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Thread: Vampire Story 2

  1. #1
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    Vampire Story 2

    The countryside should have been nice this time of year.

    The rolling hills shone the fair green of spring grass after the last of the winter snow. Though a slight chill rose from the ground, the morning sun warmed the extremities. An old, cracked road stretched from the south and divided the land in two: on the eastern side was a shining sea of grass upon which herds of cattle grazed, leading to a row of white-topped peaks in the distance, and on the west side was a pine forest. The road wound around gentle hills and disappeared behind trees, yet one was not likely to get lost, for as long as one kept to the path there was sure to be a rustic village tucked behind some corner, ready to receive any traveler too weary of nature to continue.

    The west bank of the road was taken up by a wall of tall pines. While it was ultimately a harmless wood where one might wander for hours without meeting anyone save perhaps a solitary hunter taking time away from civilization, it did not look the part, greeting those who approached with sharp needles and spiderwebs and a dark chill where the canopy swallowed up the sunlight.

    It was this side of the road upon which the women had chosen to walk.

    It should have been a wonderful place to wander through. The strange pair traveling along the road should’ve been able to enjoy the fresh air and calming view. To them, the French countryside held memories of running and playing as children, though they’d never gone so far inland as the depths of Aquitaine. Yet those memories were locked away, too tied up in misery to recall, and so they walked silently, each occasionally remembering and then doing her best to forget.

    On one such occasion the taller of the two uttered a “tch” and switched off her phone, the exhausting of its final charge having rendered it useless as a distraction. She cast her gaze elsewhere. The hill they’d just crested reminded her of the one by her hometown. The woods reminded her of playing hide and seek after dark. The light breeze blowing through her blouse reminded her of running for her life. The road signs reminded her of the busy intersection by the bakery. The mountains in the distance reminded her of sharp teeth biting into the sky. The girl to her left reminded her of everything else she would rather forget.

    “Oi,” she said.

    The girl – Ciel she was called for this mission – twitched like a hare, surprise writ clear on her face as she turned her unblinking eye up to the woman. “Oui?” she replied.

    “Oh please. I’ve had enough of French,” the woman said, choosing Japanese instead. “The travel charger, give it. I’m out of batteries.”

    “Noel-sensei, it’s empty,” said Ciel quietly, wincing as Noel loudly clicked her tongue in annoyance.

    “Your phone, then. Haven’t been using it, right? Must be all factory default, just like they gave it to you.” Noel extended a hand. “C’mon.”

    Ciel obediently handed over the device, whilst mumbling something about how they needed to preserve their lifeline, which Noel made a point to ignore. The taller woman swiped through menus, fake nails clacking against the screen, her expression growing sourer by the second.

    “Hey… this thing’s a piece of junk,” she swore. “What century did you get it from?”

    “It – it’s a satellite phone. It has GPS and reception from anywhere on the planet…”

    “It can’t even play Snake!”

    With a petulant cry the phone was lobbed in Ciel’s direction. She reached for it and fumbled with the device, feeling it nearly slip through the fingers of her left hand.

    “We… we’ll need it to reach our destination,” she said. “Or call for… um. Supplies? We still have access to the armory at least…”

    There was no reply. Noel’s gaze had turned to the far-off mountains, glum as could be. They’d just touched on a fact of reality even more unpleasant than their respective childhoods. Ciel looked away as well, and for a time they exchanged no words, simply walking along the road. Just as happiness could be found in a storm, the misery they carried between them flourished even on a bright day. The silence between the two women was broken only by the occasional car speeding by, or the chirping of a particularly brave bird. At one point a motorcyclist drove by them on a bright red bike. The engine’s low growl left nature silent in its wake.

    “One of those might be good,” Noel said without thinking. Her eyes tracked the machine until it disappeared over the horizon. “Fast, trendy, nice and loud. Better than walking, too. Hey, call for a bike. Something blue – no, pink.”

    Ciel stared at her partner as if she’d grown a second head. “We can outmaneuver any regular vehicle, as can our foes, especially once we leave the road. Executor Noel, there is no tactical advantage to–”

    “Does it matter?” Noel said. “Really? What’s the harm? Someone has a little too much fun?” She stopped in place, arms crossed, elegant nails tapping in rhythm against her forearm.

    Ciel said nothing at first. It came as a surprise to her (though it shouldn’t have) that Noel met her gaze and held it until Ciel could no longer bear to see her reflection in those glossy brown eyes.

    “I’ll… ask them to drop it off at the next town over,” she said quietly, flipping open the phone and typing out a number one-handed. “Is – is there anything else you’d like?”

    “Hmph. Toiletries. A better phone. Hiking shoes. And an extra pair of contacts. The good ones. These ones suck. Must be defective.”

    A breeze blew between them. It was still spring, yet it managed to find some fallen leaves, dry and crinkly, to loudly rustle against each other as the wind sent them past the incompatible pair.

    Ciel started, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather just order a pair of–”

    “I don’t need glasses! It’s just eye strain from reading all that scripture!”

    Once more the gulf between the two widened, and as the silence stretched on, Noel looked away again. The sight of her partner, a perpetually despondent walking Kick-Me sign whose most notable traits were the eye patch over her left eye and an empty sleeve where her right arm should have been, never failed to ruin her mood. For how long had it been this way? Their relationship, once tense yet respectful, had fractured completely within the span of a few months.

    Ciel, for her part, dialed the number as she stared at the ground in front of her.

    “Hello? Yes, this is Yumi. No, no emergency,” she said. “We’d like to request armaments, delivered on-site. Yes, this is for an operation. Is the GPS tracker working – okay. Yes, we are en route and will arrive by sundown. It’ll be a day’s wait? We can’t delay for that–” Noel’s murderous glare told a different story. “Yes, we’ll stay there. My student – partner will relay the request.”

    She held out the phone to Noel, who wordlessly took it.

    “Hello? Hi? Oh hey, isn’t this Nico?” Noel’s voice melted, becoming sickeningly sweet. “I remember you! The cute guy with the nice taste in vests, was it? We’re so lucky to have you on duty. Marco’s so stingy, but you get a girl’s needs, right? Oh you do? I just knew it! Alright, listen closely…”

    Ciel’s missing arm throbbed as she watched Noel butter up the quartermaster. Phantom pain was a common symptom, but she’d lost so many limbs so many times that it should’ve been a non-issue. For the first few weeks it been fine, and she’d swiftly grown used to it once the wound healed over. Yet more and more often it felt as if that which was dead wanted to be alive. Like somewhere, separate from her, there were raw nerve endings searching for something to connect with.

    “I know, it’s such a bold fashion line,” Noel continued. “Donatella’s been killing it. What I wouldn’t give for one of those dresses – oops, forget I said that! Nuns shouldn’t be wearing designer! Eh? You think I should get one? Oh, but dear Nico, there’s no way I’d look good in that… oh? You want to see me in it? My, my, my, I’m getting flustered. But a working woman’s bank account must be meager by the Lord’s decree… or so it would be! We just happen to have a blank check with Bestino’s name on it, so go wild! Get me one in pink! Yes, yes, mark it down as for infiltration. Oh, my three sizes? How daring… check the records. Just don’t look too far. You can help me with fine-tuning if – once we get back. So you’d better send only the best over. After the dress I want a motorbike! Pink, with a good engine!”

    Noel paused as the voice on the other end said something. Her expression soured. “…huh? A Vespa? Like, the scooter? Really? Is that the best you can – okay, yes, yes, absolutely, dear, we’ll take it. It’s fast, right? And loud, right? Alright, okay, send it… and an extra shipment of Black Keys. And I want a spare halberd. One of the clockwork cherubs as well. No of course I’m not using it in town; we’re headed to somewhere hidden from civilization, it’s fine. Hey, you want anything?” she snapped to Ciel, who blinked and shook her head. Noel scoffed and rolled her eyes. “Fine. Now about those contacts. Listen, they’re not prescription, alright? My eyesight’s perfectly fine! Sometimes a girl just wants to switch it up…”

    Ciel stared at the sky as Noel chattered on, wondering if a certain someone else had ever had a chance to see the sun again, or if he’d perished under the light of the moon. If he’d regretted anything, or if he hadn’t thought of her at all in the end. Knowledge wouldn’t help her, but then, nothing could anymore.

    The two women continued their long walk down the country road. Neither could properly enjoy their return. They had once called this place home. Soon it would be their cemetery.

    Spring, 2015. After the Souya Incident, Executors Ciel and Noel were reprimanded and pronounced guilty by the Holy Church. The sentence was one last mission: kill a certain vampire, or else die trying.




    Chapter 1: Country Roads
    Last edited by Bloble; August 12th, 2023 at 11:50 AM.

  2. #2
    I CAME

    to this thread to express my intrigue over the premise and interest in its development

  3. #3
    Looks interesting. Where can I find Vampire Story 1?

    Edit: Found it, it's ancient lol
    Last edited by Clown; August 12th, 2023 at 11:40 AM.

  4. #4
    Vlovle Bloble's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Leftovers View Post
    I CAME

    to this thread to express my intrigue over the premise and interest in its development
    Please lower your expectation Mr. Rightunders, I am simply writing a Castlevania reference.

    Quote Originally Posted by Clown View Post
    Looks interesting. Where can I find Vampire Story 1?

    Edit: Found it, it's ancient lol
    Vampire Story 1 leads directly to Vampire Story 2, however details may differ; the first story was set in the old Tsukihime universe where Noel didn't exist, while the sequel is set in the Tsukihime Remake universe following a slightly different version of Vampire Story 1. It's a Fate/Zero to Fate/Stay Night situation.

  5. #5
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    Hidden deep within the woods and mountains of Aquitania was a castle.

    Many castles laid claim to land and sky since long before, but this one was unlike the others. It was not abandoned and gone to seed. It was not a picturesque relic fit only to look at. To look at it was the very last thing one might do. It could not be seen from the skies, nor found on a map, and those very few unfortunate enough to stumble upon it by chance during their explorations were never seen again, their disappearances quietly relegated to a footnote in a newspaper.

    One would be forgiven for believing this castle did not exist, but it most certainly did. Those who knew where it was – nearly always by invitation – would at first behold a tall curtain wall that towered above the oaks and chestnuts below and yet could only be seen from close by. Nestled within, past the twisted black iron gates set into the wall, was a vast garden of neatly trimmed trees and hedges in the English style, ringing a wide building that trod the line between villa and palace. Its construction was a strange mix of styles from different time periods: the three-storey façade was painted in friendly white Greco-Roman tones, yet the building was capped with dark, sloping eaves and towers that thrust elaborate spires into the sky. There were no windows on the first and second floors and only a few in certain rooms on the third, tall and narrow windows from which one could gaze down at those arriving from the outer gate. Once past the garden, a visitor would find themselves facing a pair of thick double doors, upon which was emblazoned a many-petaled flower caught between bloom and wilt. Upon even the gentlest knock the doors would swing open, revealing a lavish interior and welcoming a new guest to the Château Rozay-en.

    This was as much as Noel and Ciel knew for certain about the home of their target. The description of the approach had been communicated five years ago by a doomed Executor who had vanished behind those doors, never to return. Everything else was guesswork or hearsay, save for one fact they had been assured of: their target was most definitely in the Château at this time, and not one of the other half-dozen castles that dotted the European countryside under her ownership.

    “So…”

    The Vespa hummed beneath Noel’s feet. It crunched along the forest floor, just barely handling the off-road with great difficulty, as expected. Mid-day sunlight streamed down at an angle from above, illuminating their path forward. She stared ahead, gently turning left and right to swerve around widely spaced trees. The noise did not extend far from the bike thanks to certain adjustments, so she was confident in riding it even this far from civilization. She hadn’t ever ridden a motorcycle for the thrill of it, and it felt good to have a mechanical beast of such power and poise at her beck and call, even if it wasn’t exactly the ridiculous chopper or slick sport bike she’d wanted. What did not feel good was the passenger sitting behind her, arm wrapped tightly around her waist.

    “The old routine,” Noel said. “We infiltrate as lost hikers and ask to use the phone. Then while the butler gives us the Time Warp treatment, we learn the layout and dispatch the target.”

    Ciel took some time to formulate a reply that turned out to be quite simple: “It won’t work.”

    “Yeah,” Noel sighed. “They won’t buy it. Somone here stands out too much because she’s too good for prosthetics.”

    Ciel offered neither apology nor justification. She was not too good for prosthetics. The Holy Church had several on hand, tools to help crippled agents fight on until their usefulness expired. The thought of a false arm with a blade or cannon in it was even appealing in a way. Only it just didn’t work. Her body refused to have two eyes and two hands. The gulf between a limb that had been lost and one that had been killed was too deep to cross while remaining human. She could only persist as she was.

    “She’d probably see through it anyway if we showed up here,” Noel said, mostly to herself. “If only she hunted like a normal bloodsucker, we could get ourselves caught in town.” She poked the arm hugging her waist. “Hey, think of something. You’re the one who comes up with the crazy plans.”

    “It’s… difficult,” Ciel replied. “The old strategies are no longer applicable.”

    “Of course,” Noel scoffed as she steered around a fallen beech. “Only you’d be sad about not being able to kill yourself to win. Any new ideas, then? It’s been a month since we got our assignment. Better not have been spending all that time moping.”

    “It would be based on hearsay and rumor. Very unlikely to succeed.”

    Noel rolled her eyes. “Oh, just say it! Stop telling me how screwed we are!” She’d enjoyed a brief period of pleasant mania at their last stop, where she had window shopped and enjoyed croissants and coffee and test-ridden the freshly-delivered Vespa on every street in town. Yet as civilization receded and they approached the castle, her mood had soured once more.

    “Rita Rozay-en is a noblewoman that likes flowers,” Ciel said.

    Noel would have turned around to stare at her if her attention had not been demanded elsewhere. “And?” she asked.

    “There are no flowers in the land surrounding the estate. No vines –” Ciel paused as they both suppressed a shudder. “– or Dead. She wouldn’t be satisfied with just what’s on the outside. Nor would a few indoor plants or a greenhouse suffice; she must live lavishly. Compromise is not in her nature, especially when it comes to pleasure. There must be an inner courtyard that opens to outside air and houses her personal garden, which she periodically visits and tends to.”

    The Vespa came to a stop. Its motor went quiet, plunging them both into silence, surrounded by fallen leaves and wood in all directions. Noel’s reply was quiet and full of spite. “Did the snake tell you that?” she asked.

    “Only indirectly,” Ciel said. “He was… not fond of her, nor most of his collaborators. They cooperated to further their shared goal, but each looked down on the others. He made use of her talents and she his, but that was all. Outside of their shared penchant for the theatrical and appreciation for art –”

    “Stop.” Noel dug her fingers into the arm around her waist, which Ciel had forgotten to loosen. “That’s enough.”

    “…yes, sorry. In any case, this is what he surmised after repeated contact.”

    Noel stared off into the distance. Just past the edges of the tree line, she caught a glimpse of what might have been a grey stone wall. They were close now. No more running from it.

    “S-so,” she said. “We just ambush her when she’s stopping to smell the flowers? That’s it?”

    “Yes.” Ciel disembarked from the Vespa, stepped away, materialized a straight blade from the Black Key in her hand, and carved into a fallen tree trunk symbols for protection and concealment that would keep them from being discovered by a wandering patrol. “It’s as you said. We can’t afford any slip-ups. Infiltrating the castle is a fool’s errand. Better to skip over it.”

    They knew what the consequences would be for a mistake. The best ones were immediately fatal, and the worst would make them wish for the mercy of death. It was clear to Ciel from the faint trembling in her fingers and the far-off look in her eyes that Noel was imagining those ends in detail. The one-armed woman, meanwhile, found herself in an almost peaceful state. It would not be long now.

    “F-figures you’d be calm,” was all Noel said. “I’m – I’m going to take a walk. Clear my head. Read the Bible or something. There was a pond back there.”

    “Executor Noel…”

    “What? What!?” Noel snapped.

    Ciel paused. “Nothing. Please don’t wander too far away. Even if the Dead should sleep, this is already enemy territory. I’ll come and get you when it’s time.”

    Noel wordlessly left, trudging back on foot following the faint trail the Vespa had left. She turned only to shoot her partner one last pained look, and then squared her shoulders and kept on marching.

    Ciel wondered for a moment if the woman would run away, flee their fate and the Church. Now was the best time for it, even if the odds of surviving for long were slim. Would she give chase if Noel did run? Both were unsure.

    Similar thoughts ran through Noel’s mind as she found the pond in question and sat down upon a large stone near the edge. She could not bring herself to flee, despite the temptation to do so being unbearable. A life spent in hiding would forevermore deny her peace of mind. Yet the vampire they were about to face could do far worse for far longer to those unfortunate enough to be her victims. Ciel, too, would not be spared such a fate. Staring into the pond’s reflection, Noel found her expression utterly intolerable.

    She reached into her bag, which carried all the personal goods she had left. Among them was a pink and purple and lilac dress made of fine, delicate cloth, utterly useless for their mission and now too small to fit the adult she had become. Noel ran her fingers across it, feeling the material.

    Then she pulled out some empty vials, scooped up some of the pond water, and began to pray.

    Hours later, the sun rested atop the horizon. Ciel heard the familiar rustle of footsteps from behind. She finished tightening the last screw on the metal monstrosity before her.

    “Are you ready?” she asked without turning.

    “Yeah,” Noel replied, her voice utterly defeated. “Let’s get this over with.”

    The half-moon rose, caught between wax and wane, its unnatural brightness drowning out the stars around it. There was enough light to read by, at first. It had been a sunny day, yet clouds had crept in during the evening, and soon the moon was hidden behind one of them.

    Two shadows flitted from the woods.

    The curtain wall proved to be no obstacle. One of them muttered a prayer of silence and the other slammed a black stake between the stronghold’s stone bricks, summoning up a momentary gap one meter wide and a hundred tall where heretical magecraft could not intrude. The next instant the two figures climbed up the wall, one running effortlessly against gravity while the other followed clumsily in her wake, dragging along a halberd as long as she was tall and driving it between the stones for leverage. Their black battle garb melted into the night, with only the silver flashes of their white habits leaving any sign of their passing.

    Upon alighting atop the wall, the women beheld the garden below. It was utterly dark, barely illuminated by stifled moonlight, yet the strange swaying of several shrubs suggested something sinister. Paths joined and rejoined and between them the glossy grass squirmed. There was not a single lamp in sight.

    “I am not going down there,” Noel muttered.

    The distance from the outer wall to the estate was at least two hundred meters. Ciel did not even need to say it would be an impossible jump. She materialized a trio of throwing blades between the fingers of her hand and took aim.

    “H-hold on. Don’t just do something stupid on your own either.”

    Ciel paused. Her eyebrows furrowed and she sighed. “What am I going to do with you? Very well, Noel-sensei. Please hold on. And pretend you never saw this.” The Black Keys vanished into her robe as she extended her hand towards the estate, fingers splayed far apart. Noel instinctively wrapped her arms around Ciel’s waist. There was a crackle, like that of electronics failing, and a red flash from her partner’s fingers, and suddenly they were falling towards the estate in violation of all laws of physics.

    Over nearly seven seconds, the two shadows fell from the wall to the estate. Contrary to predictions, they landed softly on the roof, an application of a velocity-dampening spell keeping Ciel’s legs from splintering. Noel wordlessly collapsed, face pale, and Ciel waited patiently until her partner had collected herself.

    Two shadows flitted across the roof of the castle.

    Ciel had been right. Once they crested a peak, they beheld a gap in the tiles and towers within the center of the Château, where walls reappeared. Carefully they approached under cover of darkness, with Noel nervously looking upwards at the sky, watching the moonlight stab through fading clouds.

    Once they arrived at the edge, the inner courtyard came into view. It was the size of a small park, much more restrained than the vast outside yard. Yet the garden itself was an impossible collage. Every inch played host to flowers of all kinds, just as Ciel had predicted. Lilies grew next to apocynum, as nightshade and orchids and pincushions mingled freely. There was not a blade of grass in sight; every inch of ground that wasn’t a paved pathway was stuffed full of flowers. White marble pillars held up planter boxes full of even more. Vines crawled along walls and pillars, and leaves and petals floated through the still air, borne aloft by a faint breeze. One escaped the garden and slipped through Noel’s outstretched fingers.

    The whole garden seemed unreal to her. The moonlight illuminated it in strange ways, and she realized what was so off; flowers were not meant to bloom so beautifully at night.

    “Be ready,” Ciel said, still as a statue. “On my mark.”

    “Y-you don’t need to tell me,” Noel said. “Just don’t – don’t get soft again.”

    “I won’t.”

    They stood still as statues upon the edge of the roof. They did not have to wait long.

    A door opened. A figure, colorful as her own garden, slipped through. Noel could only make out pale hair and an elaborate dress from her perch, and even that was enough to make her blood run cold. Her instincts, honed over years of grueling training and many close brushes with death, screamed at her that this was the one, this was an Ancestor among Dead Apostles, this creature could annihilate her with but a look, and there was something deeply, deeply wrong that they did not, could not, would not ever account for until it was too late.

    Ciel’s hand closed around her wrist, and as Noel tried to retrieve her hand, she found she could not. Her attention was pulled away. She looked up, into her partner’s eye and the apologetic expression on her face. In that moment Noel wished for nothing more than to scream at Ciel that she’d had years to apologize and had never done so, and there was no way she could ever be forgiven that way, and how dare she do this now, and a dozen other curses and wishes that crowded around in her mind and mixed together, and in the end all that remained was fury, fury and determination to unleash all her hatred after this, but before then to live, to survive, to fight.

    The one-eyed girl nodded, satisfied with what she saw.

    Below them, Rita Rozay-en, the fifteenth Dead Apostle Ancestor, the Artist’s Lady, stopped in the center of the garden. She closed her eyes and smelled the flowers, and that was when Ciel leapt from her perch, descending upon the Rose Princess like a silver guillotine.




    Chapter 2: Daylight's End
    Last edited by Bloble; August 16th, 2023 at 12:19 AM.

  6. #6
    I've come away with a different view of the power dynamic between Noel and Ciel from the first to the second chapter. It's not incongruous but it makes me feel there's something at the root of it that will be revealed along with the deets of the Souya kerfuffle. Hints abounding point to likelihood.

    Now please serve up your finest DAA-palooza

  7. #7
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    Just before Ciel’s blade met undead flesh, the two clear phials thrown by Noel exploded at the vampire’s feet.

    With a sharp hiss the garden was blanketed in earth-born fog. It was thick enough to block all vision, whether one was a nervous Executor or the bearer of the second most dangerous Mystic Eyes on the planet. Rising after the fog were a sharp wooden crack, a sickening squelch, and an extended crunching and rustling and snapping that traveled from one end of the area to the other. Then a dull thud.

    “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon…!”

    The woman perched on the edge of the roof held tightly in hand a trio of steel stakes, and yet did nothing with them. She could only wait now, either for the fog to clear or for the vampire to leap out of the fog. This was the plan, the whole plan. Lay down a smokescreen, attack from up close to prevent escape, and finish it in one fell swoop. Ciel’s job was to win a blind battle. Noel’s was to sit and listen.

    Next to rise from the mist was a violent ripping noise, bringing to the Executor’s mind a dull blade carving through thick fabric, catching every step of the way yet pushing through with pure strength. A short mezzo grunt was next. Then a barely perceptible click followed by what could only be described as the sound of meat splattering against into concrete. A thick coppery scent drowned out the smell of the flowers. There was a high-pitched wheeze, trying and failing to become either a scream or a moan, and after that, no more sounds of violence. Only the soft swish of plants twisting against each other.

    Noel tried to call out to Ciel. The words caught in her throat. Would it be wise to reveal her location? What if the vampire had won? Could she take it on? Could she hide from it? Could she make it out of here?

    As she wrestled with herself the steam settled, revealing what had transpired below.

    Ciel stood alone in the garden, soaked in blood and water, head hanging. Strapped to the stump of her missing arm was a large contraption of metal and wood that reached up to her shoulder and ended in a black iron stake. Three thin red lines ran from her right hip to her left shoulder, right through her garb. Before Noel’s eyes they widened and bled in thick rivulets down Ciel’s habit. Yet the girl did not seem to mind; her gaze was given entirely to the woman splayed out at her feet.

    She’d clearly been beautiful, once. Now only a wretched corpse remained. The woman’s long dress was marred by blood and mud, its delicate embroidery unrecognizable. Cherry red lips were drawn back, baring beastly teeth. Noble cheeks and sharp eyes now sat sunken and shriveled. One could say she was on her back, yet there was no back left; something had blown a hole the size of a cannonball through her chest, which was now a mess of ribs and viscera.

    “H-ha.”

    Ciel averted her eye from the grisly sight. She instead cast it upward, spotting her partner standing and shaking exactly where she’d been left only a few seconds ago. She started to say something and then stopped abruptly. Noel’s face had gone pale as she stood, entranced by the corpse.

    Wine-red hair and torn lace and tiny rubies had scattered in all directions, glimmering brightly in the deep bloodstain that oozed outwards from the body. The night’s red encroached upon the dirt of the ravaged garden, visible clearly from above. Ciel could not see its true form. Only Noel recognized the arrangement as a bloody rose, blooming in the night, with her partner in the center.

    “H-ha, ha…”

    The Rose Princess was dead. It had been quick and brutal, even for her freak of a partner. Was it possible for an Ancestor, for someone so powerful and feared, to die so quickly? It was. Noel herself had borne witness as the Twenty Fifth’s unlife was snuffed out in a single sword stroke. Ciel could do it. Her and no one else. She hadn’t lost it after all. Noel’s partner was still a monster.

    Yet.

    Yet, yet, yet.

    Yet yet yet yet yet yet yet yet yet.

    “H-hahaha… w-we’re done for…”

    Why, in a garden filled with every bloom imaginable, was this the only rose they had seen all night?

    “Get out-!”

    By instinct, reacting more to the terror in Noel’s voice than the words themselves, Ciel looked away. Away from what? Away from everything. She squeezed her eye shut and blindly withdrew from within her garb another phial of water. In one smooth motion, as the flowers all around her rustled madly and fell wind began to howl in the confined space, she put all her power into her legs and jumped straight for the sky, casting the mist bomb at her feet as she left the garden in the quickest, most direct way possible. That single leap brought her above the castle’s eaves.

    Only when she was finally clear did Ciel open her eye. Even then she dared not look down. Down was where she waited. Only the night sky was safe. Only the moon-.

    The blood red moon.

    The moon that beautifully bloomed in the night and cast cold crimson over the courtyard.

    The moon, which unfurled layers upon layers upon layers of petals, one after another after another after another after another after another after another. The petals floated away, covering the stars, one by one by one by one, spinning, spiraling, swirling around the castle, around Ciel. She beheld it then: within the center of the moon flower, within the deepest core, peering out at her, was a bloodshot eye.

    Ciel’s breath caught in her throat. She no longer had permission to breathe. Nor move, nor think, nor feel. All she could do was-.

    “I. See. You.”


    -be witnessed.

    The whispers from below sparked a flash of recognition in Ciel. That spark became in an instant a raging fire, an inferno that used her flesh and blood as kindling. Her magical circuits flared open and out poured a torrent of life and light that could not be contained by shackles of mind or soul. Whatever spell had taken hold of her burst apart and could find no second hold as it was washed away by pure magical energy.

    Ciel’s finger twitched, then her hand moved, and finally her body was hers again. She tore herself away from the moon and back to the roof where Noel waited, frozen in fear. Ciel thrust her hand towards her partner, red sparking about it. It had taken her only an instant to break the rose spell.

    That instant would be enough.

    Gravity pulled Ciel away from the garden, but thorny jaws snapped shut around her ankle and pulled her back. For a moment she hung still in the air, reaching for Noel, who had reached out as well, their outstretched hands nearly meeting. Then Ciel’s momentum reversed. The mist welcomed her back. Air whipped past her head, drowning out the panicked shouts of her partner.

    She could only brace herself before the ground greeted her at twice terminal velocity. A normal human would have been reduced to chunks of meat. Ciel merely had the breath blown from her lungs, which were then perforated by half a dozen broken ribs. She coughed up air and blood. Something in her shoulder snapped, the fingers of her hand (which had shielded the back of her head from impact) were smashed flat, and while a ringing assaulted her ears, she found the world wobbling and turning around her as if she’d never stopped falling at all.

    It took her only another instant to get back on her feet. So what if her body was broken? She just needed to patch over the gaps enough to grip a sword.

    The mist was clearing already. Within it stood another enemy, hazy and indistinct. A woman in a long dress. Now was the time. Before she could be seen clearly again.

    Ciel, the bow of the Burial Division, sailed forth like an arrow. The armament on her arm groaned when she tried to pull the trigger, yet the extended stake still sizzled with conviction. More than enough.

    Thorny vines came at her as she charged. From above, from below, from all sides they reacted to her murderous intent, reaching for her, enveloping everything, scraping away cloth and blood, barring her path.

    Silver flashed and the bars before her fell apart even as those behind tore at her back. Only that which would slow her down mattered. The others could take their pound of flesh. Another instant, another reprieve, another chance was the one thing she couldn’t give up. Ciel threw the three blessed blades forward, nailing open a nine-inch hole in wall of thorns rising to halt her advance. Through it the hazy figure waited.

    Just a bit further. The hole was already closing, but that was fine. The smallest gap was all she needed.

    “In the name of our Lord, pierce through.”

    The Seventh Holy Scripture blazed with baptizing flame. Plants, spells, all evaporated before it. The magical energy that had gone into supporting Ciel’s body was instead funneled into her weapon. If she could kill them before they killed her, that would be enough. Just once more, she would light up the night.

    “Seventh cause of death – Conviction!”

    All was blown away. The vines, the mist, and the last vestiges of Ciel’s strength.

    Dimly, she heard a woman’s high-pitched shriek of terror, before the light flared and her knees gave way and she collapsed to the ground mid-dash, tumbling head over heels until shoulder met cold castle wall.

    “Ugh…”

    Times like this, she almost missed immortality. The old her would have been right as rain in a few seconds. Now it took nearly a minute to mend injuries of this caliber.

    With one shaking hand, Ciel pushed her palm into the dirt and lifted herself off the ground. Her head hung until she forced it up, feeling her spine creak and crack in protest. There was no time to rest. She needed to confirm the kill and escape before anyone else arrived. Her thrust had met thin resistance. It was no surprise: her weapon was created to make short work of the toughest foes. Not even a Dead Apostle Ancestor could take a hit head-on and survive. No one could.

    No one could, so it was strange.

    Strange how, in the middle of the garden – which now bloomed with roses in all directions, coating the walls and the ground and the sky – sat a fair lady at a dainty table, upon which were an unopened bottle of wine and two tall glasses. She dabbed at her eyes with a lovingly embroidered handkerchief. It came away red.

    She flung forth the handkerchief, where it hung in the air. Ciel tracked its movements as it floated slowly down to the ground, landing like a discarded flower petal.

    “Goodbye,” the lady said. “Goodbye!” she repeated. Her voice was rich and high and heavy with emotion. “Goodbye, dear Amélie. You were one of my favorite cousins. I shall miss your colourful gossip for the next hundred years.”

    Ciel did not say anything. She could not say anything. She had missed entirely, struck at an illusion, and paid the price for it. She was now nothing more than a lawn ornament.

    The lady scanned the courtyard idly, her eyebrows raised high as she surveyed the extent of the damage that had been wrought upon it. Of the countless rose bushes – and they were all roses, in all colours – several had been sliced into. Others withered, stood crooked, or bore burn marks from the holy water. Her eyes glossed over Ciel with faint interest, lingering on lost limbs before moving on to the rest of the garden.

    “How vulgar,” the lady mused. “Or is it? Scars tell a story. That’s where the vines were sliced, here was the first impact, there was the second… ah, you rolled through the flowers here, Amélie… and there is your corpus, blooming beautifully. This piece will be your greatest.” She regarded the body, which seemed to be another woman entirely, one Ciel had never seen in her life. “Of course, the underhanded killer must be present… ah, this must be the one he sliced off.” The woman finally peered at Ciel herself more closely. “What a crude cut. On the face, too. Simply unnecessary. To take an eye is to prune a bud before bloom… yet is that empty space not filled with something? Dreams marred by truth. A memory of what could have been. The inescapable fragility of the living. An instant’s misdirection and it all falls apart. Hm…”

    For a moment the lady of the castle silently took in the ravaged garden. Then she nodded, a bright and energetic smile gracing her moonlit visage.

    She stood from her seat and crossed the garden. One long finger caught Ciel’s chin and drew the frozen girl’s head up. She beheld her captor’s gentle, cruel gaze, and the yawning inhumanity in the depths of her dusky eyes. When her finger withdrew, Ciel stayed like that, on her hand and knees, gazing upwards, resignation and despair perfectly framed in every facet of her appearance.

    “Perfect. Now, hold still, like that,” said Rita Rozay-en, Fifteenth of the Dead Apostle Ancestors. “Just until sunrise. A portrait must never be rushed.”




    Chapter 3: The Executioner
    Last edited by Bloble; August 24th, 2023 at 11:48 PM.

  8. #8

  9. #9
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    The curtain wall of the Château Rozay-en shone sickly green under the moonlight. Earlier that night its stones had been tightly fitted and of regular size, yet now, when looked upon from the inside, they were old, worn, and uneven. Clumps of mossy dirt had been stuffed in the gaps in place of mortar. From that dirt now sprouted vines, large and small, snaking their way up and down and across the wall on all sides, coating it in a lattice of thorns. The lattice extended, ethereal and insubstantial, into the sky, signaling that even the space above the wall was no longer safe to cross.

    Noel scanned across the wall for holes from the other side of the front yard, feeling panic tighten its hold around her throat as it became clear that there would be no escape from the Château tonight.

    She had fled without a second thought the moment Ciel failed. The moment Rita Rozay-en had proclaimed she would paint a portrait, Noel had turned and bounded away from the garden as fast as she could, running as if the devil himself was chasing her down. If arguably the greatest warrior of the Burial Division could not kill a vampire through underhanded methods, the most mediocre Executor stood no chance at all. It was the reasonable conclusion. Yet it was not reason that had led her to run, but terror and instinct. A young voice had screamed from the back of her mind, and she had obeyed. Her flight from the garden had led her to the edge of the roof, and now there was nowhere else to go. She could only stare, still and silent as stone, and sink into despair. Her breathing was unsteady, her muscles ached, her heart beat out of control, and she felt queasy, as if it were not Ciel but her who had lost a brutal battle seconds ago.

    Noel now stood alone, drowning in silence. No one had come after her. Not yet.

    What next? She repeated the question to herself. The answer was the same each time: There was no next. This was it. She’d get a few minutes’ respite, perhaps, and then a fate worse than death. Or perhaps not. Perhaps she could avoid something worse than death. The ground below her was three storeys away. If one were to strike it head-first at the right angle, the results would be both quick and certain.

    Close to where Noel stood was a turret that rose from the roof, perfectly overlooking the front yard. From it she picked up the sound of rushed steps on stairs, groaning wood, and the cold rasp of metal latches sliding. White hands threw open shutters that had been barred from within. A long face with sharp eyes and pale, curly hair, jutted out through one of the openings. The man scanned the roof, searching the shadows for signs of intruders.

    “All clear!” he called out before a sharpened hunk of metal cleaved through his neck.

    The man’s body slumped over, bleeding down the side of the tower. Noel stood atop the spire above, one hand gripping the polearm that had until earlier been slung across her back, and the other holding aloft his severed head. She looked into its dull dead eyes and saw in their reflection a most pathetic sight – yet she found some amusement in it, nonetheless.

    “Alas, poor Nightkin; I hardly knew ye,” she said, then let out a sad giggle. “Oh, it’s hopeless. No chance, no shot. Doesn’t matter which circle it is, it’s still Hell in the end. What am I to do, vampire? What will you do? All you know is parasitism. Every thought in that stupid empty head of yours revolves around blood. Dressing up like a man, talking, speaking human tongue when you’re just an overgrown mosquito looking for his next fix!”

    Noel reared back to hurl the head into the yard when something caught her eye and gave her pause. An off-white string, glossy with blood and easily mistaken for a stray bundle of hairs, extruded from the head like the fibers off an uprooted weed. Not a regular body part, nor an irregular one; she’d memorized enough high school biology teaching materials to know that. That little string had resisted the force of her weapon and merely been pulled from the body when she’d attacked with all her strength.

    “It’s really plant matter?” The thin root traveled up into the brain stem where it vanished completely. Noel shuddered at the implication of it. An insurance policy? An additional method of controlling her spawn? No self-respecting Dead Apostle should need such a thing. Perhaps if the man had been human, it would make more sense, but she was sure by the way his body sizzled beneath her holy water-soaked boots that he was not. “Ugh… this is no place for a dissection.”

    With a muttered prayer and a few drops of water, the body was reduced to a pile of salt.

    The next unfortunate undead who ventured up the tower caught only a glimpse of sky. Noel’s boot left a burning imprint on his face as she deftly swung through the window feet-first. He tumbled back, clawing at his eyes, and she followed up by planting a black stake through his skull, pinning him to the stone wall of the spiral staircase and stopping his struggles forever.

    “A vest? What are you, some kind of serving boy?” With trembling hands, and fully aware of the madness of speaking out loud to herself, Noel went through the man’s pockets, producing a bottle opener, a napkin, and a paper with the day’s orders scrawled across it in looping French. It was disappointingly mundane: water the indoor plants, organize the help to clean the west wing, and prepare wine for the family. The family surely being, in this case, the entire Rozay-en clan.

    After stuffing the note into her robes, Noel ventured down the tight staircase, fresh out of hope and in the throes of a mania she could not explain.

    When she emerged into a wide hall on the third floor, she was first struck by how gloomy it was. On either side of her stretched red-gold carpets and wall-mounted candlesticks in a regular pattern interrupted only by the odd wooden door. Everywhere that could bear art was carved or etched or embossed with patterns of vines and leaves and flowers. Yet one could hardly enjoy the décor in the dark; the only sources of illumination in the hall were the aforementioned candlesticks, only a few of which burned with flickering flames that cast more shadow than light. The electric lights on the ceiling were all switched off.

    One flame was different from the rest. It broke from the pattern, shaking far too much to be natural. Estimated distance, only a few meters.

    Noel surged forth from the doorway, swinging wide above the flame, taking aim at the neck of the human-shaped silhouette holding it. It let loose a mousy squeak and pulled away far too slowly. Steel kissed flesh and stayed there, halted in place by a last-minute change of mind.

    “Oh? You’re human.”

    “Y-yes!” The reply came instantly.

    A sharp click summoned forth a bright cone of light. Noel angled the flashlight in her other hand into the target’s eyes. The maid – and she had to be a maid; even Noel knew what it meant when a woman wore black and white and frills – recoiled from the light, squinting and uselessly flailing a hand in front of her face to try and block it out, while the other held tight a flickering oil lantern. She stammered something that sounded like an excuse or an apology, followed by a hushed “Please don’t I swear I didn’t mean it don’t eat me I taste quite horrible ask anyone-!”

    “If you move, it will cut,” said Noel in French, putting a little more force into her polearm. The maid froze stiff, eyes squeezed shut, trembling like a leaf in the wind. “My, my,” Noel continued, adjusting the light and running her eyes over the woman, scanning for traces of weaponry and finding nothing out of the ordinary besides a feather duster. “A collaborator,” she hissed.

    “No! Never!” the maid protested.

    “Don’t be shy, dear,” Noel said. “You know whose floors you wipe clean of blood. Why should you keep your head?” She clicked off the flashlight and held her polearm with both hands, digging into the other woman’s chin and forcing it up.

    The maid’s hands clutched the lantern tightly. She peeled her eyes open, and after flapping her gums like a fish, found her words again: “I – I pray every day, Sister, for the sun. We all do, surely.” There was no reply from the steely-eyed nun, which the maid took as permission to continue. “I am a bank teller. My name is Louise; you must believe me. They take people, and then, they, they… the ones who survive are put to work, or else they are never seen again, and the rest-.”

    “Drained dry?” Noel interrupted. “Turned into thorny lawn ornaments? Perhaps buried in shallow graves, should there be need of walking dead?”

    “How could you… w-what kind of nun are you?!” the woman cringed at the incredulity in her own voice, knowing that insults and backtalk would only bring punishment. She held aloft her dim lantern. Its light crawled upwards, illuminating the face of the nun in question. Revealing her shallow smile and tired eyes.

    “The kind,” said Noel. “That has too much work to do. But it’s been tough lately, so let’s take a break.” She lowered her weapon. “How about somewhere more private, Louise? Wouldn’t want gossip spreading. Oh, and lock that door.” She pointed over her back, to the staircase. “It’d reflect poorly on the staff if the hall stank of blood.”

    It took no further threat for the maid to do as commanded. After ensuring the stairway was inaccessible, she scurried away like a mouse, with Noel following closely and quietly behind. Around the nearby corner was an identical length of hallway stretching into the dark. Louise rushed past three doors on the left and two on the right before she found one to her liking. Out came a jangling key ring. While Noel squinted nervously into the darkness, the maid pushed the door open and beckoned her in.

    A quick scan with the flashlight revealed a strange room whose initial purpose eluded Noel’s eye. The carpet floor turned to wood panel. A plain white bed was tucked into one corner and a small bookshelf into the other. The rest of the room, aside from narrow windows looking out onto the vine-strangled night sky, was completely bare of furniture, save for the framed paintings that covered the walls, and an easel and stool in the center.

    “This is where Milady paints,” Louise whispered as she shut and locked the door behind them. “No one comes here without permission except us, and only for cleaning.”

    “What if she shows up? I imagine you’d be in trouble.”

    “She won’t,” the maid said. “This room is but one of several across the manor, and it’s her least favorite. She hasn’t used it once in the time I have been here. When the skies are clear she prefers the garden… are you alright?”

    Noel steadied her trembling hand, and with it the light dancing across the walls stilled. “Of course,” she replied. “Just the adrenaline rush wearing off, is all. Get the lights, will you? This gloom is straining my eyes.”

    “H-haha…” Something in Noel’s complaint drew a mad giggle from her companion. “Are you sure, Sister? Seeing the walls will strain you far more.”

    “Let me be the judge of that. I’ve seen the worst of what these parasites have to offer.”

    With a click, the surprisingly modern light on the ceiling switched on, casting sharp illumination across the room. Noel immediately realized what Louise had meant.

    The paintings were awful. Each and every one. Not merely poor in terms of composition or colouring (though they were absolutely horribly done in that sense), but offensive to the soul in the same mesmerizing way as the sight of a brutal accident or the aftermath of an act of violence.

    An orgy of naked apes, fornicating and feeding upon each other, filling the canvas like a demented page from an Où est Charlie book. A train running through a dead forest, perforated by branches in all directions, tiny forms impaled upon their lengths. A heap of corpses, upon which a wounded serpent menaced a pale woman, its last tooth gleaming like a dagger in the night. A carnival. A church. A casino. A cave. A crypt. All filled, in different ways, with blood and death.

    Had Noel possessed the sanity of a regular person, she would’ve found herself forced to look away, her stomach turning and body revolting. These were not just pictures; she could smell the violence creeping into her brain, hear the dull roar of dark hunger, and feel her throat clogged with coppery slime. The red stayed with her even when she closed her eyes and tried to blink it away. It was not the red of blood; it was rose red. The same red, surely, as that woman’s eyes.

    It was fortunate, then, that Noel had already gone mad long ago. She tore herself away from the paintings and looked at Louise, whose eyes were glued to the floor.

    “Lovely,” she said. “Those wouldn’t even be fit to launder money.”

    “Haha… d-don’t let Milady hear you say that; she thinks she’s quite good. The last one to imply otherwise never appeared again. And he was one of her own bloodsuckers!” Louise almost managed a smile, but it crumpled into misery. She seemed, to Noel, to be a most pathetic sight: a scrawny bespectacled woman dressed up like a doll, copper hair pulled into a complex bun and uniform drawn uncomfortably tight, while her face was coated in concealer to cover up stress lines. She felt a strange kinship with the girl.

    “Sister, are you one of those Church agents they whisper of? Are you here to save us?” Louise asked. “There are rumours among the staff that the vampires do not go unopposed in their cruelty, that holy warriors hunt them down. One of the longest-serving told me of two men who once infiltrated this place and fought with scripture… and how one became the main course for the celebration they held afterwards, and the other a still-screaming dessert.”

    “Sister this, Sister that,” Noel grumbled. “I have a name.”

    “But… you never told me?”

    “Noel. It’s Noel.” Saying it had been a bad idea, but then, Noel had never been good at coming up with names. Unlike Ciel, who seemed to switch every mission. “Please don’t expect a miracle, Louise. The man upstairs has been rather stingy lately, even for me.”

    “You… aren’t here to help us?”

    “I didn’t say that. I just… look, can a girl get a minute to breathe? Please? Then we’ll talk vampire hunting.” Noel rubbed her eyes. It was not just the ever-present strain that had accompanied her ever since she’d left the Vatican, but an angry pounding that had begun moments ago. “God, this place is awful. Everywhere I look is giving me a headache. I’ve been running around all night. My hair must be a mess. Can’t even get that freak to fix it…”

    “Um,” Louise adjusted her glasses nervously. “Do you need anything, Noel? I can’t do much; they’ll expect a report back soon. B-but I can tell you about this place! Or, um, if you don’t want to think about that right now… I can give you a neck massage? For the headache? My boyfriend said I was pretty good…”

    Noel wordlessly marched over to the stool and sat down.

    As the maid’s hesitant hands settled on her shoulders, Noel tried to think of nothing. A clear mind was a mind free of fear. She could hope for little better. Yet no matter where she fled, the darkness was at her back. The creeping vines were there. The wounds were there. The awareness of her own imminent demise was there and nothing she did would delay it. She could find no refuge within herself, nor in the small hands weakly squeezing her neck. There was nothing to hear, nothing to taste, nothing to smell… well, there was the smell of wet paint.

    Noel looked up at the easel. There was a half-finished image on the canvas, yet to fully dry but clearly hours old. It was just as gruesome as the others, and just as sloppy.

    This one was a closeup of a garden. A chiffon rose, torn to pieces, lay among leaves. Its center had been blown out and oozed red. The culprit was, quite plainly, a naked and broken doll, the same kind that a young girl might have on her shelf. The doll was wrapped in thorns, snaking into and through the cracks and holes in its porcelain. Its remaining hand clutched a toy sword adorned in tiny petals. And there, at the back, only vaguely sketched out in a few small brush strokes, stood a second doll. Around its foot curled another vine. Thorns dug tightly into its ankle.

    “Um, Ms. Noel, your shoulders are really tense… is something wrong?”

    Noel squeezed her eyes shut. “Everything,” she said. “Everything’s wrong.”




    Chapter 4: Parity
    Last edited by Bloble; September 11th, 2023 at 01:04 AM.

  10. #10
    rita be like



    quite unexpected but I see the logic and that's what you want out of a DAA depiction

    This one was a closeup of a garden. A chiffon rose, torn to pieces, lay among leaves. Its center had been blown out and oozed red. The culprit was, quite plainly, a naked and broken doll, the same kind that a young girl might have on her shelf. The doll was wrapped in thorns, snaking into and through the cracks and holes in its porcelain. Its remaining hand clutched a toy sword adorned in tiny petals. And there, at the back, only vaguely sketched out in a few small brush strokes, stood a second doll. Around its foot curled another vine. Thorns dug tightly into its ankle.
    iswydt

  11. #11
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    Steps echoed down stone halls. They approached at a measured pace, and then came to a stop. There followed the turning of a latch, and then a slow, drawn-out creak.

    In a gloomy office, deep under a certain basilica, two boys came face to face.

    “I see my timing could not have been poorer,” said the one for whom the office door had just swung open. “Do excuse the interruption. I’ll return in ten minutes.”

    “Hold it,” the other one replied. He silently beckoned the visitor in with one hand, while gulping down the last of the day’s pills from the other. He finished off the series of supplements with a gulp of bitter wine from the dark bottle on his desk. As the dark-haired child stepped forward and stood by his desk, the sharp-eyed one shuddered, tensed, and finally sighed as the effects of the medicine ran through his body all at once. “Gonna pretend you just forgot to knock there. You’ll want a glass,” he said. “So sit the fuck down.”

    “Not my kind of drink, this one.”

    “Yeah, but your left hand’s been twitching. There’s cheese too. I’ll break out the Taleggio.” The visitor’s eyes bored into the fair-haired child’s back as he turned and pulled another glass and a plate and utensils from the cabinet behind the desk. His fingers brushed past an out-of-place knife and settled on a fork. “So?” he asked. “I’m still breathing, and you came in person instead of sending someone. Means questions. Of course, this lowly presbyter’s only too happy to accommodate a higher up. Honored to see the Burial Agency’s bloodsucker in the flesh. Really.”

    The plate clattered onto the largely bare surface of the old oak table as the office’s owner took a seat. A rich, aged scent floated through the air. It did nothing to excite or calm either of the boys. Though the visitor did eventually place his left hand on the table, his eyes remained fixed on those of his opposite.

    “When did she leave?” he asked.

    “About a week ago. It was kept hush-hush. No leaks, especially not to any bloodsucker. Your timing couldn’t have been worse if you’d tried,” said the other boy. He searched for something in the visitor’s unblinking eyes and found only more questions. That gaze was uncomfortably heavy. “Hey, save the ire for one of the old men upstairs; Laurentis didn’t call that shot.”

    “I see. Which of the cardinals was it, if not him?”

    The blond boy shrugged. “How should I know? It was a closed vote. A mere presbyter can’t get an angle. Seeing as the fury of the whole Burial Agency’s coming down on whoever gets outed as pulling the strings, we won’t know any time soon. Now are you gonna eat or not? This stuff’s expensive. Made traditionally. Not meant to sit there going stale.”

    “Is she still alive?” asked the visitor.

    One pair of eyes stared right into the other. The silence intruded further. Eventually it was broken by the soft sound of small, sharp teeth chewing through cheese.

    “Phew.” The blond boy was the first to look away. He rolled his eyes, cursing silently as he stared into the ceiling. “Yeah,” he said. “She’s still alive. Should be at least. Last call was three days ago. Asked for more armaments. Girl knows she’s not unbreakable anymore.”

    “Humans are never unbreakable,” said the visitor. “This one is a fragile soul. Unfit to be sent out with her will still in tatters. The Director would not have approved this.”

    The cardinal shrugged. “You’re preaching to the choir, but what’s a kid to do? I’m praying for her, so you can quit imagining what my guts would like splattered across the wall.”

    The visitor’s sharp gaze did not soften. He adjusted the rings on his fingers, one by one. The other boy huffed.

    “This is rich. First time we meet and you act like you woke up on the wrong side of the coffin.” He knew why the visitor had not sent his left hand alone; it lacked the power to impose the way the real deal did. That threat he’d perceived was in no way idle. Even a high-ranking clergyman was not exempt. “Come on, cool it already. Weren’t you supposed to be one of the friendlier bloodsuckers? Keep up this cold act and they’ll rewrite your file. Fake it at least. Otherwise they won’t let you stick around. There’s no point trying to put to the screws on me.”

    “Oh?” For the first time, the black-haired boy smiled. It didn’t reach his eyes. “And why is that? I’m not so old as to no longer enjoy playing with toys.”

    “’Cus you still have a chance and we’re that chance. Staying on good terms with the Church is your best move right now. No point in throwing a hissy-fit and getting the keys taken away just because one of your ‘comrades’ got the short end of the stick. The White Princess might be gone now, but-”

    A string dug into the boy’s throat. He choked on his words. His fingers would not move. His joints were bound. He was pulled in all directions at once and something within him threatened to tear. His small, frail body felt like it was in the grip of a great monster that could not be seen or heard, yet certainly without a doubt existed, born from his own nightmares.

    The other boy regarded the blond child. In his eyes was something inhuman, restrained only by a plastic smile.

    “Do not make me think of her,” he said. The string loosened the tiniest fraction, allowing the bound boy to breathe. “Try again, Bestino. The King enjoyed the tribute, so I won’t break you.”

    “G-guh… I’m on your side…” Bestino choked out. “I prepared ‘em… best I could. Told her everything we know about Rozay-en… so act your age, you fuckin’ moron!”

    The strings vanished. No, they had never been real. They had just become less imaginary for a moment. He was free. The boy felt around his throat with a trembling hand and felt nothing. He took a deep breath and it came in hot and rancid. Something warm and heavy was at his back. The lights flickered. A drop of drool fell onto the surface of the desk from above. He dared not look anywhere but ahead.

    The visitor pushed back the now empty plate and pushed his fingers together. Rings glittered in the dim light.

    “Let’s assume you’re not lying,” he said in a conversational tone, as if discussing the weather. “I’ve heard of your exploits in Souya. You did indeed meet with both Ciel and her partner… what was her name again?” He paused, considered, and concluded. “Doesn’t matter. You met with them individually, the last day they were sighted here. Offering aid and advice, no doubt. Very admirable. Driven by kindness? No, residual guilt perhaps. Well, I’m not one to judge. As they say at the Casa: with humans, it all returns to greed in the end.”

    Bestino tried to nod. It came out as more of a twitch.

    “But now, something strange occurs to me. You knew about this, and you cared enough to prepare those two for an impossible mission to the extent of your abilities… but that was not the extent of your abilities, was it?”

    The boy stood, now towering over the blond, and he leaned up and over the desk and was right there, close enough for the other boy to sense the lack of body heat and see blue eyes tinge red.

    “If you truly cared, why did you not tell us that such a valuable piece was being handed off? I could have interfered on her behalf. Nor was any member of the Burial Agency informed. What should you care if another risked jeopardizing their political standing? The other cardinals may have been fool enough to discard her, but you are not. Half-measures don’t suit you.”

    It felt like the world itself was closing in. The blond boy had never felt this alive, so close to death and completely unable to oppose it, like an insect staring up at a boot. He tightened his lips into a line and resolved himself for what was to come. One way or another, he would get through it.

    “I can only conclude,” said the other boy. “That you have made a deal… or a gamble. You’ll tell me what was wagered, Bestino.”

    Bestino slowly, painfully, stretched his grin wide. So that was it, he realized. He’d been fooled, in his panic, into believing that a Dead Apostle could care about the life of a single human. That the monster before him felt camaraderie for a broken doll. The truth couldn’t be more different. This guy had skin in the game too.

    “It's a coinflip, Crown,” he said. “I haven’t called it yet.”

    One way or another, he’d come out on top.




    Over a week prior, a girl had traveled the cold corridors beneath the Vatican. She endured suspicious stares and phantom pain where the empty sleeve of her nun’s habit swayed. Her destination was at the end of a dingy hall. She stepped up to the door and knocked twice sharply.

    “Come in,” she heard, and entered Bestino’s office, closing the door behind her and taking a seat as beckoned. She politely refused all offers of food or drink and waited silently for the boy to finish tuning the pair of metallic gloves on his desk. Carefully and precisely, he tightened a gear on the left hand’s second middle finger joint with a pair of tweezers, until it provided just enough resistance. He finished by applying a light coating of oil with a cotton swab.

    “Alright, that’s enough for now,” he said, finally looking up at her. His brows were furrowed, as if something weighed greatly on his shoulders. “Any more than that and I’ll feel like a jerk for having you sit around like this. I take it you know what’s going on, Executor Ciel?”

    She nodded. “The joint is too tight,” she said. “You should loosen it. And that oil is murky. It ought to be swapped out.”

    “Murky’s just how I like it. This baby’s gotta sing.” Nonetheless, he set aside the bottle and made a mental note to revisit the tune-up. “I won’t keep you long. God knows you haven’t got much time left to waste sitting around talking. So let’s get to the point: you planning on surviving this thing?”

    “The mission?” Ciel tilted her head, blinking once. “Of course, Presbyter. Suicide is a sin. To not put in all possible effort would be the same as surrender.”

    “Do you think you can do it?”

    “It won’t be easy, but there should be a chance. The abilities of the Rose Princess are known to us and countermeasures have been prepared.”

    “Hmm. Guess so.” Bestino scratched his head, looking almost uncomfortable in her presence. “Then uh, the hag. She up for it too?”

    “I wish you wouldn’t call that… sir. She is a proper Executor. Her answer will be no different.”

    He snorted. “’Proper Executor’ my ass. She’s a ticking time bomb. Should’ve stuck her in a convent months ago. Shame the old men upstairs thought different. You don’t really think she’s got another mission left in her, do you? Let alone this one? Not my business to pry into the personal lives of foot soldiers, but the latest psych evals on you two paint an ugly picture.” The boy’s eyes filled with scorn and pity. “How you put up with her is beyond me. We talk big about taking Christ’s lessons to heart, but there’s a point where ‘turn the other cheek’ goes from saintly to stupid and you’ve soared way past it.”

    “Indeed,” Ciel agreed. “It’s not your business. Did you call me here to disparage my partner and I, presbyter? If so, I have a mission to prepare for. One you are not involved in.”

    “Hold it. I’m getting to the point.”

    Bestino stood and opened the cabinet behind him. Of all the old-fashioned furniture in the room, this was the only one reinforced with modern locks and hinges. Within were several items and utensils. He passed his finger over a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles and settled on a fold-out knife clearly not meant to slice steak.

    “Here.” He pushed the switchblade across the table. “Finally got this out of evidence.”

    Trembling fingertips settled on the blade’s hardwood hilt. Lips pursed and jaw tightened.

    “Presbyter… why?” she whispered.

    “What, I’m not allowed to have a heart? I was at Souya too. Go on, no strings attached.”

    “With you, that hardly seems likely.” Ciel closed her eye and pushed the knife back across the desk. “Thank you, but I have no need of this. It won’t help. Seven will suffice.”

    “Figured as much.” He took back the knife and placed it back in the cabinet. “In that case, take some advice, will you? I’ve looked into Rozay-en. That clan is one ugly bunch.”

    Rita Rozay-en, who leaned against the corner wall of the office, scoffed at the remark. “Hypocrisy still runs deeply at the Church, it seems.” The office seemed to shake and distort as she spoke.

    Ciel did not react. “I’m listening,” she said, with great effort.

    “They like to play with their food,” Bestino continued, his expression momentarily murky and indistinct. “The princess especially. Becoming vampires didn’t change them much; they were sickos even as humans. It’s come back to bite them more than once, literally. Last time was when she took the title of Ancestor from her old man. I’m sure you’ll aim to finish it in one blow, but if that’s not in the cards, I want you to just promise me one thing: don’t give up. No matter what. Just hold on as long as you can. Who knows? A miracle might happen.”

    The girl in the ill-fitting habit showed no particular reaction to his words, beyond, eventually, a small nod.

    “Good. That’s all. Get outta here. I’m awful at this pep talk stuff and you’re the worst person to try it on. Just pretend you don’t have a death wish when you’re finally out there, otherwise that partner of yours won’t let you hear the end of it.” Bestino was even less comfortable with the topic of conversation than Ciel herself, and it was clear as day on his expression.

    Rita tittered at the sight.

    A miracle might happen? Oh, what a horrid human. You understand now, yes?” She referred to Ciel, who still offered no acknowledgment. “That miracle, should it exist at all, is meant only for him. You’ve been duped, dear, by a most petulant child.”

    As Ciel made to leave, the boy called out once more.

    “One more thing,” he said. “Send the hag in after you. Got something for her too. Not that it’ll do any good.”

    Rita followed Ciel out the door and into the dim hall, where Noel nervously waited, pacing to and fro. She started and then stared wordlessly as her partner emerged. Ciel merely nodded to her and jerked her chin towards the office.

    “M-me?” Noel said. “You didn’t – you didn’t say anything about me, did you?”

    “He has a gift for you, I believe.”

    “That better not be some kind of sick joke.” With those parting words, Noel vanished into the office, leaving Ciel and Rita alone in the hall.

    “Hm,” Rita remarked. “Not a particularly useful or evocative memory. Shall we go back earlier? There are so many places to see and pieces to tease out that one night might not suffice. We’ve over eight hundred years to choose from. Any suggestions?”

    Ciel pursed her lips and said nothing.

    “Ah well, in that case…”

    Rita snapped her fingers. A breeze blew apart the world in a shower of rose petals. When the storm cleared, they were no longer in the Vatican. They now stood in murky, watery corridors that smelled of ash and blood.

    “Yes, this will do,” she said. “I’d like to see the Souya Incident first-hand. This was where he broke, wasn’t it? There is a wonderful work here. Baroque, perhaps.”

    Ciel silently trembled. Rita ran a dainty finger down her cheek and it came away with a single tear. She smiled and whispered into the Executor’s ear.

    “Do as the child said, girl. Hold on as long as you can. We have all the time in the world.”




    Chapter 5: Talk 2

  12. #12
    Vlovle Bloble's Avatar
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    “…that will be all. Dinner is in an hour,” said the butler, addressing nearly two dozen dazed men and women. “Attend to it. Should evidence arise that any here cooperate with the intruder, you will all be replaced.”

    He slammed the door on his way out, leaving the worker’s quarters silent. Nothing in the meagre room, lined with creaky bunk beds and dim oil lamps and dusty wardrobes, could distract from the news they had just been given. The circle of listeners in servant’s garb wordlessly drifted apart, filtering out of the dorm and heading to their assigned tasks around the manor, heads bowed all the while.

    When only one remained, sitting on a bunk with her head in her hands, a second figure emerged from the shadows behind her.

    “So these are manor’s humans,” Noel said, eliciting from Louise a mouse-like squeak. “Not one with any fight left. What an embarrassment. Is it always like this?”

    “Always, since I arrived,” replied the maid, rubbing tears from her eyes. “Th-there’s no escape and no hope. We’re fed, and clothed, and given sleep and work to keep us pacified until it’s time for a dinner… oh Lord, a dinner…” She shuddered. “It’s too soon for a dinner; it’s only been a week since the last one…”

    “Strangely soon, you say,” Noel mused. The girl’s grieving was inexplicably irritating. Still far better than the living dead the other humans had been reduced to. “Who’s the menu?”

    “One of us,” Louise said. “Always. No rhyme or reason as to who… except those who disobey always go first. Then those that talk too much, or who catch attention. That’s why no one looks up; just meeting someone’s eyes might spell death. The family eats once or twice a month. Each time, someone I know dies.”

    “Once a month…” Noel did the mental math. The Rozay-en clan was known to be large. If there were as many vampires in the castle as there were humans, then… “That’s restrained.”

    “Restrained!?” Louise’s eyes shot wide open.

    “Very,” said the Executor. “The last one we hunted needed to devour several people a day. An Ancestor’s appetite is as vast as their power. Once a month is nothing compared to what I’ve seen.”

    “You… you have no idea…” whimpered Louise, shoulders hunched and trembling. “No idea what it’s like to be imprisoned for months, watching others vanish one by one!” Her voice cracked as she lashed out. “First fearing it’ll be you next, and then wishing it could be you instead of them. You’ve never hoped for death instead of freedom-!”

    The head of an inhumanly heavy polearm crashed into the floor between Louise’s legs, cleaving her breath in two. Its edge was dull with dry blood.

    “Spare me the pity party,” Noel said. “I know who the star of the show is. Rejoice; it’s not one of yours. My freak of a partner must’ve made the queen bitch angry.”

    “F-freak?” Louise brushed the dust from her apron and slowly backed away from the weapon. “Partner?”

    “A hopeless mess of a human being,” said Noel, “but a good fighter. Got more notches in her belt than anyone else. Not that it did her any good; she was captured earlier.”

    “T-then we…!” Something in Louise’s eyes lit up. “We-.”

    “Take the chance to escape, yes.”

    The maid’s shocked expression said it all. Noel rolled her eyes.

    “Oh please,” she scoffed. “What are you expecting? I’m a soldier of God, not an action hero. We had our shot at taking out the Rose Princess. We missed. The operation’s a bust. You’re like me; you know how it is. There’s no getting everyone out of a situation this awful. Best you can hope for is one or two make it out. This is our chance to be the lucky ones. Once the bloodsuckers are gathered in one place, distracted by fresh blood on their plates, I’ll bust open a hole in the wall. Then we’ll ride out of here before they give chase.”

    “But that’s…”

    “Horrible?” Noel considered it. “Maybe. Worse than suicide? I don’t think so. I want to live. I don’t want to die here. I definitely don’t want to end up as a thorned muse for a vampire. Aren’t you the same, Ms. Bank teller? You’re the only other person in this castle who hasn’t given up. You’re all clingy because you can tell I’m your only chance. That’s why your neck’s untouched. So, tell me: what’s worth staying here for?”

    Quiet returned to the dormitory. One woman’s head was bowed. The other stared, waiting. Anyone, living or dead, could have opened the door and interrupted, but by some miracle, none did. Louise was allowed to formulate her answer, slowly and carefully, one word at a time.

    “I’m weak, Ms. Noel,” she said. “Too weak to do any good or save anyone. I can only pray for salvation. Yet I’m not weak enough to avoid the guilt of abandoning others to die. It’s true they’re hopeless, but they were still with me all these months. If one human escapes, the ones who remained will die. Knowing that, I’m sure even if we flee, whatever life awaits me will be a miserable one. I’d certainly never be happy again. Even if I spent the rest of my days atoning for it, I’d never be able to forgive myself. So I’ll stay and pray for another miracle.”

    There was no immediate response. Louise looked up; her lips stretched into a shaky smile. “This is no judgement on you, Ms. Noel. Your circumstances are different. If you must silence me, go ahead. Just please, let the outside world know, somehow, of what became of us.”

    “Ugh… just shut up.” Noel squeezed the bridge of her nose with two fingers, her eyes screwed shut. “God, I should’ve killed you. Playing right into the bloodsucker’s hands for her of all people…”

    “Ms. Noel-.”

    “Zip it. Just – just give me a yes or no.”

    Noel held up a black dress and white apron, taken from a nearby cabinet. Its monochrome contrasted her own: the garb of a servant of nobility rather than a servant of God.

    “So,” she asked. “How do I look?”




    Two maids traversed the dim halls of the chateau. The smaller one held an oil lantern and led the way. The other clutched a basket filled with several empty wine bottles.

    “Don’t scream,” Louise said. She stopped by an unadorned wooden door and pulled out a ring of keys. “This’ll be worse than the paintings.”

    “Nothing can make me scream anymore,” lied Noel. She felt pulled in all directions by regrets and fears. Showing mercy to the maid had been her only way of putting off madness.

    With a click the door swung open, revealing a set of stairs down.

    “…you said these dinners were ‘restrained’, earlier. Perhaps this will change your mind.”

    Noel had expected a wine cellar at the bottom of the stairs. She was half right; the smoothly fitted stone walls made for cool, damp air. Yet there were no racks in sight. Instead, she felt soft dirt beneath her feet and smelled coppery earth. The walls stretched onwards, a long hall much like the one they’d left. In the distance, barely illuminated by the lantern, stood humanoid figures in two rows against the walls.

    Her skin crawled and legs quaked as Louise led her forward. She knew these shapes. She’d seen them once before, years ago.

    The first to be illuminated was a middle-aged man. He stood naked, emaciated, eyes unfocused, a dumb smile plastered across his face. His limbs were too thin to support his weight. Vines kept him vertical, curling around his legs and up to his waist and then his arms and neck and head. Thin green tendrils pierced into his flesh in several places, and bulges beneath his skin showed where they had further wriggled. Thorns extruded from skin. Most disturbing of all were the cherry red grapes that hung in clusters from the vines, and the rusty metal tap that had been driven into the center of his chest. He showed no reaction to the light, nor their arrival. As Noel stared, he made a thin noise that could have been a laugh.

    He was only one of several. All around her were unholy fusions of human and flora, planted in the ground and pumped full of sweet dreams for one purpose only.

    Louise took one of the bottles and brought its lip to the tap in the man’s chest. She reached out and turned the valve. The man let out a rattling sigh. Purple ichor flowed from his chest into the bottle. His eyes fluttered shut over the course of the next minute, until Louise closed the valve and corked the nearly full bottle of blood wine.

    She held two fingers to his wrist, careful to avoid touching the vines. After a few moments she nodded to herself. “He’ll live through this time,” she said. “But not the next. They won’t like that I stopped early today. When one dies… you can guess what happens.”

    Noel looked down the corridor. The rows of wrapped up, giggling bodies stretched out into darkness, forming a human vineyard.

    “You see,” Louise said. “None of us can be forgiven.”

    Noel’s stomach churned. She clapped a hand over her mouth as tears formed in the corner of her eyes. She found a corner and heaved, over and over, until nothing remained, while a small hand gently patted her back.




    The grand dining hall of the Chateau Rozay-en was one of the few places in the manor with an illusion of life. An unlucky servitor had climbed a ladder and painstakingly lit every one of the candles on the strangely shaped chandelier, sending shadows dancing across a table stretching from one end of the long room to the other. On the table lay neither plates nor cutlery; each of the two dozen vampires had before them only a series of cups: a deep goblet, a tall champagne glass, a standard wine glass, and a stemless tumbler. Many had already filled their glasses, calling sharply for servants to pour blood wine as they chatted merrily about inanities: harvesting runs, the state of the world, whether the president was or wasn’t running the country into the ground, rumours of other Apostles and Ancestors, and of course, family drama. Others sat like wax statues, their glasses untouched. At the table’s head was an empty seat, gilded in gold. Noel did her best to pick up the conversations as she passed by, hoping the shaking of the bottle as she poured a fresh glass for a loud Italian vampire would be mistaken for the right kind of fear.

    “So I say to her,” he gesticulated at the disinterested woman to his left. “Marina, you have nothing to fear from that priest; he will sooner stick his stake in that choir boy than through your heart!”

    The woman rolled her eyes. “Drink,” she ordered, holding up a glass. “The widow from ‘64.”

    Noel almost replied in the affirmative, before remembering servants existed to be seen, not heard. She instead bowed her head and retreated to fetch the bottle in question. As she passed by the end of the table farthest from the head, a vampire caught her eye. He was the oldest among them, sporting a brown beard flecked with white, sunken in cheekbones, and an unfocused gaze. Were it not for the glint of fangs in his slightly ajar mouth he could’ve been mistaken for a senile human. Flanking him on either side were two stoic men, one of whom sent Noel scampering away with an empty glare.

    When she returned bearing a bottle of widow’s blood, nearly all the seats had been filled and the other servants were streaming out of the room. Noel hastily uncorked the bottle as she approached the vampire woman, who held up her glass without so much as sparing a glance.

    “Enrico and Richaud are missing,” she said to the man. “Their side has suffered quite a blow.”

    There was grumbling from the surrounding vampires. The man shrugged. “Oh, it’s supposedly the intruder’s partner’s handiwork. How exciting, to have a rat with actual teeth in our maze.”

    “If the rat is here,” the woman said, “it is only because Rita wants it there – hm.”

    Noel heard the woman pause and sniff at the wine in her glass, more like a starving wolf than a person. It sloshed to and fro for a few moments before a tentative sip followed by a hearty gulp. Finally there was a deep, satisfied sigh.

    “…anyway, you think she sent them to die on purpose? Prune the dissenters and all?”

    “Dear sister,” the man chuckled. “As ever, you say out loud what we are all thinking. One of these days, it’ll get you into trouble. Just look at father’s faction over there; they fume already. Who can say what our lady plans? Or whether she plans at all?”

    Noel stepped away, her job finished. She was the last to leave. Louise waited for her at the exit, the look in her eyes begging the disguised Executor to hurry. Just as she reached the door, another at the opposite end of the room creaked open, and in stepped a pair of familiar figures.

    “You there, maid.” The Rose Princess’ sudden address stopped Noel in her tracks. “A seat for our guest.”

    Refusal was not an option. Noel found a reservoir of calm within herself as she gave a humble curtsy and took into her hands one of the extra chairs just outside the door.

    “Don’t look up,” Louise whispered to her. “Do nothing unless ordered to.”

    And then Noel was walking across the room, wilting beneath the stares, knowing Rita might have caught a glimpse of her during the battle, knowing one of the other vampires might connect the dots and realize they did not recognize her as staff, knowing that if anything at all went wrong here, the consequences of her foolish decision would come crashing down on her.

    “Set it down by me,” came Rita’s command. “This is a guest of honour. She’ll have a glass of the – ah, yes. You don’t drink blood anymore, do you, Elesia? Enjoy the ambiance, then.”

    Noel kept her eyes down as she placed the wooden chair by the side of the woman she could not look at. She smelled floral perfume and dirt and felt a choking pressure upon her very soul. A woman took a seat in the chair, her own head bowed. Noel dared to flick her eyes up for an instant, confirming that it was indeed Ciel, still in her battle habit. The taciturn Executor was silent. Not lifeless, but still as a puppet.

    “That’s all. Begone.”

    Noel wanted nothing more than to run out the door. She instead forced herself to turn and calmly walk out, half-expecting to be stopped at the last moment. It was only when there was a door between herself and the roomful of vampires that she breathed a sigh of relief. Then she pressed her ear against wood while Louise nervously stood watch.

    “Now then,” she heard Rita say, muffled through the door. “Would anyone care to raise a topic of conversation? I’m aware of our other intruder; she’s of no concern. Dear father, have you anything to say?” A too-short pause. “Oh, you don’t? Wonderful. A toast, then! To the return of the serpent to our garden. Cast off shell she may be, but she yet shines as if still whole.”

    Murmurs of assent. The clinking of glasses. Gulps and sighs thankfully smothered.

    “I should like,” Rita continued, “to know dear Elesia more intimately. She’s bared her heart to me, and yet,” her words drew to a sharp point. “The heart within a heart remains under lock and key.”

    More murmurs. One rose from the crowd. “Hidden even from the Eyes of Roses?” spoke someone Noel recognized as the Italian vampire. “My, my, Margie, do you need glasses?”

    Rita’s amused titter was nearly swallowed up by the wood of the door. “Not as much as you need sense, dear cousin,” came the confident reply. “No more of that now; I’m quite serious. The Serpent took his secrets to the grave and back. He played the game well.” Was that a hint of respect Noel heard, or annoyance? “Yet the overconfident boor underestimates us. Trisha. Celine. Genevieve. Let us meet in the garden shortly. I’d like this finished before sunrise.”

    “How long’s it been?” asked the deadpan woman Noel had served wine to. “Since we last exercised the family Principle? Gotta be decades.”

    "It will," came the delighted reply, "be worthwhile." Noel could not but imagine the honeyed smile of Rita Rozay-en. "Well, Elesia? Your invitation we extend, to our Rosarium. Let's gossip like girls, have no secrets between us. You'll tell us what the snake told you. Above all about our esteemed... original."

    Noel heard nothing past muffled mutters and clinking glass. Then a lovely vicious laugh.

    "You make me glad. I rather think that Rome deserves our thanks. Such a treat hand-delivered to us," the vampire decided, "merits an appropriate response. So? Shall we send flowers?"

    Again came the laugh, now accompanied by a chorus. The howls of hyenas on the edge of madness filled the room, while those outside it felt only dread.

    “And what,” rang the loud man’s voice above the din, quieting the laughter, “are we to do? Surely you didn’t call a dinner just to preen.”

    The hunger in his voice was that of a hound straining against its fraying leash.

    “Why, dear cousin,” came the graceful reply. “I’ve a treat for you as well. She flees, hides, nips at our heels. So go on,” drawn-back lips and jagged white teeth filled Noel’s mind. The beastly rumbling started up again. “Hunt.”




    Chapter 6: Vintage
    Last edited by Bloble; September 28th, 2023 at 01:13 AM.

  13. #13
    Ancestor Report

    Merem

    While there's nothing really wrong with him, I feel somewhat disappointed to see him interact in the same sour affect and register as Vampire Story 1. Then again his friendly interactions with Ciel, Shiki and Blackmore feel like affectations that do not paint a satisfying picture of Merem's personality either, so I shouldn't complain about short cameos. It does seem like schmoozing the rat king is a good way to earn a stay of execution. The brief application of power made me thonk.

    Rita

    Very good framing with the flashbacks. Appropriately thematic and spoopy body horror; an Ancestor should express their singular characteristics in everything that is theirs. It is highly unusual for a fanfic to depict an Ancestor socially interacting with their clan, so I'm overlooking the feeling that I'm reading about Skyrim vampires; there is obviously more to it - at the very least the Roa IB Tech connection with Rozay-en Senior and the history behind Rita's succession. Seems to be coasting along characterisation-wise pending a moment of revealed complexity. But seriously, Margie?

  14. #14
    Vlovle Bloble's Avatar
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    It'll take a while for Merem to get over the death of the White Princess. That's my excuse for the inevitable OOC. God, if you're out there, please give me a version of Talk that isn't twice-translated.

    Rita is perhaps short for Marguerite, which can also be shortened (if one intends to tease a family member) to Margie or Marge. Not many could get away with that. You can be reassured that I never played enough of Skyrim to get to the vampires.

  15. #15
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    The mansion groaned.

    Paint and plaster on wall and ceiling cracked and creased. Candlesticks shook. Faint flames flickered. Rita’s call – the predator’s call - awakened something in the otherwise unreachable humans. An ancient instinct within all living beings that bade them fight or flee.

    “Hunt!”

    One man’s proclamation rang clear, repeating the call.

    “Hunt!”

    His cry was echoed by bloodthirsty howls that rattled lights, glasses, and the air itself. In the vampires, too, awoke primal instincts.

    “Hunt!”

    The vibration had Noel nervously backing away from the door. “Go,” she hissed at the men and women gathered around the door, who were just now beginning to realize she was a stranger. “Now. In this state, they won’t-.”

    “Feast!”

    They scattered. As the walls thrummed, the remaining humans in the chateau fled in any direction they could. Their atrophied minds no longer considered subservience, just survival.

    “Feast!”

    All pretense of decorum was gone. The only voice missing from the chorus now was Rita’s. Noel took Louise’s hand and pulled the maid from her trance. “Come on.” She ran. Louise followed, nearly tripping over her apron.

    “Feast!”

    The cry that more and more resembled a countdown to a twisted game of tag only grew in volume as they distanced themselves from the dining hall. “Damnit, damnit, damnit!” Noel swore under her breath. “They like to play with their food,” she hissed. “No human’s safe!”

    “Blood!”

    Noel rounded one corner and made for the next. Louise panted and wheezed behind her, barely able to keep up with the speed of a regular human’s run. “Ugh, just hold still!” With only that warning she scooped up the smaller woman and threw her over her shoulder, dashing forward while Louise squeaked and protested.

    “Blood!”

    The servant’s quarters were nearby. The chanting accompanied Noel through the halls as she rounded corner after corner and seconds later came face to face with the door. She set down Louise and spun her around, gripping the girl’s shoulders tightly. “Hide in one of the closets,” Noel said. “The old scents will mask your presence. It’s your best shot.”

    “Blood!”

    “What about you?” Louise breathed. “I won’t-.”

    “Récolte!”


    A great heaving assaulted their ears. Doors slammed open. Feet rumbled against the floor. The wooden supports holding up the roof splintered, sprouting sharp growths. The countdown had ended. The hunt had begun.

    “I lied,” said Noel, her breaths coming in short and shallow. “Earlier, I lied twice. I do know what it’s like. I’ve been where you stand. Don’t worry about me. Worry about yourself.” Louise felt the woman’s grip waver. “There’s still hope for you, I promise. Just hang on.”

    “A-and the second lie?”

    The Executor chuckled. She seemed in that moment to be less of a sardonic Sister, and more a tired woman whose youth and best years had been taken from her too soon. Weary creases formed in the corners of her eyes as she smiled mischievously.

    “The truth is,” Noel said with a wink. “I am an action hero.”

    With one push, Louise was sent tumbling back. The last thing she glimpsed before the door slammed shut was a triumphant warrior, holding aloft a weapon that shined in the darkness. The last thing she heard was the beginnings of a prayer: “Sancte Michael Archangele, defende nos in proelio…

    The last thing she felt was hope, stabbing into her heart like a molten dagger.




    Panic stampeded through the halls. Half the servants had split off on their own. The other half had been guided in the same direction by instinct: towards the front doors and the promise of escape. They had neither breath nor thought for words. Each poured their all into a mad dash from death.

    Left, right, left, left, right. There it was. A pair of thick double doors, upon which was emblazoned a many-petaled flower caught between bloom and wilt. Living hands had never breached that portal from the inside.

    The herd threw themselves at the doors in one great wave. A mighty crash followed, and then cries of pain as the human battering ram buckled and broke, leaving those at the forefront pockmarked red. The patterns upon the doors writhed. Crimson-stained thorns extruded from the wood.

    The mass reformed. Fear took the reins, droving another desperate charge. Once more the bulkiest among them squared their shoulders and drove forward. Once more they were painfully rebuffed.

    “Footsteps!” cried out one woman as the sobs started. Blood would draw monsters. It could only be death, come to hunt them to extinction. If they fought, then perhaps-.

    “Youuuuuu’re iiiiiin theeeeee waaaaaay!”

    A slim shape barreled down the hall, tensed her legs, and sailed over the group. She fell upon the doors like a silver bullet, bringing to bear the length of steel in her hands.

    The doors exploded outwards in a shower of splinters. In flowed a fresh breeze. Standing in the resulting beam of moonlight was a maid clutching a polearm longer than she was tall. The nonsensical sight was enough to steal away one’s breath.

    She offered the assembled humans a cheery wave.

    “Right this way, right this way!” she chirped. “No crowding, now. Please exit the manor in an orderly fashion. Failure to follow instructions will get you devoured.”

    The mass hesitated. Was she inhuman as well?

    Noel tilted her head quizzically as she pulled her hair loose from its uncomfortable bun and affixed a pair of pink ties to hold it to the side. “Oh? Do you want to stay in this hellhole? If so, the Lord and I can just go…”

    An elderly lady rushed past her that instant. A young man followed. The whole group surged through the exit while throwing words of gratitude into the air.

    “Well, now,” she smirked. “Don’t thank me just yet. That was the easy part. Watch your step!”

    A shriek followed. As the first to run stepped onto the massive lawn, fingers sprang from the dirt and grasped at her ankle. Wrist, elbow, and shoulders followed, and then a desiccated, hairless, eyeless head filled with gnashing teeth. Its skin was distended and torn in multiple places as pitch-black thorns sprouted from its flesh.

    The escapees found themselves facing yet another obstacle: the hundreds of meters of castle grounds between them and the gate, and the sea of corpses pulling themselves from it.

    “Who said you could stop!?” Noel’s boot slammed into the Ghoul’s face, dissolving it into blessed ash. Using the fading Dead as a stepping-stone she bounded upwards, a lacy, frilly blur, and slammed a black stake into the side of the chateau, hanging halfway up its imposing height. “Gimme some room here!” she called down to the retreating refugees, even as more Dead rose from flowerbeds.

    Moments later she was atop the roof again. The same edge from which she had considered throwing herself hours earlier.

    Noel could have cursed her past stupidity. Instead, she planted her halberd into the roof, gathered six stakes in her hands, and uttered a prayer. One line. Two. She stopped when her body shook and the weapons in her hands glowed with magical energy.

    She had spent all night running. No, all year. No, the better part of the last decade. It had taken her this long to realize she was sick of it.

    Noel poured prayer into her left hand and hurled the first Black Key straight below, plating it with several throws’ worth of force. It tore through an advancing Ghoul, sinking into the loam below. The second was aimed further away, the third even farther, almost to the iron gates. She reared back her right and repeated the maneuver, throwing the keys so they landed in a parallel line.

    Noel took a deep breath. In that moment, she found the peace she’d sought for months. For she knew, here and now, that she was the tyrant, and they were the weak.

    “Oh temple!” she called out. “Appareo!

    Pure light erupted from earth, banishing the night.

    The prayers of those who’d bled and died in a vampire’s garden were answered at last, as the walls of God’s temple parted the Dead sea.

    The stink of sizzling, rancid flesh filled the air. In the blink of an eye, the graveyard had become a crematorium.

    “Well, would you look at that?” Noel admired the sight. “Rotten fish in a barrel.”

    The disoriented Dead who’d survived the sacrament’s light might have still overrun the surviving humans. She crushed that possibility next.

    As she hurled fistfuls of sacramental steel from her vantage point, each reducing a walking corpse to ash, the Executor laughed. “Come on, come on, at least try to dodge! Surely at least one of you has enough brain bits left to find a morsel of survival instinct!”

    They did not. All in the corridor fell, one by one, while those trapped outside collapsed against the light. In their last moments, the mindless undead reached not for the humans below, but for the woman standing on the edge of the roof, silhouetted against the half-moon.

    All that remained was an ashen path studded with red-hilted stakes, leading right to the gates.

    “And right this way, everyone!” she proclaimed, with a showy bow. “Thank you for your patience while we cleaned up the path. We hope you enjoyed the show! Please go right on ahead. The exit is-.”

    “Closed. For renovations.”

    “…ah. Took your time, did you?” Noel turned back, her elation dissolving. The easy part was over. The vampire who’d mouthed off to Rita earlier leaned against the side of a familiar tower, a nearly spent cigarette between his lips. “What, no surprise attack?”

    “Oh, the others feast elsewhere already,” he said, showing gleaming teeth. “But I’m not so plebeian as to interrupt a lady when she’s putting on a show.” The vampire flicked the cigarette away and crushed it beneath leather shoes. “You wore that apron well, little mouse. Consider me enraptured. Perhaps you’d let me get under your skin?”

    “My, my,” Noel smiled, even as a bead of sweat made its way down her neck. “Playing with your food wasn’t enough; you had to flirt with it as well? Too bad, Paulo; I prefer my men with a heartbeat and my meals without one.”

    “And Bruno prefers his women before their best-by date.” The man took another cigarette from within his suit jacket. His eyes flashed green, and its tip was set aflame. “But we must sometimes settle, no?”

    A black stake flew past his head, reducing the cigarette to scraps and sending long cracks through one of the tower stones. Bruno blinked.

    “Turns out,” Noel tightened her grip on her polearm, twisting it so the heavy head settled against the roof. “I’m not in a settling mood. And you’re too old anyway!”

    The halberd ripped upwards, filling the vampire’s vision with clay tiles. With the blink of an eye they burst into flames, crumbling by the time they reached him. Behind them was an empty roof. “Not slow in the head, at least.” Bruno muttered to himself as he brushed soot from his shoulder.

    The roof erupted beneath him. Amid the scraps of wood and clay was a slab of steel that ripped through Bruno’s suit and dove deep beneath his rib cage.

    He grasped at the halberd’s haft. The world inverted. Beneath him was the sky, and above was-.

    “Screw you!” Noel slammed the vampire face-first into fired clay. She shifted her grip and swept Bruno across the roof like the end of a mop, sending tiles and teeth flying through the air. “I’m only-!” She stomped on the man’s head once, twice, three times, as his body twitched. “-twenty-eight!” Finally she hefted her halberd, sending the vampire flying into the tower in a mighty crash, crumpling the wall in on itself.

    A moment later, the tower burst into flames. The ensuing blast of hot air would’ve blown Noel right off the roof and into the mass of Dead below, had she not dug her weapon into the wood and tile and held on as she was battered and buffeted. Then the heat and pressure died down, revealing a burnt hole where the tower had stood. At hole’s edge stood a man, unperturbed by the sorry state of his face. Teeth regrew. Split skin rejoined. The clock turned backwards until Noel was staring into an unblemished face. Even the bloody hole in his shirt was gone.

    She groaned. “I’m not paid enough for this…”

    “Little mouse,” Bruno asked, all hints of playfulness gone. “Are you, perhaps, rather weak?”

    Dread coursed through Noel’s veins. Her prior confidence was nowhere to be found. Her grip on the halberd slackened as disbelief danced across her eyes.

    “Enrico and Richaud were nobodies.” Bruno mused. “It checks out. That armament couldn’t kill a proper Dead Apostle.” He looked past Noel, to the writhing lattice of insubstantial vines in the night sky. “To think the partner of the Burial Agency’s Bow would be an ordinary soldier… no wonder Margie didn’t bother. Puts a damper on the fun, wouldn’t you say?”

    Cold dread, which had gripped tight the Executor’s heart, met burning anger. A familiar anger. An impotent rage that kept her spirit burning when all else failed. To be outmatched was one thing; she knew her own mediocrity better than anyone else. But to be overlooked this much…

    It brought to mind something a boy had told her.

    “I like you, woman,” Bruno decided. “You’ve got spirit and servility. And intel, perhaps. Become my Nightkin. We treat our spawn well.” He lit another cigarette. “You should know, all the true sons and daughters of the Rozay-en are Lords at least. Anyone who matters is beyond your blade—”

    A trio of stakes flew at the vampire, aimed at the heart, brain, and mouth. Bruno didn’t move a muscle. The metal melted and bubbled and boiled away into droplets before ever reaching him.

    “Nice eyes!”

    Behind the stakes was a black and white blur, spinning towards his neck.

    The vampire raised the index finger of his right hand.

    Steel met flesh and this time it was metal that warped and bent. The shock of having her swing halted sent the halberd flying from Noel’s hands, and her tumbling across the roof.

    “Why, thank you.” Bruno smiled. “Neat parlor trick, no? Ignition is a cut above Flame. The target burns until no more remains. Great for taking out the trash. Rita truly gives the best presents. Now as I said,” he shook his hand, the tiny cut on his finger already healing, “it’s pointless – oh? You did something.” He furrowed his brows, focusing on the strange sensation.

    “Ha… haha…” Noel pushed off the ground, her fingers numb. “Nothing much… just a sacrament that lets you feel pain.”

    “So the maid fancies herself a domina?” The honeyed poison dripping from every word marked him as truly one of Rozay-en’s kin. “Doubtful. I see fear fill your eyes.”

    “Then look again!”

    It was a pointless attack. Both knew it. As Noel charged towards the vampire she raised her hands to shield her head, clutching in each a blade that, in her hands, would inflict little more than scratches. Where had she found the courage to calm her quaking heart? A single memory that resonated over and over again in her mind:

    “Look those rotten bastards in the eye, Executor. Your hatred’s stronger than their hunger.”


    She burst into flames. An invisible wave of magical energy washed over Noel, igniting everything it touched. Irons pressed against every inch of skin, searing her senses. A dull roar gave way to crackling and snapping. Angry light invaded all. She could neither hide nor run. Only scream.

    Bruno watched the fiery form stumble towards him. He sucked in a smoky breath. Not long now. He wouldn’t have to lift another finger.

    The flames whirled, spinning into a spiral. Then they rocketed towards him. Bruno focused his gaze, pumping more magical energy into his eyes. The closer one was, the stronger the effect. Once more, the curtain of fire crumbled into dust before him.

    Behind that curtain were a pair of eyes that promised death.

    Green and red stared at one other. Something foreign stood before him. Something he could neither sense nor comprehend. Bruno acted on reflex. Red flashed emerald green. The next target of his Mystic Eyes was Noel herself.

    Fire filled his field of view once more. Yet it was not she who burned.

    “Wha – what have you done!?

    They were the last comprehensible words he spoke. A moment later the flames that covered his face traveled down his neck and across his body. Eyes boiled in their sockets. Lungs crumpled from the pressure. He grasped at his neck, spasming, feeling every reactivated neuron in his undead shell crying out in pain all at once.

    The Curse of Restoration took effect. Burnt flesh reconstituted itself. Time turned back on charred organs. Yet no matter how far he turned the clock, it didn’t matter; the clock itself was alight, and it faithfully felt every relived moment.

    “AAAAAAAAAAAAAaaaaAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!”


    Before Noel stood an ouroboros of flame. It would not go out any time soon.

    She rubbed at her eyes and winced at the irritation. “God, these suck…”

    Her whole body ached, not just her eyes. Only the combat suit beneath her disguise had protected her from the worst of the burns. She collected her halberd. One edge was ruined. The other would serve.

    What next?

    She looked down. The corridor of light still stood. A dozen people hammered away at the gates on the far side of the lawn. That last barrier, they would have to open themselves. She could not help them; there was a fool in the garden who still needed saving.

    Pushing past the pyre in the shape of a man, Noel retraced her steps to the garden.




    Chapter 7: Heart of Fire
    Last edited by Bloble; September 30th, 2023 at 11:44 PM.

  16. #16
    Fuckin' fire, sir.

  17. #17
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    A lone shadow flitted across the rooftop.

    Pain battered her resolve from outside, and weariness from within. The joy of victory was snuffed out by the groaning of the manor beneath her feet, and a far-away scream of terror.

    How many more would there be? Surely, she hadn’t gone unnoticed. Would they finish off the humans at the gates first, or make a beeline straight for her? How long did she have? Minutes? Even if she reached the garden, what could she do? Introspection offered no answers.

    As she crested a ridge, a familiar and far-off gap in the tile came into view. Ciel would be there, alongside the Ancestor and her sisters. Yet it was not the prospect of returning there that stopped the Executor in her tracks.

    Three well-dressed men stood between Noel and the garden. Two tall and lean, in slim suits, and one hunched, shriveled figure in frayed finery.

    “Your escapade ends here, Executor,” said one vampire.

    “The others play with their food,” continued the other. “We do not.”

    ““So says Father.””

    Within the dull eyes of the Rozay-en patriarch, Noel glimpsed still-smoldering malice.




    “How much do you know about Rozay-en?”

    “She’s the Fifteenth Dead Apostle Ancestor. Her Mystic Eyes can weave illusions, snatch souls, and project memories. And she’s known to control certain plants.”

    “Textbook. If the textbook was a fuckin’ pamphlet. I didn’t ask you about Rita; I asked you about Rozay-en. What do you know about ‘em?”

    “Uh, well… they’re her clan? And they’re known to be related?”

    “Executor, I should – never mind. You’re lucky you’ve already got too much on your plate.”

    “Wouldn’t c-call that lucky… sir.”

    “Ah, shut it. And listen. You’re getting a history lesson.” Bestino poured himself a glass of Classico from a dusty bottle, went to reseal it, paused, and offered a glass to his guest. Noel ignored the glass and took the bottle from his hands. He snorted. “It’s true, huh. A death sentence really does make you braver. That’s coming outta your pay when you get back.”

    He got a nervous nod in reply.

    “Alright, so. Rozay-en. Old family, real old. Been troubling the Aquitaine since Caesar. Empires rose and fell and they didn’t give a damn. Drought missed their vineyards. Peasants were butchered before they could rebel. Battle and politics never took a son or a daughter. See, the Rozay-en had a trick that other nobles didn’t: their heirs were always born with powerful Mystic Eyes.”

    Noel paused mid-sip. “Ah, were they… a magus family?”

    “Not at first. Theirs was a natural blessing, no assembly required. Until one heir learned thaumaturgy alongside horse riding and sword swinging. And that, well… you know how magi are. Bend the rules just a bit and you start thinking you can break them. That’s what the man of the hour concluded. His name’s struck from history now. He’s only known as Lord Rozay-en.”

    She was vaguely familiar. A patriarch who’d turned his whole family into vampires, establishing a dynasty in the underworld. Perhaps the over-strong drink was helping her memory.

    “See,” Mario continued, “he could divine the future, just a bit. His eyes would warn him of dangers to his relatives. When he developed that talent with a little sorcery… we think his foresight showed him his family line cut short, whether by war or guillotine. He wouldn’t’ve liked that very much. If there’s one thing we know for sure about the guy, it’s that family was everything to him. Guy absolutely loved his daughters.”

    “Love?” Noel found herself trembling, and not from the wine. “Vermin can’t know love.”

    The blonde boy across from her gave a wry smile. “You’re not wrong, Sister. There’s no room for altruism in vampiric biology or society. Anything that looks like it is just an imitation. Of course, our guy didn’t get that. One night, he and the entire Rozay-en clan rejected their humanity together.”

    “I knew that much,” Noel muttered. She threw back her head and let the wine wash over her tongue.

    “Tch.” Mario scowled. “Death sentence’s made you too brave. Here’s the important part so listen the fuck up: The entire clan became high-ranking vampires overnight. If you’d paid any attention during training, you’d know that’s not how it works. You can’t just conjure up an army of bloodsuckers that strong out of nowhere. Takes time and luck and bodies to generate anything above Ghouls. Something else was at play. Either he had outside help – not impossible if we involve other Ancestors – or it’s something to do with their family trait.”

    His fingers brushed over a list of twenty seven entries on the desk before him.

    “Old records have our Lord as an Ancestor. Principle: Garden, or Family. But they omit a given name; it’s just Rozay-en. About five hundred years ago it became Rita Rozay-en, and the Principle changed. For the uglier. Hers is… we don’t know for sure, but it’s listed as Flower, or Rose. See where this is going, Sister?”

    For once, she did. A glimmer of understanding came over Noel. “Yes… it’s pathetic.”

    “It’s human to be pathetic,” said Bestino. “However awful this guy was, his daughter’s worse. We have the numbers to prove it.”

    “If – if you say so.” The purpose of the lecture still escaped Noel, and she didn’t feel like pressing the matter. Vampiric family dynamics were irrelevant to her mission, after all.

    “Now!” Mario slammed his palms on the desk and suddenly stood, as if he’d come to the same conclusion. “That’s all I have to say. Enough lectures. I don’t wanna give you a pep talk so I won’t. Go die in a ditch somewhere, you rotten hag.”

    “W-wha!?”

    “And take these with you.” A pair of thick-rimmed glasses slid across the desk. Noel recognized them immediately. How could she not? She’d stared at them up close many times. They brought to mind someone’s long-gone smile.

    “I don’t – I don’t want those!” she sputtered. “Not from you!”

    “Too bad. It’s an order.” Mario grinned. “Now show some fuckin’ gratitude. Mook like you wouldn’t normally get hardware this good, but it turns out these Mystic Eye Slayers only work if you’ve got depth perception.” With a snap of his fingers the glasses warped, turning inside-out until only a pair of contact lenses remained.

    “But I… I don’t even have Mystic Eyes.”

    “Oh, I know,” said Mario. “But they do. Weren’t you listening? The Rozay-en are famous for their Mystic Eyes. I shouldn’t need to tell you about the fucking train full of ‘em. So make yourself useful, will ya?” His smile faded. “Look those bastards in the eye, Executor. Show them your hatred’s stronger than their hunger. Then you might just make it out of this alive.”

    Noel stared at the lenses. It felt all sorts of wrong to be taking from the dead. Or rather, it felt wrong to be taking from him. What would Ciel think?

    “Why are you-.”

    “Hedging my bets,” Mario said. He turned away. “That’s all, Executor.”

    It was even more wrong, that she’d just considered her partner’s feelings. Yet when recalling that doomed young man, Noel couldn’t help but remember his affection as well. He’d given it to the most unforgivable woman on Earth, making her seem like just a girl. Then he’d taken it back, with two steel strokes.

    “…yeah,” Noel said. Her hand left the bottle and reached for the contacts. “Vampires and love just don’t mix.”




    A curved blade sped towards her stomach. A pair of teeth closed around her throat.

    Noel twisted away. The sword ran across the haft of her halberd. Fangs snapped shut around empty air. She fell back, skidding across tile as the vampiric twins stepped forward, preparing to follow-up in perfect sync with one another.

    She’d pushed them back once, twice. A dull ache in her bloodied side and growing numbness down her left hand was the price she'd paid to do so. This time, her strength would certainly fail. Bruno had been playing around. They were warming up.

    The two vampires stood once more next to their patriarch. Thorns pushed out from one man’s knuckles. The other’s sword fractured and bloomed into jagged metal.

    They’d gauged her strength and found it lacking. Noel knew it better than anyone. If she wanted to survive the next ten seconds, only one option remained.

    “L-Lord Rozay-en!” she blurted out. The twins blinked, glanced back at their father. A silent communication passed between them. The decrepit vampire raised his head slightly. She took it as a sign to continue. “Let’s – let’s discuss your daughter.”

    Another pause. And then: “Justify yourself,” said the swordsman, “or perish.”

    “You can’t resist Rita,” Noel said, mind running a mile a minute. “Not with those roots in your skull. But I’m –”

    “An outsider,” said the other twin. “A soon-to-be-corpse.”

    She shivered. Death was closer now than ever. No miracle would save her. Only words. “Would one more Dead matter?” she asked. “Over the chance of regaining your title? Your last chance at it? I’m…” she nearly choked on the words. “I’m not crazy enough to die for no reason. Let me live. I’ll make it worth your while.”

    Neither of the two vampires replied at first. A faint breeze whistled across the roof tiles. Then the thorned one broke out into a mocking smile. “The quality of Executors has waned,” he said. “A pathetic display. You should’ve faced death with dignity.”

    Noel twitched, recoiling as he raised one clenched fist. Yet the blow never came, for the near-mummified Lord’s lips twitched. His throat loosed a dusty old sound that might have been a laugh or a hiss. “Last… chance… you say?” She could scarcely make out his words. It forced her to step closer, narrowing the gap between life and death.

    “You were told…” What were they told? Her thoughts seemed to run in circles. Noel was entirely uncertain, yet some niggling instinct at the back of her mind urged her to look deeper, to grasp at the underlying truth that would set her free. The more she scrambled, the more she was sure of it. “You were told your daughter would extract the Reincarnator’s knowledge from my partner,” she said at last. “B-but you don’t know what she’ll do with it, do you?”

    The old vampire’s laugh grew louder. He shook from the strain, having to be steadied by the others’ hands. “Oh… but we do…” he wheezed. “Aylesbury… the Numerology… to call the Dark Six. Foolish girl. You have… no idea.”

    “N-no!” She cried as the twins readied their weapons once more. “That’s not why she wants him!”

    The two vampires paused.

    The Lord was still.

    All three, awaiting an answer she did not have.

    Yet there, on the precipice at edge of knowledge, where the certainty of fact ended and the vagueness of memory began, was exactly what she had been searching for.

    “Lord Rozay-en, look at what’s to come,” Noel began. She composed the words carefully, one by one, knowing they might be her last. “You know who’s in your daughter’s heart, and who isn’t. The snake knows the magic words to let a single sinner inherit the entire garden. And I… I know what it looks like when love isn’t enough to save someone.”

    She glimpsed it, reflected in the crippled monster’s eyes. A scene of slaughter that sent a shudder through them both.

    Lord Rozay-en bowed his head and choked out one word: “Go.”

    Then he was gone, and only she and the garden remained.




    The garden had changed. Before, it had been all roses. Now it was all thorns.

    A mass of weaving vines – and the rare flower – sprang from the bloodstained earth and engulfed everything in the courtyard. Thorny creepers slid up the walls, inexorably advancing outwards. If one had approached from inside, they’d have seen the corridor slowly swallowed up. Those foolish enough to try to fight through the vines would be torn apart and processed as nourishment.

    Between momentary gaps in the greenery shone a pale light. To the onlooker above it was a fearful, unknown light. Those familiar recognized it for what it was: the light of a Principle made manifest, of a soul’s garden blooming into reality, with the vines serving to stabilize its border.

    Inside, nostalgia became truth. From the stored annals of memory, a world was born.

    Within the garden were four ladies and a puppet.

    Courtly dame, noble belle, and dignified femme sat at a small table, splitting between each other a pot of steaming tea. Yet none drank; they merely held their cups without expression, like mannequins posed for painting. Their chests glowed red and pulsed like reflections of one heart, a single beat coming every second on the dot. They were the audience, tucked away, encased in a thorny shell near the courtyard entrance, contributing applause to the final act of a sordid story.

    Within the rest of the courtyard there were no vines, no flowers, no plants at all.

    There was only a desolate chamber, deep underground. High pillars holding up a distant ceiling. A crude stone sarcophagus at the center, bathed in moonlight from the aperture above.

    Ciel remembered it well, though the memory was another’s. Everywhere else had been explored. The depths of her mind and memory had been ransacked. She’d relived childhood embarrassments and horrifying traumas and worst of all, the fleeting moments of happiness before it had all come crashing down. Yet this one coffin had, until now, refused to open.

    “You won’t gain anything,” Ciel said, as the Rose Princess stepped towards the coffin. “He planned for this.” Gleaming barriers of numbers and angles, made real by the vampire’s eyes, had previously rebuffed her. Now they crumbled before the Ancestor, whose steps sent ripples through stone.

    Rita paused. Looked back. The vampire had shed her earthly form, blooming red, resembling a mythological dryad more than a predator. Yet Ciel was the same as always: a small girl with one arm and one eye, insubstantial and ghostly compared to the chamber and the vampire, only able to speak because that right had yet to be revoked.

    “I have seen all there is,” Rita declared, “of Elesia and Yumi and Ciel.” Her eyes narrowed, lazy satisfaction slipped, revealing bared fangs and sheer scorn. “One word suffices for her: Pathetic.”

    Ciel said nothing.

    “Placing a lash in handmaid’s hands,” Rita continued. “Seeking refuge in persecution.” Moonlight shuddered and bent as Rita scowled. “Masochist,” she hissed. “Coward. Be despised, then, since you wish it.”

    “Take my soul,” Ciel replied dispassionately, “if it irritates you so.”

    “Never,” the Ancestor swore. Her malice hung in the air, a far cry from her usual good humour. “There’s no place for such filth in my garden. I’ve kept and tasted hundreds, thousands of ornaments. Never have I seen such a twisted soul. Only the Church could tolerate it.”

    Her scowl softened. The royal veneer returned. “Yet I’ve need of the key that unlocks the snake’s secrets. Perish after.”

    Once more, just like the first time, just like with him, just like before, Ciel could only watch.

    The Lady stepped forward. The snake’s final barrier shattered in a burst of flower petals. Only the coffin remained. Rita placed a hand upon the lid, dug fingers into stone as if it were putty, and flung the lid aside, where it tumbled into darkness.

    She blinked. The coffin was empty.

    She blinked. The chamber’s grey stone was now white marble.

    She blinked. Pillars became massive statues, likenesses she did not recognize.

    She turned. A pale hand closed around her throat.

    “Ah.”

    Lightning coursed through her body. Sparks burst behind her optic nerve. In an instant the lady was seared from the inside out, all while the fingers on her neck tightened, lifting her into the air.

    “Proud of her success, the foolish girl forsook her guide
    ,” spoke a man. “Bold in vanity, she soared as if to touch the skies.”

    Wind blew in the enclosed space. A breeze laden with sweet scent surrounded the twitching vampire.

    “But as she neared the sun, its heat melted the flesh from her bones.”


    She was flung aside, into one of the stone pillars. It cracked and crumbled, arresting her flight.

    “With no more petals to sustain her façade, the rootless girl called her father’s name, and was buried in the cold, dead earth.”


    Rita pulled herself up, dusty but unhurt. The wound to her pride had been worse.

    “You would be so stubborn.” She scowled once more. “Even in death.”

    Especially in death,” crowed the man standing before her. “You really shouldn’t have opened it. But now that you did…” he gave a deep, elaborate bow. “Thank you so much, Rose Princess. I’m going to use you now.”

    “Oho… just try it, snake.” Not a trace of fear decorated Rita’s features: only amusement. “No, you are less than that. A spell wearing cast-off skin. You can only resist and then fade.”

    The Serpent of Akasha gleefully adjusted his glasses. “Perhaps. This self is an ephemeral dream. Yet what is Principle, if not dream made manifest?” He gestured to the chamber; the garden made real. “There was one theory I refrained from personally testing,” he explained, “to avoid earning its subjects’ ire. But when such a perfect opportunity arises, I’ll not pass it up.”

    She sneered. “I never much liked you anyway.” Behind her, the ruined pillar unraveled into verdant creepers.

    He pulled a pocket knife from within his school jacket, flipping it into a reverse grip. Pale fingers fused to the handle. Glasses were cast aside. Mad blue glowed within his eyes.

    “Give it to me,” Roa commanded. “I’ll have your Idea Blood.”

    Rita spread her arms. A spring-laden storm swirled about her, shuddering in anticipation. “Take it if you can!”

    Ciel, alone in the beam of moonlight, silently observed the proceedings.

    As did Noel, standing far above.




    Chapter 8: Love Speaks Softly / Modularity of Mind
    Last edited by Bloble; October 19th, 2023 at 09:03 PM.

  18. #18
    I've already given my firsthand comments to you; I remain impressed by your equipoise of gripping action and tantalising insinuation. This read around I also realised the symmetry of Ouroboros Mike appearing once more with a knife glued to his hand. It's starting to feel like proper squeaky bum time.

  19. #19
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    In a locked room on the top floor of the east wing of the Rozay-en manor hangs a painting. It sits among many others, each more gruesome than the last. They can be nothing else, for the Eyes of Roses perceive death in their own way, and their bearer may never be blind to it.

    This painting differs from the rest. It’s small, square. Watercolour and pencil. Nestled in an unassuming frame in a dim corner, visible only by moonlight. Its creator does not wish its existence known. Yet she can neither destroy nor hide it; that would be a betrayal.

    The painting depicts a clear night. The moon is new; a carpet of stars illuminates each inch. Within a garden whose greens and reds outshine the sky and whose flowers bear no thorns, sit two girls at a table. Between them are eclairs and macarons and mille-feuille and a steaming teapot and books and baubles and half-woven garlands. The girls look like they have just stopped laughing. Their hands are entwined. Their eyes are closed. They rest against each other as if sleeping. There exist no others in that painted world. The garden fits two corpses, and no more.

    The painting is the first one she ever made. Even as she and her tastes degenerate, she still returns to this picture every night, searching within for the answer to a child’s question.

    She hasn’t viewed the painting tonight. It was seen, instead, by another.

    It doesn’t matter, she thinks. She will be one of the girls in that painting one day, and together with her friend she will find rest.

    But her friend is away, at the bottom of the ocean. Too far to arrive and honour their promise. Thus, she feels no trepidation; the Rose Prophetess already knows this is not her time of dying.




    One step took the boy halfway across the room. Another had him in striking distance.

    Black and silver filled her vision. A knife’s blade leapt for her eyes. He was there, approaching her space, poised to bring death.

    She met the eyes of the blade’s wielder and smiled, making no move to avoid it.

    “…tch!”

    The boy halted, shifted his gravitational axis in an instant, and launched himself back as a mass of vines thrust through the marble floor. He landed, stumbled against a far-off pillar for support, trailing red from the ragged stump at the end of his left leg.

    “What’s this?” Rita smiled. “Trepidation? Most unlike you.” All around her, vines swayed to an absent breeze or inaudible rhythm. She sat back, vines coalescing beneath her to form a lounging chair. “Well, do take your time. The moon is only half awake yet.”

    “We’re both unlike ourselves tonight.” Roa replied, his foot slowly – too slowly – reverting to a usable state. “When did the princess overcome her fear of death?”

    “Long before your rediscovered yours.”

    His palm slammed into marble, sending cracks through the pillar. Fingers curled into a fist. As the tiles around Roa rose atop onyx shadows his blade flashed once, twice, thrice, and then he was buried in living darkness.

    A thundercrack washed over the room. The ceiling shook. The moonlight wavered. A beam of searing light blasted apart the thorny prison from within, and through it emerged a figure whose wrathful visage exuded crackling static. “Then I’ll make you remember!” he crowed, flinging his fingers forward, letting lightning leap towards the lazing noblewoman.

    Her outstretched arm caught the blinding light and flung it aside, leaving naught but numbness in her fingers. When Rita lowered her hand she saw no boy. Only Ciel, standing obediently by a distant pillar, imprisoned in memory. The chamber was silent, save for the rustling of greenery.

    “Is this how you’ll do it, snakeskin?” She pondered the moment. “Not by battle, but by a children’s game?” The princess was unperturbed. She closed her eyes and stretched out her senses. Vines writhed and squirmed across the floor like snakes, searching for the one actual serpent among them. “Then you had better play well.”

    The vines spread over every inch of ground and sensed nothing – besides Ciel, who could not move a muscle. She sent them crawling up the pillars, staining the white chamber black. Still nothing. Her foe had become an imperceptible ghost. Yet if Rita was nervous, she did not show it. The ceiling was next. The arches darkened, one by one by one by – there.

    He clung to the stone far above like a bat, with only his knife arm hanging loose. As Rita cast her gaze upwards and met the smile of a man ignorant of how cornered he was.

    The vines leapt towards him and scattered against the air. A runic circle carved into stone lit up around his legs, crackling with lightning that stung and rebuffed encroaching feelers. Laughing, Roa released his hand, hanging now by his legs as he stared down at Rita. His knife hung over her head like the sword of Damocles.

    Vines probed at the perimeter of the circle and found no weaknesses.

    She scoffed.

    The vampiric plants changed their approach. They tunneled into the ceiling around the circle, digging above and around. His footing cracked and began to crumble.

    “Hmph!” The spell, once muttered under his breath, was now proclaimed in six Latin syllables. The dagger narrowed and lengthened into a shining saber, strengthened by sacrament.

    Just as his last refuge collapsed, he kicked off the roof. All around him was ravenous darkness. The vampire, falling, flying to his foe, was hungrier still.

    There was no stopping him. No hidden angles to attack from. All the plants that barred his way were sliced apart in an instant by movements more fit for an assassin than a madman. The Rose Princess could only meet death head-on.

    She flung forth her hand, a last desperate defense. The blade flashed through her arm at the elbow and all feeling vanished below it.

    Then he was before her. The blade buried itself in her stomach and pins and needles perforated her from every angle. The seat of vines collapsed and then she was on her back with the boy straddling her waist, devouring her with his gaze.

    “Give it to me,” he said. “Or it’s your other limbs.”

    “No.”

    With a growl he grabbed her other wrist and slammed it into the ground. Then he opened his maw wide and went for her neck.

    Something shifted. Steel wire wrapped around his throat and snapped his jaw shut. His mouth was shoved upwards and missed its target.

    The boy found himself locking lips with the woman he wished dead. Staring into her eyes like flowers. Feeling her fingers (hadn’t he sliced that hand off?) running through his hair and her nails digging into the back of his skull and piercing into his brain. His body would not move. His joints had been bound in place. He tried to shift his knife hand and felt warm feelers creep out from the flesh he’d pierced, wrapping around his arm. He struggled, calling on all his mad strength, and could muster no more than a muffled protest as a long tongue ran across his teeth.

    She kept him close until she finally glimpsed in his eyes what she had been looking for: uncertainty, anger, and disgust. Then she pushed him away, breaking the bloody kiss. They both floated up, carried by vines that now enveloped the entire room in black.

    “My, my, how disappointing.” Rita licked her lips. “No appeal as a man. No restraint and no class, shuddering like a boy at unexpected touch.” She was unbound. Her severed limb was already restored. “I’d thought, perhaps, that Elesia and the True Ancestor brat saw something special in you,” she tittered, holding a finger to her lips, “but to think they simply had poor taste!”

    “How did-?”

    “What, this?” She traced around the hole in her stomach as his words died from a crushed windpipe. The trio of thin tendrils that had seized his sword arm withdrew into Rita’s stomach with a sickening slurp as the wound sealed shut. “How unlike the Serpent, to ask what he already knows.” Vines dug into his skin, slowly, deliberately. “That appearance is her last memory of you, but your manner and abilities are her last memory as you. Death is invisible to you, snakeskin. Your struggle served no purpose except to entertain me. Now,” she beckoned with a single finger as her once-haughty opponent’s struggling grew increasingly panicked. “Your secrets. Your despair. Your memories.”

    “You cannot hold me-!”

    Her eyes bored into his. Pink rose petals blew through the dark chamber on a nonexistent breeze, filling his vision with flowers. His struggles weakened, and then he went limp.

    “We start with agelessness,” Rita’s voice had a distant quality to it now. She was both there and elsewhere. “A fine bargaining chip to make Laurentis dance…”

    The vines deposited them both on the ground, receding slowly from the chamber. They loosened only slightly for Roa, holding him still in case of an impossible revival. Cluttered desks and bookshelves and delicate contraptions appeared where the sarcophagus had once been. Tall tubes filled with reddish liquid, holding indiscernible lumps of flesh. The moon’s light had dimmed, not from a change in scenery but because thick clouds had blanketed the sky, as if summoned by what was taking place in the garden.

    “A dead end,” Rita said softly. “Stopgap at best, to his curse. Dull.” She ran a finger down his cheek. “Let’s go back further. Show me inheritance. How did that girl harbor Idea Blood? How did she take it? How would you have taken it from me, given the chance?”

    The furniture and research dissolved as dust, reforming as a long table, upon it an unfurled scroll spanning the entire length. Scribbles traveled from one end to the other, interspersed with diagrams and symbols that could not be easily made out, nor understood. Memory was hers, yet understanding would take time. Unless she used an interpreter.

    “Elesia!” Rita commanded. “Before me!” Her giddy voice rang through the vast chamber.

    But nobody came.

    She turned away from Roa, scanning the room with her eyes. Her prisoner was nowhere to be seen. Nor felt by the vines squirming beneath every surface. At some point she had vanished.

    It was impossible for the girl to free herself from the Rose Eyes. Roa had not touched her. That left only one possibility.

    The partner,” she snarled.




    “Come on, come on, wake up already…”

    The barrier was cramped and claustrophobic. Stakes had been planted into the ground in a triangle. Between them stretched wavering curtains of pale moonlight, scarcely bright enough to create shadows. Behind the curtains were two women. One, on her knees, cradled the other. Noel could no longer summon the strength of a cathedral; she had only enough for a quiet confessional.

    All around the barrier black vines wriggled like earthworms, feeling about for anything out of the ordinary. The curtains warded off the vines and provided privacy and quiet to those within, but would not stand up to direct scrutiny. They were on borrowed time.

    That was perhaps why Noel shook her unresponsive partner by the shoulders with more force than necessary, and also why she’d struck Ciel’s cheeks several times with both sides of the hand until they shined bright red. Neither attempt to wake the sleeping beauty had shown any success, and she was not about to try a kiss next.

    “Why do you have to be so difficult?” she whispered as loud as she dared. “God, you’re the worst!”

    Noel herself couldn’t say why she’d chosen this moment to jump through the aperture in the chamber’s roof. If she had waited, perhaps a better opportunity would have appeared. She had no way of actually leaving, let alone with an invalid in tow, and neither could she stand up to any of the vampires in the garden in a straight fight. Yet she’d found herself there nonetheless, and as soon as Rita lost interest in her repulsive distraction, Noel would find herself six feet under.

    She tried a nicer approach next: “Come on, please wake up? With sugar on top?”

    Ciel did not stir. Her eyes were half-closed and unfocused. Noel bit back a curse.

    What did she know about the Rose Eyes’ hypnosis? Manipulation of memory and souls, and not much more. Ciel’s soul couldn’t be trapped in those eyes, or else there would be no need to keep her body alive. She had to be in there, somehow, bound by mental chains. Noel’s knowledge ended there. She could only go by instinct and feeling now. Except her only feelings towards her partner were unpleasant at best.

    “Can you even hear me in there? Am I talking to a brick wall? Give me something.”

    No reply. She could try shouting next, but dared not risk it, even with the barrier’s sound-dampening effect. The panic in the pit of her stomach grew and pressed against the inside of her lungs. She wanted to scream. Instead, she balled up her fingers in a fist and stifled herself.

    The vines outside intensified their search. Several brushed against the curtains of light and turned away only at the last moment. Noel shivered. Soon the Rose Princess would notice the tiny gap in her sixth sense. What next? What could be done before that?

    “I’m sure it’s hard in there.” She tried a different tack. “But you’ve – I mean, we’ve been through worse, right? This is nothing. Just shake it off like you always do. I have faith in you, p-partner!”

    The insincere compliments succeeded only in bringing an embarrassed flush to Noel’s cheeks.

    “Okay, maybe not… but you know who else is here, right?” She dropped her voice. “Roa. She pulled him right out of our nightmares, Ciel.” If encouragement didn’t work, how about fury? An ever-burning fury that could even wake the dead. “Think of all he’s done to us. Think of who he took from us! Think of everything you’ve wished you could do to him every single day. He’s right there alongside Rozay-en. She was there too, remember? Laughing. She’s still laughing at us.”

    Once more, no response. Just a glassy stare straight ahead, indifferently taking it all in. The promise of vengeance had kept Noel going with one foot in the grave. Yet it did not move her partner. Of course it wouldn’t; that monster had not once fought for revenge.

    “Then – then let’s pray. The word of the Lord – oh who am I kidding. Neither of us actually believe that crap.”

    There was nothing left. No strategy she could think of. Just a monster closing in and the end of the line drawing closer and closer.

    “Ugh…” Here she was, burnt and tired and scared, and Ciel was in pristine condition being treated like royalty. Staring at her partner’s face forced Noel to remember everything she despised about the girl. “I hate you so much…” she said, blinking away tears. “You’re the reason we’re in this mess! You had so many chances…”

    The click of heels reached Noel’s ears. Rita was pacing about. The chamber was not large. It would be soon.

    “You’ve had every chance in the world. Chances they never got!” Noel hissed as she pounded at Ciel’s chest, feeling desperation taking hold. The girl splayed out across the cold marble floor like a broken doll. “You never changed. Ever since then. You never apologized. Never got mad. Never cried, never fought back. Not once! What am I supposed to do with that!?”

    The barrier creaked and groaned. The vines covering the floor were a carpet now. There was no escaping, even if she left behind the monster she’d come to save. Death was footsteps away.

    “Everyone bought it. The Church, the students, everyone.” Noel trembled, speaking between gasps as she rested her head on Ciel’s chest. “Even – even Tohno. But I never trusted you. Never. I know the truth: you wanted to drag me into it, you bitch. Drag me into your suicide by vampire. Because I never let you forget who you are.”

    Had she gone mad? Her words had long since stopped making sense. Rather than waking up Ciel, she’d submerged herself in despair. The fear of death, the hatred towards herself and her partner and every undead in France, had forced out feelings without logic. Just like that her anger died, leaving her numb and heavy.

    “I – I feel sorry for him,” Noel muttered. She pulled herself to her feet, cheeks wet as she glared at the fallen warrior. “He thought – he thought you were somebody. He thought he was somebody. But he was just Roa in the end. Just another vampire…” She rubbed at her eyes with a sleeve and sniffled. “He told me… he told me, y’know… that you saved him. Told him a bunch of nonsense about forgiveness… like you could ever save anyone. Couldn’t save him. Couldn’t save me. Can’t even save yourself.”

    Was there something worth protecting at her feet? Or was it just a monster? If a broken girl vanished from the earth, would anyone miss her? What about if the woman called Noel vanished? Who would stand by her grave, holding back tears?

    There was no one else.

    “But I…”

    “Ah, there you are.


    The barrier vanished, scattered by a rotten breeze.

    Dead air invaded Noel’s lungs. Dead air and the overdone smell of roses.

    “The maid? Really?” Each step Rita took towards them echoed through the hall, bringing with it a pang of panic. “What nerve it must have taken to serve your nemeses. Yet you’ve lost that nerve by now, haven’t you?” She folded her arms and raised her chin, offering the girls a pitying gaze. “Dry your tears,” she said. “I grant you that courtesy.”

    Noel’s fingers tightened around her mangled weapon. She shook her head.

    “Just make it quick,” she said.

    “No.”

    A flick of a finger sent a hundred vines towards her. They fell upon the tired Executor, promising to turn her nightmares into reality.

    “Ciel!” came Noel’s last cry. “I’m sorry-”

    Her world turned black.




    There was no body beneath the gravestone. Only a name etched into grey slate, and a single black rose left there.

    Snowflakes slowly spiraled from the stony sky, melting against the cool grave. Fall had been short that year; the still green grass and leaves wore frosty shells.

    The two women standing before the grave were the last allowed a visit, after sister, teacher, and friend. Noel shifted her weight from one foot to another, still restless from the sharp looks she’d weathered from the others, feeling the evening chill climb up her legs. The sight of the name on the stone wouldn’t allow her to relax. It should have been a different name. If only it were the name of a monster rather than a man. She averted her eyes from it, towards her partner.

    Ciel was not much better. She stood and stared, stiff as a corpse. Noel considered herself an apt reader of the other woman’s mood, but that pride crumbled before a motionless façade. It was even more unnerving than the empty grave.

    Noel sighed. No way out but through, then. Some people just needed an example. She knelt down by the grave and placed a hand upon it. Her breath frosted in the cold.

    “Sorry, Tohno-kun,” she said. “I’ll remember you as who you were, not who you became. Being your sensei was fun.”

    She rose, leaving behind a warm palm-print. He had reminded her of someone. Another boy who’d been trusted and betrayed that trust. Now Ciel too resembled – no, no one at all.

    “Well?” she reminded Ciel. “Go on,” Noel said, almost gently.

    Ciel’s mouth hung open. Her brows furrowed. Eyelashes fluttered. “I…” She swallowed whatever had nearly burst out of her. “No. I have nothing to say.”

    “…nothing?” Frustration found its way into Noel’s eyes. The hand that had been reaching for her partner’s shoulder instead curled into a fist. “That’s not true. Say it.”

    But Ciel merely shook her head.

    Noel clicked her tongue. “Then we’re done here,” she spat. “It’s empty, after all.”

    She turned away, leaving Ciel on her own by the grave. Noel hoped, as she left, that she would hear something behind her besides the crunching of boots through snow.

    But there was nothing. Her world had stopped turning.




    One moment the woman stood straight and true. Her eyes stared into the distance, seeing something that had yet to be. Timeless, if only for an eternal instant.

    The next moment, eighty tons of solid stone slammed into her side, sandwiching her between one column that stood and another that had somehow traversed the chamber’s diameter under its own power.

    The plant matter that had nearly torn Noel to bits spasmed, twitched, lost all coordination, and crumbled into shadows.

    “Huh?”

    Noel was stunned into a stupor by the sight of a vampiress pinned between columns, with only a twitching arm to signify her inevitable recovery. Then a familiar face emerged from behind another pillar. Her stomach twisted itself into a knot.

    “Oh, quit your gawking,” said Roa, “and get out of my sight.”

    “…huh?”

    Rita’s free hand twitched again, grasped at the air. The boy scoffed at the sight of Noel dumbstruck. “Given up, have you? Perhaps you’d like to go the way of your father, compressed into a light snack under a star’s gravitational field.”

    That did the trick. Noel’s dumbstruck face twisted under the weight of the hatred that came rushing through her.

    She charged, brandishing her halberd and howling curses like a banshee, and was entirely unprepared when a wave of force blasted her away from the man who’d destroyed her life. A soft body arrested her landing. Ciel, still comatose as ever.

    “Save yourself the effort.” He spread his arms, revealing unharmed flesh beneath his tattered school uniform. “The one you seek is dead. You missed your chance. Now do as you’re told.”

    “I’ll never let you go-!”

    A great groaning and grinding drowned out the rest of Noel’s curse. A new set of black vines wriggled out from beneath the two columns. They pushed, probed, drilled into the stone, searching for weakness and quick to find it. Cracks ran up and down the marble in all directions, and a muffled screech resounded beneath it.

    “Hmph.” He sneered. “She’s invincible here, in the heart of her power. Take Elesia and leave, Executor. This is the chance you prayed for.”

    Noel wavered, doubt making itself known. The man she hated most was dead, yet now stood here, wearing a friend’s face. But no Roa would ever help her.

    “Don’t misunderstand,” he said, as if reading her mind. “So long as that spare shell survives, I might be restored. If you want to stop me, either kill her now or watch her for as long as you live.”

    The pillar cracked and crumbled. Vines lashed out blindly towards the sound of the boy’s voice. His blade hand flashed and they fell apart before reaching him. Where one fell, two more appeared.

    “Choose!” he bellowed. “Kill me or save her; or die as half-heartedly as you’ve lived!”

    Marble was sent flying. The creature that emerged was more plant than woman. Her mouth unfolded, rows of thorns where teeth should have been. The whites of her eyes bore a green tinge. Pale roots pulled skin and bone together in tandem with the Curse of Restoration. Slighted and set back one too many times, she abandoned decorum and embraced her inhuman truth.

    The rose beast took one step and stiffened as the ground beneath her erupted in light. Electricity surged through the woman-monster. An acrid scent assaulted Noel.

    The smell woke her from her stupor. She did not even need to consider her answer. But a problem remained: “I – I can’t. The skylight’s too far up. We’re too heavy-”

    “Are you daft, woman!?” He was already before Rita, saber arcing through her chest. She ignored half her body withering into nothing; fresh plant matter surged from the other half and wrapped around Roa, wringing his sword arm like a wet towel. She relented only when a sphere of black light flashed between them, thrusting them apart in opposite directions by gravitational pull alone. Feelers sprouted from her shoulders, catching onto nearby pillars to arrest her flight. Roa had less luck; he collapsed hard against a column. “Ugh – the sacrament, fool! The one you use for-”

    Three holes opened up in his left lung, right knee, and forehead. Cracks spiderwebbed through the pillar behind him. The light in his eyes went out.

    A smoking seed pod had grown from the shoulder of the monster clawing her way out of the shadows. Already it regenerated, turning its next payload towards Noel.

    Roa's open hand twitched, fingers crackling with red energy.

    A rock from the ruined pillar flew at Rita’s head. She barely noticed. Ten more slammed into her back in quick succession. They did nothing more than disrupt her aim. She glanced back for but an instant to gauge whether another barrage would come. In that moment an orb of light, charged with arcing electricity and flung forth by Roa’s unsteady hand, sank into her body. She bellowed furiously at the familiar sensation of scrambled senses and momentary paralysis.

    Noel ran past her, clutching Ciel, muttering prayers through clenched teeth.

    “There’s no escape!”
    came the roar nipping at her heels. She paid no mind to it.

    The stormy skylight loomed overhead, over a hundred feet up. Noel could not leap half that distance on a good day. Yet she charged with reckless abandon, light as a feather. She tensed her legs, took aim, and pushed off the ground with all her strength.

    Noel flew as she never had before. Gravity had no hold on her, nor on Ciel.

    Not once had she considered applying her weight reduction sacrament to the human body. The texts had said it could not be done. Fool that she was, she had believed them. Now she soared. The aperture grew larger. Her estimate had been on the mark. They would sail right through. She did not notice the red sparks dancing about the soles of her shoes.

    She did, however, feel a great warmth behind her. A beast leaping up to seize its escaping prey.

    Something slipped around her foot. With a jolt she came to a sudden stop, inches from the aperture. Ciel flew from her hands, tumbling through the hole, and Noel instinctively thrust her halberd forward, hooking its mangled end onto the lip of the exit as the grip around her ankle tightened, eliciting a pained shriek.

    “No… not like this…!”

    Just like the painting. She would not escape this garden.

    The incessant weight only grew, moment by moment, dragging her down. Noel fumbled for a Black Key, only to remember she’d used them all up. Then came a pull stronger than all the others, a wrenching that twisted flesh and bone, followed by an inaudible command from below. She held onto the creaking and groaning halberd with both hands, slowly sliding down its slick length, desperation fueling a hidden wellspring of soon-to-fail strength.

    And then the weight was gone. Her leg was free. Noel pulled as hard as she could and sailed through the opening, leaving the Rose Garden for good.

    Down below, the two vampires landed simultaneously in the dark. The edge of Roa’s sword sizzled from where he’d sliced through the vine. Rita’s monstrous appendages slowly receded. Her body returned to its proper shape, though an inhuman scowl remained.

    “Disgrace,” she cursed him.

    “Hardly.” Now he was the champion, and she the challenger. “Just hedging my bets.”

    “You’re a Dead Apostle!” The strength of her shout attested to the pride she held in that identity. “A superior being who trampled thousands of vermin!”

    “No; I am memory made manifest.” The boy raised his blade once more. He was calmer now. Softer, almost. “You’d have known if you paid attention, princess of self-love: She never forgot the look on his face. When he had his knife to her throat, poised for the kill, and instead begged her to live on without him. She dreams of it every night, wishing she could have spared him the anguish. You, whose world holds only herself, could never have realized it.”

    The lady’s eyes blazed red. Rose petals swirled in his peripheral vision. He ignored them, smirking. “Is that all? Do try again. Take the soul of a soulless spell.”

    None had ever seen the Rose Princess so furious and lived. “I can end you in an instant,” she promised.

    “By all means,” Roa said, uncowed. “Break your connection to her. This place and I will vanish – and she will wake. Your wish will vanish. You will never be alone.”

    “Serpent…!”

    Darkness filled the room once more. The black vines wriggled free of every surface in the garden. She was out for blood now, and no compulsion to entertain herself would interfere. No escape remained. No victory. Only repeated deaths and battles against impossible odds.

    “Hm. Round two it is.”

    Just the way he liked it.




    Chapter 9: Thanks for the Memories
    Last edited by Bloble; November 4th, 2023 at 11:18 AM.

  20. #20
    Vlovle Bloble's Avatar
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    No shadows flitted across the rooftop.

    None could, for the storm had arrived. Thick clouds choked the moon. Flurries of wind and a ceaseless barrage of rain exploded against the roof tiles. Lightning intruded at odd intervals, lighting up the black only briefly. The night was barely navigable.

    Yet navigate it they did. The two shadows did not flit across the rooftop; one staggered, limped, tripped, and eked out a painfully slow and unsteady advance whilst carrying the other. Her flashlight could have cut through the dark, yet she dared not risk drawing attention, not when the storm perfectly covered their escape. For that same reason she chose not to travel through the manor itself. Instead, she hobbled along in the direction she’d guessed led towards the exit. With visibility so poor that she could barely see her own feet, it would be impossible to tell until the last moment.

    It hadn’t taken Noel long to take heed after finding herself breathing fresh – if damp – air once more. She harbored no more illusions of waking her partner and staging a counterattack; the death of any major member of the Rozay-en family would have been long-since foreseen. The mere act of going for the kill would damn them both. But if they could just get to the gate, get out somehow, that would be enough. She spared no other thought for the future. The part of her that panicked and whined had gone quiet, as if it too had been left behind.

    Noel dove blindly into the rain with Ciel thrown over her shoulder in a firefighter’s carry, feeling the chill soak into her clothes. Soon she would be shivering, and not just from abject terror. Then extremities would start to go numb, and she could forget fight and flight.

    Was she even going the right way? Everywhere seemed the same: sharp, slippery black dunes and trenches all around. She’d set off on the correct line, but the rain could have easily spun her around. With her senses rendered useless, all she could trust was the visceral terror in the back of her mind that waxed and waned seemingly of its own will. If the fear grew, she was headed the wrong way. If it diminished, she’d march onwards.

    Noel had almost found peace in her toil when her next step landed on empty air and sent her careening over the edge of the roof. She was slow to react – but not too slow to twist in the air blindly grab for the roof. The edge of a sharp rain gutter dug into her palm as her mangled weapon fell into the black below. The storm swallowed up her pained hiss.

    Had she not been lightened by litany, she would’ve found it impossible to hold on. Instead, Noel hung there for a hundred heartbeats, just breathing, sheltered under the eave. She came to a decision, hugged Ciel close to her chest, and let go.

    The fall took longer than it should have. Winds pushed them back up, nearly sending the unweighted women flying. But eventually Noel smoothly splashed down onto mud and grass. Then panic seized her.

    What if someone had felt that? The outer garden was a defense mechanism. Every last blade of grass was under Rozay-en influence. But surely the rain would cover her, right? Surely their reduced weight would not register as that of a person, right?

    She could not be sure of anything – except the dread running down her back. So she drove forward once more, pushing away from the manor.

    Almost immediately Noel tripped over a charred corpse. One of the Dead her barrier had caught. As sure a sign as any that she was headed the right way. She trudged on through what quickly became a sea of burnt bodies, thick with the musty smell of wet ash. She would have been easy prey for any surviving ghouls, yet there were none. The church barrier into which she’d poured most of her strength had held fast and faded last.

    When she felt stone under her feet, Noel knew she had found the path. She followed it blindly as it led her away from the manor. The uneasy buzzing behind her ears dimmed.

    Soon she stood before the gate to the curtain wall. The final barrier, one she’d been unable to overcome. Last she saw it, there had been human hands pounding upon the merciless black iron. She expected and feared to see bodies piled up around it.

    It was wide open.

    She almost didn’t believe it. Her eyes were playing tricks. An illusion of desire, surely.

    A flash of lightning disproved Noel’s disbelief. The gate wasn’t just open; it had been rent asunder. One door peeked out of the mud. The other hung from a single hinge. Sitting in the muck between them was a familiar assembly of twisted wood and metal, one she’d thought captured.

    “The Seventh Scripture?” She could hardly hear her own hushed words. “Who could’ve…?”

    No answer came forth. The downpour washed away any tracks to or from the gate, as well as Noel’s will to investigate. She stared for several moments, before a shiver down her neck drove her back into action.

    The Scripture either resisted her usual lightening sacrament, or else she had become so weakened as to be incapable of administering it properly. She tried and failed twice before the load lightened to the point where she could lift it from the mud with one hand. In its place she left her halberd.

    Her exit was unimpeded. Neither vampire nor twisted tendril lunged at her from the darkness. Rita was nowhere to be seen. Perhaps she was still in the garden. Noel continued her numb advance, losing herself in the act of dragging one foot before the other, until she realized with a gasp that the rain was no longer beating on her back, but instead on the leaves of the trees overhead. She had reached the forest.

    Elation lasted all of five seconds. Then she walked face-first into a tree and staggered, swearing and sputtering. The going would only be slower now that there was no path. It would be nearly impossible to find the remnants of their temporary base camp in the dark, let alone the Vespa they’d carefully camouflaged.

    Would she wait until the storm cleared? Until morning? Was it time to risk the flashlight again? No. She had to make for the highway on the other side of the woods and put as much distance between herself and the Chateau as possible. It would be a nonstop walk from here, even though she was tired, in pain, and soaked to the bone.

    “…maybe a quick stop.”

    After several close encounters with low-hanging branches, the breeze from above grew stronger. The weak night vision Noel had developed showed a small clearing, bisected by a fallen tree trunk. It was as good a place as any.

    Noel set Ciel down first, laying her against the trunk with the Seventh Holy Scripture at her side. Then she blindly fumbled for her pockets, pried one open with stiff fingers, and withdrew from it a tightly folded plastic bag containing a dozen small tablets and pills, many of which had been crushed into powder. She tore it open and felt through the bag, identifying them by touch, picking out one, two, three tablets-

    “Ooo-hoo. Combat stimulants? Didn’t think you still used those.”

    The Executor gave a very un-Executor-like squeak and nearly dropped the bag entirely. She clutched her arms tight to her chest and threw her gaze all about, finding no source to the words she’d just heard.

    “No, no, don’t stop on my behalf. I’m curious to see what you have – oh my, is that what I think it is?” The strange voice that had cut right through the rain was pleased by its discovery. “Why, I never expected the Church to recreate D-IX. That’s certainly one way to get the heart pumping!”

    It came from nowhere and no one. The cheery voice had no accent and spoke in a high-pitched timbre that resembled nothing she’d heard from a member of the Rozay-en family. Noel slid a hand across the tree trunk, reaching for where Ciel kept her Black Keys.

    “There’s no need to fight,” said the voice. “I’m only an observer right now. Though if you want an upgrade, I’ll do at least as good a job as amphetamine and cocaine with only half the toxicity.”

    “Who are you, ‘observer’?” Noel had tried and failed to locate the enemy. It was time to stall them out until an opportunity revealed itself.

    “Aha, so the coin lands on ‘cool’ this time. Shame, shame… well, call me Charlotte. That should satisfy your curiosity, Ms. Executor. But it’s not really curiosity that’s buzzing around your head right now, is it? The only thing you want to know is whether you’re caught now, or later.”

    Caught. A trap. This would be one of their scouts, then, awaiting fleeing humans. Of course they would’ve posted a guard. Noel’s hand dipped into Ciel’s pocket, seizing the hilt of a weapon she might use in futile self-defense.

    “Oh, don’t clam up now! Our conversation was just getting started,” Charlotte purred. In terms of self-satisfaction alone she matched up to Rita. “The locals are so unfriendly that I’m just dying to talk to someone. Did you know they won’t even let me through the gates? I’ve been camped out here for ages, all by my lonesome. It’s enough to drive a girl mad!”

    “How… unfortunate.” Noel withdrew her fingers. She instead reached back into the bag and sought out what she needed once more, trying to drown out the voice. “But now’s a really bad time. I’m kind of in a hurry here. But tell you what: leave a number and I’ll call you later.”

    “When you two showed up in the evening, I so very much wanted to chat,” continued the voice, ignoring her. “But that monster over there was just too scary, y’know? And now you stumble out of there with dawn right around the corner, running as if hell is at your back… you’ve met with a terrible fate, haven’t you? The symptoms are plain as day.”

    “Yeah… yeah, that’s about right.” Noel was past the point of being paralyzed by fear. She’d been through too much to stop and weep from frustration and confusion. She found the drugs in question, fished them out of the bag, and downed each, one by one. The medicine stuck to her dry throat, refusing to go down easy. “Ugh… so, what do you think of that fate, Charlotte?” Was she speaking to foe, or friend?

    “What I think, Miss Noel?” said the voice in a sing-song, cutting through the fading rainfall. “I’ll tell you, but first: what do you think? I’ve never been in there. What’s it like?”

    “I think… it’s just another example of vampiric depravity.” Noel’s response was weary. Dulled, like her feelings. A shudder ran through her limbs as the capsules began to dissolve, stimulants and opioids washing into her bloodstream. Soon the pain in her ankle would fade. She would be able to run. “Monsters, playing human. Too cruel and stupid to be any good at it.”

    “Oh? Just playing?” the voice was sharp now. “That’s all?”

    “Vermin don’t feel love,” was Noel’s response. She wiggled her fingers and toes, clenched and unclenched them into fists, willing blood to return to them. “They only remember what they’ve lost and try to remake it with what they have left: hunger for blood.”

    “And what if I’m one of those vermin? Should I be offended on their behalf?”

    “If you could do something, you would have,” Noel said without missing a beat. “Words are a weapon of the weak, Charlotte.” She was certain the voice could not harm her. She had a sense for it. Charlotte truly was an observer, only able to hide and speak. It could be working for anyone, from the Church to another Ancestor. Either way, it represented another set of eyes on her back. “Now go on. Answer. Tell me what you think. Then I walk away, and you don’t follow.”

    “…fine.” Charlotte dropped the cheery affect. “I think it’s a shame. A shame that you’ll make it. Whatever stalled the Rose Princess, it’ll be enough. She won’t catch you. Her family is paralyzed and at odds. Her blood banks roam free. Somehow. And it’s such. A. Shame.”

    Noel stood. Her strength was returning back bit by bit. She could somewhat see now. Whatever Charlotte was, she was ready to face it. A blade materialized from the red hilt in her hand.

    “Do you know how much that girl lost?” Charlotte asked rhetorically. “Her humanity was the least of it. She tried everything until she found a way, overcoming misfortune after misfortune. She’s become beautiful from it. So beautiful I want to bottle her up and keep her on my shelf. Hers is a story of love, dear. It’s so inspirational I could cry. That’s why it’s a shame.”

    Her voice dropped an octave. It wasn’t coming from nowhere, now. It had an origin point. Somewhere nearby.

    “A shame someone like you got victory just handed to her,” said Charlotte. “You, who tried nothing, accomplished nothing, sacrificed nothing. You, who love nothing and no one, and have the gall to sit here and pretend you’re not just a bitter, confused girl who never moved on. It’s just wrong, darling. Useless villains like you don’t win. They always lose to love in the end.”

    “…yeah, you’re right. You did go mad out here,” Noel scoffed. “What, couldn’t take no for an answer when she locked you out? Talk about a psycho admirer. I’m out of here-”

    The trees shook. The ground beneath Noel’s feet rumbled and shifted. A great green hiss drowned out the rain.

    “What the – what did you do!?” Noel called out.

    “Nothing at all, girl!” came the reply amid girlish giggles. “As you said, I’m powerless! Nothing more than a spider on your shoulder. But if words are the weapon of weak, then I wield them far better than you.”

    A distant call rang through the woods. A booming wail born from snapping timber and rustling leaves. “Got you,” it seemed to say. “Got you, you bitch.”

    “Shouldn’t have stopped for a chat, dear,” said Charlotte. “Now she will catch you. Unless you leave the girl here. Go on. Prove me wrong. Sacrifice what you hate to save what you love.”

    Ciel weighed down on her shoulder, heavier than ever. Noel shook her head, ridding herself of the thought. She could muster no logical reason to protect the unconscious girl in her arms, but something within her refused to consider it.

    “Oh? You won’t? Then how about I tell you about the gate?” Glee dripped from Charlotte’s every word. “Would you like to know what happened after you left those humans there as a distraction?”

    “I would not!”

    She hurled the Black Key into the trunk of a nearby tree. There was a screech and a squeal and a splatter that mixed in with the sound of rain. A spider the size of Noel’s palm writhed upon the bark, bleeding black and green around the blade lodged in its abdomen.

    “Ahaha…” it spoke in Charlotte’s voice. “Pointless… just wasting more time… digging yourself deeper. It was a maid, you know. Dragging that thing behind her. Someone must’ve been watching, for her to make it all that way unscathed…”

    Noel’s blood ran cold even as her heart nearly beat through her chest.

    “None of them could use that contraption… so she prayed for help,” said the spider. “Gave herself to it. Made the sacrifice, for a handful of humans who’d already given up. And after it blew open the gates, it ate her. Hehehe… that’s what love is, you fool. It’s what miracles are made of. That’s why you’ll never get anywhere.”

    “Shut up!” Noel seized the key, dragged it upwards.

    “Too late… too late for you-”

    With one last wrench, the voice went silent.

    The Executor stood alone in the clearing, as the forest shook and died and was reborn around her. She hurled a curse into the sky, took hold of the Scripture and Ciel, and started running.

    The shaking followed her. The trees groaned and twisted, their roots rising from the forest floor, slowing her advance. She leapt over natural tripwires and ducked beneath swooping branches and even as she sped up and the drugs dulled her hesitation and weariness she knew, without a doubt, that the spider had not been lying.

    Rita was free. She was in the woods and closing in. There was no escaping this monster. It would have to be confronted head-on or bought off.

    Noel broke through into another clearing. A familiar pond lay before her, as well as the stone upon which she’d sat and contemplated hours ago. She stopped by it, gasping for air, chest aching from the strain of the uninterrupted sprint under undesirable conditions.

    The storm had calmed as she ran. The rain was only a drizzle that slowed as she sat by the edge of the pond. The clouds allowed the moon to peek through for a short minute.

    Noel saw her reflection again. She was wearier than ever. Burnt, bruised, with tear-marks on her cheeks and twigs in her hair. A pathetic sight by all accounts, made worse by the sight of Ciel clutched to her chest like a sleeping child. As far as the water was concerned, they were inseparable.

    “…ah. That’s how.”

    An idea struck Noel as the image swam in her mind. One too horrible to consider, but too right to discard. One, two, back to one, yet still two. It would work. She stared at the reflection as the forest shook around her. For once, she didn’t hate what she saw.

    “You’ll owe me big for this,” she murmured, setting Ciel down. “I’ll hang it over your head for the rest of your life.”

    The Black Key’s blade gleamed in her hand. She tightened her fingers, steadied her shaking hand, and took a deep breath.

    “Miracles are made of love? Bullshit. I’ll show you a real miracle.”

    A hideous scream resounded through the woods. The twisted woman tearing her way through the forest paused, took it in, laughed, and resumed her pursuit, pushing trees and terrain out of her way as she brought the plants under heel.

    The wounds she had sustained in the garden had long since healed, gone along with the tenacious cockroach that had inflicted them. Her dress hung in tatters, making her more beast than beauty. A blanket of leaves woven together with milky roots protected her modesty where cloth could not. She had long since run out of patience. Only wrath remained. She would not be denied again.

    The trees, now her thralls, whispered to her, telling her where to go. She loped through the woods with unerring precision, closing in.

    Soon. Soon. She was close. A minute, two at most. She could smell the blood through the rain.

    In an explosion of leaves and branches, Rita Rozay-en broke into the moonlit clearing.

    Before her, next to a serene pond, was a smooth stone covered in blood. Atop it sat a phone. The scent trail ended there.

    The phone started ringing.

    Rita considered it. Wariness warred with wisdom and won. She had nothing to fear, death least of all. She strode towards the pond, picked up the phone, and held it to her ear.

    “Hi-hi.”
    The voice on the other end trembled through the distortion. “Um, I’m speaking to the head of the house, right? This should be our first proper talk.”

    “You can’t run,” said the vampire. “You know this, Executor.”

    “Haha… yep. Seems so. You’ve got my number.”


    “I was planning to make an offer,” Rita continued, “of solace and security. A peaceful parting, should my prize be returned. Consider it rescinded.”

    “Oh? And why’s it off the table now?”


    The moon played across the pond. The blood had found its way there, too. The surface was clouded red.

    “She no longer suffices to still my soul. When one commits offense against the family name, their death becomes a matter of honor.”

    “Honor, huh.”
    The woman on the other end paused, considered. “But you don’t have that, do you, Rita?” Her shaking voice had strength behind it. “You don’t give a damn about your family.”

    “Personal insults now?” she hissed. “I’ve long since tired of the zealots of the Church, who seek to understand nothing beyond their apathetic God. Your provocations, too, are tiresome.”

    A crunchy chuckle followed by a groan followed, before resolving into words. “No, no, I’m just myself here. The one who poured you wine. The way you put on that performance, it was clear as day: you hate every one of them. Playing daughter and sister and cousin got old long before dealing with your enemies did, huh? Do they know you’re just leading them on? That you never forgave daddy for dragging you kicking and screaming into vampirism? That you’re trying to get rid of them, to take all the power and blood of the Rozay-en for yourself, Ms. Fake Ancestor?”

    The vampire’s hand tensed. The plastic of the phone cracked and warped under her grip.

    “Kill yourself while you still can,” Rita said calmly. “For when I see you, that will no longer be an option.”

    The phone exploded into chunks of metal and plastic as she crushed it completely.

    The trees around the clearing rattled and shook. Rita reached into the core of her being and drew on all the blood she had devoured over the past month, using it to sharpen her senses to their utmost. The movement of leaves through the air, the chirping of insects, the trajectory of each drop of rain, she saw and heard and felt them all.

    Including the humanoid shape below the water’s bloody surface.

    A gleaming bolt erupted from the pond, aimed squarely at her center mass.

    Rita reacted without thinking. One vine near her cheek whipped out to intercept the projectile. Another four shot from her palm, spearing into the water. All found their mark.

    She examined the gleaming arrow in her grasp and scoffed. “Bronze from the Baldacchino? You thought something this recent could harm me?” It crumpled under her grip. She turned her attention to the soaked figure dragged out from beneath the water.

    It was nothing more than a bundle of sticks and dirt filling out a muddy dress sized for a teenage girl. Delicate blues and lilacs were stained and torn beyond repair.

    Where the head should have been was a palm-sized golden child, holding aloft a tiny bow and ticking like a clock. It nocked another arrow with mechanical movements, and then loosed.

    Rita caught the second arrow between two fingers. Her vines seized the cherub and tightened. Metal crumpled and deformed. The bow snapped in two. With one more squeeze, it was torn to bits. A shower of gears and axles rained into the pond. The ticking stopped.

    A golden, leonine roar washed over the vampire, blinding and deafening her as the contraption detonated. Heated shrapnel dug into her skin. The force nearly knocked her from her feet. A four-winged condemnation bore down on her, demanding she cease to be.

    Her very being refused. Even as Rita’s scowl was blown away, blood filled the gaps and reformed it whole and vicious as ever. The wounds on her body slowly sewed themselves shut from within. The trick had succeeded only in irritating her for a short time.

    It was all the time Noel needed.

    Bright headlights lit up behind Rita. An engine thrummed and growled. Wheels spun against damp ground, found their traction, and hurtled into the clearing, bearing a bright pink scooter, its twin occupants, and a shining silver spike, salvaged from scrapped scripture and mounted on the front.

    “Vampiiiiiiire!”


    The call forced Rita to attention. She whirled about, outlined in the spotlight, with not even a second to act.

    Her vines were burnt away and slow to regrow. Her legs had yet to recover enough mass to for a certain dodge. Her blood reserves were diminished enough to give pause to the idea of stopping the light by force. All were still avenues with high odds of success, but she did not reach for them.

    Instead, without even thinking, Rita Rozay-en turned to the weapon she trusted most.

    The Rose Eyes bloomed once more. Magical energy dense enough to arrest one’s thoughts poured through the clearing.

    In her sight were two women sharing one seat. The one she desired most, and now the one she hated most. A common woman with no talents, no virtues, and a plethora of unexceptional vices. Noel’s greatest achievement had been earning the ire of a Dead Apostle Ancestor. Her prize would be having her soul rent from her body.

    Rita sought out the girls’ eyes. Looked for their faces through the blinding light, to witness the moment determination became despair.

    She found them. Noel’s teeth were clenched tight and showing, malice writ upon her features. A pathetic, fearful hatred reserved only for the weak. Ciel, naturally, was unconscious.

    Yet, strangely, the girls had one thing in common: One eye closed, and one eye open.

    Noel’s left was screwed shut, bleeding red, while Ciel’s right had been taped open, revealing an unfocused pupil with a mirror-like sheen across it.

    She could have relented. Decided, in that moment, to pursue another path. But when it came to her eyes, which had never once failed, the Rozay-en ruler would never accept defeat.

    Rose petals filled the women’s vision. With it came an order, a commandment to halt in place until told otherwise. To be bound, hand and foot and heart, by the Rose Princess’ secret garden.

    The storm of petals blew through Ciel and Noel. Then it gathered, swirled into a knot, and burst.

    Rita found herself unable to move. She could only watch, in the moments before the charging spike speared through her shoulder, as Ciel’s eye twitched, shifted, and met hers.

    The collision sent them all flying. The Vespa crumpled against its target. Noel went face-first into the underbrush. Ciel rolled to a stop against the smooth pondside stone. And Rita found herself on her back in the shallows, staring at the sky.

    The clouds had cleared. The moon was full. Only it was not the moon she was used to; it was a bright red, made up of layers and layers and layers of petals. One by one they unfolded, peeled away, drifted through the sky atop candy-like clouds.

    Within the moon’s deepest crevice was an eye. Her own eye.

    She could not help but look into it forever.




    Chapter 10: Locked Girl

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