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Thread: Death Parade [Tsukihime/Strange Fake]

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    Death Parade [Tsukihime/Strange Fake]

    This fanfic contains zero Remake spoilers, nor any elements of it for that matter.

    There was no sense of the preordained in their meeting.

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

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

    No, it was the words it spoke that drew her attention. Not enough to divert her eyes from the road, a curving highway whose corner she dearly wished a taxi would soon emerge from, but outlandish enough to merit recognition. She reckoned she could use any opportunity to dust off her French anyhow.

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

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

    That got her to turn around.

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

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

    The boy was smiling. It wasn’t all there - that she would never miss - but the apologetically hopeful expression directed at her drained all levity from her thoughts. Was that what people called a disarming smile? No, she knew that what gave her pause was not its earnestness but the unnerve she felt in that moment from a child who could speak those words with an expression like that on his face.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    And yet.

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

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

    Ah, bugger. When had she stopped thinking like one?

    Death Parade
    A Day at the Races | In the Court of the Crimson King | The Rime of the Ancient Mariner | Ace of Wands

    “Alright kid, I’m listening.”

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

    No discernible effect. No lingering magical energy to speak of. So far, not too abnormal. But then there was the lack of ambient footprint, which indicated either some kind of containment or the absence of discharge altogether. No wonder she didn’t see him coming: he was indistinguishable from any other mundane passerby - just as she was, or so she had thought. Despite the fact that he was somehow able to identify her as a magus even with her circuits inactive, there was always the possibility that he was actually just a completely normal person with an uncanny ability to track down the supernatural. Stranger things had happened, eh?

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

    Well, that was that, then.

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

    Nothing. Not a single trace of circulation. Perhaps due to circuit composition, or maybe an extrasensory channel, but she would have to dig out any answers to her postulations with forceps and scalpel, and as much as the urge reared its inquiring head from time to time she had tried hard to break the habit of stuffing people in her suitcase merely to satisfy idle curiosity.

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

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

    “Finding other magi?”

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

    Those…eyes. In that instant, as if something in her mind had just clicked, her gaze felt magnetised, sinking into depths that made her skin crawl with a vestigial emotion she had trained herself to parse as interest. A small twitch of her fingers slipped through her restraint of reaching in to pry them out. The time she took to peel her tongue from the roof of her mouth covered the effort to rein herself in.

    “Can you tell me about it?” she finally asked. A slight sheen over her eyes was the only sign of her lenses increasing their reflectivity against these potential mystic eyes.

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

    How delightfully vague. It was obvious from the way his face progressively fell with each response that the boy was troubled by this ability. His reticence to talk about it didn’t really smack of typical magus evasiveness. She had no idea if he had been trained as one, but previous experience with ten-year-old brats freshly unveiled as heirs to a crest and already picture-perfect representatives of Barthomeloi snobbery was unlikely to be of assistance in this case. As might have been apparent, the woman was woefully unequipped to deal with children.

    “So, are you gonna help me?”

    Especially children that expected unreasonable things out of her.

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

    Hah, and here she’d thought she had grown a little wiser.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


    “Alice what?”

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

    Nod nod nod.

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

    “You, why didn’t you say so?!”

    Then again, as she dragged the boy by the hand into the crowd she could somewhat understand his parents’ reasons.

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

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

    She threw a measured look his way.

    “The one with a casino floating in it.”

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

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

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

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

    “Really? Why is that?”

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

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

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

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

    And then they were off, the woman’s right hand already tracing the first runic array on the back of the boy running in front of her. Among whispered words of magic, the woman spared a wry thought towards the coincidences that conspired to pass for fate.

    Race day indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Rather than torpor itself, that which wore down the endless was a fatigue born of the world’s inadequacy to leave a lasting mark on them. Presiding over their kingdoms, waging war in the shadows, inviting enmity and hatred from both their ancestral enemies and their own kind - it was the closest they could come to the peril of the unknown and the promise of true death. By imposing uncertainty on their unending lives they sought to exorcise the spectre of futility, never allowing the weight of their existence to settle on their being. To fear was novel and to doubt was human, even as they themselves were embodiments of such fear and darkness in their entanglements with mortals. This desiderating, above all, bespoke life’s ineradicable yearning for a purpose greater than itself, where every end was a denouement and death one’s fated conclusion - for what was more human than the desire for meaning?

    In truth, what vampires constructed their identity around was an act of imitation to which they were compelled by a lingering sense of former humanity. Life-in-death of a being-beyond death; a hollow impulse. Reproduced patterns of a simulated self. The life of the endless was the most transparent of simulacra.

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

    Still, he mused as he surveyed his domain, he could not claim to understand his own nature completely even now. Even as his kind spent their time recreating the aspects of human experience that struck their fancy - in mockery or blitheness, with their appreciation of the rich irony ranging in between - his relentless fascination with the human subject differed from the predatory fixations one might have expected of a vastly superior species and its favoured prey. It was an interest that sustained him, a nectar that kept the poison of tedium at bay from a well which never ran dry; yet after thousands of years of drinking from it he was no closer to a certain answer on what primal drive underlay this pattern.

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

    Having long left the headwaters behind, he could not help but wonder if his voyage even had a destination. The bright side was that he had stopped worrying about it anyway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Most unusual.

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

    “Won’t you collect your earnings?”

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

    “I promise that there won’t be any trouble if you reveal yourself now."

    “Promise you won’t eat me?”

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

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

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

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

    “My “it”?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

    The other was that this scant information had already turned up a hit in the black book of unwelcome visitors that occupied a special place in the vampire’s memory. It appeared that simply thinking of the devil could be taken as an invitation.

    “Did this lady make you keep secret about her?” With a single thought he set his guard units to a sweeping patrol without even waiting for the answer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking that, for all its pomp, Fem’s Casa was ultimately yet another casino among many, putting on a show for its visitors that stayed in one's memory for a single night and then faded away with dawn. Only a very select few knew different.

    Past the game halls where the rabble of Monaco - that is to say, high-rollers by any other casino’s standards - spent their dubiously earned coin, through heavy doors fit for a temple of worship rather than an altar of excess, was where the facade ended and something else entirely began.

    Where the red carpet unfurled lay a different world - a different time.

    There was no one thing that people noticed upon entry. Rather, what was impressed upon them was the singular nature of everything within it, such that the eye couldn't help but be drawn from one feature to the next, where even familiar objects seemed to take on a different life under the lights of the great chandelier. From the fine marmorino stucco on the walls giving no indication of a vessel at sea and the columns of porphyry said to have been looted from an emperor’s palace during the Fourth Crusade, to the sculpted nymphs forming the shafts of the balustrade holding up the upper floor and the frieze fitted with brilliant pietra dura, the grand chamber bore all the marks of royalty not with the artifice of a Las Vegas establishment, projecting its novelty with exaggerated pretense, but with a class that instead lent verisimilitude. Indeed, the decor itself shaped its atmosphere - and what an atmosphere it was.

    Ambling in the hall through game tables that were pieces of art equal to any sculpture were the members of this anachronistic court, their picturesque finery capped by elaborate masks, the sole requisite of their presence in that chamber, which marked their status as the Casa’s inner circle, the privileged few permitted to take part in the masquerade. They milled about with the aimless purpose of nobility, gambling away fortunes with the same ease as they exchanged pleasantries, utterly beyond care of the world they had left behind and their names before they put on the mask. Gold flowed freely, the wine was sweet, and the nights seemed to last forever. Here was the pleasure-dome of distant recollection, where the games were timeless and revelry was its royal decree. Such an arena of passions could be found nowhere else.

    A casino allowed its patrons the illusion of timeless splendor in a space divorced from the outside world, where for one night the law of consequences is lifted and man is free to pursue his pleasures like there is no tomorrow. The Casa’s patrons knew little of consequence, but they too craved illusions. In this masquerade they could live out a life only found in paintings and in the tales of their forefathers, in a time they felt they belonged but were born too late for, wound back even if just for a while.

    Within the grand hall of Fem’s Casa was a piece of the Old World spirited away and perfectly preserved as it was in the days of Europe’s golden age - a melding of commemorative grandeur and bustling, if exclusive, enterprise. In that chamber one truly felt unbound by time. Perhaps, in this pleasurable haze, they even felt immortal.

    It was said that the proprietor had chosen this decor out of sentimentality, wishing to carry the memory of old Venice, the Casa’s previous home port, with him wherever he might roam. And perhaps in imitation of the doge’s fabled palazzo, though some hesitate to make this claim, the wandering eye would finally come to rest on a composition that seemed at once to celebrate and immortalise this courtly yet carousing masquerade.

    Overlooking all from the panels of the gilt coffered ceiling was a polyptych of frescoes depicting scenes from some esoteric mythology, a tale of royal ascendancy from ignominious birth to rebellion and bloody triumph which resonated with the hearts of those who laid eyes upon it and felt some kinship with its message, if not its symbolism. Those with an eye for art swore up and down that such boldness of colour and liveliness of expression could only be ascribed to the great Veronese, but the only mark the nameless master had left was a blue rose in an obscure corner, whose significance was as unknown as the subjects of their art. And yet, a story no living soul could know found purchase in the courtiers’ minds - perhaps seeing something of themselves in those scenes, as though looking up to a dark mirror projecting their lives on a timeless scale. Unbeknownst to them, this was but a glimpse of the worldview of those for whom life was an eternal reverie where the night could truly last forever.

    Yet tonight held surprises for nobles and pretenders alike, for two figures roaming in their midst wore no mask. And though it was the prerogative of the carnevale’s king to show his face even on a night of masquerade, the boy who accompanied him was a rare curiosity to the eminent guests, drawing attention wherever he went. The mask was a symbol of the proprietor’s good graces, very much the mark of one’s belonging in that elite company. To wear none was either a sign of exceptional favour or the flouting of his hospitality. After all, the last person to show their face in that chamber had caused qute a stir, and stories of the scarlet devil were exchanged under the clinks of champagne crystals to this day.

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

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

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

    To the onlookers, the unlikely duo could be confused for a gentleman entertaining his favourite grandchild, indulging the boy’s merry chatter about anything that caught his eye - which in the grand hall where every step brought one before fresh marvels seemed to be just about everything, judging from the wide-eyed wonder with which he would regard both a priceless antique craps table and a comparatively ordinary potted plant with no fluctuation in his excitement. They roamed from table to table, the elder patiently answering Flat’s questions, however strange, to which the boy would share a sliver of his own to satisfy the vampire’s curiosity. Though patrons wished to catch Van-Fem’s attention as they did every other night, this time the proprietor’s bodyguards, eminently tall and wearing masks that veered towards the ceremonial with their animalistic likeness - the beak of an eagle and the maw of a lion in sharp contrast to the patrons’ conventional motifs - hovered around the pair to steer any interlopers away through the mere suggestion of their presence.

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

    “Oh, right! We’d lost those two in a stairway at the back entrance of the museum for a moment and miss A—uhm...she was all like, ’this is getting annoying’ and pulled some hairs from my head and, you know, it hurt a bit but she told me to keep quiet and opened her suitcase - you wouldn’t believe how much bigger it was on the inside! - pulled out a whole blob of ether, stuck the hair in and then told me to pour magical energy into it. I didn’t think it would do anything - father says ether clumps are completely useless - but it was like it grew and grew and began to take shape as I put in magical energy, and before I knew it the blob looked exactly like me!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “My ancestor?” Flat’s eyes were positively shining as he looked up to the vampire. “That’s amazing! That means you’re a family friend! How long ago was that?”

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

    “That’s fine!”

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

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

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

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

    “My thoughts exactly, Flat.”

    The smile the two of them shared lasted only a moment. A streak of pain lanced through the vampire’s head and drew a wince from him - a sign that a spiritual presence of significant magnitude had entered the perimeter of his bounded fields; that was, the ship itself. Hastily he excused himself from Flat, sending his guards off to investigate with a nod and leaving the boy to watch a tense game of blackjack with rapt attention while he crossed the hall to the bifurcated staircase that led to the upper level, where the pit manager was stationed to observe the proceedings below. A truly imposing man, garbed in a flamboyant costume and truly grotesque mask that beguiled the eye with its spiral patterns, he wordlessly inclined his head towards Van-Fem; wasting no time, the vampire took hold of his hand and activated the master terminal of his network.

    In an instant, the vampire lord saw through the eyes of every single employee of the Casa.

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


    ---Ongoing investigation first.

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

    ---Unlikely, keep searching.

    ---Now the primary alarm.

    ---What? Her?

    ---There is no obvious connection...yet.

    ---She is not banned from the grounds, but if they meet…

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

    ---Is that all?


    ---Where is he?

    ---...court adjourned.

    Dragged from the mindscape by a touch on the arm, heavy with meaning, the crimson king opened his eyes and surveyed the pit below from the balcony.

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

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

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

    Spider-like fingers had perched on Flat’s head, lightly caressing his blonde locks and straying perilously close to his eyes. Under the vampire’s touch the boy was rapidly wilting - a brush against his eyelids forced them shut in fear. Surely he had seen through the man’s nature as easily as he had with Van-Fem, which meant the boy had picked up on his intentions even if he didn’t understand them. It would almost reassure the vampire lord that Flat did not display unreserved trust towards every stranger that he met if he wasn’t preoccupied with getting the other man as far away from Flat as possible.

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

    “Vlad. I wish I could say it’s a pleasure, but I wouldn’t lie to you like that.”

    Taking what meagre enjoyment he could from the tightening of the vampire’s fingers and jaw at the casual address repaid twofold, Van-Fem let go of his hand to step in and position himself between the white-clad man and Flat without a single care for subtlety.

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

    He could barely stomach exchanging pleasantries with the Ancestor in the best of circumstances; Van-Fem's tone made it clear that this was not of them. Predictably, Svelten’s good cheer rebounded at this open display of hostility.

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

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

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

    Inert puppets hanging from strings.

    Then, the puppeteer’s fingers tugged.

    Four hundred heads turned as one.

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

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

    With a tilt of his head, a scarlet sickle of an eye glared through the blonde curtain.

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

    The words solemnly repeated as royal mandate gave way to cruelty as the funeral rites preceded the nail in the coffin. With a sneer that radiated malice, the white knight immortalised in legend gave a promise of annihilation to a reluctant conspirator that had tarried for too long undecided.

    Even so.

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

    “You have delivered your message, cur. Be mindful of a single word more while you’re in my presence. Now get out.”

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

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

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

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

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

    Flat Escardos had met a woman that should not have been there, entered a place he would never have been able to, made an impossible acquaintance, and was now being used as a bargaining chip against him. The law of the supernatural, the attraction of like to like, had conspired to set the stage for a farcical act.

    Van-Fem did not look back at the boy. There was no need to alarm him, as there was nothing he could do in the first place - nothing but to accept the challenge. Swift as a snake’s bite and torturous as its venom, the mark of the Count on his victims was not something that could be removed in any other way without exacting a terrible price in the process.

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

    The puppet master did not speak. The puppets did not stir. Svelten could force him into the gamble but he couldn’t make him put that concession to words.

    Indulgently, as if bemused by the elder’s obstinacy, the white knight broke the stalemate.

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

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

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

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

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

    “...what is it, mister Fem?”

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

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

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

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

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

    Long ago, a man had dreamt of such things.

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

    To cast a skeleton key for the door to truth itself - such a wish could only be fulfilled long after it had been lost from memory. Looking at the young man who embodied a thesis eighteen hundred years in the making, Van-Fem sincerely congratulated his old friend, whose goal even he had forgotten.

    Saving his descendant from a horrible fate would be a good start to his atonement.

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

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

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

  2. #2
    nicht mitmachen Dullahan's Avatar
    Join Date
    Mar 2011
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    Looking forward to the fight and the poker game.
    ---What? Her?

    ---There is no obvious connection...yet.

    ---She is not banned from the grounds, but if they meet…

    ---Just inform her that she’s paying for everything she breaks.
    Last edited by Dullahan; October 19th, 2021 at 12:18 AM.

  3. #3
    Just a rambling gambling gal.

  4. #4
    nicht mitmachen Dullahan's Avatar
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    Thanks, I love Dr. Arach!

  5. #5
    アルテミット・ソット Ultimate Thot Five_X's Avatar
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    Mar 2011
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    Gambling stories are the most relatable to me, good work so far mister Overs!
    <NEW FIC!> Revolution #9: Somewhere out there, there's a universe in which your mistakes and failures never happened, and all you wished for is true. How hard would you fight to make that real?

    [11:20:46 AM] GlowStiks: lucina is supes attractive
    [12:40] Lace: lucina is amazing
    [12:40] Neir: lucina is pretty much flawless

  6. #6
    There was a room in the floating casino known as Fem’s Casa where it was said that cheating was completely allowed.

    The deeper one went into the backrooms of the ship, the more the decor simplified from Venetian elegance to something less overt and more subtly primal. Gilt gave way to velvet, patterns regressed to ritual geometry. Past a certain point traversing its depths seemed more exploration than navigation - precisely the reason a guide was employed to deliver the chosen ones to the stage of their challenge.

    At the end of a long and narrow corridor, past the double doors of rich, dark redwood and gold filigree where a towering pair stood sentinel, their faces hidden under the intricately glyphed masks of their order, lay a space that could only be considered a private game room. Modestly sized compared to even the Casa’s auxiliary halls, its velvet-lined walls embroidered with obscure meandering patterns enclosed little more than an elevated pedestal on which a felt-topped mahogany poker table girdled by high-backed chairs with supple plush lining the seats were placed - all fabrics but the table’s dyed a deep red befitting its owner, yet also saturating the room with an oppressive air. It was a fair assumption that everything from its remote location to the decor and imagery was designed to invoke the impression of being secluded in a deep, secret place.

    Situated away from the hustle and bustle of the great game halls, it would be difficult for one to imagine the purpose of such a room that seemed to run contrary to the conventional practices of a casino. Perhaps it was a space where the owner and his friends ensconced themselves to enjoy a friendly game, finding entertainment not in the stakes involved but in digging into their bags of tricks and deceiving each other while avoiding deception themselves. That too was only a reductive conjecture, projecting a lack of meaning born from eccentricity to that which could not be otherwise understood. Therefore, it came as a surprise to the few men and women who set foot in the room once a week that Monaco’s most infamous gambling challenge took place in that cloistered chamber, where the only mask allowed was one’s own poker face.

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

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

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

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

    Rarely anyone ever did. The ones that saw through its nature had walked away rich in coin, having also made an even more valuable acquaintance with the host - and with it a place in his court. Tonight, one of the challengers was unlikely to ever win Van-Fem’s friendship, while the rest had come with different designs in mind. Two of them had already walked away in defeat. Right now, another one was just about done with the game altogether.

    “Feh, I want no part of this.”

    Having struggled mightily to put on an air of insouciance which would come naturally to him in any other situation, the man flopped his cards onto the table with exasperation that had little to do with bets and winnings.

    Simply put, he had been hoodwinked. Led by the nose, strung up with promises - really, none of it was his fault. After all, what sane person could have predicted this? Monaco sounded like a good time. Casinos, even better. He didn’t need to consult his knives about that.

    ”I’m gonna need you to tag along for something, Flue. Clean up a bit. Wear something nice. Oh, and bring some cash, will you?”

    And this from a woman he thought he’d never see again was music to his ears. Yet somehow these wonderful things had come together in the form of an oppressive room in a suffocating place with positively asphyxiating company, which his promised star for tonight was most certainly not part of.

    His collar chafed. He was stuck between two dead apostle Ancestors. He wanted to go home. After two hours of play he could say with certainty that the point at which the matter of walking out a winner had taken a back seat to that of walking out at all was fast approaching, and it would do him all the good in the world to make himself scarce before it. Despite his latest lapse in judgment, the innate skill that had never failed the freelancer known in his native circles as Flueger was knowing when to cut his losses and make a clean getaway.

    And so he heaved a great sigh, shook his head, and lied through his teeth.

    “The stars just aren’t right tonight, it seems. Gentlemen, I’d hate to occupy your time when I am so far from my best. It’s been brief, but by your leave I’ll be taking mine.”

    Quickly, before anyone could contest his surrender, he scooped his meager share of chips into the flowing sleeves of his tunic, pushed back his chair from the table, and stood with beefy hands folded behind his back in anticipation of an assenting sign as though he wasn’t restraining himself from making a break for it. Disinterested stares met his wheedling manner. He gladly took them as permission to leave; the sentries didn’t even get to open the doors for him.

    Never again. He was done with favours. And he would give that woman a piece of his mind...if he saw her again...just one more time…

    The astrologer departed from the game room juggling such conflicted thoughts. In his wake play resumed.


    “I check.”

    “Bet. Three hundred thousand.”

    “Sir? Your call.”

    “Three hundred thousand, call.”

    “Hear, hear.”

    “Very well. Gentlemen, your discards please.”

    Detaching his fingers from his brow, the elder Ancestor picked out two cards from his hand and tossed them at the dealer. Soon they were replaced by another pair and Flat Escardos craned his head from his seat, dragged from its proper place at one of the sides of the table to sit closer to the vampire, to peer at them.

    To his left, a gaunt young man with sunken cheeks and a crumpled suit which hung from his shoulders received the card slid towards him in replacement of his sole discard, holding it gingerly between his fingers. At the far end of the table, the immaculate Count in his pristine white suit eyed his hand while a spindly finger toyed with the end of his blonde locks. Occasionally he would flick his eyes across to stare at Flat; each instance drawing out a shudder from the boy, at which point Van-Fem would in turn draw Flat’s attention to the game to distract him. Of course, half the time he needed no such prompting.

    “Why do you think he left like that, mister Fem? Do you think he noticed?” Flat’s attempt at a conspiratorial tone easily carried over across the table.

    “Softer, not lower.” The flat rebuke came at a guarded volume, the vampire not taking his eyes off his cards.

    The boy still lacked in common sense what he had in talent, it seemed. That he had magically modulated the pitch of his voice without considering how it would only travel farther was a symptom of his lack of consideration. Alas, this was no time to find fault in a young magus’ training.

    “Noticed what, Flat?” he added in an assuaging tone.

    “Well, you know, that,” came the answer in a proper whisper. “It doesn’t feel right, mister Fem. I mean, everyone here is allowed to cheat, but isn’t something like that on another level?”

    Now where did that sense of fair play come from, the vampire wondered. The notion of fairness did not come into consideration for any magus in the face of an opportunity to get ahead of their peers. Needless to say that it had even less of a place in a casino, where anyone familiar with the concept dispensed with the notion at the door.

    The single egalitarian principle within those halls was that someone had to win in order to provide the illusion of counterbalance to those who had lost, with this fleeting whim of fate possibly bestowed on anyone who knew to recognise it for what it was. It was the same in that room.

    “If he had noticed he would have stayed,” said Van-Fem, absently rotating the somewhat crude-looking signet ring on his left little finger.


    “Because then he would know how to use it. And that is why it isn’t cheating.”

    A trick that was available to anyone perceptive enough to realise it was there could hardly be called that. If anything it was a unique condition of the room, an unspoken rule added to the games that took place within. Noticing the thing itself was difficult, but its effects were evident with time. And if someone failed to perceive those too then they only had themselves to blame for it.

    Allowing cheating invited the challengers to use the most unfair of tricks in order to gain an overwhelming advantage over the other players. But winning big created disparity, and if something like fairness existed in such games then it was surely the idea of a challenge - a match which through twists of fate and interplays of advantage resolved in an even clash from which only the most skilful player emerged victorious. The ideal of a competitive, engaging game ran wholly at odds with the clean sweep that a cheater would aim for. Both of them, undeniably, were also fantasies that could not stand up to reality, where chance reigned supreme to lay low the most intricate and the most clear-cut of narratives.

    But what if they weren’t? If there was such a balancing force steering the game to a momentous conclusion, wouldn’t a player aware of it be able to read its flow and seize the momentum exactly when it began to swing their way?

    Driven by such currents of fate, victory came not to those who made the biggest waves but to the ones who rode them out in the final stretch.

    “Ohhh, I get it! It’s like dynamic difficulty!”

    With his attempt at subtlety already forgotten, Flat’s exclamation naturally drew eyes out of concentration and onto him. Van-Fem hoped it made as little sense to them as it did to him.

    As though challenging that hope, that round swung the way of the last remaining human player, with the next one following suit as well. The accumulation of chips on his side had been slow and steady throughout the game, keeping the table wary by controlling the pot through sizable bets while seemingly gearing towards a late-game push. That had worked well enough against his fellow humans, who took shots where they found them in the rare hands that they could put some confidence in; in the case of the vampires their playing tempo couldn’t be disrupted so easily.

    While Van-Fem maintained a lax rhythm of play, prodding and passing away with little care for the chips he spent indulging his curiosity, Svelten had proven a predator matching his temperament on the poker table. His derision goaded the opponents into ill-considered swings for momentum, where he sprung a hand built with patience unlike his loose playing to that point and bled them dry. One of them was intimidated into passive play, picked apart piecemeal by the rest. Another went for the kill while it was a viable option and saw his eight-high straight trumped by a queen-high flush. Witnessing these developments, a third decided he’d had enough of poker for the night and wisely withdrew.

    As a result, Svelten’s stack was nearly as deep as the leader’s, which made Van-Fem’s third place as they entered the endgame feel distant even while the difference was not yet overwhelming. Even Flat seemed to notice his friend’s disadvantageous position, his hesitant whispering tinged with worry.

    “Say, uhm, is this a good hand?”

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

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

    “Can you disrupt it?”

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

    “We will begin the bets. Sir?”

    Tap tap, the opener checked.

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

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

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

    “...raise, five hundred thousand.”

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


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

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

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

    Until now.

    “Very well. Reraise, one million.”

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

    “I-I, ah, I…”

    The man stammered incoherently, holding his cards with both trembling hands and staring at them wildly, as if he was willing them to change before his eyes - as he had done before.


    “A-a-ah, f—fo-fold!"

    “Fold. The pot goes to monsieur Svelten.”

    The cards fell between his fingers and scattered on the table. The treacherous ace crowning the dead man’s hand went uncommented but not unnoticed. While the dealer pushed the pile of chips towards Svelten with his rake, Van-Fem took the opportunity to acknowledge the architect of the latest hand with words of measured praise.

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

    “Nope, it was really easy. He was moving the ink so slowly that I couldn’t miss the timing if I tried.”

    Against a magus that ran preset formulas of minute fluid manipulation corresponding to the patterns of the fifty-two cards in the deck, aiming to keep the magical energy residue as small as possible by channeling it in trickles through direct skin contact and transforming suits only to the same colour, it could be said that putting a stopper on the running magic formula was like damming a stream flowing in slow motion: child’s play, so long as one knew the method. Taking control of the spell and changing the stream’s course, on the other hand, was another matter entirely. As the boy had already demonstrated a knack for achieving the improbable, this test of his abilities was a chance Van-Fem felt secure in taking.

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

    Nevertheless. In the ten years he had lived, it was the first time that his magic had not branded him a failure or a monster - the first time that Flat truly felt like a magus. For the sake of mister Fem who had made that possible he would have to take those duties seriously.

    Though he could guess at the boy’s thoughts, the vampire’s countenance did not admit to such benevolence. The look on his face as he stared down the hapless cardsharp spelled out clearly that he had outstayed his welcome. To reinforce the silent point, the dealer ripped open a new deck to replace the tampered cards, the magus looking away with a cringe at the sound.

    Tonight, the challenge would have to end prematurely. Yet on any other night that Van-Fem could afford to entertain it, the spirit of his rules had no sympathy for a cheap trick without a whit of elegance that spat in the face of gambling. The thought of such a brazen display tarnishing his endgame could have led him so far as to use a child to foil it even if that child’s soul wasn’t riding on the outcome.

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

    And then there were two.


    With very different intentions, two voices settled on the only thing they could agree on.

    “Gentlemen, ante up.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    “Actually, it represents ten thousand francs.”

    “What if I told you…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    With a flick of the arm and a silver flash, a head still mouthing the words it no longer had the air to speak rolled on the table’s felt, green darkening to black wherever ichor seeped into it. Before the grotesque pinwheel had even stopped its rotation, the doors of the room were thrown open and members of the Casa’s personnel from all stations poured into the room in full combat alertness.

    Maids in picture-perfect outfits balanced on stiletto legs, muscular security guards levelled the machine guns that had unfolded from within their arms, dealers retrieved improbably large weapons from within their suits, and even the cook brandished sharp implements with his manifold appendages. Led by even more of the masked guardians, prominent with their superior height, they formed a protective wall between their master with his protégé and the enemy.

    Yet, even before that. In the same moment that Svelten’s cutlass cleaved synthetic flesh, bone, and wire, the room itself sprang into action.

    The glyphs whose twisted shapes bewildered the eye were now unmistakably moving. Lining the walls at the guts of the ship, red against deeper red, a network of veins squirmed and pulsed.

    In response to the will of its king, the fourth demonic castle
    Fem’s Casa
    activated its automated defences to destroy the invader.

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

    Or at least, never getting the chance to.

    In the first place, there was no purging fire that could cleanse his miasma, and a preemptive strike could never hope to extinguish such an existence as a singularity among the Ancestors.

    An impossible wind swept the penetralium, yet not a hair on his head stirred. The wind could not touch him. Nothing could.

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

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

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

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

    From afar, the creaking and grinding of ice reached their ears, as true as if they were standing on the deck of a ship sailing a cold and distant sea. Brine and ice crystals speared their nostrils, their breaths issuing forth in foggy puffs. Caught in these phantom sensations, Van-Fem and Flat stood frozen in place as the world around them changed into something that was not.

    And cruelly, cold-bloodedly, the Count welcomed them to it.

    “Come into my world, Valery. Won’t you join the Parade?”

    Frost raced, enveloping all. There was no escape, and they were no exception.

    The rushing wind bit into their skin only for an instant. In the next they were plunged into silence. A silence of sense, a silence of thought. A stillness of being that stirred primeval instincts, lasting but a single moment of interminable length.

    It was a barren world, a grave. A sea long abandoned by the life it had once fostered. Only death remained. Only death was awaited. For those who might return there could be no other atonement. No power could sustain such an abiding hatred for life in the waking world. It was a vision antithetical to reality, an unplace that could only manifest by muddling its borders, usurping its place, and spiriting away the living to an wakeless nightmare.

    It was to such a sight that the two regained awareness when the stifling brightness that stifled their sight like a burial shroud was lifted.

    Gone was the crimson room, Fem’s Casa, and even Monaco. What was there all around them bore only a semblance of the real world, familiar sights breaking off from their logical constraints in a recomposition performed through the warped lens of something truly inhuman. For all they felt as though roused from a deep slumber, Valery Fernand Vandelstam and Flat Escardos awoke to find themselves within the confines of death’s dream kingdom.

    It was a sea yet it was not - for what sea on Earth would not host even the slightest breeze, its surface still and sleek with an oily sheen to the farthest edge of sight? There was a ship, yet there was not - for in that mirror-sea it too might be reflected, seeming to float upright when it in truth beheld the world capsized under the waters. It was a world of snow and ice with fog wreathing its borders; no land or sky peered through it, no sign of sun nor moon or stars to intimate geography, and yet a pale light suffused the brume to paint a sickly pallor on the barren plane, striking the floes and icebergs that were as toppled ruins embedded in the mirror-sea. Crystals drifted down within the murk in slowly sinking clumps, more ash than snow. Nothing further stirred; dead winter reigned over the desolation.

    The salt-gnawed boards under their feet creaked out the tortured strain of rot. Diaphanous sails hung from the spars like webs of gossamer weighed down by the encrusted hoarfrost. Even the ship upon which they now stood evoked a sense of unreality as though it was a wreck dredged up from the bottom of the sea, a husk that blurred the line between ship and mirage. The only thing in that nightmare frontier that brooked no ambiguity for the ancient vampire and the young magus was the bitter cold cutting through their clothing unabated, the army of automata that had been dragged along into the bounded field, and the pale devil leering at them from the quarterdeck of the ship.

    Svelten had not just turned the tables - he had switched the board. Worse yet, experience would avail Van-Fem here. Even amidst the ranks of the Ancestors who had centuries to hone this characteristic ability, there were vanishingly few examples of reality marbles that came close to Svelten’s prodigious command of the innate craft. Expectations of what was possible or not faltered against the pinnacle of sorcery. In the white knight’s home field, all bets were off.

    “What…is this...”

    Trembling and ashen-faced, Flat was the first to find his voice, if not his words. Of course he would not know, Van-Fem thought, but he in turn could not begin to guess at what the boy could discern within the bounded field that had entrapped them. Eyes that could see into the heart of the world should not look upon such a dreadful sight as the Count’s innermost self made manifest, for fear of what they would see in its depths. They should not, but there was nothing in the circumstances which had led them here that ascribed to a notion of normality or fairness. Even if his heart went out to the boy there was no use for contrition in this place.

    For the first time in their brief acquaintance the vampire lord did not provide an explanation to Flat’s curiosity nor pay him any further mind, his attention fixed solely on the owner of the reality marble with unparalleled enmity etched into his taut features. Or rather, on what he was holding in his left hand.

    To this reaction Svelten responded with a mocking laugh. With a flick of his arm he tossed the object into the air without even looking at it, instead drinking in the display of Van-Fem’s eyes following its trajectory with unabashed pleasure.

    The glass bottle seemed suspended in midair. Even at that distance there was no way those keen eyes would not be able to perceive its contents - no way that they would not recognise them; the prow and decks and many-windowed hull captured in lifelike detail, such that he might have seen the silhouettes of people still roaming the decks in a trick of moted half-light.

    Much like a rare specimen captured and put on display, a miniature of the fourth demonic castle - Fem’s vaunted Casa - crested a phantom wave within the phial, imprisoned in time and sealed with a cork of ice, and Van-Fem’s blood churned at the sight of it in Svelten’s grasp.

    “You’ve let me take another one, Valery.” The Count goaded him openly, holding the bottle to eye level and inspecting its content, undaunted by an elder title’s wrath within his territory. “So easily snatched. I wonder, are these baubles all that your pride amounts to?”

    Van-Fem tasted iron in his mouth. It would have been simple to make the vermin choke on his taunts. Had he the freedom to put all the tools at his disposal - the arsenal assembled over millennia in the hands of an existence hailing from the age of the gods - up to the single task of destroying the Eighth, Van-Fem was confident that he could visit annihilation beyond any chance of recovery even on a creature rumoured to be unkillable - annihilation whose fallout Flat, a mere human, would not survive.

    That was the hand he had been dealt; it would be a fatal error to let his passions take rein of the situation. That his desire to destroy the other Ancestor would make an enemy out of a faction controlling vast numbers of dead apostles through ties of blood and contract, if not out of everyone who had pledged support to the project purporting to unite all vampires under a common cause, was an afterthought, a wrinkle he could smooth out at his leisure. That resolving this confrontation could by itself render his charge’s soul forfeit was a truth he struggled not to lose sight of.

    Though his pride would only be satisfied with obliteration, in a gamble just winning was enough. In that interest he curbed the flare of his anger, tempering it into a barb that could strike directly at the other Ancestor’s vanity in turn.

    “What would you know of pride, Vlad? You are the servant of a pretender. A minion leeching prestige off your master. In death as in life, pilfering is all you’re capable of. Ought I be ashamed that you have stolen from me or that I share the title of Ancestor with a common thief?”

    Yes, that was good. Putting his contempt into words had brought his thoughts back on the right track. A momentary lapse of temper at Svelten’s words would divest him of his dignity and bring him down to the same level. All he had to do instead was to make a point of that difference and pierce through this knave’s conceit.

    And he had struck true. By the end of his invective Svelten’s smile had evaporated into the mist of his Parade.

    With pronounced deliberation the vampire hid the
    world egg
    ship in a bottle
    out of sight. When his hand emerged from within his suit, fingers wrapped around the hilt of a slender dagger, the army of automata keeping silent vigil between him and their master shifted into active postures at once as though drawing in a collective breath. For all that it seemed the arrayed forces would have little trouble overrunning the lone figure, their caution reflected not just the mind of their creator but also an understanding born from the spark of imbued intellect that their opponent’s skill with sabre and dagger was the merest component of his individual strength.

    Legend purported that the white knight fought as a host unto himself. The very same tales also claimed that Count Svelten never stood alone.

    “Bold words,” he spoke, “or thoughtless, when I have two things you hold dear within my grasp. Not just one soul, Valery, but hundreds now. All because of you.” How disappointing, his shaking head seemed to say. No reaction was forthcoming: there was no room for the doubt that his words aimed to sow in the mind of his foe. Undeterred he went on. “I had in mind a simple warning on the price of treachery, but have it your way. For the insult you’ve paid my lady I will exact a higher price.”

    The blade was raised and all eyes followed it, but it was not for violence. Instead it came to rest on the lines of the shroud fastened down onto the hull of the ship, held motionless against the ropes at an angle that evoked the image of a bow resting on a violin’s strings, posed to play for a captive audience.

    Fingers flexed to clawed keenness as red eyes exchanged the clearest promise of bloodshed.

    “This is your gamble then.”

    “The stakes are appropriate now, Fourteenth. Let us see who is truly deserving of his title.”

    “And once we do you will return what you have taken from me.”

    At that, the fang-baring smile which had fled Svelten’s face returned in force.

    “When I am finished with you there will be nothing left to take.”

    With these final words the maestro ran his blade against the ropes - a signal for the parade to finally begin.

    It was an otherworldly sound. Rather than being sliced cleanly by the steel edge, the ropes vibrated like metal cords against the motion. A strident cry cut through the eerie still as surely as a foghorn to drill into the ears of those present for the performance. With note sustained and arm at full extension the Count pulled his cutlass back the other way against it, drawing out the agonising shrill which seemed fit to serve as the theme of culminating horror in a dramatic stage play - an impression not too far from reality.

    As Svelten sawed against the makeshift strings the overhanging rigging began to resonate in turn with his strokes. The ratlines strummed cacophonous scales. Fibrous ropes screeched a violin’s high notes. The heavy hum of thick contrabass cables reverberated in his audience's bones. Slithering chains rasped in a seething thrum. And from the bowels of the ship, an unseen bell rang out the witching hour.

    As shards of ice dislodged from their perch to rain down on the deck, the entirety of the ship became a discordant orchestra bellowing out a mustering call at the vampire’s command.

    Truly, it was a sound to wake the dead.

    “Mister Fem…” a voice so small even a vampire’s hearing strained to pick it out of the din called out. “I-In the water, s-something’s...”

    Something was moving, yes. Many things, in fact. He heard before he saw, even before the clamour began to wind down - the stir and splash of water on the surface, nails scraping at wood to find purchase, choked gurgles bubbling up from ruined lungs. The roiling stench of rotten flesh in his nostrils preceded the hands that grasped the gunwale. Above all, Van-Fem's understanding of his opponent told him that the upstart had resolved to challenge him in his fields of expertise, of which puppetry was premier. It only followed that Svelten’s minions would be as unsightly as their master.

    They were a shambles even for their kind. Skeletal or bloated, the rictus of agony on each face - where there was one - told a different brutal tale. Clad in tattered uniforms from far-flung regions and eras, armoured in suits of coral and barnacles, stabbed and shot and torn and broken yet standing despite. Dark ichor oozed from ancient wounds and seawater dribbled from the lips of the drowned. Though their ultimate fate was to return to nothingness, dissolving into marine snow or in the stomach of some aquatic life form, it seemed that the motley crew which clambered onto the deck from all sides - an assembly of the myriad deadly fates of men at sea against the automata - had been denied even that final rest in their watery grave.

    These ghouls were hardly the white knight’s dreaded ghost corps. Though by no means did Van-Fem wish to see the full extent of what Parade held in stock, the sight of the walking dead still elicited a certain disapproval from him. He did not expect artistry in Svelten’s creations, true, but such a mundane task as commanding the dead ought to be beneath an Ancestor of his calibre - of any Ancestor, truly. It was not just power that set them apart and above the rest of their race but the way they commanded their very nature and fashioned it into forms that reflected their inimitable existence. The refinement of the blood-gathering process - turning what was once an ineluctable matter of survival into a canvas to express their distinctive essence - was an example of that. Had he forgotten that his princess once denounced the renegade Nahash on account of his plebeian practices?

    A shameful display.

    "They are just corpses, Flat. Stay close to me, but do not fear them.” He spoke calmly, hoping to communicate a sense of security the young boy could not truly share with a transcendental existence. His puppets too reformed their lines into a protective circle around the two, putting bodies and armaments between them and the encroaching mob of the dead. With a shaky nod the boy shuffled closer, his eyes wide and fixed on those grisly forms.

    The repulsion painted across his features owed to something beyond simple appearance. The deconstruction of the human body in ways both natural and not was a reflexive shock dulled by his nurture as a magus. There was something more visceral, more revolting than that in the gallery of death masks exhibited before him. They did not simply capture a moment of supreme suffering immortalised in death. It was rather that pure agony had been enshrined in those decayed forms to resonate in perpetuity. Such a perversion would turn the stomach of any living thing.

    “It’s not that, mister Fem.” With a gulp to force down the knot in his throat the magus corrected his elder’s evaluation. “I, I don’t think they’re dead yet.”

    The vampire cast his gaze down to him in response, a dismissal already formed in his mind when the sharp sound of clicking heels left it withering on his tongue.

    “Very good! At least your friend has a discerning eye, Valery. I suppose it takes one to know one, hm?” Svelten voiced his approval with mockery worn plainly on his mien. He had, after all, exposed the secret of the crimson room and lived to gloat over it. The cogs in Van-Fem’s mind needed no further prompt - he certainly felt compelled to pay Svelten back in kind just for that.

    If not as mindless dead, the necrophages might qualify for a certain definition of living insofar as the tethering of flesh and soul was degraded to the utmost limits, within which the anima was not yet free to disperse into its constituents. A measure of direct control over the nascent vampires was possible, if self-defeating and a misapplication of resources besides; there was little reason to utilise them as fodder when they might possess the potential to evolve into a superior state. And then there was the matter of their presence within Parade, where there was no opportunity for them to⁠—⁠—ah.

    Realisation dawned suddenly on the Ancestor. Once aligned, the pieces fell into place with ease - in fact there was nothing to the answer but its antithesis to the conclusions that a vampire would naturally draw. More pertinently, the antipathy he harboured for his enemy had blinded him to the axiom he himself espoused.

    The league of twenty-seven celebrated their supremacy in all aspects of their being, painting all that they owned and commanded in their unique colours. Unorthodoxy was the norm among them; even the simplest common truths could not be taken for granted.

    A vampire’s conventional minions were nothing but directionless meat puppets in this desolate soulscape. However, the fact that such creatures, spirits trapped in limbo within ruinous vessels, were unable to pass on was likely of much greater interest to the fabled gambler of souls.

    By Svelten’s own necromancy or the sorcery of Parade they had not only been denied reincarnation but were barred from a release in undeath as well. If any souls could ever be called damned, very few were more so than these.

    “To call this in poor taste would be charitable.” There was no need for Van-Fem to specify, as his realisation of their nature brought him no satisfaction. What was distasteful had proved to be detestable, their destruction the only reason to acknowledge them. He regarded Svelten with the same cold eyes, careful not to let even a speck of emotion other than disdain show on his face. Even so, the vampire’s mocking aspect insinuated an understanding of thoughts kept undisclosed.

    “I prefer them like this,” he said. “It keeps them motivated. As you shall see.”

    And then, at some silent signal, the undead broke the standstill and descended upon their prey.

    It was a mindless rush, driven by a wretched instinct to snuff out all life with tooth and claw. Hollowed faces, gaping jaws, and twitching limbs could attest to that; no doubt the ceaseless agony of souls trapped in dead flesh, driven mad by constant awareness and the disparity of what their form should be and what it had become, pushed them towards the sole outlet of violence and the taking of what was primally hateful to them.

    In contrast to this chaotic charge the automata stepped up in concentric bands, synchrony elevated to an art, with their armament and combat type determining their position in the line of battle. The front-line met their foes with hefty weapons and keen arm-blades that carved the wall of flesh all around them in a united strike. Sweeping horizontally they cleaved through the undead, the silver arc cutting down the first line of attack and creating a second’s respite from immediate pressure. Respite, however, would not be spared for their foes. In that window of opportunity, the second line of defenders arranged behind the melee units lined up the massive rotary cannons that had unfolded from within their arms through the gaps in their allies’ formation and discharged their deadly salvo in a deafening rattle. Rounds designed to punch through metal made mincemeat of already disintegrating bodies and the inhuman wave reeled from the impact of the gunfire.

    Thus, a killing zone was established in one fell stroke.

    There was no semblance of order or cunning in the movements of the undead. They were simply overtaken by the impulse of destroying the lifeforms that had appeared before them and so pursued that singular objective with a single-mindedness that left no room for stratagems. Though they were sliced by blades and bludgeoned by cudgels, ripped to shreds with razor-sharp filaments and ground to a pulp under a hail of bullets, their ferocity did not wane in the slightest.

    Determination was not a factor; Van-Fem doubted that the human mind could consciously appraise the world through the red haze of all-consuming torment. For the living dead, their time was frozen in the moment when their souls were stolen by a devil, amid the fragments of a shipwreck or in the bowels of a slave-ferrying vessel, in the fires of war and piracy and the horror of the most unholy gambles. No matter what lay before their eyes in the here and now, their understanding had long been subsumed under the texture of agony.

    What remained was less than a bestial urge; they had become conduits for their own suffering, only intent on destroying what they’d lost.

    And so they pushed on, over the corpses and into the fray, their ranks replenishing constantly as fresh units dredged themselves up from the depths of the sea and clambered up the sides of the ship on all four limbs like nightmarish crustaceans. The more their numbers swelled, the more the mass of flesh advanced, pressing closer through sheer crushing density of bodies pushing in the same direction; that there seemed no end to them was a grisly testament to their master’s prolific activities, such that his reservoir of minions might have seemed limitless. However disciplined the defenders were, the buffer zone cleared out by whittling down the front-line grew narrower as the pauses between each round of repulsion grew smaller.

    Hardly a minute had passed from the initial skirmish when the undead finally cleared the distance, the marvellously coordinated assault dissolving into a bloody skirmish.

    Van-Fem observed this grimly from the prow of the ship, surrounded by the innermost ranks of what could be considered his elite units - or his last line of defence. While the far end of the ship was a fairly defensible chokepoint, the arena, as it were, was wide enough to allow the clash to fully unravel into a chaotic melee. His overview of the deck was such that he could see over it and all the way across to where his nemesis awaited, leaning on his blade wholly at ease and observing the battle.

    “W-Woah, your puppets are really strong, mister Fem.”

    At his side Flat was watching the unfolding action, entranced - which, given his condition, wasn’t a hopeful sign.

    “Don’t be careless, Flat,” he cautioned. The boy shook his head as if the jostling would clear his thoughts and gave the vampire a small smile.

    “I won’t. I’ll try to find a way out of here.” At that, he retreated to Van-Fem’s back and placed his palms on the wooden surface of the deck, muttering under his breath. The dead apostle spared him a glance before turning his focus back to the clash. He was yet safe and that would suffice for now; the pressing matter that commanded his attention would guarantee it.

    Though he might’ve secretly hoped to see his automata lay waste to Svelten’s ghouls, he didn’t presume to underestimate them or the impact they could achieve through numbers alone. His creations weren’t so feeble as to only hope for victory from a distance - therefore the sight of the undead pushing on relentlessly did not worry him. The depths of Parade would sooner empty before his puppets would tire of carving through the fodder thrown at them, but he never meant for this to become a battle of attrition. His puppets only needed to check the onslaught long enough for their master to ascertain the extent of his opponents capabilities.

    If this were a game - and he could not help but think of it in such terms - then the skirmish had merely been the opening hand. Having evaluated the strength of his position with a speculative approach, his gambling instincts told him the advantage was his to take.

    Now was the time to clear a path.

    He only needed a thought to command his automata, true, but Van-Fem could never resist a touch of the dramatic. There was something deeply gratifying in the way they instantly responded to the thrust of his arm with a mighty forward push that reestablished a temporary distance between attackers and defenders, as though an unseen power behind his gesture had forced the enemies back.

    This time the puppets would defend no more. With weapons at the ready the melee units charged the living dead before they could regain their footing, capitalising on the momentum to drive wedges into the ranks of their foes, supported by the unceasing curtain of fire at their backs. The paths they cleared were soon filled in as bodies collapsed into them, isolating the automata in small pockets of resistance like islands in a sea of undulating flesh.

    As a result of the charge, the battle had spread out to occupy most of the deck. Single units were engaged with dozens of ghouls at once; the strength of their numbers was never more evident than when they piled bodies atop of bodies to bring their foes down under their weight, but the mastery of Van-Fem’s creations shone in equal measure as they carved bloody trails through the living dead regardless.

    The whirling dervishes held their own through constant deadly movement - if they were to stop even for a second they would never move again. Conversely, their gyroscopic engines ensured that their deadly dance could carry on for as long as they had limbs to stand on.

    It would be bold to presume the vanguard could see off the entirety of Parade’s foul inhabitants, but that was hardly their intended role. Puppets, however intricate, were tools created and best utilised for a specific purpose. And what was more, some tools were simply of a different quality altogether.

    Some fifty automata altogether had been dragged along with Van-Fem and Flat into the reality marble, of which more than half could be considered melee units of a standard combat make along with their gun-toting brothers-in-arms, half again their own number. The remaining ones, the masked guardians, hadn’t budged from the protective formation around their master and his charge during the initial clash, wary of straying too far to defend them from some as-yet-unseen danger.

    They too were finally called up to the task when the living dead not engaged in the slaughter scoped out the closest available targets and amassed towards the bow of the ship, the suppressing fire unable to cut off every direction and avenue. Inevitably, the ghouls closed in on the vampire, his inner circle the last recourse to spare him the indignity of having to personally contend with the lowly minions of a lowly cur.

    They scurried, they leapt, they dropped down dead. One moment lunging, the next compacted in mid-air; drawing closer with a step, crumbling to ash with another; bodies twisted until they were more edge than shape and others collapsing into heaps of meat hollowed out from bones that turned to dust.

    Death wasn’t just dealt - it was imposed on them with a glance from stony visages, the most effort these elites would spare for such foes. They were perfect executors of their master’s will even in conveying his contempt for Svelten’s abominations.

    In a world where combat automata in the true sense of the word - units which could operate independently of their creator’s direct input - were beyond the scope of most practitioners of the art, the functions Van-Fem considered the bare minimum were both deceptively basic and fiendishly complex. Enfleshing a battalion of battle-tuned puppets in human guise and reasoning would be the project of a lifetime for an archmagus in the apogee of the craft; to a dead apostle, no cost of time and resources was forbidding. But even if physical capabilities could be considered a secondary matter compared to the codification of true intellect, the golden rule underlying the art of puppetry dictated that in terms of quality the creations of a dead apostle from the age of the gods stood in a league of their own.

    It wasn’t that they were too sophisticated to wield something as crude as weapons. There was simply nothing the shambling ghouls dying in droves before them could do to force those weapons out.

    And that, Van-Fem thought, was telling of how the confrontation had unfolded - how he had allowed it to unfold, in truth.

    His mistake was in thinking there was something to gain in scything down this forest of limbs. The senseless struggle between Svelten’s living dead and his own automata would produce an outcome more symbolic than meaningful; sending their troops into battle to earn a victory that marked the skill of their maker and dealt an injury to the opponent’s pride alone, as they themselves were unassailable. This ritualised conflict was all too characteristic of their immortal kind, as dead apostles would sooner protract their contests of strength by pitting underling against underling and sieging territories and castles much like feudal lords of old rather than crushing such petty resistance effortlessly through individual might - a royal charade taken too far by beings utterly beyond such trappings. All to slay time lest time slay them - but time, for once, was running out.

    It was quite possible that the two of them would burn through all their minions before ever coming to blows, and it was equally possible that they would remain in deadlock until, tired of the spectacle, they chose to join the fray. However, this was no time to test whether his puppets could extirpate this parade of the living dead. The clock might have stopped for him long ago, but it was certainly ticking fast for Flat Escardos.

    No, it would not do to wait. Not when his own forces were completely engaged by just this opening move, and most definitely not with Svelten watching it all like an emperor over his arena.

    Individual calculations formulated the optimal execution of his command. Though they were swarmed by ghouls as all living things on the ship were, buying a second’s respite was a simple matter for the long-range units when they were all able to communicate and coordinate over their shared mental network - the very same that Van-Fem used to supervise his casino, granted a degree of autonomy without direct control from a master terminal. Swivelling at odd angles, their arm-cannons lit up an ephemeral web of fire wreaking geometric devastation, not a single bullet crossing another on their way to tear through their targets.

    Then, as if to make up for that deliberate misalignment, rotary cannons aimed above the tide of battle and fixed their barrels straight on the figure overlooking it all from the quarterdeck - to drag the white knight into battle, if he would not come willingly.

    The shortest of bursts was all they could afford before they were set upon again. Even so, it was more than enough. The Holy Church’s aphorism regarding a dead apostle’s evasiveness had not accounted for that kind of firepower.

    A torrent of gunfire bore down on Svelten at three times the speed of sound. Though the hundreds of high-calibre bullets would not smash his soul to smithereens or inflict some manner of magical effect on him, mundane kinetic energy of this magnitude would strain a vampire’s restoration even on a gibbous moon. A single shot striking true would score a hit as potent in damage as in symbolism. Shedding an Ancestor’s blood with crude human machinery was unthinkable to many, but machines did not care for such hierarchies.

    One could dodge rain only falling so fast. Svelten, for all that he was worthy of his name, did not even have the time to lift his sword.

    The staircase to the quarterdeck was blown away in an explosion of wood chips, dust, and nails. Beyond it, the balustrade of the stern deck bore the brunt of the volley in barely recognisable bits and pieces left upright; even the wheel was ripped off and sent flying, crashing a hole through the taffrail to land in the water with a distant splash. The craftsmanship of centuries past, degraded as it was, had stood up to the test of the bullets no better than flesh - living or undead.

    And yet—

    Though the scenery behind him was riddled by gunfire, it was not because he had been too.

    Though he was not struck, it was not because he had offered resistance.

    Weaving through the falling rain or plucking every drop out of the air - Svelten had done neither. He stood untouched before the devastation because the rain could not touch him.

    Van-Fem had not forgotten. A preemptive strike would never bring down such a demon. What was the norm for dead apostles did not apply to those who were monsters among monsters.

    But this he had not expected, and for the first time his mind treacherously wondered whether the white knight truly was unkillable. While the aim of his probing shot was achieved, the information gleaned only made the prospect of a battle to the death more alarming.

    For what if Svelten’s inner world took him beyond the realms of death itself?

    In the absence of wind the dust settled slowly, almost indistinguishable from the ashen snow. Within the cloud of fine debris the Count’s hazy form was impossible to reliably ascribe to his immateriality, if it was truly that. Svelten raised the blade which had not lifted an inch to stop the bullets just before and the curtain of sawdust parted along its arc, frozen in an instant and dropping like lead. With a clear line of sight, Ancestor regarded Ancestor with a sarcastic nod. Only one was smiling, and it was the smile of a challenge accepted.

    Once more the cutlass was thrust and once more the rigging came alive - this time not with music, but rather more literally.

    Where before they had vibrated like demented musical instruments, the ropes and cables were now the writhing heads of a hydra, untying from knots and unspooling from their reels. A ghostly purple fire, as that which crowned a ship’s masts in a storm, blazed across their length, animating them in the service of the crewless captain.

    Coiling and weaving they descended upon the automata like dangling snakes, twisting around limbs and threatening to bludgeon with heavy blocks and the weight of iron chains. Suddenly, what had been a stalemate between inexhaustible numbers and indefatigable force became a desperate fight for survival as the animated rigging harassed the puppets. Now more than ever, a single wrong move or lapse in concentration invited a gruesome end at the hands of the undead horde.

    The gunners went first, unsuited as they were to hold their own in the heightened chaos. A weapon that turned all before it to a bloody mist was already limited to facing only one direction at a time. With the new threats coming in from all angles while presenting a mere sliver of a target, their vulnerability in such cramped quarters was even more apparent. One was wrapped up by chains which lit up its skin in ghost-fire and constricted until its skeleton caved in with a protracted creak. Another was tripped by an unseen rope snaking low through the legs of the onrushing ghouls, raised up and upside down from the ankle to be flayed to ribbons by greedy claws. All that the rest could do against the omnidirectional threat was imitate their svelte brethren with clumsy maneuvers, spraying their bullets blindly in the seething chaos around them.

    It had all, unsurprisingly, been part of Svelten’s trap. The game had not ended in the crimson room - it was merely the board that had changed.

    With the ship itself becoming an instrument of death, the tide of battle rested on the precipice of wholesale slaughter. Caught in a pincer attack from above and below the automata wouldn’t last a minute altogether. However well they held their ground, each casualty increased the burden on the rest until their defences dominoed under the weight of the fallen.

    Faced with a thousand living branches, the only tenable option was to fell the tree.

    Realising this, the remaining gunners turned their sights on the masts, their blazing cannons as torches to cauterise the hydra’s neck from which its myriad heads sprouted. This, too, was anticipated, though it proved harder to counter; even while some arm-cannons were jerked upwards by the animated rigging just in time for them to discharge into the ashen sky, others still found their mark.

    The mizzenmast’s base virtually disappeared from under it; the spar bounced once against its stump before teetering to the side, crushing the starboard’s gunwale and digging into the hull until the masthead hit the water’s surface and forced the rest of it to roll off the deck and into the sea, sweeping a swathe of ghouls along with it. The mainmast, reinforced with iron rings along its circumference, had fared marginally better, the chunks of wood visibly missing in places rendering its structural failure a matter of time. Perhaps under the strain of its own rigging’s tug and pull it would not hold for much longer.

    With this a middling reprieve from overwhelming pressure was secured, but the price of success was high. Placing their focus on bringing down the masts meant abandoning all defence to make their parting shots count; in a melee where a second’s distraction spelled certain death, their fate was already sealed before they could even stake it on this final attack. Still, it would be inaccurate to call their gruesome end a sacrifice. For the puppets able to recognise their own powerlessness, this was the only way in which they could still prove useful to their master.

    One and all they perished without a cry of pain, their faces set in rigored blankness when the shift to a combat channel divested them of inessential functions. Their perfect human likeness was never more inhuman than in that silent hecatombe, dying a death no human could abide. Such was the iron law of puppetry that barred the imitation from matching the original. Though artistry could fashion skin and blood and fleshly scaffolding, tune its heartbeat to the frequencies of life and even light the fire of nous in cold and glassy eyes, the mimicry was always betrayed. That which would be exactly equal ever missed the mark, and the thin line between real and fake was preserved. A puppet was a puppet by proof of its own artifice.

    In truth, the crew of Fem’s Casa had only ever lived out their purpose as human-shaped tools. But if tools could know any satisfaction, not a piece of them would harbour any regrets.

    Confronted with the sight of his puppets being torn apart, Van-Fem felt neither. To his ancient eyes the indiscriminate slaughter was a matter of pragmatism - a bad read forcing him to cut his losses, nothing to mourn or celebrate. But to his young charge, the numb unreality of what he was experiencing had just shattered by the impact of heightened horror, and in the wake of shock came the visceral realisation that this hyperreal nightmare more fit for a horror film wasn’t something that he could simply wake up from.

    To his credit, Flat Escardos channeled panic into action in the manner of a magus whose training had successfully overridden his natural instincts. Where a young boy cowered, a student of the supernatural observed. Where innocence balked, cold calculation acted. Though, perhaps, that had less to do with the mindset of a magus than with the boy’s own hidden nature.

    Even if the specifics eluded him, his magecraft would see him through. Mister Fem’s method ensured that he got a sense for the charge and flow of magical energy without relying on instinct and his spells would be more precise for it. Whatever dark magic was behind the spectral flames and the eyeless, screaming faces swimming within them, he could break its control and turn its hatred on its master if he just followed those steps again. He had to try, for the sake of his friend who was fighting on his behalf.

    Flat rose his arm purposefully and uttered the incantation.

    “Commence interfer—”

    Alas, neither hand nor words reached their target.

    There was no flaw in his technique and no interference would give him pause. Flat was determined to cast his spell even at the risk of his own safety. The only thing that could shake this resolve was a blow to its very foundation.

    “Huh? Mister Fem, why—”

    The vampire’s hand held the boy’s arm down firmly, his piercing stare and shaking head saying all that he wanted to convey and some of the thoughts he couldn’t quite hide.

    For all his talents, Flat Escardos was but a child caught in the crossfire of a battlefield for monsters, and a novice besides. Humouring his attempts in the course of a card game where his failure would’ve had little cost was an entirely different matter from this battle, where one misstep was enough to render all of Van-Fem’s efforts moot. No betting man would risk it all on the chance that this boy could meddle with an Ancestor’s sorcery within his domain.

    The man who had instilled the confidence to stand up to such a monster in the young magus silently steered him aside without a second thought. There would be time to make amends later, if there was a later. In the vampire’s mind there was much else to be concerned about in order to make that possible.

    The sight of his struggling forces, for one, was ample cause for consternation.

    Even with one mast toppled, the animated rigging - perhaps an extension of a mechanism spanning the entire ship, which would render even the wood under their feet a death trap - kept on harassing both the melee stragglers and his personal guard with redoubled intensity, compounding the threat his foe’s expendable minions posed. It only took one in a sea of ghouls getting lucky for his invaluable automata to be put out of commission, a scenario the living web of ropes and pulleys were dedicated to facilitating. Without aiming for a killing blow, deterred as they were by the bladed dance of the puppets, they sought instead to increase the pressure and sneak into blind spots, to entangle and trip and present a constant nuisance until one of their targets finally slipped up, literally or otherwise.

    Chains were parried and ropes were sliced but their hateful flames ate at the weapons that met them. Maces turned brittle as glass and diamond-wire blunted and snapped. Blades which could cut through a thousand enemies with the same keenness caught on corroded armour, coral, and bone, their wielders struck down before they could wrench them free from barnacle-encrusted clavicles and loops of gleaming pirate gold. Legs were tangled up by slithering lines and the seaweed strands of severed heads rolling on the deck. Trussed up and dangled like trophies for the ravenous masses to tear apart or trample underfoot, the plain and obvious truth was that the scales of attrition had tipped against Ven-Fem’s host.

    His assault units would fight a losing battle to the bitter end without ever making a meaningful dent in the horde’s numbers. Quite simply, their usefulness as checks would soon be exhausted. Therefore the best course of action was to make effective use of them as distractions while he still could.

    It was about time to roll up his sleeves and put an end to this parade of grotesques, he reasoned. The tortured husks weren’t getting any less unsightly and Svelten’s head was unlikely to roll on its own. The cost for that was one he would rather pay on his own terms than watch his creations get picked off one by one. His pride as a puppeteer demanded it.

    Tools were easily replaced; dignity was not. Only one of those defined who Valery Fernand Vandelstam truly was.

    With a twist of his right hand, filaments of azure light shimmered into existence at his fingertips. As though unspooling from the aether itself the strands multiplied and interweaved without decreasing in length, spinning their shining orbits into a yarn of magical energy, its pale glow chasing the shadows of the dark fires as it flared and grew, contained but volatile. Van-Fem would not let it wait long to be unleashed.

    The spell loaded in the firing chamber that was his god-weaving articulators made the one he had held at the ready back in the crimson room seem downright tame. Magic wrought into law by
    divine words
    the tongue of the moon
    , to scour the deck clean of the undead filth piled so densely that flesh, not wood, met one’s steps.

    The yarn became an orb.

    At the bidding of their master, or perhaps sensing the greater threat, the animated ropes which had transformed the main deck into a snake pit turned their attention from the melee to the caster at the prow, abandoning their prey to race towards the vampire and interrupt his spell. It made no difference if they would reach him in time, or even if his puppets could shield him from the attack. Flat, a mere human, had opened himself to danger in order to complete his spell; a dead apostle did not have any excuse at all.

    The orb became a star.

    Lifting his arm, Van-Fem raised an azure moon on the starless sky, the ice crystals in the air reflecting and extending its light to a pillar that lit up the mist like lightning in a stormcloud. Where in kinder seas it might have passed for the boon of good fortune from a patron saint, the tongues of flame caressing the fogbound ship were unmistakable portents of calamity from a heathen god. The vampire’s eyes struggled to adjust under the radiant glare. A pity; his enemy’s expression in the face of ancient magic was a sight he would’ve very much liked to see.

    The star became a cataclysm.

    Ghostly sails distending like a gaping maw to smother it disintegrated before its heat. The mesh of intersecting chains instantly shattered against its discharge. Then, strands of volatile energy weaving prominences along the stellar corona pulsed out a final flash, and the artificial star fragmented into a myriad luminous arcs which came crashing down on the ship with the force of a meteor storm.

    Bolides of condensed
    blazed out to perforate the hull with such speed that only the lingering trails of crackling aether told of their passing. All that crossed their trajectories simply sublimated - the bodies of the dead and living alike became clouds of particles suspended in the shapes of humans, and for the briefest moment puppets and ghouls were as constellations tracing the scene of some mythical conflict with their myriad specks before, unable to hold together, they scattered and mingled with the mists of Parade.

    Ephemeral beauty in stellification was the sole mercy afforded. Transmuting that human detritus into stardust was a benevolence compared to what followed.

    Where the barrage that preceded it ran its course in the blink of an eye, the unrestrained energy of the collapsing star exploded outwards in great jagged strands of neon blue streaking down like branching roots delving into the ground. And delve they did, as their initial impact did little to dissipate their discharge.

    The levinbolts carved erratic trajectories across the deck like blindly raking claws, and everything in their raging paths was sundered. What they struck, they incinerated. The mainmast collapsed haphazardly as it was partitioned into uneven blocks of wood, while the celestial chisels gouged out fissures down to the bowels of the ship, the icy waters their sole conductor. Indeed, what put an end to the runaway storm was its channeling into the sea, which leached away the energy in great underwater flashes. With each flash, floes shattered into powder and fractures bloomed like lightning flowers in the hearts of the icebergs, until the last spark of the supernova was smothered in the abyss.

    Finally, in the wake of havoc came miraculous silence.

    Destruction had been widely visited on the ship, as though it had endured the fury of a diluvial storm. The canopy of masts and rigging had been immolated by the divine flames; its own dark fire smouldered weakly in the few strands and chains still anchored down to the hull, now a sieve kept afloat only by the spells woven into it. A layer of moondust and human debris blanketed whatever remained intact, or at least in identifiable pieces. Dismembered ghouls crawled in the ash heap, writhing like maggots in a midden. The few survivors - ghouls and puppets alike, the deluge had made no distinction - lay stunned, their mortal combat put on hold as they struggled to regain their feet. Only the visored elites, having closed the circle around their master, had braced themselves sufficiently to weather it.

    A single spell had brought the world to a halt. Such was the power of an elder title.

    Neither sigh nor groan broke the still. The only punctuation in the smothering silence was the arrhythmic drip of spilt blood. Not from the husks whose ichor had poured freely to soak the ashes, but from a being whose veins coursed with lunar royalty and a power stronger than fate.

    Deathlessness was an empty boast when two Ancestors clashed. Behind Van-Fem’s spell was the wholehearted intent to stain pristine white with the knight’s own red. Whatever sorcery Svelten wielded would have to match and exceed not only the mysteries from the age of the gods but also the purity of his hatred. Van-Fem very much doubted either was possible.

    But. By the same two-faced token, the impossible was simply a future that the present denied. And if there was one thing Ancestors did best, it was diverting fate from its intended course.

    Even the most unassailable castles eventually fell into ruin. That was why Van-Fem believed that he could make the ghost captain bleed.

    Even the most certain predictions were founded on ignorance. That was why Van-Fem accepted that his plan had been turned against him.

    But the one thing he was uncertain of, the one question lurking unnoticed in the shadows of his mind that had finally reared its treacherous head, rooted him to the spot more than the blade that had pierced his body and spilt his blood ever could. That, at least, was no mystery, nor a sight to behold. Compared to those moments when time seemed to dilate the turn of the wheel and the roll of the dice, it was all the more trite.

    He had seen the animated rigging bearing down on him as he began to incant.

    He had felt the ropes and chains fly past him towards the back of the unsuspecting Flat Escardos.

    He had known his champions would intervene to repel the threat.

    He had noticed the instant’s gap that opened in their formation and the ghoul that dashed through it.

    He had realised that his efforts were about to be undone.

    He had surrendered control of his spell and allowed the imperfect star to collapse.

    He had split the living corpse from head to groin with his claws.

    And as the rusty barb embedded in the ghoul’s chest came alive with malicious fire and raced to snuff out the boy’s life, he had stopped it with the only means left at his disposal.

    He had looked upon the boy as he turned to face him, and he had seen the words he was forming fracture as the harpoon pierced his skin like no mean piece of iron should, and the sight of his blood spattered on the boy’s face had captured his attention more than the ghost-fire assailing his body through the wound. And even while uncontrollable bursts of energy were razing the deck he had stood in the eye of the storm and stared at the boy like he held all the answers to mysteries he hadn’t even conceived yet; and though his face was a monolithic edifice the one question that had manifested with all the clarity and urgency of a doubt that had germinated into an ultimatum raged behind his eyes.

    “M-Mister Fem? A-Are you—!”

    Looking up from his machinations at the sounds of thunderfall and carnage, the sights Flat faced were too much to process all at once, even for the one who saw the truth behind the face of the world in every waking moment. Then, as the first drop of blood dripped off his cheeks, reality asserted itself on his mind with a force that stole a breath half-shaped into words of concern from his lungs. If they were truly spoken, they must have wilted in the air before reaching their intended target, for the one who stood before the boy was not the man he had so quickly and unconditionally called a friend. Stuck through by a darkly burning spear yet standing tall against the false dawn of the dying star, the shadowed figure whose once warm countenance held only cold calculation brooked no other description than that of a monster at war with its own nature.

    The pain barely registered and his foe’s jeering laughter might as well have come from a continent away as Valery Fernand Vandelstam regarded Flat Escardos and asked himself:

    Why was he going so far for a human?

    How many had he met in those thousands of years? How many had he called friends? Surely they were beyond count. And those he had once known and cherished yet forgotten were beyond even imagining, the marks they’d made on his life smoothed over by the shifting sands of a bottomless hourglass. Their lives were brief landmarks in the featureless desert of eternity, soon left behind the horizon of memory with no way to retrace his steps back to them. For as long as he traversed that eternity they were his constant companions, diversions in a desolate plane, yet to leave one behind was no sorrow, for another like it was surely farther ahead.

    The scenery that his eyes saw, unbound by mortality, was alien to the most essential foundation that defined life; time, the context within which the human mindframe formed, separated him from them. Without the compassion connate to a finite existence, the observer acknowledged but never affirmed. A shadow cared not for who cast it, for it did not die with man, and no man was without it.

    Unique and interchangeable. So precious and so easily discarded. This one, he thought, could be no different. Precious, but what was that truly worth? What price would he have to pay for the life of this child?

    He had been drawn into a battle unasked for and hindered at every turn, unable to commit his full power and attention when brief carelessness or a glancing blow could steal away that fragile life. For that, he’d lost his ship and crew. Each breath the boy took was bought with his pride, his blood, his very self. And it still wasn’t enough, as the white knight had promised. If he were to diminish further, perhaps he would no longer remain himself.

    And to what end should the master of puppets become a pawn of fate? To reduce four and a half thousand years to a single night, trace purpose in coincidence and assign meaning to this climax, friendship and enmity were hollow pretenses obviating the single question that he could no longer ignore - the only one he had no answer for.

    He had once sworn never again to face defeat at the hands of the man he most despised. If that was a true conviction, he would have cast aside this acquaintance of but a few hours without a second’s hesitation. His pride was not so petty as to chafe at such a loss, and his amusement was not worth a price so steep.

    To defend someone was a whim. To die for a cause was folly. But to
    stake everything on one card
    put the sum of their existence on the line
    , a
    dead apostle
    must believe in something enough to weigh it against eternity and find all their sins and bloody history wanting.

    He did not know if he believed. If his resolve was nothing but a self-deception, then he had spent so long defining himself by it that the truth, if it had ever existed, would be unrecognisable to him. But he knew that he wanted to believe, that he could feel out the shape of that missing piece within him and search for it however long it took. Thus now, finding no answer within himself, he searched for it instead in those eyes that saw right through his ambivalence.

    The world itself stared back, spilling over the brim of fathomless hollows. This void had chosen—no, it was designed to accept everything, so it could never be filled with anything less.

    What bubbled to the surface was not the excess of an all-accepting vessel. It was not truth, purified from the sublimation of material existence, and it was not “it”, unknowable to its subject. Least of all, it was not an answer.

    Nevertheless. Or rather, because of that, Van-Fem understood. For this was his own thesis, millennia in the making. And what he saw was....

    Love for a beautiful and terrible world.

    Wonder for everything that it holds.

    Hope to one day find a place in it.

    ...unmistakably, what in the past of pasts had dwelt in his own heart.

    At once, having traversed the mobius strip of memory, he is old yet young again.

    ---What reason is there for grief, my friend?

    On his deathbed, the magus who aims to persevere as a system gently mocks the vampire lamenting his passing.

    ---It seems to me you are still the same seeker I first met.

    ---Ahh, quite so. For us who do not abide by its limits, this mortal prelude is but a trivial thing.

    ---And have all these years brought you any closer to your goal?

    ---Had I not lived this life, would I have known what that is?

    A fit of coughing that seizes his frail body cannot suppress a wry smile.

    ---I will persist, however long I must. Therefore, why grieve?

    ---…..despite it all, I am quite fond of trivial things.

    Even as he sighs in anticipation of the end, the magus raises his trembling hand and pats the ancient vampire’s own as though imparting one final lesson to a child.

    ---Indeed. And does that not make all the difference?

    The one who seeks meaning in life only after his death confesses,
    where do you seek it?
    life holds no answer.

    The one who seeks meaning in death only after his life affirms,
    why do you seek it?
    life offers the question.

    Even if there is no meaning, there is purpose. A star to guide your steps through eternity, so long as you chase after it.

    And so, the seeker’s past and the future coalesce into the present.

    ---“It’s alright,
    mister Fem
    . You can let me go.”

    Blinking back the tears, with a small smile held forcibly in place despite the fear gripping his heart, Flat faced the devil who gambled for his soul and thanked him as a friend he didn’t want to see hurt for his sake.

    A grain of sand in the desert of eternity. Ephemeral foam in the river of history. A trivial thing to the Ancestors, but trivial things made all the difference among them.

    Seeing the individual in the sea of humanity. People instead of cattle, precious friends, however temporary. What set him apart from monsters like Svelten was not the lengths he could go for them, but that he saw that worth to begin with.

    How else could he have found a kindred spirit in this boy? The wish to live - to understand the purpose of his existence and those eyes that saw into the world - resonated with him across the gulf of countless years that lay between them. In order to discover the meaning of his own existence he would throw himself at the world, however much he was hurt in the process, to discover himself through others or else shatter against their spurns. Though they would shun and revile him, Flat Escardos was bound to exist among yet apart from them, seeking the only truth his eyes did not perceive. Perhaps he would never be understood, but only through living this way could he understand himself.

    Van-Fem had long accepted this. But only now did he realise.

    Coexistence was not parasitism or weakness, but the means to conquer his own nature. Since ancient times, monsters had learned of virtue only in the company of humans.

    “I’m sorry, Flat. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

    He shook his head, grasped the barbed spear, and slid it out of his chest. Neither the gnawing flames nor the tearing of his skin managed to put an edge on his face.

    “You see, I hate giving up the things I value. And to me a friend’s life weighs more than the Earth.”

    The thud of iron on ash signalled finality. So too was the peremptory message borne from the princess by her retainer decisively answered.

    Saving Flat from Svelten would mean nothing while greater horrors loomed in the ritual he had endorsed. In his arrogance as a puppeteer pulling the strings of humans and vampires alike he had failed to foresee the finale he was orchestrating - to realise that he too was an actor in the play. Therefore, his actions here required nothing less than to reject his
    bestowed title
    and spurn the eclipse princess who wished to plunge her domain into an imperishable night.

    He had claimed to be fighting for Flat’s sake. To protect, not to gamble away, and yet what else had he done thus far but twist the battle to those terms, lulled into the familiar detachment of senseless slaughter, the favoured pastime of dead apostles?

    A vampire always bet on death, but man was the architect of his own fortune. He had carved a place for himself in every era through this paradigm. Now, between the moonlit world of his rebirth and the human world where even a living corpse could dream of tomorrow, there was only one choice Van-Fem could make in order to stay true to himself.

    Such he proclaimed, thus he was met. One’s sneer he could almost feel crashing against his back; the other’s glad surprise surely was the happiest a soul had ever been in the hellscape of Parade.

    “I knew it.” More to himself Flat muttered behind his sleeve, wiping away the blood and unshed tears from his face with boyish shame. When he faced Van-Fem again, the small smile that lit up his face was truly unforced. “Then, please,” he said and stepped aside, “take a look at this!”

    With eagerness belying his prior anxiety, Flat stretched out his hands to present his handiwork, etched in the settling stardust and ichor painting the prow’s deck in blotchy hues of chalk. Lips parted in surprise, Van-Fem couldn’t fault him. After he had withheld confidence in his abilities and barred him from aiding in the fight, the spellcraft that Flat had woven behind his back was a statement pointedly demanding that respect back.

    Viscous blood carved channels in the ash, drawn from wherever it had spilt to the prow’s edge by an unfailing gravitation. Where the trails converged the bone-white layer was saturated into a dark mass, like a pool of deep water in a pale desert, from which clumps of unstained powder rose in finely contoured shapes to dot its surface. An island here rising steep, another lying low and flat, and in this manner a landscape had formed, sculpted from lifeblood and pulverised corpses. Its horizon faintly shuddered in response to some imperceptible force, a shiver running from the edges inwards as if a myriad tiny insects were constantly migrating towards its centre.

    Though this already raised questions he felt ill-equipped to ponder, explanations were the lesser concern for Van-Fem. The appropriation of his spodomancy and bloodcraft was certainly a bewildering achievement. What it was used to draw a map of, however, set his heart racing with wild and sudden hope.

    Before him lay the miniature topography of a reality marble, the hidden lands that stretched beyond its silent sea. Sparse and desolate isles reduced the dream to a vision of imagined reality. For what caught Van-Fem’s eye - the centerpiece of the map - was a piece of the real world that could now only exist in fantasy.

    A peak once shattered jutted violently from the waters. A castle once ruined crowned sheer cliffs at its summit. In the heart of Parade stood something that had been ruthlessly erased from existence by his own hand on a fateful night of siege and storm hundreds of years in the past.

    An eye for an eye, a title for a title. The vow of undying hatred he had exchanged in the wake of the Eighth Ancestor’s ascendancy was his sole memento of that encounter. But if his nemesis had carried that cursed sea within him all this time - if Svelten’s castle had survived in his mental landscape - then there was hope for one more thing thought forever lost to have found its way therein. Something once stolen, an ace that could forge a path to victory and force the Count’s capitulation in the game of his own devising.

    “You see?” Unaware of the hope he had kindled in the vampire, Flat pointed at the secrets he had disclosed. “There’s land here, and that one’s the focal point! There has to be some way out of here!”

    And to think he’d believed the boy was cowering at his back. While he was engaged in a losing contest with Svelten, Flat had uncovered the means to erase the Count’s overwhelming advantage. It shamed Van-Fem that he had thought of Flat as a nuisance in this crisis of the vampire’s own doing, but even more so that he had repaid the boy’s unwavering trust with so little of his own. For all his congeniality he had treated his supposed friend as another distraction to entertain so far as it was convenient.

    “Splendid work. This is a greater help than perhaps you realise.” With no small amount of humility Van-Fem deferred to the words of the boy—no, the young man whose talents he had doubted so. “I must confess I’ve never known this to be possible, but that has become a theme with you, hasn’t it?”

    Words alone did not suffice to establish trust but he spoke them earnestly regardless, as perhaps no one ever had in response to the oddities Flat could bring about.

    “You cannot be so naive, Valery.”

    A voice cut into his thoughts, drenched in scorn. Van-Fem barely acknowledged its owner with the corner of his eye. Having remained uncharacteristically silent over the course of the battle, Svelten watched the exchange between man and vampire with a slant of the mouth that seemed caught between disgust and amusement, settling on the latter only upon catching Van-Fem’s glance over his shoulder.

    “A mariner cannot be barred from the sea, for he carries the sea within him. And that,” he gestured with his dagger at the conjured map, “is no castle in the air. What you once destroyed was but an imprint on the waking world. This time is no different. All that exists in fantasy may be imposed on reality if I so will it.”

    While his ghouls collected themselves around him, Svelten appeared content to let this lull linger long enough to gloat and goad a reaction from his foe. Van-Fem turned away without a word. So long as his threats remained mere words, he was content to let him bark while he addressed someone far worthier of notice - one he now knew he could trust with the most vital task in a gambit that could reap the highest rewards.

    With a few short twists the heavy gold ring was off. Holding it by the band he pointedly presented it to Flat, who extended his cupped hands with wide eyes. Though it was handed gingerly, the boy still compensated instinctively for the imagined weight. An experimental twiddle revealed patterns engraved on its bezel, but before he could examine it a very real weight settled on his shoulders and drew his gaze upwards.

    Firm hands grasped his shoulders, bringing him to attention by force of ingrained habit, tightly enough to imprint the severity of a message to a child that had been its recipient many fruitless times before. Contrition flushed his cheeks before he’d even met that inevitable expression, a variation on the themes of frustration and resentment.

    What it would be this time he did not know. These were not the hands of his tutors, pressing down as if by this their lessons would finally stick, nor the hands of his parents, fingers digging painfully in his shoulders with ill-suppressed intensity and the clammy weight of fear. Their purpose was as veiled as their skin under the gloves, the fingers that had sculpted life while soaked to the bone with blood, and the Janus-faced man whose aspect changed like a trick of the light.

    In his conscious mind, Flat Escardos had already accepted Van-Fem as an unquestionable ally. But the ten year-old boy who had only known rejection looked up to the vampire that called himself his friend and asked him, what will it be?

    Van-Fem did not give the order he expected, nor the consolation he feared. Instead, the Ancestor who recognised neither king nor master bowed his head in apology to the mere human whose fate had contrived to entangle with his own.

    “I should not have held you back before, as I should not have withheld my trust for so long. I hope you can forgive this old man for thinking so little of his younger fellow.”

    Then, raising his head to meet Flat’s dumbfounded expression with the twinkle of mischief, he added. “And if you were amenable, I would appreciate your help in finding the way out of this godforsaken place.”

    If not for this situation and the palpable sense of loathing raising the hairs on the back of his neck, Van-Fem would have broken out in laughter at the sight of Flat visibly puffing up in excitement.

    “You got it, mister Fem! I dunno how I’ll get there, but I’ll find that exit in no time!”

    “There’s a good lad.”

    With a reassuring pat on the shoulders, Van-Fem removed his hands and beckoned to the elite automata dutifully surrounding them, ready to meet any interference or surprise attack on their master. One of the sentinels, his distinctive tunic telling the tale of his service in tears and scorch marks, broke rank from the perimeter and approached its master, the rest of the inner circle shifting to fill in his absence. It came to rigid attention before Van-Fem. Its mask, fashioned in the shape of a bird’s beak with the curious addition of a finely sculpted beard and sharply angled glyphs running along the length of the scrollwork, concealed any emotion behind its silence. Likely there was no need for such displays between master and servant.

    Indeed Van-Fem didn’t bother issuing a command, opting instead to draw Flat’s errant attention from the strange figure to the ring lying forgotten in his still-open palms, carefully closing the boy’s fingers over it.

    “A good-luck charm,” he said in a theatrical whisper well within a vampire’s hearing. “In case you run into trouble.”

    That was the end of Svelten’s patience with the charade staged at his expense. Having watched the exchange for so long with his infernal forces in check even after they had regrouped - by whim or design, Van-Fem could hardly say - the vampire’s detestation coated the words that might have been intended to mock with the venom of hatred whose sole intention was to inflict pain.

    “You are truly shameless, lying like that to a child. Better to face the cruel truth than to be led by kindness to greater despair. So I tell you now: do not harbour false hopes.” Anger, sharp and colder than frost, bled into his voice, his earlier dismissal urging him to drive his words like a stake through his foe. “You can no more escape Parade than you can escape me. And the boy, hah,” he gave a harsh laugh, “you know full well how little luck will avail him.”

    More than ever before Svelten appeared ready to strike and end this game of cat-and-mouse. But still he stayed his hand, and the questions arising in Van-Fem’s mind could afford to wait just a little longer as a result.

    Once more he did not address the Count’s words. To acknowledge his insults and threats would cast doubts on his plan to send Flat away from the peril of heated battle into a frontier where even greater danger might lurk - doubts that neither of them could afford to dwell on. The understanding that passed between them in the wake of Svelten’s outburst eased their exchange to a close that the belligerent vampire could not overshadow.

    “Trust your magecraft, and remember what I told you. Nothing is beyond your reach.”

    His teachings at an end, the mentor saw off the apprentice on his first journey.

    “I won’t let you down, sir.”

    His anxiety pushed down by determination, the apprentice set off to make his mentor proud.

    As if waiting for this moment the puppet finally came to life unbidden, revealing the apparatuses concealed under its artificial skin. Unlike its lesser brethren its transformation was not heralded by the whir of cables and the smooth scraping of metal against metal. Rather, a sound like the squelch of mud gave the impression of something being grown out of the puppet’s flesh. Sure enough, a pair of fully-feathered tawny wings completed the bizarre image of the beaked and bearded automaton, now seeming less man and more a heraldic beast brought to life.

    Van-Fem’s winged messenger had served as his emissary in his dealings with magi and churchmen alike, as well as with his own kind. Vampiric domains akin to fairylands had yet to obstruct its missions, and Van-Fem trusted it would safely convey its human passenger in this realm as well.

    One arm was more than enough to secure the boy in the puppet’s grasp, and a single beat of wings lifted them well above the ship's deck, sending ash spiralling madly like a whirlwind of snow beneath them. Another beat and they were almost at the height the masts would have stood, brushing against the canopy of fog. Two vampires watched their ascent, the anticipation in their eyes envisioning two antithetical futures.

    “Fly away, little boy,” the white one crooned. “Since your friend has given up on you, I will allow it. Go on, explore. Take in the sights. After all, this will be your home for a very long time.”

    The red one merely observed with unreadable eyes. Only at the moment before the messenger’s wings bore the two away from the ship and into the brume did his voice cut through the heavy air to reach the pair of ears high in the sky.

    “Flat! Shorter incantations!”

    Even at that distance, Van-Fem caught the boy’s grin and thumbs-up before his figure was swallowed by the roiling mists.

    Now then, he thought.

    It was time he found out what the white knight was truly after.

  7. #7
    The Long-Forgotten Sight Rafflesiac's Avatar
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    Hey, this is pretty good.
    Quote Originally Posted by Arashi_Leonhart View Post
    canon finish apo vol 3

  8. #8
    nicht mitmachen Dullahan's Avatar
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    Captain, I wish to report a mutiny. I can name fingers and point names.

  9. #9

  10. #10
    Don't @ me if your fanfic doesn't even have Shirou/Illya shipping k thnx ItsaRandomUsername's Avatar
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    The Night of Wallachia
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    Caught up on this, and it's sublime.

    I always liked Flat, and so too was Van-Fem a point of positive interest to me, but this fic has done so much to even more greatly endear them to me via its themes and in-story happenings. Certainly one of the more high quality fics of the TYPE-MOON fandom-specific genre of "missing scenes", there's a lot to like of the story's contents and writing's execution.

    Can't offer much more than a glowing review of what's out so far, and a rapt follow.
    McJon01: We all know that the real reason Archer would lose to Rider is because the events of his own Holy Grail War left him with a particular weakness toward "older sister" types.
    My Fanfics. Read 'em. Or not.

  11. #11
    後継者 Successor Bugs's Avatar
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    May 2018
    Vaguely remember you mentioning interest in this subject matter a long, long time ago. Glad to see it finally released, and it doesn't disappoint.

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