.

    As I gazed on in speechless wonder, he seemed completely oblivious, casually removing the bandage wrapped loosely around his neck and winding it tight around his eyes again.

    As he did so, I brought my hand up to cover my own eyes, flopping unceremoniously onto my back.

    They were really beautiful, weren't they? It's a shame he covers them all the time...

    "Please tell me you don't have mind control eyes too," I muttered, staring wide-eyed into the palms of my hands.

    "What? No, not at all," Shiki's response came back, surprised at the question.

    "Good," I said with a weak laugh, not moving from where I was lying on the ground.

    Good. I think.


    ***************


    A few hours later, we were back at my house.

    Shiki had recommended we get something to eat on the way back, considering how much of my dinner I had left on the ground in the park. But between the lingering pain in my stomach from being kicked and thrown around a bunch, and my nerves being frayed to the point I was shaking like I was naked in the arctic, I didn't have much confidence I could keep any food down anyways.

    So we returned to my house. Shiki gave me (what I assumed was) a weird look as I jumped in through my bedroom window, but otherwise said nothing, hopping in after me.

    After sitting quietly in my room trying to process the events that had just transpired, Shiki eventually broke the silence.

    "You should probably go to the hospital though."

    "And tell them what?" I said, rolling my eyes. "'I was kicked in the gut by a vampire with magic eyes, it sent me flying ten meters. Oh but don't worry, my serial killer friend stabbed him and it turned to dust.'"

    "Serial killer?" At his question, I just vaguely motioned in his direction, earning a frown. "I don't think I appreciate you calling me that."

    "Well, I'm not the one who dresses like a serial killer," I retorted dryly.

    "You do realize I've saved your life twice now, right?"

    "I do, and I'm very grateful, Mr. Serial Killer."

    My giggle at his exasperated sigh quickly turned to a gasp of pain as it upset my bruised stomach again.

    "...maybe we should go to the hospital," Shiki said again, concern evident on his face despite his covered eyes.

    "Okay," I said with an exaggerated sigh. "Do you want to tell them about the vampire, or should I?"

    "We don't have to tell them about the vampire," Shiki said, pushing himself up off what had become his usual spot on the floor.

    "No," I said , giving him an amused look, "but they might get suspicious when they call my parents."

    After a short pause, Shiki scowled, sitting back down.

    "Well, at least let my friend take a look at it, to make sure you're okay."

    "Your friend that you don't know will even come here?"

    "What? No, definitely not. Arcueid would definitely only make things worse," he said with a small smile, as if at some inside joke. "No, another friend. From the Church. They are the ones who normally deal with these vampires, so she should know how to help...or at least how to get you help without too many questions being asked."

    "And she's in the city?" I asked. This guy sure seemed to have a lot of convenient friends. I guess that came with the profession.

    "Not yet," he said. "I called her today while I was out. She should be here in the morning."

    "Alright," I said with a tired sigh that was only half faked. "I guess I'll try and survive til morning on my own then."

    Though he was clearly unhappy with the outcome, he at last let it drop. I couldn't say I was especially happy either, but for some reason, I didn't want the authorities involved yet.

    Because I knew that the moment any of them got involved, they'd find out about my family. And once that happened, the last small pieces of my life would be whisked away. Everything I knew would be gone forever...not that a whole lot of that remained.

    What did I have left, anyways? A few friends at school I wouldn't see anymore anyways, as they all went to high school without me. Haru...he would probably try to keep in contact with me, even though he'd be much better off if he didn't.

    ...and Shiki.

    Was I ready to say good bye to him yet?

    I had already had to come to terms with never seeing him again once today. Was I ready to do that again?

    ...oh yeah. I guess I had been wrong about that, hadn't I?

    Gently, I laid myself down on my bed.

    "...sorry," I murmured. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Shiki turn to look at me, but he said nothing. "Earlier today...when you left, I thought you abandoned me. I thought...when I didn't see you at the park, I thought you had tricked me, and had run off to deal with everything by yourself."

    "...oh," Shiki whispered. Then, with a bit more volume, "I tried to make it look like I did just that, but I guess it didn't occur to me that you would think that too. In that case...I'm sorry, too."

    I shook my head. "No, it was my fault. I jumped to conclusions, without even giving you a chance-"

    "That's not what I mean," he interrupted. "I mean, yes, that too, but...I'm sorry I used you as bait without telling you the whole plan."

    Slowly, I turned to look at him with a scowl. "Excuse me?"

    Shiki, on the other hand, just stared at the floor. "I knew the vampire would be looking for you, as the lone survivor of all the families he attacked last night. That's why I told you to go out and get food earlier, so he would see you were still alive. He would wonder why you survived, and so attack you again tonight. I used that to lure him out so I could kill him."

    Speechless, I turned my head back to look at the ceiling. I was bait? This guy, who didn't want me to be a part of this at all, decided his first course of action after letting me participate was to use me as bait?

    "Actually, I was in the park before you," he continued, though I could barely hear the contrition in his voice. "I was hiding in one of the trees in the park. I was hoping you'd get the vampire to come out, so I could ambush him and kill him right away."

    "So you...let him attack me?"

    "Well, that wasn't part of the plan," he said, finally sounding a bit sheepish. "I thought I was well hidden, but evidently he knew where I was from the start. All of his actions were clearly just trying to lure me out of hiding...I tried to get him at the last possible moment, thinking he might let his guard down, but I was too slow. And once I saw he had Mystic Eyes...well, there wasn't much I could do anyways."

    I had known from the start that being the bait was basically the only thing I was good for in a situation like this, but having it happen without me knowing irked me a little bit.

    "You're welcome, then," I huffed, causing him to look up. "I think I did pretty good for bait. Got him to come out, and there was no way you would have won without my help, so you're welcome."

    Shiki laughed. "Well, actually...alright, fine. You got me. Thank you."

    That's what I thought, I smirked to myself. I don't know what his plan was, but there was no way he was beating those magic mind control eyes without my help.

    Welcome to the force, Kana. You're now an elite vampire hunter. Ha.

    "So..." I continued, satisfied with my clear victory. "What next?"

    "What do you mean?" he answered, tilting his head to the side.

    "Well, we got one of them," I said, "but there's two left, right? How are we going to take care of them?"

    "That's tomorrow's problem," Shiki said with a small smile. Not sure what was so funny though. "For now, all we need to worry about is sleeping. Getting our energy back for the next day."

    I snorted. How boring. How was I supposed to just sleep after what happened tonight? Nevermind the pain in my stomach, I don't think my heart had stopped racing for a moment since those zombies first showed up.

    "More importantly, what about you?" Shiki asked, his tone turning suddenly serious. "What are you planning to do?"

    "Help, obviously," I said in an instant.

    "That's not what I meant," he said again, scratching his head. "Well, I doubt Ciel will let you help anyways, but even if she does. After that, I mean. Once the vampires are all gone."

    For a moment, I didn't answer. What was I going to do?

    I know what I expected to happen. His Church friend would come and brain wipe me, the police would take me away, and I'd start a new life wherever they felt like sending me. I doubted I'd have any say in it.

    But if I did...what would I do? What did I want to do?

    "I can't promise anything," Shiki continued, "but my friend from the Church is really well connected. I don't know what she can do, but she already said she could help. So..."

    "Sounds like tomorrow's problem," I said, turning over to face away from him.

    What did I want to do? I don't know.

    So I'll worry about it later.

    Though I couldn't see the defeated smile on his face, I knew it must have been there, as he remained silent.

    Pulling up the covers, I tried to ignore the pain in my stomach and go to sleep. It felt dumb to say good night when morning was probably only a few hours away, so I said nothing.

    Tomorrow's problem, huh? It was starting to sound like tomorrow was going to be full of problems.

    That was fine. Tomorrow could deal with them.

    Regardless of what was going to happen in the future, I was going to have to overcome tomorrow first. So all I had to do was focus all my energy on that.

    Filled with that determination, the weight of the day suddenly pressed down on me, and it took only a few minutes for me to start drifting off.


    Prompt

    Mundane meets magic. Write a story about an actually mundane human encounters the supernatural. This can take the form of an investigation, an attack, a romantic tryst, or so on. Set it up as a hook or introduction to a longer work. Original characters fine, no Servants.
    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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    no. i/Fist = Hammer > Nail

    Should the circumstances allow it, even an antlion can drag a hawk down into the abyss below the sand.


    no. i/Fist = Hammer > Nail



    Never, in all of her life, had Bazett Fraga McRemitz traveled for pleasure, and as the gentle, almost-distant, rumbling hum of the airplane seemingly offered to lull her to sleep and kill some time, a faint and fleeting thought occurred to the Enforcer:
    That this trip—it would be no different.

    The faint and fleeting thought, the intrusive and transient kind brought on as relaxation takes hold, shifted, morphed, like roiling water. Water, like the kind that shaped the coasts of her Ulster homeland. Water, like the kind that lapped at the seawalls of seaside ports where ships came and went. Water, like the kind that'd bear those ships away from the imprisonment of her homeland that she was all-but confined to.

    So long as she had never traveled for pleasure—traveled for herself—she'd be bound to not only her homeland Ulster forevermore, but to the Isles that her land was blanketed with, lumped in together with, and forevermore bound to the Association.

    Such a fantasy she hadn't entertained before, only recently. Only since the dialogues she had shared with that Executor did his words and hers sit in her head like a rock in her stomach, a weight on her shoulders.

    Something done for the sake of her own desires, alone. Something un-maguslike, that didn't directly benefit her lofty and ever-distant goals. Something done, not for the sake of the next generations that she'd never live to see, but for her and her alone, in the sole life that she had now. That something crystalized into a nebulous ideal, that of a trip. What was it meant to accomplish? The unknown for the sake of the unknown?

    For now, the dutiful Enforcer would contemplate that later. There was not much opportunity in her line of work to surrender without lasting dangerous consequence to herself, and the surrender offered by the lull of the plane was harmless as could be. For the flight from London to Oman was a long one. What was the harm in that?

    Bazett dreamt ethereal Erin sights of murmuring waves, dinging harbor bells, and empty ships with room aplenty enough for a passenger like herself.

    . . .

    Those lands were a gamble.

    In terms of power structure, the Middle East was nearly wholly bereft of the control of Christianity, and thus, control of the Holy Church. But, it was not as if the Association fared much better in those dusty lands. Middle Eastern magi were no uncommon notion, but the sheer neutrality and isolation of the locales meant that the Association had few advantages, either. So too did the varied infrastructures of Islam have powers to rival the Church, but the differences in policy towards magi and their largely non-religious thaumaturgical systems meant that the Middle East was a harsh but suitable place for magi to hide themselves away.

    The location: Muscat, of Oman. The intelligence of Milyonecalion—whose network's secrets were as closely guarded as that of a powerful magus lineage's own
    intended path towards the Root
    family system
    —indicated that the target was likely to have gone to ground there, conducting operations of her own (where should have been) far and away from the Association's judgmental eye within the Arabian nation.

    Bazett, she knew not of the mysteries that went into the intelligence gathering. She'd never be privy to it. Never in this life, let alone if she were ever allowed to ascend within the ranks of the Clock Tower. Bazett didn't care what went into that black box of theirs, only that the outcome that was processed and produced from it found its way to her. However the target's operations were detected, and within neutral-at-best-territory, at that, it was because of the conduction of those very operations that murmurings of the Sealing Designate's location found its way to the Association, and thus, to her.

    Tunis Ferocitonias Normant, a dark, tall man, and her chief informant-cum-middleman, told her thus upon giving her her mission dossier:
    "Got a nice one for you. Oh, and between you and me, Bazz, this one, those oneiromancers are particularly keen to get. Despite that, and all the baggage I'm sure you know comes with that territory, I don't doubt for a sec that you're the right Enforcer for the job." He quirked a knowing eyebrow. Normant was a dyed in the wool shit-stirrer. A magus like the rest of them, but he still had his own proclivities. Word was that he fancied Bazett, took pride and pleasure in her reactions and actions to a point beyond professional acknowledgment.

    "—and I don't doubt that, either," Bazett replied, unphased by any pressure he'd've wanted to put on. "As I know that th' potential for applications of her work is broad. Belay the notion of some rumored 'phantom department,' any of th' Twelve Faculties could and would gladly use it, even if it takes centuries to refine an application from its base."

    "Yep, yep. That's the point of a Sealing Designation," Just as well, by his standards. Normant was done with that. He replied back with a wry smile full of perfectly square and white teeth upon his face. "Point is, you've got your head screwed on so right—even by Enforcer standards—that magi so guarded in their ways they might not even exist have their hungry faith in you, Bazz." With confirmation that the information was solidly in Bazett's hands, Normant hid himself away from any prying eyes as effectively as any spectre could. In his wake, he left only the intel with Bazett, and his parting words: "Anywho, Kalion wills it."

    "Kalion wills it," Bazett cooly repeated back.

    Neither spoke the creed with much zeal. Yet, neither of them blasphemed that through which they lived their lives as magi. To them, they related to the role somewhere between lifestyle and livelihood. No love was lost more than was necessary.

    With that, the creed of the Enforcers had been uttered, and the contract was initiated.

    . . .

    Touchdown in the Sultante. Bazett was on the clock. She'd prepared her runes beforehand, so all she needed to do in order to begin enforcement was to check into her modest hotel room, set it up as a safehouse, and proceed from there.

    Raidho.
    Algiz.
    Those two, used pre-emptively before she had even left the plane, allowed her to sway away the eye of anyone who hadn't any resistance to magic. A useful tool for a covert operative, especially in a Middle Eastern country. Still, Bazett donned a hijab, as a thaumaturgical redundancy. The two runes enabled discretion. Thus, further discrete actions and intents would bolster Raidho and Algiz's joint foundation. Such an easy precaution to take, and one that she could be easily rid of, should it become a hindrance during enforcement.

    Bazett slept light on the flight. If she wasn't tired before, she most now certainly was not.
    ϟ
    Sowilo
    saw to that. Through consumption of the rune of the sun, any jet lag she felt was reduced to a memory. That it was consumed with the aid of a thermos of Bazett's own custom tea-steeped energized protein shake led to a thaumaturgical internalization akin to that of an internal Reality Marble's—and most importantly, no prana but the most trace of amounts would be leaked via the continued and passive usage of the magecraft. It was crucial that an Enforcer conceal their presence from their target until the last possible moment. Her support runes: always active, passively empowering her prowess to the superhuman level. She was in enemy territory, after all—prudence was necessary. The combat runes: activated at a moment's notice, as per the situationality. She was in enemy territory, after all—flexibility was a virtue.

    Ready as she'd ever be, Bazett beat feet to the Muscat streets.
    Berkano
    led the way, and led the way all the way to Ruwi, the business district. An atypical choice for a rogue magus, thus, one that made Bazett feel an air of concern. Ruwi, not Old Muscat? Thaumaturgical logic dictated that the place with more mystery was the place for a magus to set themselves up, and age and mystery went hand-in-hand. Old Muscat even had its share of defensible, aged Portugese forts. The locale was basically ideal for someone on the lam from the yearnful maw of the Association. So, why Ruwi? Ruwi had age, too, but a fraction of the old capital's mystery. The ever-busy district writhed with modernity, like a vigilant wild beast.

    "It's so funny how hard you're racking your brain over this."

    Her instincts set ablaze, Bazett quickly spun around. Five meters across the skyscraper's square, from where Berkano's trail had led, she stood. Her skin tone was like a palette swatch of the surrounding dusty hills, her outfit a light jacket over a borderline-scandalous affair—even by a liberal society's standards, let alone that of a largely conservative, Muslim nation's—and her long mane of silky hair was as white as a demon's.

    "Sealing Designate Nuranleggsa al-Salekhloen't," Bazett declared the name and now-title of her target, the method of serving used by the Office of Enforcement. "The Clock Tower has acknowledged you."

    The Sealing Designate giggled. "You can't hide it from me, little bird. You're still shocked."

    He declaration was bold, but meaningless, for before that line of thought could be elaborated upon, Bazett unleashed a rune-enhanced blow that took al-Salekhloen't's head.

    Or, it would have, had the deadly mortar shelling-of a fist not blown through the air instead, whiffed. The hunted magus had taken to the sky, seemingly defying gravity and reality itself all the while as she ascended with equal measures of grace and agility. She herself was more like a bird than what she declared Bazett to be. "And I acknowledge your strength as well. Hence, I shall never let you hurt me."

    "Such a superhuman maneuver, yet you didn't expel any mana in order to engage it. How?" The Enforcer's query was rhetorical, private, a background thought towards the mystery behind it, yet the hunted deigned to amusedly answer it all the same. "You've got your duty. But, you've also got questions. And the answer to those questions is simple as can be: you've been within my territory all along."

    The realization that she had been within a bounded field the whole time hit Bazett, like how when a person becomes conscious of their own tongue within their mouth.

    The bulging.
    The wet muscle that fills up the entire space of your oral cavity.
    A familiar limb becomes invasive, alien. The intruder that's always been with you makes it hard to breathe.
    How does it even fit in there? Cold sweat beads upon your brow.
    You enter an endless loop of making to swallow a phantom bollus. There is no bollus—only the tongue you all of a sudden absolutely have to be rid of. The small of your back tickles, a tingle down your spine all the way to the tailbone you all of a sudden are reminded of exists and shames you for being descended from prehistoric apes.
    You want to rip both of them out.


    After a moment of uncertainty, Bazett surpassed that. She swallowed the phantom bollus that was that anxious sensation. It no longer squirmed in her narrow mouth, but instead in her stomach, along her butterflies and Sowilo both.

    Being within an unknown field was playing with dangerous dice. But, her target was right there. A swift finish would decisively end this. Running wasn't an option. Not now. How far and fast would have sufficed? Better to stay. Sure, the decision to stay was potentially foolhardy. However, the warrior's intuition that Bazett had cultivated over many bouts of Enforcement told her to, not remain, but pursue.

    She leapt into the air in kind, to deal with her flighty foe. An explosive launch—surface-to-air missile launched from a firing platform. If her target would take to the sky, then she'd take the sky from her target. If her target could dodge her strikes, then she'd take control of the battlefield itself, instead. From the zenith of Bazett's leap, she could see a wide expanse of Ruwi. A fleeting thought about how she, if she traveled, could go to a city like this and experience that elusive ideal of newness. That she could experience experiences, add some tantalizingly-forbidden newness to her preserved sense of self. Said notion was only allowed a moment of a moment in her thoughts. Now, she dove, divebombed al-Salekhloen't with explosive might, the blow impactful enough to shatter the square's concrete beneath her feet.

    The Sealing Designate was indeed blown away...blown away like an insect on the desert wind stirred up by the swing of a weapon of war, too flighty and small to ever be fated with destruction at the hand of anyone's unwieldy blade. She giggled as she spun and flung. Spun and flung enough from Bazett's feat of power to smash through the borderless glass windows of the skyscraper she was on a collision course with.

    She plunged into the glass like a thrown stone plunges into water, ripples and all. She went with an audible plink and an unobfuscated wink.

    At that, Bazett further reinforced her body with additional drawn runes. The action took place in a fraction of a second. Another mere fraction of a second later, Bazett kicked off the ground—with enough force to further pulverize the crater about her into gravel—and followed suit, throwing herself right into the very same skyscraper. Even though she was trapped in a quicksand pool of illusions with potency enough to even fool the senses of a magus, let a lone a human, pursuit was her one avenue.
    Mannaz
    guided her, likewise fed into her own senses, let Enforcer sense that Sealing Designate was indeed a human life present and accounted for. Hence, Bazett had a chance. She threw herself into the building, prepared to weather any trap.

    Thq quicksand was a whirlpool. The windowglass gave and gave, and enveloped her, wrapped about her like sticky cellophane, slowed her down to a crawl as it drowned her, gave and gave and gave, giving a life-choking mile for every inch of Bazett's breaching leap.

    The bubble popped. The scenery of Ruwi melted away. In its place was the grounds of the sultan's palace.
    —A palace located within Old Muscat.

    "So that's how it is? I see." Bazett sputtered, gasped for air. Bazett, sensing that had been pulled deeper into the enemy's territory, used the lull in the action as an opportunity to open up the metal tube that she had been carrying with her for the whole affair, and pulled out a leaden sphere. "Fly, Fragarach," she commanded her Mystic Code, and the blood-infused ball glowed with magical energy and hung in the air beside her. It took no further action. Thusly, Bazett concluded that, despite the depth of the illusions about her, the conditions for Fragrach's activation hadn't yet been met. Further progress had to be made.

    Therefore, Bazett stepped away from the locked gates at her back, and through the estate's front doors.

    The faint scent of incense that had permeated the city ever since she had arrived grew stronger the further she walked down the halls. So too did the lights dim with a perverse and menacing aura. The pungent, muggy air, and the way the halls turned and pulsed with a dimming light that seemed to be filtered through a more and more organic lens gave the impression of a journey through a gargantuan intestine. Or a crowded esophagus. Or, a certain canal...

    The scene that had appeared before Bazett looked as if it was taken straight from the pages of the
    Alf Layla wa-Layla
    One Thousand and One Nights
    .
    ...Salacious pages that only existed as fragmented visions within the most needful of dreams.

    Dozens of women—all confirmed by Mannaz to be human—wearing only the skimpiest of outfits, if at all, their bodies intertwining, rutting messily, made the spacious throne room feel cramped. Cramped, sweltering, one of the smelliest places Bazett ever experienced. Pungent incense co-mingled with the human body odors of sweat, sex, and who-knew-what else. The hall was noisier, too; more than any rookery Bazett had ever been to before.

    There, on the throne together, in all senses of the word, was the target, Nuranleggsa, and an aged but virile man—the sultan himself.

    The situation in Oman was worse than anyone could have appreciated.

    Upon noticing Bazett's arrival, the female magus that Bazett was after spoke, her words coming out in husky, heated gasps. Words that were as intelligible as could be, despite their utterance among the drowning plethora of the others' moans and mumbled dirty talk. "Ahh, Mr. Q; good news. Look, she's back."

    The sultan—his hair and beard white from the passage of time, instead of a telltale sign of him having inhuman ancestry—his gaze was beckoned by Nuranleggsa al-Salekhloen't's towards Bazett, and upon sighting the Enforcer, his glazed-over, intoxicated gaze lit up with cheer. "Bazett! My sweet, my love, how I missed you so and awaited your return!" The half-naked, robe-only garbed sultan said to Bazett with familiarity and warm affection. He pulled himself out of and away from al-Salekhloen't, whose outfit had changed to something even more lascivious than before in the time since Bazett had seen her, and quickly trotted over to Bazett. He flopped as he moved, and embraced Bazett in tender-yet-tight warm, hug. "I performed my duties as necessary, but every moment without you at my side is torture for my old heart." Bazett didn't knock him away, or dodge his embrace. Something compelled her otherwise, told her it was alright. "What even is this?" Bazett asked, uncertain of anything. She asked as she was held by the sultan, a man who treated her as a lover, felt like a lover to her, in turn. Bazett feared no assault from this man, nor anyone else in this room,but especially not from this man. She felt relief. She felt return. But why? And, why not?

    "Bazett, you hard-working woman, sometimes you put yourself to the grindstone so hard that your mind grows absent. Sometimes you even forget that you're the jewel of the desert—my beloved wife, and mother of our wonderful children!" The sultan said knowingly, almost sounding like a father kindly admonishing a prodigal child, or a husband who did what he could to ground his spouse.

    "That's why we do this, Bazett," al-Salekhloen't joined in, decked out in jewelry, bands and bangles and little else. "The sultan, his family, friends, subjects his wife," she pointed to Bazett, "and his mistress," she pointed to herself, "all get together for a Great Unwinding."

    "Is that...so?" Bazett asked, her voice hazy.

    "Of course. You wouldn't be dressed like that for no reason," al-Salekhloen't said with a wry smile. Bazett, confused, turned her attention towards herself, to what she was wearing. Bazett's outfit was as slight as it was luxurious. It was the finest worn by any of the enraptured orgyists, equivalent with that Nuranleggsa wore, albeit in a different color, a bright burgundy akin to Bazett's hair vs. The silver and gold-trimmed piece that was more suited to Nuranleggsa's distinctive features.

    No gloves. No suit. Why would there be gloves? A suit? Maybe for business outside of Oman, perhaps, but—business. Business. She was a hard worker, yes. She performed her duties, always. Those duties were in service toward The Sultante of OmanThe Clock Tower.

    "So? Come on, Bazett? Go and unwind already. You're in good company," al-Salekhloen't told her, a fun and cheeky smile on the mistress' face.

    "Seal...Sealing?...D-Desig...?" Bazett's words trailed, floaty, transient.

    "Oh please, little bird. It's me, Nuranleggsa. Or, call me 'Leggsa,' instead. Or, Nuran. Or even better—Nunu!" The woman said, excitedly and sultrily.

    "Noodle Doodle!" Caroused the so-dubbed 'Mr. Q', rascally roughing Nuranleggsa's hair and shoulders with the arm he wasn't using to embrace Bazett, and with an energy more in common with that of a young man a third of his age. She paid it a token amount of heed, the kind of action taken by someone far used to her partner's various behaviors. "Oh, Mr. Q, you loose caboose, you," Nuranleggsa jovially replied.

    "Well? Let's have at it, Bazett, The Wife. It's good for you. It's good for Oman—
    "—and it'll be good for the rest of Middle East, in due time."
    ——Nuranleggsa's dream field encompassed the entirety of the Muscat region.
    ————Nuranleggsa al-Salekhloen't, whose
    dream demon
    succubus
    blood was the strongest of any modern magus.

    "Yes. Of course. How foolish of me," Bazett replied, at last in acquiescence.

    She was taken to the throne. Her rightful place. From there, the entire throne room could be seen with ease, and, likewise, the many participants of the coital free-for-all. Those people, were no issue. They were guests, invited to this soiree. Th is selfish was for their own good, for Oman's own good. They were allowed to do what they willed. They were of no concern to them. The only thing that mattered now was each other, and their own bodies. Bazett found herself sandwiched between the sultan and the woman claimed to be his mistress. He rubbed against her, and she did so as well to her. Their lips played over her skin, in practiced but zealous worship. Nuranleggsa descended, slipped aside what little precious-jeweled fabric there was that immodestly protected Bazett's modesty and went to work. Her work was potent indeed, and the succubus' top-tier fingers and tongue made Bazett grip at the armrest enough to break it, even if her strength wasn't already beyond that of a normal human's. "Nu– ugh," Bazett tilted her head back, stared so hard at the ceiling with her glazing-over eyes that she'd've bored a hole straight through it as thoroughly as Balor's fabled killer eye ray, and closed them—hard. She writhed, from the tongue and fingers at her front, and the sultan's full and firm member at her back, rubbing at and in-between her tight, pert, plump buttflesh—the hams which had been tempered through countless hours of training and utilized to the fullest to propel her powerful legs' acrobatics during any given Enforcement hunt. His callous, arthritic hand pawed her chest and hips with the hungry eagerness of a younger man. None of the (inborn) expertise of Nuranleggsa, but the enthusiasm he burned with made Bazett burn in turn, too. His mustache and beard tickled her neck, ears, and jawline, where she was lavished with passionate kiss after kiss.

    Their touches upon her took Bazett higher and higher, brought her closer and closer, sent her deeper and deeper, to the apex/edge/rock-bottom abyss, and—

    Suddenly, a bolt of light.

    Nuranleggsa stopped before she could go any further.

    Fragarach—there the whole time—had pierced a hole straight through her chest.

    The hole was narrow, clean, and went all the way through her body. Her heart had been instantly and totally annihilated by the Noble Phantasm. It was clear enough to see all the way through to what lay behind Nuranleggsa—and functioned as a lens that pierced through the dead succubus' fading illusions.

    Yes, for a succubus' strength derived from sex, and emotion. As desire reached its zenith, so too did the magic of that demon see its own heights—and heights that would qualify enough to act as conditions for
    Fragarach
    The Gouging Sword of the War God
    to activate.

    An Enforcer would do no more than what was needed of them to acquire their quarry. So too, did that mean, that an Enforcer would do anything that was needed of them to acquire said quarry. They would kill, and they would do more than that if it called for it.

    It was too close of a call, though. Bazett considered herself lucky to have retained some inkling of her own unperverted will deep within her psyche. That still didn't change the fact that part of her, so many parts of her, sought what the succubus was selling.

    In a twisted way, Bazett had to agree with Tunis Normant; that he had picked her for the right reasons.

    The shot from Fragarach was so fast that there was no blowback whatsoever. There was only a piercing, and the end brought on by that. The Sealing Designate slumped to the floor and remained there. Never would she move again. She was no longer a human being. Now, she was property of the Association.

    Maybe she always had been.

    Maybe Bazett was, too.

    "You did commendably, Nuranleggsa," the Enforcer said to the fallen target, acknowledging the-former-her—it—via the small gesture of her/its name that could no longer be appreciated by the one regarded.

    Reality replaced fantasy. Bazett was no longer the crown jewel, dolled up like a gorgeous haremette. Her suit and gloves and boots had returned, as if they'd never left, for they never had. Now, Bazett would have to collect the remains and leave the palace's grounds before the court, and the rest of Muscat, by extension, woke up from their succubus-wardened dreamland.

    . . .


    A week later, with thoughts of that Enforcement job, and the provocative memories of her interactions with that priest, Bazett went to make preparations to participate in the fifth Holy Grail War held in Fuyuki City.

    In a way, Bazett thought, would that not be a trip, one taken for the sake of her own desires?


    AN DEIREADH

    Spoiler:
    Bazett Fraga McRemitz- Tradition Carrier, God Holder, Enforcer, Master in the Fifth Holy Grail War. Though her participation in that Grail War was cut short, there was no doubt that she was a force to be reckoned with, a master of arts both martial and sorcerous. Write a story showing Bazett in her element, engaging in her role as a combat magus before being dispatched to Fuyuki. Perhaps executing a Sealing Designation, or maybe working on a private contract as a bodyguard - anything goes. Show us what it means to be a high-level Enforcer.
    Last edited by ItsaRandomUsername; December 25th, 2019 at 06:06 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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    Spinning Wheels [Fate/Zero AU - College/University] [Kayneth x Waver] [NSFW]

    One morning not unlike most other mornings before it, Waver Velvet was stuffing his stack of freshly-scribbled notes into his bag when he realised that they too would end up in the growing piles of paper in the back of his closet, and that they would never amount to anything, and that by extension he would never achieve a single worthwhile thing and would in all probability forever remain an irremediable waste of life.

    This thought gave him pause for all of two seconds, as it usually did, after which he resumed gathering his belongings unhurriedly, letting the majority of the students awkwardly shuffle out of the aisles and down the stairs without him. It was during that wait that he had his second epiphany, which rooted him to the spot even after the lecture hall had cleared of even the most sluggish layabouts.

    It was easy to entertain a spot of nihilism, a touch of sheer dread that urged him onward and away, and significantly less to consider why this self-flagellation was a frequent occurrence at all. In the same way that he considered his notes – notes from his thoughts, from his lectures, from his thoughts on his lectures – an attestation of a mind that considered every thought that it produced valuable and yet couldn't find a real use for any of them, he was taking the lesser punishment to his ego to spare himself the hard-hitting questions. Like, for example, what the hell he was trying to prove in the first place.

    His situation was entirely his fault, and the problem with admitting it was that it would take a massive change – a fundamental one, in the strict sense of the word – to escape it. Simply put, his approach was off from the start and it had only become more skewed with time. He was the mirror image of the student who was told from an early age that he was special, preternaturally gifted with superior intellect, whose illusion of superiority encountered resistance from reality far too late for him to have developed a practical understanding of what it means to put in the effort; in Waver's case, he thought himself a genius first and then demanded for the world to vindicate his belief. If it didn't, he would force it to.

    And that was where he'd been for the past five years. Banging his head against the walls of the institution until they gave way and granted him passage. Into what exactly he didn't have a clear idea; all he saw were locked doors he was determined to break through.

    For what purpose? Obviously, because turning back would mean he was wrong from the start, about everything, irredeemably, and he would have to scuttle his studies and start over as yet another no-name magus scrabbling for a place in the lowermost rungs of the Clock Tower rather than a genius who would turn the system on its head. When it came down to it, he would've rather burned out trying to prove the world wrong than accept being told that he shouldn't even try.

    More importantly, he wouldn't give those people the satisfaction by giving up.

    That thought, conclusive enough, snapped Waver out of his stupor. He walked down the steps to the exit already negotiating the topic of his missed breakfast and whether he could make up for it with a trip to Covent Garden before his lab. As a result he narrowly avoided colliding with the man coming through and found himself sputtering out an apology by habit even though he wasn't the one all but sprinting into the hall.

    Ignoring the near-accident completely, the man – definitely not a student if his getup was any indication, which made Waver's deference a good precaution – looked frantically around the empty hall, calling out “Professor!” to his quarry as if he was expecting someone to crawl out from under the stands in response. Waver pondered for the briefest moment whether he should belabour the obvious even more by pointing out that the professor was not, in fact, here, before he turned to leave. The man was having none of that, naturally.

    “Wait! You're Waver Velvet, right? Professor Archibald's eternal student?”

    The first part stopped Waver in his tracks, his traitorous brain already forming the answer. The second part left him with his mouth hanging open, an adequate response not quite coming together while he suppressed his sudden urge to explode. When it did – a strained, pointedly inflected admission that he was indeed Waver, comma, Velvet, full stop – the man he'd already mentally christened “vacuous prick” seemed awash with relief of the kind Waver was familiar with – that of finding someone to safely offload a bothersome task on to.

    That didn't mean he refused. No, he stood there and listened to how normally no one would be trusted with this sort of thing, took what was given to him for being trustworthy, got clapped on the shoulder and watched the man go before his conscious mind caught up with the situation, but hey, at least he scored an imaginary jibe. Now he only had to live off that high until dinner, seeing as he'd just given up lunch to personally deliver his Lordly Highness Kayneth bloody Archibald's shitey mail.

    God, he was such a fuckup. Would anything ever go his way?

    Waver Velvet sighed the sigh of a martyr and turned the envelope in his hand around.

    The glint of silver script and heraldry struck his eyes like an ore vein in rock. His stomach's flips at the sight had nothing to do with hunger, and he certainly didn't rush off to find a kettle just to brew tea.



    “Tell me, Waver. Are you so far gone in your rebellion against propriety that you refuse to observe office hours?”

    If there was something in Kayneth Archibald that Waver could grudgingly admire, it was the man's ability to effortlessly rebuke the people around him, his blend of superiority and dismissal conveyed without allowing the slightest insinuation that he was in any way affected. Perhaps he had developed this bizarre appreciation because he'd been the recipient of the professor's derision more than any other student by far, but by the same token he'd also built up a resistance to it that was unprecedented for his lowly station. And perhaps the Lord put up with it because it amused him when his punch bag put up a fight.

    As it was, Waver still hadn't graduated from the classroom, and Kayneth still hadn't kicked him out. It was thought by third parties that the other's surrender was the only acceptable outcome.

    “No sir. But I think it would be less disruptive if I did, sir.”

    Kayneth's smirk from behind his desk was clearly asking “and whose fault is that?”. Waver, whose fault it definitely was for picking a fight with the Peregrine heir in the queue for Kayneth's office, watched his professor sip his tea in silence. Eventually, Kayneth shook his head in mock disbelief – another familiar gesture of his – and put down his cup and saucer with deliberation; the very image of a kindly principal about to scold a recalcitrant yet endearing student if one was severely short of sight.

    “Waver, Waver, Waver,” came the first round of tut-tuts. “How long has it been now, four years, five? I may have once believed that you are much more suited for a simple life but you have turned me around on this, yes you have!” He allowed a pause, and was undeterred when Waver didn't rise to it, his smile thinning. “Why, I think you have learned a great deal through sheer stubbornness.”

    “Thank you professor. You've been a true inspiration.”

    That, while thoroughly sarcastic, was completely true. Waver Velvet's obstinacy and egotism would have led him to spectacular blunders before long, and so it could be said that finding his match in those qualities under the tutelage of Kayneth Archibald had helped Waver channel his grievances into a productive purpose. The evisceration of his research paper by the Lord was the starting point for the student's manic attempts to force his teacher and the world in general to acknowledge his prowess, writing critique after critique on any established theory he could get his hands on, peaking with the publication of a critical response to the original paper outlining the research on the Volumen Hydrargyrum, where Waver identified design oversights and proposed a number of improvements to Kayneth Archibald's supreme mystic code in what was universally regarded as a pretty ballsy, if stupid, move. That he wasn't scalped for it spoke volumes about the validity of the claims, monumentally petty as their motivation was.

    It went without saying, however, that acknowledging Waver's progress in a certain field only encouraged Kayneth to emphasise his deficiencies in others, perpetuating the cycle of scorn and resentment. Such was life in the Lord El-Melloi's classroom. Case in point:

    “Your ability to quibble about the magecraft of those more successful than you is, while noteworthy, utterly crass, and in no way does it make up for the woeful state of your own. It is nothing to be proud of, I assure you.”

    “I am of the same mind. One can't let quibbles get in the way of personal growth.”

    “What are you growing into, Waver? A permanent fixture in my classroom?”

    Tempting as it was to answer in kind Waver hadn't come to start a pissing match. Kayneth, realising this display of passivity was unlike his student, must've drawn his own conclusion, and the look that dawned on his face was one of detached pity – the kind that had been Waver's constant and most hated companion in his earlier years. When Kayneth started speaking, slowly and evenly, the regret of someone who had to break the hard truth almost rang true, if only Waver didn't know firsthand what the man really thought of his inferiors.

    “I only want the best for my students, and the life of a magus is not for everyone, sadly. But even so, I recognise that you have exceeded my expectations in specific areas. Not by much, and they weren't a high bar by any means, but all the same.”

    He thinks I'm quitting, Waver realised. This Pontius Pilate with the emphasis on “ponce” was washing his hands of him with the first and last pat on the back, and even that was backhanded. If he had any reservations about his plan, he didn't care to remember them now.

    Waver kept his cool even as the thought of how he'd shut the prattling prick up made him giddy. In fact he clamped down on his emotions so hard that spontaneous reactions proved beyond him when his brain combined the words “was”, “thinking”, “about”, “making”, “you”, “a”, “teaching”, and “assistant” into an intelligible sentence, parsed its meaning, and condensed his understanding of it into an inarticulate choking sound. Professor Archibald, drawing his own interpretation, shook his head again, this time ruefully.

    “It seems to me that since critiquing the works of others is all you're good at, you could put that to good use grading papers. I think your future in the Clock Tower lies in that direction, and I would be willing to put in a word about that with your new professor.”

    Having said his piece in memory of his oldest student's academic prospects, Kayneth returned his attention to his tea, waiting to reap the gratitude due from his most troublesome ex-student. Instead, he received an envelope tossed contemptuously onto his desk.

    The cup, frozen mid-journey, was put back down. A gloved hand picked up the envelope and held it for a long moment without opening it. It was then, and only then, that Waver's composure broke, and the volatile mixture of anger, humiliation, vindictiveness, and the viciousness of the weak turning the tables against the strong reacted together to form, in one short question, an encapsulation of Waver Velvet's feelings towards his longtime tormentor, nemesis, and gatekeeper to the world of magic that he deserved more than anyone else.

    “Let's talk about your future, Lord El-Melloi.”

    In that moment he felt like a god. The visceral satisfaction at Kayneth's astonishment, the sheer dumbfoundedness which suited his face better than any sneer, was quite literally the best he'd ever felt in his entire life.

    And then he was kicked out.



    Kayneth didn't summon him back that day. It made sense, Waver reckoned. It wasn't easy, facing reality for the first time. He spent the following morning like any other, eating his breakfast with gusto and making a note to definitely treat himself to a nice lunch after the day's first lecture. The spring in his step must have baffled the people who knew him by reputation, but Waver was past caring about any of them. He had faced unimaginable hardships and pulled through, he had seized destiny by the throat, and what did these brats know about any of that? He could pick apart their narrow minds, dance circles around their precious mysteries. Once he'd made his way into their ivory tower there would be no more illusions about that fact.

    Waver's cheer lasted until shortly after the break, frayed by a myriad small factors until it gave way to an anxiety verging on paranoia, the elation glazing over his thoughts dimming enough for the implications of his actions to become visible once more. With each creak of a stand and movement in the corner of his eye seeming to foster sinister intent, he conceded to his fears and fled from the hall all the way to his dorm like a hounded man jumping at shadows.

    It wasn't illogical, he reasoned, slumped against the locked door. Just a remote possibility. He knew whose business he was getting into. He had just been a bit unsure of what it entailed.

    He'd been thinking about the side of the issue that was familiar to him and concluded that Kayneth El-Melloi Archibald was not so foolish as to not think the situation through and understand that dialogue was the logical option. With his thoughts focused on the man he'd somehow failed to consider, or rather didn't think the idea through, that pilfering and opening a sensitive letter was a breach of confidentiality for the sender as well. When he realised that the information he had come across was a tool as much as a liability, rendering him a target to something so nebulous and distant from his everyday life that his imagination could scarcely come up with adequately terrifying scenarios, his confidence about his surefire extortion scheme plummeted like a balloon robbed of all its hot air.

    He sat in the dark and lamented his choices until his roommate returned in the afternoon, giving him a mighty scare while unlocking the door, and informed Waver that Professor Archibald had asked for him in his office “forthwith”, emphasis his, because who even says that? Waver thanked him, cobbled together the pieces of his spine, and marched to Kayneth's office to meet destiny with dignity.

    With how he'd played up the whole affair in his mind to the level of a grand conspiracy, reaching the Lord's door without incident felt almost disappointing. After some inexplicable deliberation with his hand on the handle over whether he should knock on the door or not, the voice calling him inside took the choice out of his hands.

    Professor Archibald met him in the same place as yesterday, his hands held steepled between inscrutable eyes. Waver, ever the schoolboy, mentally rehearsed his lines while he waited for Kayneth to speak first; which he did, in a voice stripped of its habitual derision.

    “I will give you yet another chance to prove your ignorance,” he said. For once it didn't feel like an insult but a fact, offered as a lifeline. The forget-and-forgive option, in truth the same one repeatedly forced on Waver over the years: to give up and leave, with stakes greater than his pride now on the line. Kayneth was telling him the same thing that he'd been telling himself for most of the day: that he was in over his head and should walk away. An hour ago he couldn't have answered for sure. Now there was no doubt in his mind.

    No hand-wringing, no slouching, no stuttering. He looked Kayneth El-Melloi Archibald in the eye and gave him his answer.

    “I've arranged for the biggest rumourmongers in the student body to get a tip if I—if anything happens to me. So that's a no, sir.”

    Alright, just a little bit of stuttering, and maybe his arrangement wasn't actually as airtight as he was implying, but the conviction behind his words was solid. Kayneth looked struck by his answer, and Waver felt a flutter of hope at that.

    The next moment, his look turned ponderous, and it was somehow worse than if he'd been furious instead.

    “You....dare to threaten me?” Kayneth asked evenly, the conversational tone making Waver's hair rise and the words stick to his tongue.

    “I-I see no other way to fight back against corruption and an unjust system.”

    “Corruption,” he repeated slowly, as though sampling the word. “And an unjust system.”

    Then with a shrug of his shoulders, Kayneth's demeanour shed its rigidness all at once, easing into his chair. The return of the sardonic professor was a relief than Waver would never admit.

    “I blame myself for this, Waver, I really do. I did not curb your juvenile fantasies before they gave rise to criminal tendencies.“

    “It doesn't matter, professor.” And it really didn't; not only because Waver wasn't going to sit through another lecture on his shortcomings, but because he couldn't think of why he'd ever tried so hard to earn Kayneth's approval when he knew it was impossible to begin with. “Let's discuss the matter at hand.”

    “Very well. I will attempt to relate to you the depths of your stupidity, beginning with the fundamental flaws in your reasoning.”

    Alas, the negotiations turned out to be a lecture after all.



    The situation could be broadly summarised in the following way:

    Lord Kayneth El-Melloi Archibald, the child-genius of a prestigious family, had followed his destined path of success by becoming a premier researcher and a first-class lecturer in multiple departments, forging political ties with Lord Eulyphis through engagement to his daughter, and even receiving the honour of the El-Melloi title from the highest authorities of the Clock Tower. It was, also, a mere matter of time before he would formally become the Head of Mineralogy, supposedly timed to coincide with his marriage ceremony - a moment of ultimate triumph.

    Young, brilliant, and powerful - all in all, things were going pretty well for him. The star of Kayneth Archibald was still rising, and it was thought by some that he had the potential to one day become the leader of the Clock Tower itself.

    That piece of hubris might have been why the letter found its way to him, though the intent would never be known for sure. After all, the Clock Tower had many mechanisms in place to reward excellence with absolute control.

    There already existed a supreme magus of the modern era. A prodigy who might've one day united the institution under his leadership was not needed when the King ruled them all with an iron fist. Or as it had been for the past year, the Queen.

    Magi fundamentally strove to attain a path to the Root, but this was a pilgrimage fraught with perils which only increased the closer they got to their goal. Those who broke apart from the roads most traveled, the innovators carving their own paths ahead of the pack, were marked, captured, and sealed so that their genius would never be lost from the world. Those who had become exemplars of their craft, the Lords, department Heads, and lecturers, were tasked with leading the pilgrims down the paths of knowledge for the benefit of all who would undertake the pilgrimage in the future.

    The reward for the former was a denial of nothing but their singular goal. The reward for the latter was a denial of all but their singular duty.

    Kayneth Archibald, the rising star of the Clock Tower, had, at the peak of his powers, been called to set aside his blessed life for service in the Queen's handpicked unit of elites among elites, the Crown Battalion. That was the answer that Waver Velvet had arrived at. It was no coincidence that the fifty magi comprising the unit were said to be fit to lead a department. Once they put on the mask, their identities ceased to matter. Service in the Choir – to the Barthomeloi – was service for life.

    Understandably, he wouldn't be all that keen on the prospect. Waver, having grasped the predicament his teacher was in when he intercepted the letter of invitation and spied on its contents – a call for Lord El-Melloi to “fulfil the obligation” of the name he had been granted, and instructions to put his affairs in order, reading more like a death sentence than a congratulatory message – assumed that he would try to worm his way out of it under tables and behind closed doors, and hatched a scheme where he could hold the information that Kayneth would want to keep quiet about over his head in a last-ditch attempt to graduate from the tutelage of a man determined to bounce him out of the world of magecraft altogether.

    The fundamental problem with Waver's idea of blackmail, Kayneth explained, was assuming that making public the information about his “promotion” was a devastating prospect that he would want to avoid at all costs. This was because Waver, as an outsider who had made no effort to understand the institution and culture he was part of, had no idea what names like “Barthomeloi” and “Archibald” actually meant, the kind of power they commanded, and the way their gravity shifted the political landscape around them. Powerful people were throwing their support behind Kayneth on a level that dormroom gossip could never reach. Waver pointed out that it would still be much preferable for Kayneth to deal with the situation while making sure the knowledge didn't reach, let's say Lord Eulyphis, to which Kayneth replied that he wasn't in the habit of accepting answers which were correct for the wrong reasons.

    By the end of it Waver felt his position was, while less secure, still negotiable, and put forth his demand of a top-ranked graduation from Kayneth's classroom in return for his silence. This finally earned him a sneer, but not for the reason he was expecting.

    “I've known you to be pathetic in many ways but never for lack of trying. What happened to proving me wrong, Waver?”

    The rebuke hit close to home. For all that he felt justified, even though he knew that he had exhausted all legitimate means to obtain what he thoroughly deserved, Waver's pride still chafed at the idea of extorting someone – even Professor Archibald – to receive it.

    “I can prove many things wrong, sir, but your opinion doesn't seem to be one of them.”

    “Indeed. Yet I must say you managed it, in the end. I did not expect you to have the guts to do something like this.”

    Resting a hand on his temple, Kayneth tapped out a rhythm in contemplation for a few seconds.

    “However.” The tapping ceased, and he leaned forward in his chair. “I have no intention of compromising my record as a lecturer by making a mockery of regulations. If you want to graduate from my class, mister Velvet, you will have to earn it.”

    “W-What are you talking about? What do you—that's what I've been—you--!“

    It was too much for Waver to bear. Having his five years of toil and hardship brushed aside had reduced him to sputtering, his feelings impossible to articulate. But before he descended to wordless rage, Kayneth placed a large piece of paper – no, parchment, it seemed – on the desk before him, and his indignation ground to a halt.

    Cursive letters flowed in an elegant script, spelling out words that Waver had trouble believing even as he read them. When he looked up from the text, his face held an incredulity bordering on trepidation.

    “This is a joke, right?”

    Kayneth spared exactly two shakes of his head.

    “It is, you will find, deadly serious.”

    “No way. I refuse.”

    “Of course, you can do that. But I should inform you that the mercury you absorbed through your skin when you touched the door handle will kill you shortly after you leave this office. Unless I tell it not to, that is.”

    Kayneth allowed himself a smile as his ashen-faced student all but collapsed onto his carpet. Then he procured a quill and a knife from a drawer of his desk and placed them next to the scroll.

    “Sign with blood above the line, Waver. It will be a challenge, but I shall make a passable apprentice out of you.”




    TBC R&R PLZ

    Spoiler:
    Waver Velvet is a man who is destined to become Lord El-Melloi II, an (in)famous lord of the Magic Assocation. However, just because this is meant to be doesn't mean that fate has to have a hand in it. Or rather, "Fate/." The request: In a world in which Holy Grail Wars and Servants don't exist--a world in which humanity isn't at the top of the metaphysical food chain, in the Tsukihime timeline--write a fanfic about how Waver's story ends up at the same conclusion his always does.
    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
    woolooloo Kirby's Avatar
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    Palingenetic Descension

    Content Warning: violence, sexual assault.

    He remembered his grandmother scolding him.

    “Samurai do not cry,” she told him sternly. They were entertaining a visitor from the imperial court, a cousin of the ailing Emperor Horikawa, and such an outburst would have greatly shamed them.

    In between sobs, and slaps to stop the sobbing, he told her how the visitor’s children were cruel to him because he was called Hachirou – “the eighth son” – even though he was his father’s first and only son; and how he went to his father and begged him for a new name, but the father – in his rightful anger as lord of their home – beat him and told him he would not even be allowed to choose a different name after the coming-of-age ceremony. At those words, his grandmother’s eyes, full of contempt, finally softened, and she kneeled beside him and told him the truth about his birth…

    Hunger. He remembered feeling hungry, once. Not for anything as mundane as food or drink, no – he hungered for power. For his birthright. His mortal father (a lord among lords, weak though he may have been) had taught him how to ride, to lead, to kill, but it had been his grandmother who taught him his destiny: to rule above all, as a true son of Hachimantarou rightfully should.

    Yes, he once felt real hunger, a yearning which burned like poison in his very bones. He still remembered that feeling in some way, a shadow of an echo of a dream, but now he was ruled by a different appetite – one much less lofty, but much easier to satisfy, and he found he did not miss his old cravings.

    He mused on those thoughts as he idly chewed on a leg bone, letting the marrow run down his throat. It used to be a young soldier's leg. The meat was too hard, too lean, but it had dulled the pain – and the look on the young man's eyes as life had been slowly torn from his body had even brought him... Happiness? Yes, that was the word – happiness. How fleeting! How elusive!

    Neither the sounds of battle all around him nor the sight of enemy warriors barging into the room broke through his musings, much less the dying screams of his remaining soldiers being killed right over the next room; it was the sight of her. Kouyou. Her armour bore marks of heavy fighting from shoulders to toe, and the inelegance angered him. At least her face was fully exposed, and he drank in the sight of her amber eyes: the fierce determination in them, their captivating beauty. His daughter, his firstborn child. Her long black hair had several strands of a bright, vivid red. That pleased him, for gods should never hide their true nature.

    He threw away the leg bone and walked to her. Her soldiers charged at him even as she tried to hold them back, but he barely even spared a glance and they immediately fell to their knees. That was only natural: he was Bushin-Tenka, War God of All Under Heaven, grandson of Yahata-no-Kami. Even the most impure beings in existence would never be able to raise arms against their heavenly sovereign.

    All around him, the fallen warriors strained desperately against their own treacherous blood as it assaulted them from inside, but he paid them no heed. He only saw her.

    “Father…”

    He sternly reprimanded her lack of respect when addressing Bushin-Tenka.

    “Father,” she insisted. “Your actions have brought our family to the brink of disaster. The other clans tell stories of you and your vile deeds. They fear you as they would fear an ogre from their childhood legends, but soon they will hate you more, and then we will be destroyed.”He scoffed at her fears and showed nothing but contempt for the other clans. He was Bushin-Tenka, and they would submit to his rule as was only right.

    She nodded, already prepared for that answer, and raised her naginata. Her hair moved seemingly of its own accord, as if pulled by invisible strings, and lunged at him like an entire nest of vipers.

    There would be no more words between them.

    The cold wind of the mountain cut into his flesh despite his armour as he stepped into the abandoned temple. There was a time when it housed a living buddha, so obviously it had become a popular pilgrimage site for neighbouring villages, and the monks who tended it grew fat and wealthy on the offerings; but the threat of war cut those off, and then actual war cut off the heads of the monks.

    Hachirou cared nothing for that as he surveyed the temple’s interior. Unlike the outside, it had been well-cared for, with floating eyeballs covered in foxfire providing the lights and tapestries made of human skin hung on the wall. At the centre of the room there were women with skin white as porcelain but who wore no makeup performing some dance from Chuugoku, their long, slender arms and legs – much longer and slender than any he had ever seen – moving in an almost beckoning manner even as they covered themselves from view with ribbons and fans. All around them, dog-faced courtiers sat cross-legged and watched the dancers with pure, naked lust, dripping saliva from their half-open mouths. Off to the side, stinking of blood and sweat, little pigs who walked as humans scurried all over the place, pouring something which looked like sake for the men and throwing assorted pieces of meat and guts into a huge cauldron filled to the brim with water that had already turned red. He could see the heads of children bubbling to the surface.

    He cared nothing for that. Instead, he looked to the sandstone dais which had once housed the living buddha and was now occupied by six people. One of them was a woman of such beauty and dressed in such finery anyone would believe her to be a princess if not for the eight eyes on her forehead, her neck twice as long as the size of her head, or the claws growing out of her hand; she was surrounded by four other women equally dressed in elegant clothes, but no one could say anything of their beauty, for their faces were completely smooth and devoid of features. The last person seated at the platform was an impossibly elderly man, so old and wizened it was impossible he had ever been alive; he was a tall man, half as tall as a cherry tree, and his clothes were of such quality that next to him, even Emperor Sutoku would have looked as if he were dressed in rags.

    Hachirou moved with purpose, quashing all fear and doubt with sheer pride and rage at his unfulfilled destiny. No one seemed to take notice except for the creatures on the dais, and they only regarded him with interest and amusement. He stood before them and spoke long and proudly of who he was and his many deeds, and above all of his father – his real father –, then asked for his boon.

    The old man who was half as tall as a tree laughed at him with pure delight, clapping his hands and hopping in place with joy, an exuberant demonstration of childish glee which only looked all the more grotesque on one such as him. “My child, my silly child, my wonderful, wonderful child! The stories you little people tell yourselves! You do everything in your power to convince yourselves you are important, but you do so by borrowing that importance from others!”

    He fought back his anger at the old man’s words and asked for his boon again.

    The tall old man’s mirth did not go away; if anything, it only seemed to increase. “I can give you what you want, my petulant child, but be warned: even a corpse’s hair and nails live longer than a man’s pride.”

    Without waiting for an answer, the elderly giant turned to the demon-princess beside him. “What do you think, daughter? Will you take part?”

    Only then did Hachirou notice she had been looking at him the whole time, as if studying him. Hearing her father’s question, she smiled and replied: “Yes, father, I will. My friend Momiji always tells me I should be more involved in the lives of mortals, perhaps this will give me the incentive I need.”“Wonderful, wonderful! A little help, then, if you please.”

    With a swift movement – so swift Hachirou barely saw it –, she shot out of her seat and slashed at his wrist, cutting open a vein. Wordlessly, the smile never leaving his face, the giant elderly man extended his bleeding wrist to Hachirou.

    Hachirou took the arm and drank the blood. Hesitatingly at first, disgusted by the viscous liquid running down his throat, but then greedily, like a hungry baby suckling on their mother’s teats – until it started to burn. He pushed the laughing old man away from him and desperately tried to take off his armour, screaming until his voice went hoarse. Many were the villages and castles he had burned, and none of those flames had burned as hot as the fire that was now taking his body…

    Kouyou leaned against the wall, bleeding from fresh wounds all over her body and barely able to stand, the broken naginata at her feet. Meanwhile, the one who called himself Bushin-Tenka had not even broken a sweat.

    With nothing but a thought, the blood of her followers, their very bones, had been forcibly drawn out of their then-living bodies and shaped into spears which attacked her as if thrown by invisible hands. Those whose bodies he could not control would be killed by this overwhelming assault; such was Bushin-Tenka’s will.

    His victory all but assured, he briefly felt another unfamiliar feeling stir in his chest as he approached her, ready to kill with his bare hands. He had other children, but this one – his firstborn – was stronger than all the others, special. What an empress she would have made! This emotion whose name he could no longer remember weighed heavily on his heart, and he was angry. He had just eaten, but he felt the pangs of hunger again, and wondered how long she would survive while he consumed her flesh even as he went to grab her face with both hands.

    By the time he saw she was smiling, it was already too late.

    Countless were the little gods residing on Earth under Heaven with whom those who walked the way of the Yin and Yang could forge pacts, but there was a fundamental principle at the root of all such practices: equivalent exchange, a sacrifice of life force or magical energy. Kouyou’s hair, every strand of it, was rich in both.

    Dozens upon dozens of shikigami of the highest order were unleashed upon the one who had been her father, fierce death gods who attacked not his body, but his spirit, and he felt himself being invaded by them, his very essence being violated. Before such an assault, what was the hollow authority of a false god? What was the aimless pride of a fading memory of a mortal man?

    His mind almost lost in a feverish haze, he barely even saw as the devil-princess jumped on him. Her claws shredded his armour as if it were paper, and his clothes provided even less resistance. Soon he was standing there completely exposed; his manhood had become harder at some point than it had ever been in his life. He desperately tried to fend her off but failed, and she threw him to the ground and mounted him hard and fast, grunting and laughing at his pain. All around them, as if on cue, the dog-faced men were jumping on the dancers, their intent clearly visible in their bodies even through the layers of clothing, but there were not enough women for all, so the weaker ones had to avail themselves of the pig-people. Those who were attacked tried to run, but soon their squeals drowned all other sounds; the others kept tending to the chores.

    He looked away, unable to bear what she was doing to him, but his body did not care. He suddenly felt cold as the fire inside him started to recede. It first settled in his belly, then descended to his crotch, then erupted inside the demon-woman, and he dared to hope that would be the end. But no; she kept riding him, and his seed impossibly kept flowing without stop. He felt himself growing weaker by the second, but still she rode, and her belly grew big, bigger, bigger…

    She finally jumped away from him, the place between her thighs glistening white and red with his seed and blood. She laid right there on the temple floor, uncaring, still laughing, and in the blink of an eye the faceless attendants were there to help with the birth.

    His body was shaking, and he curled up on himself. He could feel something changing inside him, but he felt weak, so weak… Only the elder’s voice broke through the cold emptiness to reach him.

    “Your daughter will be a fine ruler, strong in body and mind. She will prove herself worthy of your ‘divine’ heritage, my brave child.”

    He was dying, but he still found strength to accuse, to complain. That was not what he wanted, not what he asked…

    “Oh, do not worry, my greedy little child. You will receive your boon in full. I love you all too much not to spoil you rotten!”

    Surprisingly strong hands grabbed and raised his hindquarters, positioning him so he could still see the birth of his daughter, and then he was taken with great vigour, the tall old man laughing in a child-like manner all throughout the act. He tried not to think, tried not to feel, as he watched as the faceless ladies-in-waiting cut open the devil-princess’ belly and tore a baby from inside her, the princess showing no pain as she sang loving lullabies. The long-limbed dancers were not screaming anymore, only crying, and he could hear no more squealing, only the sounds of biting and chewing.

    With a shudder and a jerk, the laughter finally stopped as the tall old man spilled his seed inside him, and with the seed came the burning once more, but with the burning now came strength, great strength, strength such as no man had ever known…

    Kouyou staggered out of the castle into her soldiers’ encampment and was met with cheers, and this pleased her. Her followers praised her and loved her and served her loyally, for her father (a lord among lords, monstrous though he might have been) had taught her how to ride, to lead, to kill. He had even taught her of their destiny to rule above all, as the lineage of Hachiman should. She had learned well from the one who had called himself Bushin-Tenka, War God of All Under Heaven, and she would pass that lie and that curse down through the family line.

    Hachirou Tohno lay dead, his corpse left to rot, forgotten.

    Spoiler:
    The half-breed families of Japan have a long and bloody history... but from where did they originate? Dive into the past of the Tohno, Kishima, or another clan, and imagine a plausible start to either their bloodline or their feud with the Demon Hunter organization. Alternatively, write a simple period piece with oni hybrids taking prominence. Involving canon characters is encouraged but not necessary. (Whether this story takes the form of oni lewds or a gorefest or a Tsuki-ish rumination on the nature of life and death, be sure to show how humanity confronts and coexists with demonic bloodlust!)
    Last edited by Kirby; December 25th, 2019 at 01:44 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.

  6. #6
    woolooloo Kirby's Avatar
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    The Lost Branch

    There is a space beyond space where Kischur Zelretch Schweinorg often retreats to think in peace.

    It has no intrinsic properties save those which he gave it. Gravity pointing in a single direction. A breathable atmosphere and temperature sufficient to keep it that way. A light source, or rather, several, hidden from view. Crystalline walls that refract and reflect and, most importantly, separate the space from the small room he has carved out inside it to preserve the lives and sanity of those within.

    And a nice desk, mahogany, with a stuffy chair and a rotary phone in case Zelretch decides to call one of his short list of friends or long list of reluctant acquaintances. This is his space, between space, below space, and betwixt space. This is his small corner of the Kaleidoscope.

    Today, Zelretch sits in his chair and stares at the walls. To the infrequent guests of his space, they are opaque, irregularly-angled crystals. To him, they are transparent mirrors showing reflections – of himself, his space, and all the places he isn’t, but could be. Reflections of entire worlds, universes, that the aberrant knowledge within his soul enables him to comprehend. He stares, and through the Second, sorts, mentally grouping together similar world lines. Some are “safe”, already realized, and simple to categorize. Others at the edge of his vision are “risky” and should not be observed unless necessary, for to do so would be to acknowledge them as real. And finally there are those who are doomed, due for pruning, branches in the midst of their wilting. They are “safe” as well. Nothing he does at this point can change their fate; that certainty of outcome is the very reason they will be discarded.

    On some days, Zelretch can almost grasp some greater form within the mess of worlds. They stretch on endlessly, but his perception of them doesn’t. Those that can be seen, and those that cannot, if they are arranged by proximity (a proximity which has nothing to do with physical space), form something close to… a shape. A familiar shape, somewhat resembling...

    “Hey, old man!”

    It’s not often that the private musings of Kischur Zelretch Schweinorg are interrupted. On the rare occasions they are, it is due to the ringing of his phone. It has never been due to… this.

    “Gimme a sign or something, gramps! Let me in or fry me to a crisp!”

    The voice, brash and youthful, vibrates at the just the right frequency to strain both the crystal walls and Zelretch’s head. He rubs his wrinkled temples and sighs.

    “C’mon, you’re too old for the silent treatment! I know you’re in there! If you weren’t, this ward wouldn’t be fighting so hard!”

    Briefly, Zelretch wonders if he should take up the suggestion. It’s not too late to activate one of the rougher wards, leaving the would-be intruder spread across a dozen universes as twelve equal-mass chunks of flesh. Or he could take a more playful stance and merely send away the loudmouth’s consciousness to some random world…

    The old man sighs and shakes his head, even as the walls shudder. No, no. He’ll do nothing. It’s been centuries since he was irresponsible enough to play around like that. He’s too old now for such silliness. Or rather, he was always too old, but not quite aged enough to be embarrassed.

    “Cease the blathering, foolish pupil.”

    With a snap of his fingers, the room expands. What was once a rough square doubles in size to a rectangle in the blink of an eye. Splayed across the flat floor of the new area is something between man and boy, with unkempt brown hair and the beginnings of a beard marking him as a neophyte more than his ill-fitting robes ever could. The student spends no time in clambering to his feet, shivering and stammering and pointing at Zelretch whilst wearing a mad grin.

    “I-I knew it! You were hiding here after all! I did it! I broke through-!”

    “Yes, yes.” Zelretch waves him off, pinching his nose with his other hand, hoping he’s merely imagining the headache building. “If you’ll be silent, I will congratulate you. Otherwise, you’ll face the punishment first. Understood?”

    The boy’s mouth flaps silently, but he nods and allows himself to fall, sitting hastily on the floor as the Wizard Marshal rises from his seat and materializes a cane with a snap of the fingers.

    “Of my pupils, though you are among the most disrespectful and juvenile, you have become the first to reach this place mostly unaided. In that, Mr. Zoston, you may take some measure of pride.”

    Clack. Clack. Every second step Zelretch takes towards Zoston is accompanied by the clack of cane against crystal. The Wizard Marshall’s piercing glare keeps the student in place; it has not softened one bit.

    “However… I’ll be frank, pupil. You’re an eyesore. If you devote yourself to the craft, I may appear before one of your descendants. You, however, will never see me again. Begone.”

    As Zelretch raises his cane, Charles Zoston knows he has less than one line’s worth of time to wrest back control of his future. With neither time nor experience, he chooses to make his last words the most important ones: “Why don’t you help them?”

    Zelretch pauses, halfway through the chant. His brows, already furrowed, draw closer together. “Explain the question,” he commands.

    Zoston nods, then shakes his head. “Why… why do you just let everything happen?” he asks. “When you’re using the Second, you know, don’t you? You know which worlds will live, and which will be culled. Worlds where – where utopias aren’t wishful thinking. Where we colonize the stars. Where wars and disease are eradicated. Worlds where we win. You know those worlds will be culled. You’ve seen it through the Kaleidoscope, haven’t you? So why don’t you change it? Why don’t you save them? Why – why don’t you try?”

    Zelretch regards his unfortunate pupil as a researcher might examine an autopsied sample. Charles Zoston is a magus of little renown. Discarded by his family for being a second son, he is self-taught but deteremined, having clawed his own way into the Clock Tower without support and won Zelretch’s favour with that same drive. Zelretch still recalls his Zoston’s tale of the disdain on his brother’s face as they met once in the halls, the revulsion and very clear desire to eradicate the mistake walking and talking and breathing before him. Worst of all, the student had said, was the single ounce of pity, for someone that should not, could not exist, and would be forever damned for it.

    In Zelretch’s eyes, doubtless Zoston sees now something far worse.

    “How someone as naive as you made it this far,” speaks the old man. “Is a mystery I care not for.”

    Zelretch turns, taps the cane three times, each ringing louder than the last. A second chair appears by his desk, across from the first. “In fact,” he mutters. “It’s no mystery at all. Sit. You will have your answer, foolish pupil. It will also be your punishment.”

    Zoston has not been to this place before, but he has heard of it, from a former pupil of Zelretch’s, after plying the man with enough alcohol. Here, the Kaleidoscope’s power is at its greatest. One can peer into countless possibilities and, what’s more, those possibilities can be shown to others as well. So when he sits on the edge of the seat and leans forward, expecting an immense display of magical potency, he is somewhat disappointed.

    Zelretch reaches into something Zoston could not quite perceive and extracts a small black crystal, which he deposits onto the surface of the desk. “Here,” he offers. “The fruits of your dream.”

    The magus’ pupil, naive but not incompetent, understands. He fixes his eyes on the crystal, unwavering as it rises and positions itself at eye level. It is not quite black, on further inspection. Instead it is smoky, as if containing fumes from a volcanic eruption, still roiling and churning and not yet cool. But, if he focuses, he can make out something within: a blueish green marble, slowly turning.

    Zoston squints, and finally Zoston sees.



    “It was a beautiful world. Or at least, it could have been.”

    Early in the middle ages, a certain warlord died a sudden and accidental death. Due to this, he did not survive to pillage a certain town, and a certain person, who would have otherwise died during infancy, was able to grow up and introduce a certain creed into society through his words and deeds. It grew and spread to enough people to hold influence over a sizable portion of the world’s populace, a belief without borders to rival even religions. From there, following that belief system, those people forced countries closer together, halted wars, dismantled non-functional power structures, and… well, it’s not really important. There are many ways to reach world peace. The conclusion humanity had been set towards would have been beautiful. Certain, but beautiful.

    It was not permitted. I knew that, even then. I knew it before I ever took hold of the Second. The world would be culled precisely for that very reason. Uncertainty is what Alaya prizes. But I was young then, as you are now, and seeing that world made my heart ache.

    I couldn’t bear it. I couldn’t bear the thought of standing aside. The Second could not overturn the laws of the universe, but surely it could do something. My understanding then was more naive. I had yet to reach the limits of the Kaleidoscope. In many ways that made me more dangerous; I was willing to throw myself at a problem without worrying about whether it was possible. That youthful idiocy, after searching through the reflections for months on end, led me to an answer.

    There are others. Bundles. Trees. Whatever you might call them. All spring from the well of creation, but the way in which each grows and conserves itself is different between them. Our universe culls unceremoniously those worlds which diverge too far from the trunk. It prioritizes possibilities over all else, and despises a certain end. But there is another.

    This other tree was different. It was nothing but branches, a scattered hedge of world lines that crossed over each other, sprouting, ending abruptly, and twisting into every direction. There were worlds there that hardly resembled our Earth with how far they had diverged. The laws of that universe did not cull the divergent; they treasured it. No two worlds I could see were alike.

    In that discovery I found a sense of intoxicating triumph that drove me to go further. I had reached the answer, and if I wished I might even be able to visit it myself, but in my hubris I refrained. I would not arrive alone, I swore to myself. With me would come an entire world. I would rescue this doomed branch by grafting it onto another tree entirely.

    “That’s… that’s insane. You’re crazy, old man,” Zoston mutters. “But then… don’t tell me it didn’t work? Did you fail? Was that world culled anyway?”

    No, my idiotic plan proceeded without a hitch. I may have been young, but I was not entirely inept. The ritual took a few years to prepare, as did gathering the necessary materials. I covered my trail thoroughly. Some Atlas alchemists caught wind of the scheme and tried to stop me, ranting and raving about how the future would be shattered into a million fragments. They were easily silenced, as were the others that attempted to interfere. I won’t bore you with the details; it will suffice to say that while the whole process involved a great deal of trouble, several sanity-stressing days in the void, and a minor breakdown in reality, the end result went unnoticed by all except myself.

    Yes, I had done exactly what you begged me to do. I saved the world.

    And I shall never be so foolish as to do so again.

    The first sunrise was like any other. As was the next, and the one after that. I monitored the branch through the Kaleidoscope, hoping, waiting, dreading the moment it would be rejected, wiped from existence by the force of Alaya. But nothing happened, no silent apocalypse came, and for a time I truly believed that I’d gotten away with it.

    Reality, even a different one, was not so kind.

    I was in London when it happened. Not the London you are used to; this was hundreds of years ago. I had not yet become a Dead Apostle, and traces of the Age of Gods still hung in the air. The Clock Tower was not yet called that, but the Mages Association still headquartered in London, and they still bickered among themselves like a gathering of fools.

    It was a small room, thick with smoke and dust and yells. Magi were more brazen then, less desperate, and so the room overlooked the Thames, though the curtains had been drawn shut to prevent wandering eyes. The Vice Director at the time – I don’t recall his name – was arguing with the Lords about some abnormalities in global thaumaturgical foundations, pressing me for an explanation I had no intention of giving. Just as I was about to deflect his accusations and make an excuse to leave, a breathless student burst through the door and begged us to halt and take a look outside.

    Normally the boy wouldn’t have lived a second longer for the transgression, but his supporting evidence was remarkable. The ground shook beneath us, a sudden quake that knocked over several of the senior lords and nearly unseated me. Papers and parchment went flying, the oil lamp spilled over, coating the oaken table, and a great groaning, creaking, screaming noise washed over us from outside.

    The younger Lords recovered first. The Vice Director keyed into the Clock Tower wards, the head of Zoology closed his eyes and transferred his consciousness into a familiar, and the young head of Astrology stood up, walked across the room, and flung open the curtains.

    The meeting had been a long one, starting in the evening and continuing overnight. The sun was just peeking over the horizon, painting the morning scenery a cloudy orange. It would’ve been a dreadfully chilly day, I’d wager. But it was not; before us, London burned.

    It was not war, and it was not the London you are used to, but it was still a well-defended city, with fortifications and armed soldiers present throughout. They had been useless to stop the fire. In the distance, at the opposite end of the city from us, a great black smoke stack filled the sky. It wavered and lurched forward like a tornado over warehouses, homes, and trees. The screams started up, growing louder in proportion to the smoke’s advance. The smell reached us next. The Vice Director started coughing. It must have served to dislodge the phlegm from his brain, for he immediately ordered us to find out what was going on. The stammering student saluted and vanished as swiftly as he’d appeared.

    “It’s moving closer,” said the head of Zoology, tears running from his still shut eyes.

    “It?” Repeated the Vice Director. “What it? Explain! Now!”

    “My birds will not approach. The smoke is obscuring its form, but… it’s massive, taller than the mightiest castles and wider across. Pitch black, like the smoke, and...” He furrowed his brows and clutched his temples. “No arms… just… legs… eight… maybe more…”


    The Lords’ murmuring rose to a raucous chorus.

    “Are you daft?” said an old, wide, mustached general, head of… well, I don’t recall the exact faculty. “Some giant black spider is lighting up the town? Is this your idea of a joke? Did one of your experiments escape and start terrorizing the city again!?”

    “Consult with your own familiars if you doubt me,” Zoology snapped. “Or insult further and I’ll have mine take your liver. You’re not the Director, to speak to me in such a manner.”

    While the argument started up again in full, I rose from my seat and approached the window to get a view of my own. The head of Astrology, whose goal had been much the same, silently stepped aside.

    Something from within the cloud spit a stream of hissing red that hung in the air for a moment, then landed atop what I presume were houses, for there followed another swell of smoke and screams. I thought I caught a glimpse of something moving at the edge of the cloud.

    “That’s no arachnid,” Astrology said. Her eyes, wider than I’d ever seen them, sparkled with an iridescent light. “Yet it takes the form of one. Those legs… and atop its head, six stars…”

    “Zelretch!” The Vice Director called out to me from within the argument. “Don’t just stand there; say something! I’m being told that thing is advancing towards us!”

    Indeed, that seemed to be the trajectory. I caught flashes of thin matte-black limbs emerging from the dark, stabbing through houses as they found purchase and dragged forward a body still hidden within the smoke. One step would have been enough to turn the whole room into a pulped mess of wood and bone and flesh.

    I did not immediately speak out, then. I must have know that it was my fault, somehow. This thing, this creature, this force of destruction from which I sensed no magical reaction, was here because of my actions. It had not appeared once across all the reflections of the Kaleidoscope, until now. I did not confess. I did not reveal the truth. I was ashamed to. Ashamed, and afraid.

    When humans are overcome with shame or guilt, their way of thinking changes. I may have been a magus, but I was not above my own instincts, not yet anyway. “I’ll see what I can do,” I said, and with a wave of a hand blasted away not only the window but the entire wall from the esteemed meeting room of the Mages Association. In that moment, making right my wrong was more important than survival. Driven by self-hate, I prepared to do battle.

    “You’ll fail,” said Astrology. She leveled her stare at me. “But it may buy us time.”

    “Don’t you dare!” the Vice Director said. “It’s morning! We’ve not enough hands to wipe away the public’s memory of this!”

    “They will remember no matter what you do,” I said. “So let it be a hopeful dream instead of a nightmare.”

    I threw my circuits into action, wove my strengthening spells, called up my jeweled sword, and…

    Hm.

    “And!?” Zoston is on the edge of his seat.

    Well, I fought it. And I lost. I awoke hours later, in an unfamiliar bed.

    “That’s it!? Come on!”

    This isn’t some bedtime story, whelp. If you want to be entertained, ask your grandfather. It will be enough for you to know that I stood as much of a chance against that being as mosquito against man.

    Now, as I was saying… I woke up quite abruptly and painfully, in an unfamiliar bed in a small stone room. Light came from a single candle, so I could not derive how long I’d been out of it. Every inch of my body was swaddled with bandages, many of them soaked in blood. I could not move, and I was in quite a great deal of pain that made itself known past the spirits that should have numbed it. My circuits were screaming, my skin was red and raw from abrupt restoration, tightness in my limbs and chest pointed to broken bones, and I would later find that I’d lost all the hair on my head and face. Yes, I had been bested thoroughly.

    At my bedside was the head of Astrology. I did not know her well, save by reputation and what she had said before disaster had struck. A former alchemist, she had been exiled from Atlas and turned to magecraft, rising up the ranks in London through uncanny predictions and political maneuvering. Her story was not unique, so I had not bothered to look further.

    “I know it was you,” was the first thing she said to me after I opened my eyes. “I didn’t interfere because I supported your decision,” she added, before desperation forced open my tired circuits. “We would have been doomed otherwise. It was a bold plan, Wizard Marshall. But it has cost us.”

    Astrology was bloodied and bleeding from wounds old and new. Her left eye was caked shut, and the cloth tightly tied around her waist had long-since gone from white to red to brown. She did not seem perturbed in the least by her condition.

    “Ask, and I will answer,” she said.

    “The Lords?” I couldn’t manage to sit up. Worst among the pain was a searing line of heat starting just below my throat and ending at the pit of my stomach. With each movement, it felt like my chest would split open, disgorging a pile of battered organs.

    “Ew… no need to get gross.”

    Bah, students these days! I doubt you’ve even dissected a cadaver, with that sour look on your face. I’ll retell what I recall, which in that moment was mostly agony and despair. Bear it or leave, boy.

    Now, as I was saying… no, I wasn’t saying anything; it was Astrology’s turn to speak.

    “The Lords? Killed, most likely,” she said. “Barthomeloi was crushed alongside Archibald. Chimeragenos was – ah, yes, you don’t know them by name. Zoology died, but may persist through his Crest. Regardless, I cannot contact him. As for the rest, the Lords and that student who warned us, I do not know. We were divided when Arachne pierced through the room’s protections. This is one of Geology’s underground Workshops. He sent us down and stayed behind. The wards failed shortly after our arrival, so he must be dead as well.”

    In my confusion, I latched onto one of the unfamiliar names: “Arachne?”

    Astrology may have smiled. It may also have been the dim light of the cave playing tricks on me. “Not the goddess, though I imagine she’d be flattered. I’ve taken the liberty of naming the… thing. It seems appropriate, given its shape.”

    As I regained my bearings, I took greater stock of the situation. The room was as wide as a hole in the ground can be, with solidified earthen walls molded into tables and seats along each side, and a smooth stone floor. The bed upon which I lay was in fact an operating table. More bandages and bloodied tools swam in a bucket of reddish water nearby. The rest was hidden in shadows. The whole room smelled of soil and blood and fire.

    Astronomy – she had been slumped forward on a wooden bench – straightened, stood, and offered me her hand. I took it, pushed past the tearing in my chest, and managed to stand.

    “There’s no time to apologize,” I said. “Maybe later. For now, where is that – Arachne? We need to be aware of its location. If a direct assault is ineffective, I can call in a few favors for another approach.” Already I was thinking of names and debts.

    “I don’t know,” she said. “We are severed from the foundation upon which most predictions are made. This world’s future – and much of its thaumaturgy – died the moment you worked your Magic. It has merely taken time for its corpse to begin decomposing.” She blinked slowly, as if realizing her own morbid words, and shrugged. “Thus, there is no ‘trunk’ to reference. All I can offer now are guesses.”

    “I’ll… gladly take them.” I would be in no condition to do battle for some time. The better part of a day at least, and even then, at a fraction of my full strength. I could have recovered with more time, but…

    “Wait. Hold on a moment. Guesses from an ex-alchemist? That’s nonsense. Even I could-.”

    Laplace and his demon would not be born for another few centuries, boy. At this time, magecraft’s decline was still gradual and half of the foundations of modern alchemy did not yet exist. It was an imprecise craft, more akin to mysticism and exploitation of ancient physical laws than the precise calculations you know of, hence astrology. Now would you like a story, or a lecture?

    “I’ll… be quiet. Sorry.”

    I thought as much. Pity; the topic is fascinating.

    Astrology did not mince words. “In that case I expect it is somewhere in the Sahara. Chimeragenos – Zoology – allowed me a glimpse through his familiars before he died. After depopulating London, Arachne set off in a South by South-Easterly direction. It seemed to not be taking terrain into account.”

    “It’s searching for the Titan’s Pit?” Atlasia’s treasure trove of weapons had been my first thought. Against a world-ending threat, there would be little better than another world-ending threat.

    Astrology closed her eyes and shook her head slowly. “No. It’ll be looking for the Wandering Sea by now; the Institute fell shortly before your awakening. Atlas, like London, is likely no more.”

    The thought of the Atlas Institute being crushed by some giant spider was too ridiculous to believe. But, after my reflexive laugh became a hacking, bloody cough, the measured expression on Astrology’s face forced me to take it seriously.

    I cursed, winced, and swore again. She stepped back, crossed her hands over her stomach, and waited as I swept across the room, past bottled reagents and rare earth metals arranged on a shelf, past the shadowy exit in one side, stopping at the glittering arrangements of gems and wire hanging over a rough map of the world.

    I’ll not lie to you, boy; it was one of the lowest moments of my life. Every magus will one day be tested and fail, and every magus will have to come to terms with their limits. It is those times that show the true mettle of a man. It’ll happen to you, too. Quite soon, I reckon.

    Still, I recovered quickly.

    “You tracked it?” I asked, and Astrology nodded.

    “It was only a shard, but after you cracked its leg, a piece of its carapace embedded itself in your left hand. Geology’s workshop provided the rest.” Looking closely, there was a pale sliver hanging from the contraption that didn’t fit in with the other gems. It swung of its own volition, settling over the Sahara desert and minutely adjusting its position by the second. “It moved in a straight line, and then it stopped… and now it is circling, as if unsure where to go next.”

    “Sea of Estray. Has to be, if it went right for Atlas after crushing the Clock Tower. But why… and how…” As I leaned over the map and pondered, a drop of blood fell from my chest onto the desert, splattering it red. “Blood. It wants blood.”

    Astrology did not respond immediately. When she did, her voice was shaky. “A targeted assault against the Mage’s Association could be carried out by any number of factions or individuals. But it does not fit their modus operandi, nor their strength,” she murmured, almost too quietly for me to hear.

    “An Ultimate One?” The worst case scenario thought crossed my mind. But no, there were wards in the sky that would have alerted us. It must have appeared on Earth. Besides… “No. It’s logic is too concrete. Too of this world. If it were foreign, it would not distinguish humans. I need to know more.”

    “...go, then,” whispered Astrology as she sat on a bench and leaned back into the curve of the wall. “To Atlas. There will be survivors, or at least traces of evidence. We are… more stubborn than we look.”

    Another laugh, another bloody spasm. I turned to the Lord whose name I’d never bothered to ask for. “Asking a man on the precipice of death to travel across the world in an instant? Gimme a break...”

    Her eyes closed, and her arms tightened around her stomach. Thin rivulets of blood began to run from between her fingers. “You can, and you must,” Astrology said. “This is your fault, Zelretch. So fix it.”

    “Hold on.” It was only then that I, too caught up in self-hatred, noticed her state. “Are you…?”

    She shook her head slowly. “These wounds are not lethal. I will live. If you can find a way to stop that thing, that is. If not… I am not sure. There may yet be answers… but my calculations show nothing.”

    “Then sit tight and rest. I’ll see if any survived. Atlas has too many safeguards in place to have fallen that easily. Those stubborn old fools will talk, even if I have to blast open what’s left of their hiding place.”

    “That… doesn’t really sounds like you.”

    What would you know, boy? In my youth I was every bit as reckless as yourself, and twice as sentimental. Even now, this undead heart has found itself moved by the silliest of causes. Naive Selflessness is something I ought to be able to laugh at by now, but… bah, it matters not.

    In any case, there was no more conversation to be had. Astrology – I never did get her name – lapsed out of consciousness soon after. I laid her out on the table and left, hoping she had been truthful about her wounds not being fatal. The next destination was Atlas.

    There was a small path leading out of Geology’s Workshop, that took me through a claustrophobic web of rooms and tunnels resembling an ant’s nest, carefully carved from solid stone and dirt. Better organized than when I was Head of Minerology long ago, but also much less pleasant. He had evidently not been one for decorum, though the alternating mineral patterns were pleasing to the eye. The wards had been disabled in haste, so I encountered no resistance, nor signs of life. After hastily pilfering a few reagents and useful materials (for which I would certainly have to pay dearly later), I managed to find a tunnel that led straight up.

    It was caved in near the surface, of course, but at that point I had recovered enough of my mettle to simply blast open a hole. What greeted me through the resulting cloud of smoke and rubble was a destruction, death, and dust. London had been devastated. Buildings had either been leveled completely, or smoldered in the sunset. There were many bodies and few survivors, who stumbled about drunkenly like zombies. I did not stand out among them in my bedraggled state, so I was ignored. In any case, boy, I’ll spare your sensitive ears from further grisly description.

    Traveling across the world is easy for most magi. You simply take a flight to your destination of choice, and maybe rent a vehicle to take you the rest of the way. I had neither the luxury of being in the correct century, nor the time to sleep on a plane. Fortunately, my destination was the Atlas Institute. So frequently did I visit it in my youth, that eventually I had left behind a mark in its foundation which would allow me to… ah. You’re not supposed to know that.

    “Know what? That you have a backdoor into the most heavily guarded vault of potentially world-ending weapons there is?”

    Yes. Well, if you count the treasury of Babylon, Atlas would only be a close second. In any case, there is plenty of magecraft that allows quick travel, most of which I was terrible at. So the shortcut it was. I merely dipped into the other side of the fabric of reality… much like you did, to get here. How was the trip, by the way?

    “Terrifying. Cold, and yet, alive, gnawing at my flesh...”

    Consider, now, that you were merely following a well-worn centuries-old path, that I have personally stabilized, and along which I left guides to make sure you would arrive here and not elsewhere. This journey was much more arduous, though owing to my mastery of the Kaleidoscope, I was more than able to deal with the dangers. It would best be described as a stroll along the outer edge of a snow globe, outside of the world in an empty space where I would be able to truly think alone, in silence.

    Which I did, for a short time, musing, forming and discarding theories, and taking stock of my poor condition. Then, minutes later, just as Atlas was drawing near…

    “Curious. What a strange place you’ve ventured.”

    When I turned towards the nasally, artificial voice, (though concepts like up and down did not properly exist outside reality) I beheld something so strange that I was not immediately sure whether to call it creature or doll. It was a small, floating thing, with no limbs and a face consisting of thin lines and dots, bulging strangely in places, giving it a bell-like shape. With a single white horn jutting upwards from the center of its ‘forehead’. It was porcelain white, and yet those eyes definitely met mine, and were living. When it spoke, it vibrated, bobbing gently up and down like a stick in water.

    “There is no rule about escaping your own Earth, I suppose. But if too many of you do so, we may have to establish one.”

    I raised my jeweled blade and swung hard enough to nearly dislocate my own shoulder. Enough energy to bring down a castle exploded in the thing’s direction, washing over it instantly.

    “Ah, please, do hold on. You won’t be penalized, so let’s dispense with aggression.”

    Again the blade hummed. I swung in the direction of the voice and replaced it with a crystalline scream. My head was pounding; I couldn’t battle well in my condition.

    “You don’t call that battling well?”

    Not well enough.

    “Should I go? If you’ve no interest in conversation, I’ll find someone else to talk to.”

    My brain had caught up at that point. I stayed my hand, turned ninety degrees, and beheld the same being, lightly rotating about its horizontal axis, producing that voice without moving an inch. It did have a body, I realized; it was merely tiny, a vestigial pair of arms and legs dangling from its massive head.

    “Speak.” I forced the words though clenched teeth.

    “Wonderful! Your manners may be nonexistent, but mine are not, so I’ll introduce myself first: Scarab Beetle, guide and arbitrator to this Earth for the remainder of its existence. Do excuse the tardiness; for some reason, your timeline is a bit… odd, compared to the rest. Certain events have happened out of order, among other irregularities.”

    “What?”

    “What?”

    What indeed. But I’ll let that foul thing speak for itself.

    “Ah, yes, order, right, right… I’ve neglected to begin properly. Ahem: Dear sir! How would you like to save your world from destruction? In a few short hours – ah, that is, as of a few short hours ago, you world was beset upon by an ‘enemy’. To defeat that enemy, you will require a ‘weapon’, which I may grant you, if you have the courage to place your life on the line to wield it. If you can defeat that ‘enemy’ within… ah, twenty-nine hours, your world will perish. The stakes are rather dramatic! So what say you, sir? Would you like to become a hero?”

    “...I’ll say it again. What? What the fuck?”

    Settle down, boy. You’ll like this next bit.

    The next time my jeweled sword cleaved air, it also cleaved reality asunder. Even as rage flooded my mind, magic circuits sprang to life, pushing my body forward faster than my muscles could on their own. The distance between us became nothing in an instant. I slammed my hand into and through the grinning creature’s face, feeling it crack beneath my fingertips, and, even as it began to shrilly protest its treatment, turned and threw the thing through the hole I had just opened. Then, with another swing, I sealed it shut.

    “But wait, couldn’t it just-.”

    Not if it couldn’t find me. I dove back through. The barrier between this side and that can be as thin as a soap bubble if you know where to press. I punched through it, jumping from the other side, and fell back into the world before it could track me again.

    What followed was a brief, dizzying fall, cut short by a sand dune.

    “Oh, so you made it to the Institute after all… but wait, what was that thing? And what did it mean about, well, everything?”

    You’ll learn as I did. And I did not have time to ponder other questions. There were more pressing matters to attend to.

    “Like?”

    Like the rumbling. And the shaking. And the great metallic creaking that had haunted my short dreams. When I pulled myself to the surface and shook the sand from my beard, the first sight that greeted me was not the blue or black sky; it was a pitch black spear the size of a sequoia jetting towards me.

    I rolled aside, blasting more momentum into it, just enough to let me clear the vicinity before the point sank into sand. I stumbled to my feet, ready to dodge another…

    Only to see that I was being ignored.

    Yes, Arachne stood before me, as tall and terrible as ever. Save for a few cracks in its legs, it was unharmed, but now it stumbled about somewhat drunkenly, either unaware or uncaring of my existence. We were both in the vast desert, and evidently it was taking the sun’s heat far worse than I.

    Thud. Thud. Its legs found weak purchase in sand dunes, which stretched in every direction. Arachne advanced past me, slowly, creaking and groaning the whole way.

    “Damage? So you’d done something after all!”

    No, I’m certain that I barely scratched it. It must have either fallen afoul of some of Atlas’ wards, suffered a death curse from one of the Lords, or been confused by the measures the Sea of Estray undertakes to befuddle would-be trackers. Whatever the cause was, Arachne’s impaired state saved my life, for I could not have survived battle against it once more.

    I was able to observe it as I gathered my strength. The smoke cover was gone, revealing the alien make of the thing. Joints and limbs that were spindly – too spindly to support its weight – folded around each other, widening as they met and thinning out mid-limb. Its legs had seven articulations each, and joined to support a thickly-armored puck-like body, with something resembling eyes at the ‘front’, as much as it could be called one. Of the holes in its mask, some glowed with yellow light and others did not.

    From whence it had come, a thin trail of smoke linked heaven and earth. It was as good an indication as any of what I had missed.

    Though the fire in my veins and the blood pumping in my ears screamed at me to strike that creature, that enemy with all the strength I had left, rationality won out. I covered myself in a hasty cloak and trudged towards the smoke, leaving Arachne behind. It made no attempt to stop me. I almost wished it had. At least then I’d know I was a fly still worth swatting.

    I crossed dune after dune. One, twelve, at least three dozen. Behind me, the creaking faded, as Arachne did the same. When I crested the last dune, I beheld the desolation it had left behind: A massive sand-filled crater, and a series of dark holes that had used to be a mountain. Sand slowly poured into dark wounds, burying bodies and workshops alike. Atlas was mostly underground, so the worst of the damage would not be visible. I picked the hole closest to the entrance and made for it, trudging past limbs jutting from the yellow and red desert.

    The sinkhole nearly swallowed me as I descended. I shone a light first, revealing that it was indeed the partially-collapsed entryway to the rest of the compound. The entrance-way was blocked off, but the path forward was clear, so I jumped down and limped forward.

    Bodies, and more bodies. The halls were remarkably whole, save for the occasional passage blocked by sand and rubble or open to the sky. There must have been an attempt to mount a defense, for I’ve never seen so many bodies in Atlas at once. They were all burnt, or rather, melted, with hair and clothes reduced to liquid that had hardened and fused with flesh. The smell was unbearable. I remember that best. I had dealt with death before, but never with the choking scent of so much of it in one poorly aerated place.

    I had two places to check. The hideaway in the deepest parts of the compound, meant to protect those within from anything short of the Earth splitting apart, and the treasure vaults, which held the weapons capable of accomplishing such a feat. I would have preferred survivors to weapons, in truth, but…

    “But?”

    But it would have been more convenient for all the alchemists to be dead. If Atlas were gone for good, it would mean those weapons in their vaults would be at my disposal, without fear of retaliation. I could use them to strike down Arachne before… well, before it did something even worse.

    Thankfully, in this case, it was my heart that was calmed rather than my mind. When I found the door, sealed shut from the outside by a dozen spells of protection, I wrenched it open. The light bobbing at my side revealed a dozen shivering men and women, clutching each other for comfort and warmth.

    “W-wizard Marshall?” one man croaked.

    “Yes. You, come with me. The rest of you, the danger has passed. Mourn your dead and dry your tears. There is still a world to defend.”

    I didn’t stay to watch the scramble. The pit was further below. The man ran after me, shuffling his feet, still shaking, a far-off look in his eye. He was thin and hairless, with a complex proto-numerological formula tattooed across his left arm. One of the so-called progressives.

    “Describe the attack.”

    “We had forewarning. We knew,” the man mumbled, eyes glued to the floor. “We had resolved to rely on our conceptual defenses first. If they were breached, we would open the vault and use the Black Barrel. The director said if it was fired from within Atlas, it would not technically have left… but it did nothing.”

    “The attack. How did it kill these people?”

    “Ah, yes, that. It – ah – marched over to where we were. It did not go for the obvious entrance, as we had predicted. Instead it targeted, I think, the greatest concentrations of people, in the residential section… those legs went right through our seventeen layer laminate plating. No substance on Earth should have been able to – not even a Noble Phantasm. And then, these little – holes, opened up in its carapace, and it started, it released this – ah...” He moaned, as if still feeling the pain. His mind must have been addled from the trauma. “This red gas, that moved and buzzed like a swarm of bees, and just – if you were close enough to see it, you were already dead. You would just begin to burn, and wouldn’t stop, no matter what. They tried removing oxygen, or putting barriers up, blowing it away, and it just wouldn’t stop! We shot it with the Black Barrel, and still, it did not stop!”

    I placed my hand on the man’s shoulder, halting him in place.

    “You did well to survive,” I said.

    He laughed, a mad, barking thing that started and ended in the same breath. “I, I used the oldest trick in the book,” he muttered. “Just – guessed that it wasn’t gas, but something solid, small, so I, transmuted it into a heaver material. It dropped like sand… gone now, though. Must’ve been short-lived...”

    I didn’t really know how to respond. I myself was preoccupied in thought, turning over variables and expectations and possibilities in my head. But telling his story must have served to center the alchemist, for he looked at me a few moments later and shook his head.

    “I-I know what you’re thinking,” he stammered as we passed by his burnt and broken colleagues. “Everyone was thinking it, too. But the answer is still no. The vault stays closed. The director said, even if she should die, the rule is never to be broken. Especially not for some would-be hero.”

    “I figured as much. Guess that’s off the table.”

    “B-but! You have one of the contracts, right? That’s why you’re here?”

    “I do not.”

    “You don’t?”

    Of course not. What, did you figure I’d collected one from a doomed world at some point? The Institute isn’t so foolish as to see through a ruse of that caliber.

    “Th-then why, Wizard Marshall? We don’t – we don’t have any masters anymore. Anyone with talent stayed to fight. We – I – those left are the ones that couldn’t do anything to help.”

    “You can at least activate HERMES, can’t you?”

    The alchemist nearly tripped over his own feet at the mention of the name. “How did you – Wizard Marshal, I – we – that is-.”

    I stopped, not because of the man’s indecision, but because we’d come to my third objective: a massive stone wall, inhumanly smooth, with the outline of a sealed door marked out in light. This was deep, deeper than Arachne would be willing to pierce, I’d hoped. “It’s incomplete, isn’t it? But even incomplete, it should be recording everything. There is something I need to know.”

    “I – there is no protocol for this...”

    “Which means it’s up to your discretion. What’s your name?”

    “Atul...”

    “Atul. I have little time, little patience, and little strength. So you’ll have to make this choice yourself. Decide here and now. Tradition, or the future?”

    It didn’t take long at all. He stumbled past me, placed his hand on the door, and muttered the incantation. Glowing lines sprang from where his palm had made contact, running across the stone surface, splitting apart and crisscrossing, forming artificial circuits. Soon the door swung open, and I stepped through, into a dizzying spherical chamber that seemed designed to cause headaches. The walls glowed with soft blue light that occasionally pulsed purple and red in time with my heartbeat.

    Proto-HERMES was a single black stone obelisk, floating in the center under its own power. A narrow stone bridge jutting out under us was the only way to reach it, with misstep punished by a long and fatal fall. Atul led the way and I followed, cursing my new limp.

    When he reached the obelisk, he placed his hand upon it. More yellow circuits appeared upon contact, marring the smooth stone. They dug into his fingers, drawing blood and a wince. “What do you wish to see?” he asked.

    “Arachne.”

    Atul closed his eyes and concentrated. Proto-HERMES hummed. Above us, the air collected into a cloud of mist, in which formed, like a mirage, a hazy image of Arachne marching slowly through the desert. Its stride seemed more purposeful, as if it had finally locked onto its target.

    “Good. Now show me Arachne when it first arrived. Should be less than a day ago.”

    He obliged. The next image took longer to form: a beach at night, waves lapping at smooth stones and the nearby cliff side. A bit inland was a grassy field. I would guess the shores were those of Britain.

    And then, in the blink of an eye, it was there. Arachne appeared, with a visible pop that disturbed the air and water beneath it. Gravity took hold immediately. It fell, sank into the water, nearly stumbled, then righted itself. It straightened, and… froze. It did not move. After a minute of silence, I asked: “How long did it stay like this?”

    “Ah, a few minutes. But there was movement around it.”

    “Show me.”

    The image blurred, then zoomed into the top of Arachne’s disk-like body and head. Just as it had appeared, so too did…

    “Scarab…?”

    “Huh? Where? Is it on me-!?” The image shook.

    “No, no. There’s nothing. Just keep it steady.”

    Following the doll-like thing, which, now that I looked closely, only vaguely resembled my obnoxious stalker (same species probably), six humans also appeared atop Arachne, blinking into existence between moments of time. They looked fairly ordinary, except for their clothing, which followed no recognizable fashion or design of the time. I would learn what that omen meant some hundreds of years later. One of them, a young woman with hair done up in a ponytail, crossed her arms and said something to the floating doll, which bobbed up and down and seemed to give a response that angered her. She swore silently, sighed, surveyed the landscape, and said something quietly. One of the others, a young man, placed his hand on her shoulder, but she brushed it off and barked at the doll, which nodded once more. The next moment, they had vanished… and six holes in Arachne’s visor lit up.

    “You can’t get sound?”

    “Ah, no… we’re working on that next. We had lip-readers to transcribe conversations, but…”

    “No need to wake the dead. I’ve gotten enough to put most of the picture together. Just one more, please.”

    Atul groaned. I spared him a glance. He’d seen better days. Blood ran down his hand and the side of the pillar. Activating Proto-HERMES was draining. But he gathered his strength and nodded. “What?”

    “It’s difficult to say… I’ll transfer the image to your mind. Be still; it isn’t my specialty in the slightest.”

    I touched the back of his head and transmitted the image of Scarab Beetle. He squeezed his eyes shut. “Got it. Let go.”

    As I stepped back, the image shifted one more time, this time to the… inside of a teepee. An aboriginal man was sitting, one leg propped up, staring across the fire at the bobbing figure of Scarab Beetle. In one hand was an incomplete carving, and in the other, a stone knife. A few stray cracks still marred its face from when my fist had punched through, but it was otherwise whole. It bobbed up and down, and the man laughed. He shook his head. Scarab Beetle spun dejectedly in a circle. He said something else, glancing aside, straight at us, and winked.

    “Did he just-?”

    “Must be a seer. But why would that thing be talking to a magus of a continent we haven’t even officially discovered yet? Unless… it’s giving him the same spiel.”

    “Um, Wizard Marshall, should I…?”

    “Wait for it.”

    Scarab Beetle was still for a while, then bobbed as if to shrug, and… vanished.

    “H-huh? It just – disappeared from our sensors entirely! Wait, no, we can sense it, but we can’t see it… because it’s not even on this plane of reality. It’s – oh, it’s somewhere that doesn’t exist. Imaginary space-? Agh, my head...”

    “Record that location, then disconnect.”

    The image blurred. Just before it went out, the aboriginal man traced a primitive image in the air, glowing in smoke: to squiggly horizontal lines, and beneath them, a stick figure man with a cane, a tent, and… a spider. He grinned, laughed, and then the image broke apart as Atul dropped to his knees, panting.

    “I am sorry, Wizard Marshall. I cannot anymore. And even if we bring in someone else, our reserves have been damaged. Activating HERMES for any longer risks damaging it.”

    “That’s fine. I have what I need.”

    He looked up, staring at me as if I were some figure of legend. I suppose I am. It still feels strange, though. “What will you do, Wizard Marshall?”

    “Zelretch is fine. I’m going to take that seer’s advice. The Sea of Estray hasn’t been sunk yet.”

    “Ah… I would locate it with HERMES, but...”

    “No need. I have my ways. All you need to do now, Atul, is rebuild.”

    “Ah, yes! Of course, Wizard Marshall! We will be ready!”

    “Mm. Good. We’ll need your help in the future.”

    “Good luck, sir! And if you see one of the men of Prague, tell them that Atlas will outlive them yet!”

    And… that’s about that for Atlas. Next stop, the Wandering Sea.

    “Same trick as last time to get there?”

    Similar. It’s tougher to reach something that’s always moving. I’ll spare you the complicated explanation and say that, this time, it went smoothly.

    I walked out of a stone wall and into a meeting room crowded by yells, smoke, and familiar faces. Whatever they had been arguing about was evidently not nearly as interesting as me, because they all fell silent. Among them was the Vice Director, his face a mess held together by bandages but no less capable of spewing spittle. A few other Lords were there as well, alongside several significant figures of the Wandering Sea. And that poor student who’d originally warned us of Arachne’s arrival.

    I sniffed. “If we are underwater, where does the smoke go?”

    “We’ve a spell to vent it,” drawled a tall, pale woman wrapped up in an inky black long coat. “Unfortunately, the spell to vent this waste of humanity has been vetoed.”

    “Nice to see you too, Rowan.”

    “I’d rather you not mention my ancestor, Schweinorg. You smell enough of smoke that I might accidentally throw you into the deep ocean.”

    Around this time the befuddled Vice Director found his lost wits. “Zelretch! Where were you!? How did you get here? I don’t care! Explain yourself! I’ve just been told that Alaya no longer exists! This is your fault, isn’t it?!”

    “Good grief...”

    Well, he was right, so I explained myself.

    “What, you told him?”

    Yes. Everything. The whole room. Everything I had done to save this world, and everything that had come about as a result. I had them all vow never to share that information with anyone outside, first. It was a secret that the most knowledgeable magi of the age would take to their graves. The end result of my explanation, besides more smoke, was a room of rather unsatisfied men and women.

    “So,” I said. “If anyone wants to kill me, now is the time.”

    Silence. Of course.

    “Good. It’s time for our last stand. Arachne is heading this way, yes?”

    “It is. Our wards only managed to confuse it for a bit. Most, it ignored, but the ones to shuffle sense of direction got through for whatever reason. But it’s recovered by now. We expect it to close in soon.”

    “Can we count on the Wandering Sea’s assistance?”

    The pale lady shrugged. “As an organization? Yes, we are at the Vice Director’s disposal. Practically? We can’t force anyone to help. You’ll get no more than two dozen volunteers at best. The rest would rather study magecraft until reality crushes them to dust.”

    “Cowards, the lot of them,” grumbled the Vice Director. “If only my Enforcers were here… but they’re either dead or scattered. And we only had time to transport half of the meeting room here, at the expense of the Head of Spiritual Evocation’s life. It’s a shame you were in the other half, Schweinorg… boy!” The young student from before perked up, panicked. “Make yourself useful and fetch me some water! These bandages ache!”

    Stammering, the boy nodded and began making his way around the cramped, windowless room.

    “The Church?” I asked.

    “Hah!” the Vice Director laughed. “They’ll be dancing on our gravestones before they raise a finger! We cannot count on them without extensive negotiation beforehand. That would take days. We have hours.”

    “The Ancestors, then?”

    He nearly choked on… well, I’m not sure what he had that he could’ve choked on. His own tongue, perhaps? Blood?

    “Absolutely not!” the Vice Director eventually croaked. “I’d sooner go to the Church! Those soulless monstrosities have no love for humanity. They’re more likely to aid that thing-!”

    “Arachne.”

    “-to aid Arachne than fight it! And I am not begging that red ass for aid.”

    Yes, even back then, the Barthomeloi lust for vampire blood was second to none.

    “So it’s just us, then. And whoever decides to aid us from the Wandering Sea.”

    The pale lady nodded. The Vice Director scowled. The rest looked on, breath bated. Eventually, however, the director sighed, and I glimpsed clearly the despair hidden behind his indignation. “I know it isn’t enough, Zelretch. But it is all we can muster. Atlas is gone. The Clock Tower and its students are scattered. Magi are scholars, not warriors. We cannot muster any greater force than this before Arachne catches up to us. We can’t even beseech the planet for aid; the Throne of Heroes does not exist here. All we can do is...”

    “Fight.” I nodded. “That’ll be enough, Vice Director. I’ll take command, if you’re amenable to it.”

    “I’d normally protest, but… you’ve seen more of that thing up close than anyone here. We are all at your service. Please lead us to victory.”

    “And the rest of you?”

    Silence. Looks were exchanged. But, eventually…

    “Um. I can’t do much. But I’ll do my best, sir. I have family. My parents, and daughter.” The nameless student, having quietly entered bearing a stack of bandages and a bucket of water, was the first to speak up. Following him, the pale lady gave a sharp nod, followed by the remaining Lords.

    “I’ll… ask for volunteers,” she said.

    And like that, they dispersed. I was left alone, to organize the last defense of… well, it was just the a group of shut-in magi, but it felt like all of humanity was behind me.

    “Why? Why even bother? Sorry if this is dumb, but I just… don’t really get it. What was going on? What about that Scarab Beetle thing? And those people talking in HERMES’ observation? Why was it so important that you defend the Wandering Sea?”

    You have everything you need to know. I was beginning to put the pieces together by now, but it hadn’t crystallized yet. And I was too busy putting together a plan to think on it further.

    Consider though, though, as we all did: Why was Arachne targeting the Mage’s Association? Why had it not thoroughly destroyed Atlas, and left Astrology and I alive in London? Why was it going next for the Wandering Sea? And why did we, according to Scarab Beetle, only have an arbitrary amount of time remaining before certain demise?

    “I’m… not sure. Because Arachne was an enemy of the Association?”

    Because it was an enemy of magi. Or rather, because they were its targets. And, in order, the Clock Tower, Atlas, and the Wandering Sea were the largest concentration of magi in the world. No sane person would attack the Wandering Sea; it’s barely involved in modern politics and practices non-interference. If there’s a magical equivalent of Switzerland, it would be the sea of Estray. So, only someone that doesn’t know that obvious fact would bother. Meaning…

    “I still don’t get it. Why magi?”

    Because magi, or rather those with magical potential, by definition, qualify.

    “Qualify for what?”

    To be heroes that slay the dragon. That defeat the ‘enemy’. Or at least, it can’t tell the difference. The actual explanation would turn out to be much sillier, yet more convenient for us.

    Now… I’m skipping several hours of boring busywork. We had time before Arachne closed in on our location, and in that time I put my title to the test. I chose a small, uninhabited volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic as the battlefield. Its only feature was a steep mountain with a well-defined crater that looked over the ocean. We placed it between the Wandering Sea’s entrance and Arachne’s path, betting that it would sooner walk over than around.

    Our recruits were an eclectic and mostly useless bunch. Well, useless described most of us well, but with enough preparation, which we had, a plan took shape. When a magus has time, there is only one thing to do: prepare a Grand Ritual or two.

    When time came, we were ready. And time came fast.

    I stood atop the mountain, leaning on a cane pilfered from the Vice Director’s collection as payment for serviced rendered. My body still ached, and my strength was still faded, but I had at least rediscovered my will to fight. So, when the ground shuddered beneath me, and the seas quaked and parted, and the massive black death dragged itself up from the ocean floor with its multi-jointed legs, my heart and mind were perfectly calm.

    Water, sea creatures, algae, nothing found purchase on its smooth shell, but judging by the way its six glowing eyes seemed to focus in on me even as it advanced, our meeting had stuck. It hissed, producing that red smoke to hide its form. Like a cloud of malice it began to creep up the mountain, legs twisting and moving and biting, dragging its swollen mass closer, closer, closer.

    Through it all I watched, waiting. It could move very quickly at close range, quickly enough to catch me off guard easily, so I would only have one chance, before it got too close.

    I raised my cane, gathered magical energy, and…

    Hah… boy, would you mind if I…?

    “Again? You’re just gonna skip the cool part again?”

    Yes. And it wasn’t ‘cool’. It was awful. I’m not going to attempt a visceral description with an end result that drab.

    We’d planned it out. The island was an active volcano. We had set up a Grand Ritual to sink Arachne in it, burying the thing in lava using myself as bait. Then we would flood the vents beneath the island with freezing water, courtesy of another ritual. Thermal expansion, or at the very least, freezing it in solid volcanic rock.

    It didn’t work. It fell for the trick, of course, but I suspect it had allowed itself to be caught out of sheer apathy to our attempts. Lava could not melt it. Then, after we had frozen it solid, rock could not hold it. Whatever substance it was made of defied nearly all known laws of physics.

    I remember, at the end, hanging onto my cane, standing in a small boat in the middle of the ocean, watching Arachne pull itself free, one leg at a time. It was mocking me. I could tell as much. Whatever that thing was, the will moving it was human.

    It descended the other side of the ruined volcano one step at a time. One step, and then another. It did not need to fear us, or me.

    It walked forward, descending into the ocean again. Each movement sent waves through my wooden dinghy, nearly throwing me off. But I held on, through spite if nothing else. Even as I found myself staring Arachne in its six glowing eyes, and screaming expletives, and cursing its name, it only stared. Behind me was the Wandering Sea, its goal, but its eyes were for me.

    I hurled spells, too. Explosions, lasers, enough prana from the jeweled blade to melt through the side of a mountain. I don’t think I left much more than a scratch. Were I sane, I might have been more clever, perhaps slipped its limbs through portals, but at that point I was little more than rage and despair, held together by spite and pride.

    “Why!?” I recall crying. “Why us? Was I wrong, for wanting this place to survive?”

    As if to confirm that thought, it raised one massive limb out of the water, rearing back to blot out my life.

    And then, from behind me, a great flash of heat and light engulfed everything. I was thrown from my perch and into the water, which became a boiling whirlpool that sucked me down, left, right, up, and every direction at once. A great distance away, distorted by the churning water, a great battle was taking place. Black and white carved at each other, locked limbs, and grappled, screaming and roaring, while I fought my own battle below the waves for a single gulp of air. Each time they clashed, the water changed sides, throwing me to and fro. I fear I would die there, useless to the end, drowning under the weight of my sins.

    Of course, I did not die. Not then. No, you know well enough the story of my death and rebirth, so really, there is little point to this gravitas.

    I lived. After an eternity, the battle above me ended, and I was allowed to surface. I broke through the surface and took a great big gulp of water air, and after a bit of flailing managed to find a plank of shattered wood and throw myself over top of it. Only then did I open my eyes and see.

    Arachne had been shattered. Its corpse lay along the side of the volcano. Several limbs were missing or cut short, revealing them to be mere mechanics. Its head, too, had been torn open, spilling not blood, not guts, but six human beings, whose forms were already familiar to me. The ponytailed girl was the only one among then that stood, and she stared defiantly upwards… at a second Arachne.

    “Another one?”

    Another one.

    Well, it was not the same. It had four limbs. Humanoid ones, and a body. And it was a bright white, rather than black. But the construction of the limbs and the glowing light at the front of its ‘face’ were undeniably the same. It stood, half-submerged, one arm pointed at the group of six. Its fingers were sharp talons, and between them was a tiny hole.

    The woman screamed something. I couldn’t hear her; my ears registered only ringing. But I understood. I knew, then, that the monster had not been mocking me. No, my feelings and hers were the exact same.

    Brightly, quietly, in an instant, six beams of light erupted from the palm of the white Arachne, vaporizing the humans below. The mechanical monster lowered its hand, and then its head, and then the sole light in its visor went dark.

    Scarab Beetle was there, again, hovering above the water.

    “Greetings! That was very rude of you, dear sir. Normally I would not ever talk to you again after such treatment. However, the terms of my contract included saving your life. You should be grateful to your friend!”

    I blinked, and was lying in a featureless white room. Ahead of me was a plain wooden chair, and the body of a familiar young man.

    I blinked again. I was lying on the beach. The waves lapped at my feet. Scarab Beetle was there.

    “In any case, congratulations! You have retained your right to exist. Normally, we would arrange another match in a few weeks or months, as needed. However, as part of the unusual arrangement here, we have decided to modify things and bring you into pace with the others. So, you will not need to expect another match for… twenty years! Until then, please take good care of your ‘weapon’. We will cover repairs, but won’t provide a new one. Cheers!”

    With that, it was gone.

    The world was safe.

    No thanks to me.



    Zoston looks up from the sphere, and stares at the lines on Zelretch’s face. He has never quite seen the Wizard Marshall as old. Aged, yes, and rather wrinkly, but never old, never spent, never reaching the end of his life. Now, Zelretch truly seems old. He is smaller, somehow, than the larger-than-life figure Zoston is used to.

    “Do you understand?” Zelretch’s soft question interrupts the boy’s musings.

    “Sort of,” admits Zoston. “So… the attack was being carried out by humans, using a ‘weapon’ provided by that Beetle thing. And you were saved by another human, using a new ‘weapon’. And the whole thing was some sort of test to judge if the world was worth preserving?”

    “Generally, yes,” says Zelretch. “The humans we fought, ‘Arachne’, were from another world. Another timeline, you could say. Their world, after they lost, was culled.”

    A terrible chill takes hold of Zoston’s heart.

    “This place I had brought that doomed branch, the tree I had grafted it onto, also practiced culling. It had to, of course. No multiverse can sustain every possibility. It is inevitable that some would be cast aside. Except this universe is both more fair, and infinitely more cruel than the one we left behind. It does not kill worlds with a snap of the finger. Instead, it turns the whole thing into some kind of twisted game. It pits universes against each other and makes them pull the trigger on humanity, each and every time. It cares not for possibility or promise, good or evil. Only who wins.”

    There is silence for a long moment, which Zelretch takes as a sign to continue.

    “Arachne’s strategy had been to target potential wielders of weapons, because no opponent had appeared on time. Supposedly, those with powerful life force are capable of powering them. To that end, it sought out concentrations of such humans that appeared on its sensors. It knew not what magecraft was. Apparently, none of the worlds in this ‘tree’ have figured it out.”

    Zoston stares at the globe, at the record of a once dying world.

    “To power a weapon, one needs only their own life. That is the fuel that moves it. At the end of a battle, which never lasts longer than forty-eight hours, the wielder – the pilot’s life is spent, and they die. That’s why any pilot must sign a contract with that abomination, the Scarab Beetle.”

    Zoston looks at his hands. “Who was the pilot?” he asks.

    “The student I mentioned. Some no-name fourth generation magus. Scarab Beetle was appearing in front of magi, and each refused, until him. It explained everything and he decided to fight.”

    “Didn’t he have-?”

    “A daughter? Yes. He was clever. More than I or anyone gave him credit for. He made that aptitude for piloting into his own Sorcery Trait, and passed it on to his daughter through the contract. In this world, now, the only eligible pilots are those of his bloodline. Normally, you see, a pilot and backups must be chosen before a battle begins. My welding had kickstarted this battle early. But now, rather than every few weeks or months as intended, our universe must battle for existence only once per generation.”

    “Wait, wait. Our universe?”

    Zelretch looks at Zoston. There is sadness and shame in his eyes. But also a stubborn fire.

    “Boy, your ancestor was the bravest man on this planet. And his daughter was even braver, and hers braver than that. But that bravery should never lead to death,” Zelretch says, his voice growing more and more powerful. “I’ll never forget that debt. And I’ll never take it for granted. I have been fighting this system since that day, and I will never give up until it is dismantled.”

    “My ancestor? My…? But, wait, this is all moving too fast.” The world is beginning to spin around Zoston. He cannot understand, and he is going to fall, and then-!

    And then, Zelretch’s hand is on his shoulders.

    “You asked me why I don’t try. Why I just let it happen. I lied, then. Told you something about how naive you were. That was a lie, boy. I have not stopped trying, and I never will, until the day I die.”

    Zelretch stands, straight and tall.

    “You did well coming here. This place is my sanctuary for a reason: it is one of the few places they cannot reach. I expect you will be seeing Scarab Beetle soon. He will not know that you know. He will try to get you to sign away your life for a just cause. But you will be wiser than him, and cleverer, and you will not die to fix this worthless old man’s mistake like your grandmother and great grandfather and all your ancestors before you did. Do you understand, boy? Cruelty must be acknowledged, but it must never, ever be accepted. Now...”

    Zelretch, tightens his fingers, then lets go and steps back.

    “What kind of world do you want to live in, Charlie?”

    Charles Zoston takes a deep breath, and answers:

    “One where we win, sir!”

    Spoiler:
    Zelretch never (I repeat. Zelretch never) messes with the Kaleidoscope for flights of fancy. He's got a lot on his plate as it stands, primarily to stop the destruction of the Human Race before the year 3XXX. However, one day, he decides to extend the safety of the human race a lot longer, and over a lot wider of a stretch of space... by manipulating the Kaleidoscope of various other realities to prevent Gaia from culling the children of Alaya. (Crossover story, but the other part(s) of the story will be up to the prompted)
    Last edited by Kirby; December 28th, 2019 at 02:44 AM.
    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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    The Golden Sword

    “Wow, that is a glitzy boat.” There’s no one else at the dock, but I can’t help but say that anyway. I’ve never been to the Luxor before, but I assume this boat is what it would look like if you put it on a cruise liner. Seriously though, this thing is huge; just how many people were going to be at this party anyways? Wasn’t it super-exclusive? Maybe that damn teddy bear had a weird idea of exclusive. ‘Ho ho ho, there art only 5,000 people who qualify for this soiree, you know, my girl.’ My girl. The wind blew just now, I’d better hurry it up. But is something that large seriously just made of gold and wood? There must be a metal skeleton or something, right? There’s no sign of one, but with modern safety standards there’s got to be a-

    “Right. Magi.”

    I walk briskly toward the gangway, which is about as much as I can manage in this dress and heels. A mobile wave of seafoam clomps up the path and stands in front of a statue of a jackal before fishing through her matching purse. The dress is pretty, I’ll give him that, but why powder blue? I’m no Cinderella. I pull out a tan card with gold filigree and present it to the jackal; its gemstone eyes glow as it reads the card, and with the rumble of stone grating against stone, it moves aside to let me pass. A couple of steps takes me onto the ship proper. Wait, hold on. This ship made football fields look like a front lawn, so why is it only a few townhouses across now? Wings rustle near me, and I start. Since when was there a bird next to me? It’s woven from reeds, with a ruby in its chest and sapphires as its eyes. The bird flies toward a door on the ship’s cabin, and I follow. Christ Serena, keep your eyes open. How are you supposed to follow through this family obligation otherwise? The door opens to opulent hallways of polished and painted wood; glittering gems light the path as the bird guides me forward until I reach a set of crimson double doors that are way taller than me, which is pretty impressive given that I’m 5’11”. The bird flies into the wall, filling an empty spot on its mural with its graven image. Alright, here we go. Smile, schmooze, succeed. I step forward, and the doors open.

    I can’t tell if the room is large or small. After the hallway it feels vast, like walking into a throne room. Columns line the walls like rays of light pushing the earth to kneel before the sun, lapis lazuli flows along the floor and walls like rivers, woodwinds and harps caress the air, and tables of food draw lines across the middle, enough to feed an entire school. But on the other hand, there’s only six people in the room besides me, but they don’t feel dwarved at all. Maybe the whole boat is just as large as it needs to be. Off to one side of the room is a dark-skinned woman around my age talking with an old dude starting to lose his chin. Near the quiche is a short guy, like 5’5”, with dark slicked back hair; at the other table is a tan guy taller than me staring appraisingly at... Wow, that is a really big tuna. I have to hit that up. And straight ahead is a brunette man, early 30s or so, talking to a woman in a flowing black dress. I walk forward to greet him and outstretch a hand. “Olivier Roussault? I’m Serena Smith, it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

    He blinks, and then grasps my hand to shake it. “Ah yes, my familiars told me you arrived mere moments ago. It’s a pleasure to have you here.”

    “No no, the pleasure is mine.”

    He chuckles. “Thank you. I’m glad you could make it, really; it must’ve been difficult. Though enough of that! Now that you’re here, we can set off and then begin the main event. Feel free to eat, drink, and be merry. Though,” he shifts to the side, making space for the woman next to him, “I must introduce you to one of your fellow guests. This is Lei Jūn-Láng, the head of the Láng family and one of the five Sovereigns of China’s Mystic Order.” I don’t know what those words mean, but I can tell that this woman in a dress like midnight woven into adornment, whose eyes shame the emeralds inset into the jackal from before, whose skin makes the finest marble akin to curdled milk, whose gaze could blunt the sharpest knife, is someone of majesty. Olivier may be the owner of this room, but Lei Jūn-Láng is most certainly the king.

    “I’m Serena, Serena Smith. It’s a pleasure, Ms. Láng.”

    She stares at me, her attention the weight of a thousand stones. “You carry a terrible weight. I offer my condolences.” There was a study once that said that people feel better about bad news if a hot person tells them it instead of an ugly one. I can tell you right now that that study was full of shit; beautiful voice or not, here I am, in this stupid dress, surrounded by people I don’t care about, constantly having to deal with shit I hate, and God why can’t I just curl into a fucking ball under a comforter with a Kindle, I miss-

    “Hey, you alright?”

    It’s a different voice this time. I look beside me to see brown and dark green - the other woman at the party. “My name’s Aviola. Yours?” A deep breath. “Serena. Serena Smith. I will be, thanks.”

    She smiles. “Want to speed it up with a drink?”

    “No thanks.” I chuckle. “Alcohol wrecks my vision and I trip all over the place, it’s terrible. A moose on meth would be more coordinated.” It’s her turn to laugh, and it’s a pleasant one, free of malice.

    “How about you grab some food and come with me? We can chill out some before Olivier decides he’s ready to kick the exhibition off, and I can introduce you to my sponsor, Henrik. I promise he won’t say anything weird.”

    The tuna beckoned. “Alright. I’ve had my sights on that fish for a while.”

    If only it was socially acceptable to bring your own containers to banquets. This plate, large as it is, just isn’t enough for all of these dishes I’d like to try. I wonder if that tanned guy liked the tuna; he’s speaking with Lei and Olivier now. Aviola leads me toward the old guy - mid 40s to be fair, but really - and I set my plate down at the table.

    “Serena, this is Henrik Jansfellar. He’s a lecturer at the Clock Tower who’s been helping me out with developing my magecraft.”

    Henrik proffers a sturdy hand. He’s got a smile on, but those baby blues narrowed the moment he saw me. Whatever, I’m not getting into it.

    “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Jansfellar. What do you teach?”

    “Alchemy and Botany, generally. By and large, magecraft requires a strong foundation, so it’s best to focus on reliable and fundamental practices that can be applied to a wide variety of spells. As a teacher, I’d like to pave a sturdy path for many different students to walk on until they can form their own. Not everyone is a wunderkind like El-Melloi’s kids, after all. Though Aviola here won’t lose to them!”

    Aviola grins. “I’m still just a Count, you know. I’ve still got a ways to go before catching up to them.”

    “Nonsense, you’ve told me countless times about the growth potential of your magecraft. Once we strengthen the principles, in 100, no 50 years, it will revolutionize the Clock Tower. Well, that’s if my son doesn’t shift the paradigm first, hahaha!”

    And the conversation’s turning into a nice heady mix of things I sort of get and stuff I don’t understand at all. Spending decades just on studying the same thing? Well, I guess scientists do that, but people retire normally right? And what if something changes the current paradigm? Is there obsolete magecraft or something like that? And Aviola’s a count? More nobility, huh. I guess everyone here is a big shot, then.

    “Does your son do uh, the same kind of magecraft as you? I’m surprised he didn’t come along with you.”

    Henrik runs a hand through wispy blond hair. For a moment there, he looked at me like I’d spontaneously grown another head. “Well, he’s still getting used to the family Crest. I finished the transfer a few days ago, so I brought Aviola here along as my plus one.” The aforementioned plus one lays a hand on my arm and begins to speak to me.

    “I don’t know if you’re a first gen or a second gen like me, but you don’t ask too many questions about a family’s magecraft. Especially not so directly. Doing so is an incredible taboo.”

    I’m so shocked my head hurts. No, I’m shocked because my head hurts. She’s not speaking with her mouth; instead, her voice is resonating through my skull. It’s not telepathy - I can literally hear her inside of my head, like my skull’s turned into a giant speaker. I yank my arm away and rub my temples.

    “You alright, Serena? I thought I tuned the power correctly, but I must’ve miscalculated.”

    That’s not an apology for leaving my head shaken, not stirred. Do they really not see anything wrong with invading someone’s body like that?

    “I will be, thanks.” My gaze wanders around the room again. “Who’s that tanned man speaking to Olivier?”

    Aviola looks over and stares at him. And stares. And stares. Okay, I know he’s filling out that suit splendidly and has cheekbones for days but he’s not that hot. Okay that’s a lie. Answer the question, Aviola.

    “You recognize him?”

    She coughs. “If I remember correctly, he’s the Edelfelt’s representative for this. I didn’t catch his name, though.”

    I don’t blink. “Edelfelt?”

    Neither does Aviola. “They’re an influential family of nobles from the Clock Tower.spanning numerous generations. Its current head, Luviagelita Edelfelt is a once in a century genius. The Edelfelts are known for aggressively scooping up whatever’s valuable whenever they can, but I guess this exhibition’s beneath her.”

    “Right, the invitation mentioned that, but what’s actually being exhibited?”

    A clap resounds through the room, ending the music and conversation. Olivier strides to the center of the room to address his guests. “If I could have your attention please, honored guests! To those of you who have stepped aboard my ship before. To those of you who stand here for the first time. I am Olivier Roussalt, collector of fineries, and today I’ve invited you here to see something truly extraordinary.” He pauses for effect to an uncertain crowd. “Today’s treasure hails from an undersea salvage off the coast of Greece. Braving incredible pressure and vicious wraiths, I dove under the stormy seas chasing the faintest speck of light and my own inimitable intuition! Through the inky depths, past painted walls of stone, until I felt an extraordinary thrum, something strong enough to make one’s circuits sing like the finest harps! I pressed onwards boldly, unsealing the final chamber, and what I discovered to bring to you today will strike you to the core! I present to you the divine gold, the light of possibility: Chrysaor!”

    With a flash of light, a golden sword appears in front of Olivier, floating gently in the air. My hair’s standing up on end just looking at it, and my skin tingles like the air’s charged with nascent lightning. The blade shines with its own light, overshadowing the gems in the walls even as its surface glitters with an incandescent glow. It’s about a meter in length, with a slight crossguard and hilt; are those letters on the blade? Still, it’s a bit strange. Despite shining so brightly, it feels like the surface is scuffed somehow.

    “May I examine it?” Henrik’s voice can’t hide its querulousness, or its excitement. “By all means, Henrik,” Olivier says. “Though take care not to cut yourself.” Henrik steps forward and traces a finger along Chrysaor’s blade, eyes narrowed. “This sheathe, is it unicorn skin?” Olivier smiles. “Of course. The artifact’s initial seal was damaged by an earthquake of some sort, so I had to find an adequate stopper for its mystery. Expensive, but it serves its purpose quite well, no?” Unicorn skin. Unicorn skin is a thing. Okay. Something about purity and virginity, probably.

    “Get your paws off it already, Jansfellar. Let me take a look,” said the pale brunette in a wheedling rasp. “My apologies, Mr. Kramer.” Henrik stepped aside, and the man Kramer practically skipped forward to observe the sword. “This is a genuine Conceptual Weapon, isn’t it?” He spared Olivier a glance before returning his hungry gaze to the blade. “You really dug up something incredible, Roussault. Whether it’s as a weapon, or a summoning relic, or as an alchemical catalyst, this thing’s incredible. Chrysaor, huh? The sword and the potential born from Medusa’s corpse; the possibility that sprung from the monster’s tragic end.” He smirked. “So what do you think of it, Representative of the Edelfelts?”

    Ellis turns to glare at the tanned man, who stares impassively. “It’s as you said, Ellis. That is a fine blade.”

    “What, not going to take a closer look?”

    The man smiles slightly. “No, I’ve seen everything I needed to.” Ellis grinds his teeth.

    “If you’re done with your little pissing contest, I’d like to look at Chrysaor.” Aviola stepped forward, eyes on the glowing blade. “Keh, alright.” Ellis stepped back, eyes flicking between the sword and the tanned man in equal measure. Aviola pulled out her phone and started taking pictures of the sword from every angle. “Divine gold, huh? This would make great semiconductors for a new grimoire! Information processing, mystery, manifesting gestalts, converting information and electricity into magical energy and vice-versa…” She’s speaking so quickly at this point it’s like her words are overlapping. But the next few words cut clean through her musings.

    “How much?”

    Everyone turns toward the source of the brazen request - Lei Jūn-Láng.




    AP INSUFFICIENT, PLEASE WAIT UNTIL IT REFILLS


    Spoiler:
    [Nasuverse in general] Either a detective noir story or a Golden Age of Detective Fiction-style involving pre-existing Nasuverse characters (you can even mix and match different works, if you want).
    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
    woolooloo Kirby's Avatar
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    Blood Circuit

    /1

    The Shanghai Bund had always looked out of place to him.

    It towers over the skyline. Off-white granite walls and polished steel. Ionic columns and sweeping arches. Baroque facades and Art Deco crowns. A gleaming line of grand banks and hotels seated on the Huangpu river, it casts its shadow across the crumbling walls of the Old City. He can make out their form even in this stormy night, through the howling winds and lashing drops of rain and thunder clouds blotting out the moon and the stars, their silhouettes as dark castles looming in the horizon. Only shuttered windows and flickering neon signs remain to light the streets.

    The roads normally clamorous with the traffic of wooden rickshaws and shiny black Cadillacs tonight lay desolate and empty. The barges and fishing boats normally anchored by the docks were gone tonight, their owners deigning to store them somewhere safer, what few ones left being tossed and rocked by the tumultuous waves. Tonight, he is alone. Nothing to stand in between him and his destination.

    He makes his way across the deserted road, coat whipping in the wind. The light of the hotel lobby lights the silhouettes of two men standing vigil at the entrance. They take no notice of him. Not at first. He feels the bounded field pass over him like a thin film of water, as the sound of the storm is muffled like through the windowpane.

    Only once his shadow crosses the light shining out into the street, they take notice of him. Heads turn for a moment. They stare at him, sizing him up, but return to their posts with a curt nod. The field lies dormant, no alarm sounding, and he enters the lobby of the building. From the halls, a familiar tune drifts out.

    Pack up all my care and woe
    Here I go, singing low
    Bye bye blackbird

    A song they’d listen to when they were young. From a land far, far away. He steps into a lobby, a large, circular thing, a crystal chandelier shimmering above. Carved pillars hold up a domed ceiling, as guests in suits and socialites in cocktail dresses mill about below, chatting, drinking, socializing. He sees the guards whisper to each other, eyeing him. Dawning recognition. The tune drifts out from the radio.

    Where somebody waits for me
    Sugar's sweet, so is she
    Bye bye blackbird

    A song of a time long past. A time they could never return to. He left his heart there and then and it stayed, stuck in time. His hand turns something cold and metallic over in his coat pocket, as the guards begin to move, surrounding him to block off his path.

    No one here can love and understand me
    Oh, what hard luck stories they all hand me

    A guard steps out in front of him, as he watches its mouth move, but its words fail to form. Its expression is frozen in shock, its hand halfway to its holster. Whatever sounds it made were drowned out by the howling rain, the jazz tunes of those days long past, the staccato crack of a gunshot.

    Make my bed and light the light
    I'll arrive late tonight

    He watches it all as if in slow motion. Flecks of blood suspended in air like raindrops. The guard falling to the ground like a broken puppet. Its partner stepping back in panic, its hand moving to its holster. The clinking of bullet casings falling to the floor. His arm falls to his side as he turns his head, and watches the remaining guard pull out a pistol, watching him yell something over the din of the rain.

    A circuit flares to life. The drops of blood remain suspended in the air. He plays with the pin of a pocketed grenade.

    Over the howling of the rain, the shouting of the guards, the rumbling of footsteps coming closer and closer, he feels words form on his lips that he cannot hear over the song.

    Blackbird, bye bye.

    I’m home.


    /-1

    “You’ve finally come. Just four years too late.”

    “Kept you waiting?”

    A wry smile. The woman did not bother to respond, did not bother to face him. The coldness of her voice so biting it made even the midsummer heat almost tolerable. She knelt in front of a stele, a shiny, black surface adorned with a name and a picture, a burnt out match hanging limply from her hand. Lazy wisps of smoke rose from sticks of incense, their redness blackening, whitening, crumbling into ash. She stared at it, unblinking. He took a step towards the stele, as he watched her from behind. She gave no reaction, no indication of caring.

    He broke the silence first. “You know, it’s funny that we’d meet here again. After all this time, here, out of all places.”

    “I come here often,” she said, her voice quiet and calm, several degrees colder than before. “To sweep the grave. Someone has to look after it. You won’t do it. And neither will he.”

    He continued to smile, mirthless as it was. Lips pulled back into a leer. “I’ve been busy.”

    “Meaning?”

    “Meaning not to compare me to—”

    “—Him?” She laughed then, cold and mirthless, a shadow of what her laughter once was. She stood to face him, and he looked into those eyes of hers for the first time in years. Where there once was sunniness and laughter, only the shadows of pain and quiet grief remained. “Why shouldn’t I? What excuse do you have, Yunyang?”

    “I’ve been busy,” he repeats.

    “Busy doing what?”

    “Something important.”

    “Something so important, for you to disappear for four years? Blood brothers, you called yourselves. So close you must have been, that you couldn’t bother spare a day to even pay your respects to his grave.”

    Another silence descended upon the cemetery. “Well I’m here now, aren’t I?”

    “Four years too late.” She turned back away to tend to the grave with a heavy sigh. Her voice sounded tired, hoarse, drained of all emotion as if she couldn’t bring herself to feel any more indignation. “It doesn’t matter now, anyway. It’s all over.” She speaks to the grave, her voice barely above a whisper. “Father’s dead, and the family’s fallen apart. Honor— our honor— is dead. The Shenjianhui are no more. A shell of its former self.”

    “I’ll bring it all back.”

    “Idiot. What is gone can never be returned. Not Father, not the family, and certainly not those bonds of yours. These things that I once loved— that you loved too,” she said, her eyes glassy, as if gazing at something distant. “Four years ago, and maybe everything wouldn’t have fallen apart. Maybe if only you’d been there. Or maybe the age of honor is dead.”

    Even now, she refused to look at him. The last time he would ever get to see her, and even then he couldn’t patch things up. Even if it wouldn’t matter any more soon.

    Tonight, everything would be brought to an end.

    “I’m here now. To keep my promise.”


    /2


    The once beautiful hall had been reduced to ruin.

    A black, singed stain mark where the grenade had gone off, as several crumpled bodies of armed guards lay broken and bloodied about it. The ornate, hand-carved furniture had been reduced in splinters, shredded apart from gunfire. Shards of porcelain statues lay smashed and scattered across the hall, their original forms indistinguishable. The hall once a monument to luxury and opulence looked as if a storm has passed through it.

    They called that storm Yunyang.

    Gunshots and shattering glass ring out throughout the foyer.

    Yunyang runs, pistol in hand. He dodges bullets fired from the balconies above, as broken glass and porcelain crunch beneath his feet. Guards with grim faces and black suits fire upon him from all directions. He fires back, firing wildly, not to draw blood but force them to take cover, forcing them to dive behind overturned desks and tables, dodging ricocheting bullets. Over the cacophony of gunfire and panicked shouting he hears a stampede of footsteps, more guards charging out of doors and emerging from hallways, all to stop him.

    A reception area. He dives for the bar for cover. He sends a bullet into the head of one guard, and tackles another as he tries to take aim. The guard’s pistol is sent flying out of their hands and lands a few meters away. They stagger back, thrown off balance, swinging in desperation. The man leans aside as he dashes forward, the guard misses as if trying to grab water. He swerves around the guard’s body in a single fluid motion and sends a fist smashing into his side, bones cracking, organs crushing.

    The guard crumples to the floor as the others take aim, sending another hail of bullets flying past his head. He dives under the cover of the bar counter. He hears the exploding glass, of bottles of wine and spirits behind him bursting like popped balloons.

    Another circuit flares to life, and he traces a finger along a stray bottle. He tosses it at the balcony, the guards shooting it out of the air, as the liquid aside is set aflame from the detonation of his prana, setting the balcony ablaze. He hears screams and panic, as they scramble to fall back. He watches their retreating backs, their eyes fixed on him like they’d seen something inhuman.

    Yet Yunyang’s gaze is fixed past them, not watching them but something distant. Fixed on the glass dome ceiling of the lobby. He watches it, and it watches back.

    He knows they are watching him at this very moment.

    In a room far away, where the din of the gunshots and fire chaos are but distant noise, five figures crowd around a table.

    One man sits at the head, a small brazier of embers set in front of him. His companions stand behind him, a pair of siblings standing on either side of him sentinel and unwavering, as a girl stands at his side with a look of worry. If he noticed their concern, he ignores them, wholly focused on the embers before him.

    He stares, expression pensive and eyes locked on the smoke wafting up from the flames, moving images shimmering in their form like a mirage. He watches a man tear his way through the compound, guards falling one after the other. A man he once knew.

    “So he finally came.”

    The last of the man’s companions sits at the other end, tattooed arms back behind his head, feet propped up on the table. He smiles, a crooked grin marred by the scar covering half his face.

    “I’d ask if you were excited, but uh, you’d best not waste your time,” he says, tilting his head at the images in the smoke, now depicting the intruder having a shootout with several more guards. He grins in derision. “Look at him. A shadow of his former self. The old Yunyang wouldn’t have left any stragglers. Just sit your pretty bum right here, boss. I’ll be the one to take care of this trash.”

    “Sounds like you’re the one excited,” one of the siblings pipes up. Her brother nods in agreement absently, still watching his boss with concern. “Rearing for revenge, aren’t we?”

    “Like I’d need revenge on some trash like him.”

    “Oh?” A sly smile, as she leans up on the table. “Then I guess we’ll take care of him for now, right brother?” She looks to her brother again, who only nods silently in response.

    “Like hell you will.”

    “What’s the matter? Got a problem with that?”

    “I said, I’ll be the one—”

    Quiet.”

    The two freeze in their spots, as the boss speaks up for the first time. He doesn’t even bother to look up at them. The sister retreats, face flushed with embarrassment, while the man scowls and picks his teeth, gaze averted. The boss continues to watch the smoke as if nothing had happened.

    The smoke forms and reforms in Yunyang’s shape, imitating his movements like a puppet show, as he runs through the halls. Pistol in one hand, blade in the other. Cutting through guards, dodging through bullets, firing back his own in retaliation. It drops two guards, sending bullets flying with a flick of its wrist, as it winces when a bullet grazes its cheek. It grapples a guard and sends him falling to the ground, the arm that brings the blade down all cut and bloody. The figure collapses behind an overturned table, its chest heaving and choking down breath, already looking at his limit.

    The brother speaks up for the first time, “Why isn’t he using it?”

    The tattooed man scowls. “Have you heard the rumors?”

    “Rumors?”

    “Yeah. From our boys, who he’s been going around, beating ‘em up after he reappeared,” he says, staring into the smoke. “The ones who got away say he can’t anymore.”

    The boss nods, slightly, a bare frown across his lips as if disappointed. “Xiaoming.”

    “Yeah?” The tattooed man looks up, surprised.

    “You have my permission.”

    A silence descends back on the table, and Xiaoming stands up and bows. He exits through the door, disappearing into the hall, and the boss returns to staring into the smoke. He watches the figure with utmost attention, as if expectant. Waiting for something to happen.

    Yunyang is surrounded now, its movements staggered and body bloodied. His parries of the guards’ attacks are just a moment slower, his counterattacks just a touch weaker. A blocked strike here. A missed shot there. A guard smashes a bottle into his side, shards of bloodied glass flying across the room. He collapses.

    They close in.

    His mouth moves.

    The embers of the brazier flares, a disruption of the flow of qi detected in the bounded field.

    And the boss smiles.

    Welcome home.


    /-2

    Silence descended upon the warehouse.

    It was a deafening quiet, after the previous din of gunfire and battle, nothing remaining but the sound of the waves of the Huangpu. He took a step. Shattered glass and splintered wood cracked beneath his feet, the warehouse smelling of gunpowder and blood. The wounds and cuts dotting his body began to close, skin stitching and flesh healing, his magic circuit humming as it did its work, as damaged as it was. Yunyang sighed, and lowered his gun. What few life signatures left in the building were too faint for him to deem them a threat.

    According to his contact, the target was due to oversee a new shipment arrival tonight. There was no worry about the target dying. If he was the right one, the implanted circuit would keep him alive, for just long enough for him to do his work.

    He surveyed his surroundings for his target. It was a warehouse much like any other, much like the kinds he’d worked at in the past. A leaky ceiling, where rainwater still dripped through, forming puddles on the floor. Stacks of crates, haphazardly laid on bare concrete and splintered wood. He shifted aside a bloodied hand still gripping one, and lifted the lid.

    Blocks of opium. Smuggled firearms. Alchemical crests preserved in formaldehyde. The usual suspects. He grimaced, and pocketed the crests. It was the detective’s part of the deal; his target’s location, for the cargo. Carefully, he replaced the lid. He would deal with the rest later.

    What had they come to? Those who called themselves defenders of honor and righteousness, reduced to smuggling drugs and weaponry, fueling the lawlessness of the city? It had been of the tenets of the jianghu not to involve the common people into their world and strife, and here they were, bringing it right to them. Since when did they stop being the protectors of the people, and lost their way and purpose?

    Had their honor died alongside their Master?

    “Spare me. Such honor was an illusion to begin with. Then and now.”

    He paused in his introspection, his hand drifting to his circuits, scratching at it in irritation.

    “I’ve watched you, you know. My children, and my children’s children, and so on and so forth thereafter. I have been watching since your society’s inception, to its heydays and now its fall. Your sect has been calling forth my power since before you’d even gathered.”

    He began pacing, and grit his teeth, a sense of restlessness and irritability gripping him. He hadn’t come here to be lectured on what he already knew, deep down. He started to inspect the bodies, pulling back the collars of their suits, checking the skin at the nape of the neck. Looking for the right signature.

    “Overthrow the Qing, so they made their mission. So they did, even before your time.”

    He stopped at one lying face down in a puddle, a patch of skin at its neck faintly glowing like a dying ember. The target signature. This one was probably an officer. Its blood mixed in with the rainwater, a reflection stared back at him. Ruddy-faced, long-bearded. It began to speak of its own accord. He scowled back at the reflection, but ignored it.

    “And then what? The Shenjianhui had exhausted their purpose before you learned to even crawl. This honor of yours had died before you were even born.”

    Yunyang snorted, as he carefully cut out the patch of skin with a knife. “Quiet, you.” Though even he knew the futility of speaking aloud to some voice only could hear, and the voice even laughed in response.

    “A mere boy that borrows my power is in no position to order me to be silent. But very well. Show me what you can do. Destroy more of their stock, and then what?”

    He turned it over in his hand, like a bloody scrap of paper. An artificial magic crest formed from alchemical elixir. Since the takeover, administered to common thugs to give them artificial circuits, and to identify them by their qi signature. Enough for him to pass the bounded field. As a magus himself, such elixir would be mostly useless for anything other than giving himself mercury poisoning.

    “I’ll destroy more.”

    “And then?”

    He ate it anyway. “And then I’ll destroy them.”

    “And what’ll there be left to you, when that’s all done?”

    He snorted. Nothing. There would be nothing. He knew he would never survive to see the end of his mission, whether he succeeded or failed, but persevered nonetheless. He had made an oath back then. The last of his promises left that he could keep.

    The voice sighed at this, seemingly relenting. “Even I don’t have it in me to scorn such fool-hearted idealism. So be it. I will watch you to your journey’s end.”

    “I wouldn’t have expected you to be so soft. Then again, you’d have to be some sort of softie to stick with me after all this time. To be honest,” he said, lighting a flame on a finger, “I would’ve expected you to have left my ass dead in a ditch years ago.”

    “Much as a parent has a duty to their child, we Ancestors have a duty to protect their descendants. Besides,” the voice said, as it receded into quiet, returning to dormancy, “I would also like to keep a promise, at least once. Even just my oath to you.”

    “Glad to hear it,” he mumbled, the voice faded from his mind. He flicked the flame from his finger onto the crates, lighting them ablaze, leaving the warehouse to be consumed by the flames.


    /3

    Yunyang is at his limit.

    He collapses behind an overturned table, and assesses his wounds. Stab wound in his leg. Two bullet wounds, one in his left arm, one in his side. No vitals hit, but he can tell his movements have been slowed. Even if his circuit regenerated his wounds, would it do it fast enough? He picks out the bullet dislodged in his arm with a grunt and lets qi flow close the wound. His skills have deteriorated. Such is to be expected when you come out of retirement.

    He peeks out from behind the table and fires more shots. Two drop their targets. One misses, as the guard charges at him with a blade. He smashes his assailant’s arm with the palm of his hand mid-strike, catching the blade as he drops it and slashing his stomach. He turns around and tries to throw it at the guard behind him, but it's parried out of the way.

    Blinding white. Searing pain. The slashed guard had struggled to its feet, mustering up enough strength to smash a wine bottle into his side. He withstands the pain, firing a bullet at his assailant, and another at the last charging guard.

    He can’t go on like this.

    The elevator is just at the end of the hall. His destination. They’re starting to close in. He hears the distant rumbling of footsteps, coming closer. There was no choice left. He draws his blade, and chants a prayer. His circuit flares to life, nearly searing his skin from the heat, like dying embers given new life. Just as the cavalry comes bursting through the doors, fresh Mausers and Tommy guns in hand.

    Green Dragon of the East,
    Whose fearsome powers brings harmony to the temple,
    Whose sincerity protects and upholds the city of the Dharma king,”

    Like a crimson storm, amid yells of shock, the blood on his skin and at his feet vaporizes into red mist. It wreathes him in red, absorbing into his body, solidifying and sewing back together torn flesh, coalescing and crystallizing onto his blade.

    Bulwark and guardian of the Pure Land,
    Come forth—

    Come on out, you old bastard—!

    “Guan Yu!”

    He stands. Where there were once wounds on his body, something red and crystalline shimmers there, as if it had filled in the gaps where his flesh was torn and broken. Forming threads and fibers, relinking and mending his wounds. In his hand, his blade is transformed, encased in that same crystalline blood, its handle elongated to polearm’s length, its blade broadened to a halberd’s size. No longer a broadsword, but a glaive.

    “Rend, Green Dragon Crescent Blade!”

    The great glaive forged from the corpse of a dragon, bathed so much in the blood of his enemies that it became a part of it. A blade that thirsted for blood.

    As if on cue, his assailants fire, a hailstorm of bullets tearing up the tapestry, raining down on his position. To no avail. His blood worked into overdrive, he vaults over the table, and brings his glaive down into the chest of the nearest guard, impaling him straight through. He wrenches it out of his chest, the blood that flows forth further coalescing onto the blade, adding to his weight. With a single swing, a horizontal slash tears through three more guards, sending them flying, their blood feeding even more into the blade, now the size of a greatsword.

    Their gunfire intensifies in response, but it is not enough. He watches as if in slow motion, his senses thrown into overdrive, qi pulsing through his circuits like a broken dam. He charges forward, weaving through their bullets, his glaive cleaving through their numbers like a scythe through grain.

    One tries to block his blade with their own, and sees it cloven in two.

    Another lands a bullet on him, and watches the flesh weave itself back together.

    The last tries to run, and has his legs cut out beneath him.

    And silence returns to the halls.

    The silence seeps in, as he catches a breath. He hears a small ring, and turns as the elevator doors open. A tattooed man steps out, wearing a smile that doesn’t quite reach the scarred half of his face.

    “You can hear the racket from all the way upstairs. Always were one for attention, weren’t you?” He makes his way slowly into the hall, arms spread open, stepping over a bloodied body. His grin turns into a snarl. “Coming back here was a mistake. You should’ve stayed retired when you had the chance.”

    Yunyang stares at the newcomer, blankly and impassively, having no reaction to his entrance. He only stares past him, at the elevator just at the end of the hall. This only seems to incense him even further.

    “What’s with the silent treatment? Got nothing to say to your old—”

    It happens before he can even finish. In three strides Yunyang already crossed the distance, bringing down his glaive onto his head—

    It stops just bare inches from his neck, stopped in its tracks by Xiaoming’s own hand, black as pitch, gripping the blade until cracks form on its crystalline surface. Yunyang pulls the blade back, the crystal melting back into its liquid form, the shape of the glaive changing as he slams the blunt end into his leg and jumps back in retreat.

    “Not one for words or civilized talk, are you?”

    “Civilized talk? Then how about you step aside, and don’t die meaninglessly in something you have no stake in.”

    “You arrogant— you don’t even remember, do you?” he hisses. He laughs, mirthlessly and harshly, his face twisted into a snarl of pure rage. “Of course you wouldn’t. You would never. Then when I’m through with you, I’ll make sure you never forget!”

    The man slams his fists together, both his arms turned charcoal-black. He charges, slamming his fist into Yunyang, who raises his glaive to block it. The impact booms through the halls, cracks forming in the crystallized blood, the glass windows. He strikes again, and again, a flurry of blows getting faster and faster, sending tremors into the ground with each strike, until he sends one last punch flying with a crack like a gunshot.

    Yunyang doesn’t block it. He barely even moves. The glaive liquifies into its original form, and reforms again, as he swings it upwards from below. Xiaoming had put too much force in his blow, too much momentum. Too late to block, as the blade is driven into his side.

    The battle ends. Yunyang wrenches the blade out through his side, as his opponent falls, and lies bleeding on the floor. He steps over his body to reach the elevator.

    “—You…”

    He still speaks. Yunyang almost pauses in his tracks, but continues on forth, ignoring the dying man’s last breathes.

    “I said…”

    He’s stopped in his tracks, as something grips his arm. The form of a black serpent, coiled around it. He turns.

    Xiaoming stands, the artificial circuit in his chest ablaze like a furnace, the entirety of his body encased in jet-black bone. Where the wound in his abdomen was earlier, where his innards should’ve been spilling out of his body, there writhed a mass of black snakes, leaking something black like tar.

    “I’ll make sure you never forget!”

    They slither out of the wound, sprouting out his back and snaking around his body, coiling like muscle fibers into arms like that of a wrathful Asura. They bare their fangs at Yunyang and lunge, as the snake around his arm pulls him in, yanking him forward to Xiaoming as he slams his six fists into his chest.

    “Let’s give you a proper greeting. Meet the Dark Warrior of the North—

    Xuanwu!


    /-3

    Bloody footsteps echoed through the empty alley.

    He stumbled, slowly making his way through the alleyway, his breaths shallow and harsh. His legs trembled, and he collapsed, leaning on the alleyway wall for support. His right arm clutched at the wound on his stomach, as his other hung limply at his side, broken and lifeless.

    Snow continued to fall from the sky, drifting and melting into the bloodied footsteps. The night was silent, not a single soul outside out in the streets.

    He stared at the wall, his gaze distant and unfocused, his body trembling. Whether it was from the cold or from shock, he neither knew nor cared. The scene just kept replaying itself over and over in his head.

    Running through the halls, following panicked pleas from Meiyin to stop him.

    The sight of the elders’ bodies, lying in pools of their own blood.

    Him standing above them, bloodied blade in hand.

    As much as he replayed this scene in his head, he couldn’t understand. Why this had happened. How this had happened. Again and again he replayed the scene, but the answer escaped him. How had it turned out this way?

    Why did he break his oath of honor?

    Why did he betray the family?

    Why had he asked him to follow him?

    This family that lifted him out of the streets, when he had none of his own. The sect they swore to uphold, the pillar that would watch over their brothers and sisters. His sworn brothers, with whom they would vow to protect this city together. To whom did he owe his loyalty? The sect to which he owed his life, or his brother with whom he swore his blood?

    Liuzhang. The greatest swordsman and invoker the Shenjianhui had ever produced.

    He hadn’t thought about it at the time. He was blinded by rage. Still a novice in the arts of ancestral invocation, without a single hope of victory, but he didn't let it stop him.

    Attack first, question later. His modus operandi. It only worked if you won.

    Ten blows. That was the longest he could last against him. Ten blows with which he couldn’t land a single hit, until he was cut down in a single strike. After all this time, they couldn’t even fight as equals. Every movement, every feint, he read through as if it were his own. In the end, he understood Yunyang completely. It was Yunyang who understood nothing of him.

    Yet if he understood all of this, why had he made his offer in the first place? Why did he not finish him, as he finished the others? Why had he turned away, and left him to his underlings? Why had he been allowed to live?

    He lifted the stained cloth on his stomach, blood pouring out of the gash of a wound there like a broken drain. He circulated what little qi left there was in his body, directing it to the channels to regenerate his flesh, but it was weak. The flow of blood slowed, thickened, but the wound did not fully close. This was the most he could do. Of course, he had expended most of his energy escaping from his former home. He even had to cut down his old comrades to escape.

    He inspected his lame arm, still hanging limply at his side. Bite marks through the forearm, puncturing straight through. Enough to cripple him for that decisive blow. Pain shot through his body when he attempted to move it. If his suspicions were correct, it might’ve bitten through one of his tendons.

    Again, he attempted to circulate qi into his arm, but the wound did not heal. A searing pain, atypical of the normal reaction. Normally, the crest would be able to heal wounds like this, but this was no ordinary wound. A trick up his sleeve that he never expected. In the end, even his sworn brothers had secrets they kept from him. He wondered, idly, if he’d ever be able to hold a sword again after this.

    He laughed at the realization, weak and mirthless. What a silly thought. For what reason would he ever take up a sword, now?

    The sect, fallen.

    The family, broken.

    The traitor, his brother.

    Where left was there for him to go?

    The only thing left to him was a promise he could not keep.


    /4

    Yunyang cannot pierce his defenses.

    Xuanwu. Guardian of the Wudang sect. The penitent that purged all mortal flesh from his body, whose entrails remained impure and took new life as demons. Xiaoming’s body was the same, and so every strike was for naught. His six arms would block any strike from any angle, while simultaneously keeping up his relentless assault. Even when a strike did pierce his defenses, his internal organs would form and reform, taking new life of their own.

    Like trying to fight back a storm. Dodging Xiaoming’s fists was like dodging individual drops of rain, wounding his body like trying to split a river with a blade. With every strike he lands on his blackened arms, they unravel, back into serpentine form only to reform into another arm.

    Do you remember yet!?” His opponent’s face is twisted in rage, whose next threefold strike sends him skidding back on the floor.

    He could not remember. Before the fall of the sect, only he and Liuzhang were the two members talented enough to invoke the Ancestors to this degree, transforming their bodies. Three, it used to be, before the Master’s passing. Thus he knew not of any other members that could invoke, though he could imagine they gained and trained new ones since the transformation of the sect.

    “Of course. You don’t remember at all, do you? You never cared about the small fries, while you were out playing hero!”

    The tattoos on Xiaoming’s body glows like a raging flame, an overloaded, artificial circuit that spanned his entire body.

    “You turned your blade on us, and we let you live anyway. And you have the gall to come crawling back, just to turn your blade on us again. Ever wondered why the boss let you live!?” He slams his fists into the glaive, shattering it into shards of crystalized blood.

    He can’t keep this up. With every blow, every strike he parries with his glaive, he feels his movements slow just a bit more, his defenses being chipped away. At this rate, with no way to pierce his defenses, there is only one option left to him.

    Searing pain. A gasp for air, a piercing sound. Xiaoming’s hand pierces through his stomach, coated in his blood. Yunyang grips Xiaoming’s arm, buried in his stomach. The real arm. He grins.

    Rend.

    The blood on his arm crystallizes, piercing his flesh, mixing in with his blood. He tries to remove his arm from Yunyang’s body, but he holds him fast.

    “Wha—?”

    He barely has time to finish the thought. It lacerates his body from the inside out, crystalline blood piercing out through his skin like his body began to sprout blades, spreading up through his arm, piercing his heart. He can only stare at it in shock, a dribble of blood leaking from his mouth. The blades recede, and he falls over dead.

    Yunyang watches him fall, and then collapses himself, clutching his stomach. He coughs up blood. He mutters another incantation under his breath and begins to reshape his organs, absorbing the blood splattered throughout the halls and taking it into himself. The crystalline structures form in his body where it had been punctured. A temporary measure. Once he ran out of qi to maintain the spell, the wounds would tear up again.

    He had to be careful, had to ration his energy to maintain his wounds, while the crest did what it could. He picks up a spare Mauser lying around on the ground from one of the unfortunate bodies sent down to stop him. He pockets some of the magazines, and checks the handgun’s chamber, as he stumbles into the elevator. With an unsteady hand, he draws his own pistol and checks the magazine, clicking it back into place. On his body, only a few magazines and a grenade remaining. With a shaking finger, he presses the button.

    The elevator rises, and he collapses against the wall, catching his breath.

    He hears the sound of the elevator’s ring, the doors sliding open. At the end of the hall, two siblings stand. The brother glares. The sister smirks. A tommy gun in each sibling’s hand.

    Generals of the Ancestral Mother,
    Guardians of the Eastern Seas,

    Two circuits flare to life, a torrent of qi inundating the room.

    Qianliyan, the All-Seeing—”
    “Shunfeng’er, the All-Hearing—

    They speak in unison.

    “—Come forth!

    Yunyang lifts himself up, and dashes forward, firing a shot at them. It misses. They move out of the way before he even pulls the trigger, and jump backwards, firing their own shots right back at him. He swerves to the left and takes cover behind a pillar, bullets impacting concrete, chipping stone. He can hear their steps, slowing circling around to either side of him, until they surround him completely.

    He makes a break for it, dashing further into the corridor on his left, yet they react almost immediately. They rain a hail of gunfire where he had started to move, forcing him to dive under cover, even as several bullets grazed his body, one piercing through his arm.

    He runs down the corridor, trying to lose them through each turn and crossing in the hallways, but they stay in hot pursuit. Firing upon him whenever he leaves cover. Dodging whenever he returns fire. Perfectly synchronized to his position, where he was and will be. As if they could always read his every move.

    Because they can.

    Every motion.

    Every sound.

    There is only one option left for him here.

    He ran.

    How many more, would he have to go through?

    No matter how much blood you spill.

    Would he be able to face him, when the time came to do so?

    No matter how many wounds you take.

    Would he make it to the end?

    Of course you will. You have a God of War at your side.


    /-4

    By the time he met up with Liuzhang, he could tell it was already over.

    The bedroom door was closed, muffling the sound of Meiyin’s weeping from inside. Liuzhang stood outside, leaning against the wall, his expression solemn, betraying no emotion. He could guess what had happened.

    “He finally kicked it then, didn’t he?”

    Liuzhang scowled at his remark. “Don’t talk about it like that.” He sighed, and his expression softened. “But yes. It seems our Master has finally passed now.”

    They stood on either side of the door in silence, with nothing to occupy them but the continued sound of crying. Yunyang took this time to look at his partner for the first time in a while. His face was apparently expressionless, almost enough so that he wouldn’t have guessed anything happened at first, as unflappable as ever. But on closer inspection, he could see faint shadows of the bags under his eyes, which looked just a bit red. He looked as if he hadn’t slept in a long while, that exhaustion just starting to peek through that mask of his. Stoic and inscrutable as he was, he knew him too well to not see through it.

    “I can tell you’re staring, you know.”

    He ignored that, and tilted his head towards the bedroom. “Everything alright?”

    A small laugh. “You know her,” he said, shooting a glance at Meiyin. “She’ll cry out all her tears now, but she’ll be back on her feet tomorrow. She knows her father wouldn’t have wanted her to wallow in grief forever. So she won’t.” A small smile. He always had a soft spot for her. “She cries like that now because she’s not afraid of what anyone else thinks about it. Admirable, in its own way.”

    Yunyang stretched his arms, and leaned back against the wall, resting his arms behind his head. He sighed heavily. “Well, all things considered, it’s not such a bad way to go.”

    “Not quite a warrior’s death, to die of illness.”

    “All that means is that there wasn’t anyone good enough to beat the old man. Undefeated to the end. Gets to pass on in peace, surrounded by family. Sounds great, to me.” He laughed, if only a little. “Dunno what the sect’ll do without him, from now on.”

    Liuzhang sighed at that, a new look of half exhaustion, half exasperation on his face. “Have you really given that any thought?”

    “About what?

    “About what happens next.”

    He tilted his head. “I guess?”

    “You guess?

    “I mean, what’s there to it? He’s the master, we’re the pupils. So we’ll just carry on his legacy. Keep the city clean, teach the next generation, serve the elders, you know. Life goes on, and all that.”

    “That’s so stunningly optimistic I’m almost at a loss for words.”

    “Then what’s the problem, then?”

    Liuzhang sighed heavily, and only stares at the wall. “It’s nothing.”

    “Sure doesn’t sound like nothing.”

    He said nothing in response, as if silently mulling over his options. He spoke carefully, “Times are changing. His death leaves a power vacuum in the sect, as the guys above scramble to replace him, or figure out a way to get by without him, or even start expanding their ambitions now that their peacekeeper’s no longer an obstacle. And their people?” He closed his eyes. “I don’t know. By the time they’re done with it, I don’t even know what the sect will look like. Things… can’t go on like this forever.”

    Yunyang listened with a tilted head. “Well, whatever happens, happens. We’ll just deal with it.” He grinned. “Yeah?”

    Liuzhang sighed again. “Now I really am at a loss for words.”

    He laughed at that, and then frowned again in sudden sobriety. “You know, you never answered my question.”

    “Which question?”

    “You know. ‘How’s everything?’ Not Meiyin—” he said, cutting him off as he opened his mouth. “I was asking about you.”

    He stared back for a moment, as if taken aback, and snorted. “As well as you’d expect.”

    “Not well enough to give a straight answer, apparently.” Yunyang huffed in annoyance, and leaned back on the wall. He was never the kind of man to let others inside his head, so he didn’t expect much of a better response. They stood there in silence, each on either side of the door like a pair of sentinels. Eventually, he spoke up again. “You were close, weren’t you?”

    “You already knew of our history.”

    “Ah, c’mon. Everyone knew he liked you better. Gotta be some things that he’s told you that he’s kept from me, yeah?”

    “That’s not because he liked me better.” He looked almost annoyed at that. “It’s because you don’t know the words ‘restraint’ or foresight.”

    Yunyang laughed at that. “Yeah, yeah. Well, I can always just bank on you picking up my slack.”

    “You are far too relaxed about this.” Liuzhang scowled, and stared back at the wall. “...I’m worried.”

    “I can tell.”

    In the end, he supposed, Liuzhang carried more of the burden between the two.

    The responsible one. The invincible one. The one who now carried the weight of the Shenjianhui on his shoulders.

    “I knew this day would come. Obviously. I thought I’d have more time. More time to prepare, to figure things out, on how to carry it all forward. I… don’t know what will happen from now on. And the sect—”

    He paused there, unable to finish the thought, hesitant. He shook his head and cut it short, looking more exhausted than Yunyang had ever seen him.

    “I just never really understood until now, what it would be like without him.”

    “But hey,” Yunyang said. “We’re still here, aren’t we?”


    /5

    Only Liuzhang and the girl remain left in the room.

    The siblings had gone down to stop him. They sit there in silence, watching the battle unfold from the flames of the brazier.

    Zhaoyin, vessel of the All-Seeing Qianliyan. Zhaoyan, vessel of the All-Hearing Shunfeng’er. The two guardians of the goddess Mazu. While invoking their powers did not alter and reshape their bodies as much in the way of the other Ancestors, their blessings are exactly as they are described.

    No matter where he hides, she would see him. No matter what he does, he would hear him. Yunyang, normally, would be able to easily take them on in hand-to-hand combat. Yet he was too injured to fight from his fight with Xiaoming to use his blade, only maintaining the invocation to prevent his wounds from opening up even more. Should he take too long, he’ll run himself dry. How long can he keep running?

    Such a disadvantage was only a testament to his skill, for him to have survived as long as he has.

    He runs, weaving through the corridors and furnishings like through a maze, knowing they know his location at all times. Know when he turns to shoot. Know when he turns to run. He sends bursts of gunfire their way, nothing more than a suppressing maneuver. The bullets never hit their mark, but force them to take cover, slowing their advance. They fire back at him, knowing exactly where he is, yet he reacts before they even raise their guns, already dodging out of the way.

    Whoever lands the next shot will win the battle. It’s landing that shot that’s the problem.

    He hears Zhaoyin’s voice. “If you were just going to run in the first place, you never should have come back!”

    Yunyang stumbles into a large hall, with a high ceiling and glass chandelier and tall windows looking out towards the river. A spacious one, filled with tables and silverware, now overturned and strewn over the floor. In more peaceful times it would have been for entertaining the hotel guests, yet they had long since evacuated since the fighting began. He limps towards a table and flips it over, taking cover behind it. He ducks beneath another hail of bullets as he discards his coat and its bloodied contents, tossing them onto the floor. Rain lashes against the glass, a torrent of water and cacophonic noise.


    They stalk each other throughout the room, a cat and mouse chase, diving in and out of cover and exchanged gunfire. Ricocheting bullets. Shattering wood. He finds himself backed up against the wall, hiding under another overturned table. As if that would help. They know where he is. They close in on him, on either side, taking cautious steps towards him, as the sisters yells out.

    “Come on out now, and we’ll make it quick!”

    He does not respond. Another circuit fires. He ducks for cover, hands over his head.

    The blood on his last grenade activates. Forms a shape. Pulls the pin.

    Rend.

    He sees the realization in Zhaoyan’s face first. Too late to react. A deafening explosion shatters the room. Shatters the chandelier, the windows. It shrouds the room in darkness, as it blows out the lights. Drowning the room in the howling of the storm, as the windows break. Shattered glass rains down like shrapnel. Sensory overload. It catches his hunters by surprise. He didn’t even lift a finger for it. His chance.

    Three shots. Two hit the brother. Shoulder, and waist. He falls to the ground. Yunyang does not bother to check if he survives. The last hits the sister. Through the arm, her dominant hand. She collapses, and drops her weapon.

    Expert gunslingers though they were, their bodies were only human. The battle is over, the gunfire silenced. No sound but that of the howling storm. He walks over to the sister, still supporting herself on her one good arm. She looks up at him. He levels the barrel of the gun at her forehead, and she watches.

    A familiar face. A forgotten name.

    They stare at each other in silence. She stares straight into his eyes. She says nothing, but stares.

    His arm falls limp by his side, as he lowers the gun. Drops it. It clatters onto the floor, and he walks away, making his way towards the staircase towards his final destination. She does nothing to stop him. The last sight he sees of her is her limping towards her brother.

    Liuzhang watches this, and snuffs out the fire. He rises from his seat, picking up his sheathes, strapping his three blades to his side. The last girl watches him set to leave, and grabs him by the sleeve. He turns to face her.

    A silent, pleading stare. Those words were written on her face.

    Please don’t do this.

    A moment of hesitation. And yet he lets go. He makes his way towards the door, and leaves her alone in the room.

    As he makes his way to his destination, he wonders to himself. Why had he allowed him to come this far?

    Why had he not snuffed out this threat in the first place?

    He knows the answer already. There is simply no reason to voice it to himself again.

    He arrives at that place. Where he finally cut the elders down, and took over the sect. A great hall, dark and dimly lit, the four chairs where they once occupied like thrones, long since abandoned. He walks over to the one in the center, and seats himself upon it. Looking out towards the hall. Silent but for the rain lashing at the windows, a song sung by a distant radio. Memories of that night come flooding back.

    No one here can love and understand me
    Oh, what hard luck stories they all hand me

    They did not condemn him, or curse him. He remembers the look in their eyes. Not anger, nor grief, or even surprise. Just silent resignation. Acceptance of their fate as if it was inevitable, as they allowed him to cut them down. He wondered, then. Why?

    He had thought it a matter of survival. Kill or be killed. Had he not acted then, he didn’t know when they would have been discarded. And yet they accepted their deaths just like that.

    Make my bed and light the light
    I'll arrive late tonight

    And yet, he realizes now, it was not a matter of living or dying. It was death then, or death now. The sect had long outlived its lifespan, condemned to a slow, agonizing death. Even if it still survived into this new era, all that would remain would be a shadow of its former self. A laughable, grotesque parody.

    It was never a question of if it could survive. It was only a matter of when.

    Blackbird, bye bye.

    The sound of the double doors grinding open interrupts his thoughts. A crack of light peeks through from the hallway, a figure illuminated in it. Dripping with rainwater and blood. Shimmers of crystallized blood dotting its body like wounds. Armed with nothing but a blade and a gun.

    Liuzhang sits up from the throne, and takes a step down. He grips one of the three blades at his side.

    They lock eyes.

    There is nothing for them to say to each other.

    They long knew this day would come. Every action, every possibility, had been considered and calculated within their minds. The outcome had already been determined.

    No matter who left this building alive, this battle could have no victor.

    Spoiler:
    The Holy Grail brings Heroic Spirits to the modern era and provides them with all the necessary information to adapt, from language and history to an understanding of technological and cultural changes. But there are other methods to invoke Heroic Spirits which offer none of these conveniences. Magi who take a portion of their power into themselves. Mediums and oracles who channel them to receive guidance and achieve miracles. How is this done and for what purpose? How does a spirit from the past react to its emergence in an unfamiliar era? Are all Heroic Spirits guardians of humanity as a whole or do some retain the same exclusivist motivations as they did in life? Tell the story of an attempt to invoke a Heroic Spirit outside the premise of a Holy Grail War.
    Last edited by Kirby; December 25th, 2019 at 08:04 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.

  9. #9
    woolooloo Kirby's Avatar
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    The Fourth?!

    “Remind me, Zelretch,” Emiya Shirou, seated at a coffee table across from a certain vampiric Magician, questioned, “Why am I supposed to go to the Root of All Things, again?”

    “Because, my dear apprentice’s boyfriend,” Kishur Zelretch Schweinorg answered, “this is an experience I’ve been meaning to do for some time. However, nobody would give me the time of day to see what would happen if someone were to just record what happens in the Root.”

    Shirou, due to his being trained by his girlfriend/master of Magecraft for quite a few months now, simply arched an eyebrow at the answer. “Why do I get the feeling you’re holding info back?” he asked.

    “Okay, you got me,” Zelretch answered. “I handed them a digital camcorder to record what goes on in the Root, they gave it back to me, and I never get around to telling them what to do with it.”

    Shirou sighed in irritation. “Okay, now that I can believe,” he said. “So, I just need to record what happens when a normal person goes in to see the Root? Is that all I need to do, Zelretch?” Upon receiving a nod from the Dead Apostle Ancestor, he got up from the table and asked, “Where did you put the camcorder in question?”

    #
    A few minutes later, Shirou headed over to his dorm with his girlfriend/master, Tohsaka Rin, and knocked on the door. “Rin, it’s me, Shirou,” he said. “Are you decent right now?”

    The door opened then. “Hello, Shirou,” Rin replied. “What’s the matter? I thought you’d be busier by now, what with your inability to be selfish?”

    Shirou sighed when he heard that. “I was talking with Zelretch, actually,” he said. “He apparently cleared his and my schedules so that we could talk about an expedition he had in mind.”

    Rin’s eyes bugged out when she heard that. “What sort of expedition are we talking about, Shirou?” she asked him.

    “I can’t say that,” he said, “at least not outside the dorm room. Mind if I come inside?”

    Rin blushed, embarrassed. “Oops…” she said. She then moved out of the way. “Come on in, Shirou,” she said.

    “Thanks,” he said, doing just that. When the door closed behind him, he said, “the expedition in question is a trip to record what goes on in the Root.”

    “You’re… kidding… right, Shirou?” Rin asked.

    “I wish, Rin,” Shirou answered.

    “How are you supposed to record it, anyway?” Rin asked in reply.

    “Zelretch said he put a digital camcorder in my things meant to withstand the Root,” Shirou answered. “I just need to get it and get going for a few minutes at most.”

    Rin sighed. “You’re hopeless, you know that?” she asked rhetorically. “And yet, that’s why I love you. You’re so selfless…”

    “So I’ve heard, Rin,” Shirou said. “So I’ve heard…”

    “No, seriously,” Rin said, shaking her head. “Your selflessness is what attracts me to you.”

    Shirou nodded after hearing that. “Thanks, Rin,” he said. “Now, to go get that camcorder that Zelretch gave me…”

    #
    “Now, Shirou,” Zelretch said when the young man returned with the camcorder, “I want you to understand that this is just about seeing what’s inside the Root of All Things, nothing else. I can assure you that this is not a trick.”

    “…why do I get the feeling that you’re hiding something from me?” Shirou asked.

    “Well, I suppose I should be clearer, then,” Zelretch answered. “You know about the Fourth Magician, right?”

    “Only so much as I know of the poem,” Shirou answered. “Why do you ask?”

    “Because I have a sneaking suspicion that the Fourth Magician is inside the Root right now,” Zelretch said as if he was talking about the weather.

    Naturally, Shirou felt his eyes widen to the size of tea cups, as if he was hearing the most ridiculous thing in existence. “Please tell me you’re joking!” he exclaimed.

    “I honestly wish that were a joke, Shirou,” Zelretch said. “Honestly, though, it makes more sense than anything else… especially since he seems to appear over the course of history as different people.”

    Shirou, when he heard that, calmed down a bit. “By that, what do you mean?” he asked.

    “I mean, he has different names, but looks the same each time he shows up as a new person,” Zelretch answered.

    “You mean like the Snake of Akasha, Roa?” Shirou asked.

    “No, Roa uses a different system of reincarnation,” Zelretch replied. “I just think it’s a fragment of his overall soul being used to shape what the body looks like each time. Okay, the point is, I wish to have you confirm this for me.”

    Shirou gave a sigh as he heard this. “Okay, then,” he said. “I’ll do this for you… just, where’s the portal to the Root, exactly?”

    “Walk through the door you came through, and it will take you to the Root, Shirou,” Zelretch answered.

    Shirou nodded, looking to see the portal in question. “I hope this doesn’t bite me in the ass, Zelretch,” he threatened the Dead Apostle Ancestor. “Otherwise, this won’t end well for you later on.” With that, he walked on through the door to go to his next destination, which…

    #
    …was a Throne? “Huh?” Shirou asked out loud. “How did I get into the Throne of Heroes of all places? I was aiming for the Root of All Things.”

    A chuckling was heard from all around the area of the Throne. “Welcome,” a man said, appearing within the empty space that would be where one would sit on the Throne. “It is a distinct pleasure to see someone new come to the Throne, even if they aren’t worthy of it.”

    Shirou was about to begin Tracing the weapons Kanshou and Bakuya in preparation of a possible attack when he remembered he was holding onto a camcorder as provided by Zelretch. “Who are you?” he asked.

    “Normally, I would ask you to reveal yourself first,” the man on the Throne said. “However, due to my Law being in effect, I have no need to do that… Emiya Shirou, I go by many names, as due to my Sensories. However, my truest name is Mercurius, the Fourth Heaven.”

    “Mercurius? The Fourth Heaven?” Shirou asked, confused as all get out. “I’m looking for someone else, actually… do you know of anyone who identifies themself as the Fourth Magician?”

    Mercurius chuckled again. “It has been far too many years since I’ve heard that title in relation to the Moonlit World,” he answered. “At the very least, it’s been that way since I took on the identity of Theophrastus von Hohenheim, the Sensory to receive the title.”

    Shirou’s eyes bugged out when he heard that. “You mean you’re the Fourth Magician?!”

    “Indeed, I am,” Mercurius answered. “May I begin explaining the truth of my origins to you, so that you can record this for those who wish to see the Divine Throne for themselves?”

    “Oh, uh, certainly,” Shirou answered, switching the camcorder on to recording mode. “Go ahead.”

    Mercurius nodded, before he began telling his tale… a tale that was equal parts ridiculous, and fascinating.

    #
    By the end of the tale, Shirou had managed to keep the camcorder upright the whole way, since his arms were beginning to get weak from holding it up the whole time. On top of that, he had managed to stay alive the whole time, which… well, considering the things Mercurius told him, it was a miracle the Divine Throne’s defense systems didn’t activate.

    “Now, I’m sure you have questions for me, Emiya Shirou,” Mercurius said. “You may ask however many you wish to bring to words.”

    “Well…” Shirou began, before he decided on a question. “Do you wish to get off the Throne without having to die in the process?”

    Mercurius blinked in surprise when he heard that. “Why, how very thoughtful of you,” he said to Shirou. “Honestly, I had no idea there was still someone as selfless as you in the whole of reality. Please, tell me your truest desire.”

    “My truest desire is to save everyone in reality, everywhere,” Shirou said almost automatically. “It’s an inherited dream, but…”

    “Hmm…” Mercurius pondered what Shirou said. “Perhaps it might be possible, your truest desire being that.” He stood up from the Divine Throne and stood out of Shirou’s way, gesturing him to sit down on the construct.

    Shirou walked over to the Throne and sat down on it, and waited for what had to be an eternity. Nothing happened.

    “Urgh…” Shirou groaned. “I wish that this stupid thing could help me achieve my old man’s dream properly…”

    And, just like that, the Throne activated properly, overwriting the world of Omega Ewigkeit and creating Giappone Avalon, instead of Anima Entelecheia… the former being where the Law of Eternal Recurrence (where everything happens over and over again during the course of the many decillion times 40,000 years Mercurius was seated on his throne) took effect, the latter being where the Law of Eternal Transmigration (where the sinners and saints would become one and clean all the taint of the evils of every world) took effect, and the middle… where the Law of Eternal Harmony (where the very acts of evil are removed from that moment onward, due to the fact that Avalon was inside of Shirou and was meant to be a gateway to the actual plane of Avalon) took effect.

    Spoiler:
    Many have asked about the Fourth Magic. But a more important question is: Who is the Fourth Magician? Write about them or the search for them/their Magic.
    Last edited by Kirby; December 26th, 2019 at 09:23 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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