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BlazBlue: Cry of Mankind
Good Morning, Happy Birthday


AD3301/05/17
00:36


Early in the morning, on the Transcontinental Highway, the crystal-clear light of the crescent moon and the inferior astral bodies light the path to their next adventure. A motley band, these unliving three, machine, man, and extraterrestrial, they pursue naught but high excitement and extreme violence on the path to the Forever Sleep. Existing for anything from centuries to millennia, they have not seen rest since death, but they are not tired. It is instinct that drives them there. The persona behind the person goes far deeper than any unnatural instinct.

  • Tsuyoshi: There was a man who ruled the land...
  • Black: Vulgar will did fill his hand...
  • Dominique: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: With fervor did he shower people...
  • Black: With the warm white product of his steeple...
  • Tsuyoshi & Black: Ohhhhhh...
  • Tsuyoshi: MAAAMAAA!!!
  • Tsuyoshi & Black: At the door...
  • Tsuyoshi: Why'd you have to leave me there, hanging on the closet rail?
  • Black: DRIPPIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIING!!!~
  • Tsuyoshi: You only had to read the lines, the angsty lines I loved to read...
  • Black: ... Of suicide.
  • Tsuyoshi: Yes, I loved... suicide.
  • Black: Because you were but an edgy, ignorant child, my sweet!
  • Dominique: Thank god, she went out of rhyme. It's over.

So was the order of the day for the trio - two lovers without a care in the world, singing songs to sate stupidity like negros (i.e. cultured black folk who knew how to write a good tune) singing spirituals as sharecroppers in the sordid South, and one other. Yes, that one other, in her somber dress, with her sullen face, wishing to face the task at hand more than anything else. She wasn't a killjoy for the other two. No, they were far too deep in their own apathy to care for someone else and their accompanying attitude. You could say they were also quite deep inside one another - as is typical for a whore with no self-respect and nothing to live for, Tsuyoshi buried himself deep in the ample bosom of his 12-digited Herlimian friend, accepted by the happy-go-lucky, hedonistic young woman with open arms.

  • Dominique: We're going after a friend of one Ben Nagatsuki today, right?
  • Tsuyoshi: That's correct. Why do you ask now? I thought we went over this long before we left last night.
  • Black: Because drinking my fluids practically wipes your memory, so she needs to be sure you remember why we're even driving across the Atlantic before you make an illegal U-turn, kill someone in a traffic accident, send us careening into the ocean, and get involved in various other failures that will prolong this atypically dangerous job more than it should!
  • Dominique: Bingo.
  • Tsuyoshi: Aye, you are right. Even though I can't taste them, you'd think I just took a memory serum prescribed to a PTSD patient after I drank what you put out, alien.
  • Black: Remember - in most (but not all) cases, licking aliens is fine, just as long as you don't swallow the liquids drawn out by said oral stimulation!

And so it is. This is what the world has become since the NOL has fallen. A world wherein the dead walk the earth, the weather has become cool and mild, the seas have fallen far enough to permit construction directly above them, where air travel is rare and peasant-unfriendly, and where cameras and lawmen dot every other corner. Every other streetlight, every other car they pass, and every other man they see works for the dearly beloved NWO - the Godhead, the new theocracy, the caliphate, and the kingdom the crusaders always envisioned in Israel, now spanning the earth and beyond (albeit not far). The world is safe. The world is stagnant. In the millennium the Godhead has ruled, there has been no war, no plague, and no advancement for the common man. People work, make their living, and come home to mediocre lives with mediocre families. They marry and reproduce in grand ceremonies in state-sponsored churches. When things don't go their way, they drown their sorrows in wine and gin, perhaps an ethnic liquor now and again. They are happy with their lot, they are content with a small house and a sizable family. They are moral. They are loving, but not too closely attached. Disorders are treated by drugs, transforming frowning angst into smiling glee in less than 15 minutes. They look upon the advancements of the upper class and, knowing they will never attain it, they smile and walk on, happy that they enable that luxury for the ingenious hard workers of the world. They all comprise an empowered, informed society, stuck in the year we're in, never to wake up without the disorderly will to open their eyes.

  • Tsuyoshi: I always wonder how shit can still hit the fan with at least a quarter of the population being cops. There wouldn't be any need for us if these people would actually do their job. No clients, no jobs for clients to give us, no-
  • Dominique: Without chaos, order cannot exist. Besides, it's not like they care about where we're going. Some shoddy New London ghetto, where incest babies morph into prostitutes and the local accent is so dense you would think you were talking to cavemen? I can't really blame them. Can you?
  • Tsuyoshi: Well, if that was enough to drive them off, then there wouldn't have been any cops in England since before I was born.
  • Dominique: They couldn't help it then. They can help it now. It's for the same reason you only see cops on other people's payrolls in New New York. They have no interest in protecting anything but their home and their assets, and even then, it's a pretty big "maybe" for the former, and only a "definitely" for the latter.
  • Tsuyoshi: And you almost never see any cops from ol' Britannia, so nobody's even slightly interested in protecting it. It's nobody's baby. Or nobody's mommy, I guess.
  • Dominique: On top of that, you have to remember that land started sinking there 500 years ago, and then everyone who could wound up flying. Wales was pretty much sunk in 200 years, Scotland split from England not long after... They just went shit out of luck after the Godhead came around, for whatever reason.
  • Tsuyoshi: They left only the migrants and the incestuous locals who were too stupid to leave. I love it.
  • Black: I can only imagine what kind of nasty melting pot that turned into!
  • Tsuyoshi: All that comes to mind is some widelong nose, eyes that are too far apart, hideous teeth, the obligatory hair that can't decide if it wants to be a standard mulatto top or a full-on Jewfro thing, and the natural spray tan complexion.
  • Black: But that's just diversity! You can't criticize that, you'll get us deleted and banned again!
  • Tsuyoshi: OH, I ALMOST FORGOT!!! On top of all that, they can't decide if they want to be omnisexual aspies with 1,000 fake phobias and disorders that CONVENIENTLY keep them from leaving the comfort of their chair and entitle them to everyone else's money, or just Muslims!
  • Black: Sayonara, story, it was good while it lasted!
  • Tsuyoshi: I can't help it. When your brain always has an Internet connection, it tends to feed you more ammo than you'd like.
  • Dominique: Only because your dumb ass likes to see shit that would make anybody else puke. British mongrels and degenerates are far from the worst things you find.
  • Tsuyoshi: Hey, listen, if you wouldn't love it if Black grew a dick and impossible breasts and came onto you, right here and now, there's something wrong with you, not me.
  • Black: I'd take it if it was vice versa!
  • Dominique: But that's the difference between you two and me. I'm not stupid, nor am I crazy. I don't want a dick in my ass 24/7, nor do I want to drain the milk of a cartoon woman, nor would I want to drain the cock milk of a man. I have my priorities straight.
  • Black: You need to get laid and get toked!
  • Tsuyoshi: Well, get laid at least. Not like you could really feel anything if you took a hit of that now. Shame that I didn't try it while I was still alive.
  • Black: I don't know what it's like either, but hey, everybody else seemed to like it. I'm just going with the flow.
  • Dominique: That's because you're stupid.
  • Black: ... Eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh-eh, EH-EH-EH-EH-EH-EEEEEEEEEHHHHHHH???
  • Tsuyoshi: That's a sure-fire way to know she's ceased to take this conversation seriously.
  • Dominique: As if she ever did.

Amidst the cacophony, a loud horn sounds from their rear. Looking back, they only catch the wing of the vehicle as it moves to the other lane, passing them before they can even bring their heads back. Only Tsuyoshi keeps his eyes on the vehicle long enough to discern who it is - Lord Benjamin Nagatsuki, last descendant of the original Duodecim, despised by ancient, palsy-ridden traditionalists as a sellout and a traitor, honored by the Godhead as the sole family with sense in the entire organization. Hailing from none other than the shattered land they're bound for, he has been the chief muscle behind recovery efforts for the sinking (figuratively and literally) country, the only one who could bring about the support from the Godhead that was so desperately needed. A new obstacle has thus arisen in their pursuit of...

  • Tsuyoshi: ... I never did catch his name.
  • Black: EEEEEEEEEEEEHHHHHHHHHHH??!?!?!
  • Dominique: But there was that one picture...

Middle-aged man, appears to be in his early 30s, with a Beatle cut made unique by an unsightly, pronounced parting of the hair on the forehead, and a plain plaid shirt that doesn't cover up the "Blood on the Cross of the False Lord Jesus Christ" tattoo on his neck (which he clearly regretted getting) well enough.

  • Dominique: Only other spec given is "pure Briton, unmixed, and proud of it. Should conversation be started, this ought to be evident within the first five minutes."
  • Black: Well, even if it isn't, we could always get a gander at that tattoo and be SURE it's him!
  • Dominique: He looks like he tried to... sand it off or something. With an actual sander. It looks so irritated here.
  • Tsuyoshi: I'd sand my neck too if not doing so meant being a walking advertisement for some dead trash band like that. They're basically modern scene. It's a wonder someone so close to a relatively big Godhead player could get away with even carrying the SCAR of that shit.
  • Dominique: He's not a very big player. He's just district enforcer for Britain.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Oh.
  • Black: So he's a nobody?
  • Dominique: Just someone with a loud enough mouth and a big enough pocket of bullshit to make the Godhead throw money at him and his cause, if only to keep him quiet.

Tsuyoshi can't help but try (and fail) to hide his mirth at the revelation under his breath.

  • Dominique: What's wrong with you?
  • Tsuyoshi: Oh, nothing. He just reminds me of someone I once knew, when I was still alive and all.
  • Dominique: Who?
  • Tsuyoshi: I won't name names, but... I'll just say he was the butt of many a joke and leave it at that.

No less than an hour would pass before the city's (dim) lights were visible in the stellar horizon.

  • Black: Even pulsars outshine the lights of ye olde New London! How underwhelming!
  • Tsuyoshi: I went a-rollin' when the Brit went bang, set out on the road like a grand young man, every time he turned around, I said it so funny - "You can't lose-a me, Benny! You can't lose-a me, bro! You can't lose-a me, Benford! You can't lose-a me, lizard!"
  • Dominique: Not that song again, please. Just shut up and step on it. Nobody's coming, and no one's gonna be patrolling this route at one in the morning.
  • Black: Ease up, black buck! If you can't have any fun on the job, you're doomed to die on it! If the quarry don't kill ya, the blood pressure surely will!
  • Dominique: (If she calls me "black buck" one more time, I'll shove her head up Tsuyoshi's hairy ass and keep her shut up for good. Won't be any coming out of that thing when I sew her in with his kinky...) *sigh*...

So quickly did they seem to arrive, even in silence, even at the brisk speed of 55-60 miles per hour (because cruise control is too modern an invention for a dead man brought up in its era). And here they were. Unspectacularly, after driving over nearly half of what's left of the country, they arrive in downtown London, the slummiest of the slums. The rebuilt skyline is but an effigy of its former glory, struggling desperately against the superior light above it for dominance of the midnight sky. Nevertheless, the city does have its secret weapon - the determination of its denizens to regain the glory of the past, when the sun never set on the empire that called London its capital. One look at the populace shatters Tsuyoshi's past derision immediately.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Well, I'll be damned. Normal hair colors, sensible dress, and enough whiteness to blind a white American college student in grandma glasses. Perhaps I really have fallen out of step with the times.
  • Dominique: Some beings just can't change.
  • Tsuyoshi: So crawl on-
  • Black: That's an annoying trademark to take, Tsuyoshi! You can't reference lyrics all the time if the readerbase doesn't even know them!
  • Tsuyoshi: But by that logic, I also shouldn't use words they don't know, because this isn't being published on the Internet and people don't have search engines at their disposal.
  • Black: ... Point taken.

Underhanded insults that never get old notwithstanding, they mosey on over to the nearby pub to formulate a plan. This is where, if Dominique gets her way, things will finally get serious. They do have a job to do, after all.

  • Dominique: We know nothing about this man, save for his appearance. I have taken the liberty of copying the supplied photo for all of us to use in tracking the man down. Our best bet would be to simply keep an eye on Ben and see if we can't catch up to him that way, but that's too risky. I would rather not risk an altercation with the Godhead, and I'm sure you wouldn't either, Tsuyoshi.
  • Tsuyoshi: Nah. As I always say, the chase is better than the catch, and I can't chase OR catch if I'm neck-deep in cops and soldiers.
  • Black: Do we know anything about the client?!
  • Tsuyoshi: Precious little, I'm afraid. All we know for sure is that he's a foreigner in the country by the name of Gustav Arredondo, and that he looks exactly as he sounds - a Scandinavian in a sombrero. I can infer he's some kind of entertainer who has a bone to pick with this guy.
  • Dominique: ... It doesn't really matter, but I can't help but wonder why we get such... strange clients.
  • Tsuyoshi: You're the last Murakumo Unit, I'm a girly midget man who's the only millennial among us, and Black's an "unlive fast die young" alien. We're all dead. Birds of a feather flock to the most similar flock of falconiformes to do their dirty work.
  • Dominique: Fair enough to me... Anyway, I suggest we split up, ask around amongst the populace, search for clues, and reconvene here tonight.
  • Black: GODDAMMIT, DOMINIQUE!!! You always choose the most cliche plans in the book! Haven't you seen the movies?! This right here is where the problem starts! The enemy will find us and turn us into mincemeat, one by one!
  • Dominique: Well, this isn't a movie, so I don't believe your... concerns have any foundation.
  • Tsuyoshi: It's not like we can do anything else anyway. We really don't know anything about him. Outside of the shoestring specifications provided, we're in the dark, and the likelihood that we'll find him just wandering around the streets is thinner than a nanoguitar's strings. Besides, what would the Godhead think if they saw three outlandish morons asking around town for someone close to one of their boys?
  • Black: Eh, they wouldn't care about the Three Bullshiteers attempting to kill a whiner's friend, would they? They'd just wish it was him instead of his friend!
  • Tsuyoshi: Doesn't matter. I'm not sitting in a migrant bar like the Guinness Gull all morning. Let's decide our paths and get on with it.
  • Dominique: I'll take the north and west of the city.
  • Black: I'll take the ea- ... Are you trying to impress somebody, Dominique? You know that'll only spread you thin!
  • Dominique: We only have three members, and we need to cover all the area we can. Someone's got to take up the slack, and I guess it'll be me.
  • Tsuyoshi: Suits the shit out of me. I call south side then.
  • Black: BOOO, YOU'RE ALREADY HERE!!! YOU DON'T EVEN HAVE TO HOOF IT!!!

All too aware of the looks Black has drawn, Tsuyoshi gives them something to look at as he casually tosses the keys to his pride and joy in Black's modest cleavage.

  • Black: Ah! So you're wanting to rest up before we begin?!
  • Tsuyoshi: Nah. Take it. Just try not to scratch the paint.

Before exiting the Gull, Tsuyoshi just has to get something off his chest...

  • Tsuyoshi: Don't treat my car key like it's my dick. My dick is a mile long compared to that key.
  • Black: But it sure-
  • Dominique: DON'T-
  • Black: GETS MY MOTOR RUNNING!!!
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Go on, Black, get going. Get going so you can torment Dominique the long, long mile uptown.
  • Black: I'll be sure to record it!

Herky-jerky is the foot that hits that accelerator, its start-stop abruptness signalling their shoving off to slightly less grey pastures. Unusually enough, Tsuyoshi immediately sets about his business, turning on his heel to tend to some unfinished business in the Gull.

  • Gullford: Aye, that lass ya got has quite the mouth on 'er! Come to clarify some things 'bout that argument there, have ya? Don't worry, I have plenty of pints for ya ilk! You'll forget all about it in only an hour!
  • Tsuyoshi: Thanks, but no thanks. Actually, if you don't mind, I needed to know about one of your patrons. That girl over there has been downing mug after mug ever since we got here. What's her deal?

The mustachioed gullkin flops his mustache back and forth in confusion, the rusty cogs in that middle-aged head struggling to remember who he speaks of, until finally, eureka, it hits him.

  • Gullford: OH!!! You mean Iskandaria? I know what ya mean, she's been like that for nights! NIGHTS!!! They usually leave after half o' what she's drunk, but no, she's still here, still poppin' out coin. Good enough deal for me, long as she don't die o' alcohol poisonin'!
  • Tsuyoshi: She looks a little strange, does she not?
  • Gullford: Don't matter to me, long as her money's good. Now, are ya-
  • Tsuyoshi: I'll be out of your hair in a minute. Just let me see if I can't drag her out with me.

With all the tenderness and silence of a cat, he silently strides over to her stool, planting his aft end firmly on the torn, rotting cushion of the adjacent chair, and gently taps her shoulder. The face that rises out of the slumped form is not something that he, even with his experience and intuition, could expect - beneath straight black locks, queer amber eyes unveil themselves as their heavy lids rise wearily, a streak of black pouring forth from her right eye like a tear, a quaint little mole upon her left cheek, and, to complete the scene of this fresh-faced teenage lightning... earrings. Eight of them, four per ear, asymmetrically dotting the mid-size, pointed ears. All of this facial glory, and only a generic black robe, indistinguishable from a trash bag, beneath it.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... (Guess I caught a pretty one.) Hey, miss! I couldn't help but notice a character such as yourself pounding down that Guinness like a true Irishman! You must be in peak health!
  • Iskandaria: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Iskandaria: ... Have I seen you somewhere before?
  • Tsuyoshi: Probably, but I won't elaborate in public. I'm stupid, but not that stupid.
  • Iskandaria: Oh, I know! You're from that vintage cartoon I used to watch as a kid! I think it was "Lucky Star" or something...

His big eyes slammed shut, his cat-like mouth locked in a grim, ironic smile, Tsuyoshi ponders just how handicapped his appearance makes him. Not only does it leave any and all opponents with nothing more than a flutter in their gut at the sight of him, it makes strange women mistake him for a moeblob. Truly, unlife is, at times, a fate worse than simple death. This bump in the road notwithstanding, he let out his trademark sigh before opening his twitchy eyelids and staring the girl down once more.

  • Tsuyoshi: Not quite. She wasn't real, she isn't real, and, to the chagrin of shut-in geeks who think sneaking little girl shows past the Godhead on their own private Internet is smooth as silk, she never will be real.
  • Iskandaria: Of course, of course, I was just noting the resemblance. Still, I don't know who else you could be... You look just like one of those girls, but no one else. Further, you sound like a man.
  • Tsuyoshi: Probably because I have two balls and a cock.
  • Gullford: OI, TAKE THAT SHITE ELSEWHERE!!! Ya makin' everyone else here feel uncomfortable, talkin' 'bout your cock and balls and such!
  • Tsuyoshi: Perfect timing too. I want to go outside and continue this in some semblance of privacy.
  • Iskandaria: I know a spot in the back alleys behind this place. There won't be anyone there, and I doubt anyone will follow us there at, what, 2:00 AM?
  • Tsuyoshi: Close enough.

So out they go, out into the muggy May morning, greeted by the mainstays of the city - dogs barking, guns popping, migrants shouting, and sirens blaring... Some blades are just sharp enough to cut through the grit and stone presented by the millennium's challenges without losing a hint of their luster (or lack thereof). Even then, the reconstruction effort has attempted to maintain some facade of glory, with Victorian buildings dotting the streets, an unfinished skyline slowly reaching for the stars, and most prominently...

  • Tsuyoshi: That monolith...
  • Iskandaria: Resurrection Tower? Yes, it's quite impressive, isn't it? Too bad it's only a milestone up front. You know what it's actually supposed to do?
  • Tsuyoshi: Block the sun and become the dominant light of the whole island?
  • Iskandaria: ... No. It's supposed to become a giant surveillance device. Cameras will line its exterior, and as a unit, Resurrection Tower will be able to discern any going-on via audiovisual identification. Only the innards of the buildings will be safe from its gaze. Even this very spot will be unsafe once its construction is complete. You will have no privacy outside from that point on.

No privacy, in the least-maintained part of the whole city. A seedy back-alley, the place where poor whores crawl in the middle of the night to perform coathanger abortions under the cover of darkness, with willing aid being available for only a few of the reinstated Pound Sterlings (worthless everywhere but Britain, naturally). This particular square, in the middle of four eight-story buildings, is obviously a popular spot - blood stains dot the asphalt, and graffiti dubs the place "Mummy's Relief".

  • Tsuyoshi: I see that Victorian morality has accompanied the architectural cues.
  • Iskandaria: You're being sarcastic, but you're still right. They come here to kill kids they can't care for just like their ancestors did, since it can't be done anywhere else. Woman is the nigger of the world, as Lennon and Ono said... I should be thankful that I have the power I do now, otherwise... Ahem, never mind. I'll just say that I've been down that road before. I know what it's like.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Well, if it's a painful subject, may I...
  • Iskandaria: Ah, yes, what did you want?

Producing the photo with all the flair of an American ninja, Tsuyoshi hastily bends over the retrieve it from the clutches of the filthy ground it fluttered onto after slipping from his hand.

  • Tsuyoshi: Like the One Ring from the finger of Isildur, aren't you?! WELL!!! Have you seen this man anywhere, by any chance?

Examining the photo with unblinking eyes, it takes a solid minute before Iskandaria's (apparently frequent) expression of enlightenment flashes across her face, not unlike a child who just figured out why mother hated when father brought that smelly teenage debutante home.

  • Iskandaria: ... Now, I haven't seen him in person, but I've got his name... Let's see now... Thaddeus... Thaddeus... Thaddeus, Thaddeus, Thaddeus, uhh...
  • Tsuyoshi: "Thaddeus" would be more helpful with a surname attached.
  • Iskandaria: ... Thaddeus CALE!!! That's it!!! Thaddeus James Cale!!! Multipurpose agent for Ben Nagutsuki, he moves frequently, every three months or so, and despite the closeness their occupations would suggest, he has no friendship with him, apparently due to Ben's status as a "pathological liar, victim, etc." I've seen him in the news, I've seen him online, but I've never seen him personally.
  • Tsuyoshi: Doesn't matter. That name's distinctive enough for me to remember - if I ever come close to forgetting it, I can always just imagine a less talented scene version of John Cale.

In this capacity, he has achieved his goal, and his thoughts turn to departure and subsequent retirement, lest he work any harder than his two beleaguered companions, still out in the field, encountering God only knows what in this broken crown jewel held together with loud-smelling glue. But as he does, he receives a hand wrapped around his forearm, itself wrapped in a glove of soft velvet contradicting the strength with which it holds him fast.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Hmmmm?

With a poorly-hidden smile across her cute little face, her grin clumsily kept in check by a bite upon the lower lip, she gazes him in the eyes, lacking none of the flame of the cartoon girl she mistook him for mere minutes ago.

  • Iskandaria: I have a friend who may be able to help you more... But first...
  • Tsuyoshi: First...?
  • Iskandaria: Who are you? You're going after an important man that has no real public face, no enemies, no nothing... You're a hired blade, and not just any hired blade.
  • Tsuyoshi: I'm Tsuyoshi Nishimura, the sword of a trio including the final Murakumo and a Herlimian, and we are all dead.
  • Iskandaria: But you're unliving. You have to be. No undead I've ever seen contorts their form enough to look like bloody Konata Izumi.
  • Tsuyoshi: Ding, ding, you just won a brand new car! Now wait, let me try - you're unliving too! Only an unliving could pound down pint after pint of Guinness and not get the slightest bit tipsy!
  • Iskandaria: I do it for nostalgia's sake, thank you. Some people can sate themselves on vapor when they yearn for tobacco, I can sate myself on the act when I yearn for the buzz, and with none of the stereotypes involving scooters and fedoras and just doing it to look cool.
  • Tsuyoshi: Just a very happy barkeep.
  • Iskandaria: A very happy beastkin barkeep.
  • Tsuyoshi: Indeed, indeed... Now, would you mind explaining to me WHY that was all need-to-know info?
  • Iskandaria: It makes me feel better, that's all.
  • Tsuyoshi: And who are you, dear? Is "Iskandaria" even your real name? Come now, lady, the gentleman has presented himself politely, as requested. It's unbecoming of you to not return the favor.
  • Iskandaria: I know, I know... My name is, indeed, Iskandaria. Iskandaria Hotarubi. I'm an unliving as well, and on occasion, a killer for hire as well. I do it for money, but mostly out of boredom. And you? What are your reasons for killing? Come. Talk to me while we go to my place. The alleys have no cameras out yet.
  • Tsuyoshi: I do too, but geez, the city itself already does? Shit, something of that scale was implemented so quickly?
  • Iskandaria: Oh, yes, they were the first thing implemented upon the conclusion of construction - street view cameras, made to detect any and all crime, espionage, sedition, any illegal act of any kind, and snuff it out with the cold, inhuman arm of the law.
  • Tsuyoshi: They're using machines now?
  • Iskandaria: Almost exclusively. Had we just stood out in the street, pulled out that photo, and began our talk, we would've been jumped within seconds. Thaddeus doesn't want his name or his visage spread about the city. The last thing he needs is for Ben to have the public as a resource of info on him. Once any sort of information on such an important figure makes it to the public, the public - or those so inclined - will be certain to keep up on it. All that he'd have to do from that point on is get every viewpoint out there at the time and cover all bases, just to ensure that he would hit that one correct point dead-on.
  • Tsuyoshi: Sounds like our client could've stuck us into some sort of political tug-o-war.
  • Iskandaria: I don't get that feeling. Ben can never be bothered to do anything himself, but he can always send any idiot willing to serve under him to do the job. He doesn't seem the type to hire mercenaries or assassins of any sort. Given the lack of info you received, I get the feeling this is a personal affair. Did you bother to ask?
  • Tsuyoshi: I don't think the guy even knew his name. If he did, he didn't give it.
  • Iskandaria: So, he just expected you to shoot a face, and that was it... Strange one, wasn't he?
  • Tsuyoshi: He was a Scandanavian in a sombrero, Gustav Arredondo, you tell me if he was strange or not.
  • Iskandaria: Sounds interesting to me. Those kinds of clients typical for you?
  • Tsuyoshi: It'd be boring if they weren't. We're a pack of far-flung unliving, I'd say we deserve those kinds of jobs based on what we are.
  • Iskandaria: Who are the other two? The last Murakumo and the Herlimian, I mean. The last Murakumo was O-15, wasn't it?
  • Tsuyoshi: Yep. She's gotten herself a personality in unlife. Now she's a serious one, and she prefers to be called "Dominique Rygg", and I just go along with it. She was the first fellow unliving I ever ran into, and she stuck with me after I found her under Kagutsuchi. We're complete opposites, but we get by. The Herlimian's just a ball of energy that I... put to use every now and again. I found h/er in Spain not long after s/he died, and s/he was one of those that came back amnesiac. Still, s/he seemed happy. We needed something to call h/er, so I just came up with "Black Hole Sun" on the spot, and since "Black" suited h/er, it stuck. Ever heard that song by Soundgarden?
  • Iskandaria: Sometimes, on one of those vintage online radio stations. It's okay, but I never did like all of that gringo music.
  • Tsuyoshi: Gringo music?
  • Iskandaria: Aye, I couldn't get myself to stomach that radio-friendly schlock Americans liked to put out. I always preferred something a little... prettier. European, predominantly French, you know?

And at that point, that one thing about her voice that Tsuyoshi's half-dead, half-machine brain failed to notice hits him like a 400 pound freeter rolling down a hill as the world ends around them.

  • Tsuyoshi: Oh, I get it, you've got that French(ish) accent, so of course you hate that Freedom Fries shit! Well, I guess that means you hate me, since I'm American and all!
  • Iskandaria: No, I don't hate you, I just hate your country's old, ersatz music.

Smugly, Tsuyoshi smiles, ever and always ready to make that light tap on the shoulder he would define as a comeback.

  • Tsuyoshi: Well, at least I don't appropriate other people's terms for filthy foreigners. I use my own kind's terms, for myself and for everyone around me.
  • Iskandaria: Hmph. Whatever makes you feel better, cracker.
  • Tsuyoshi: Pfft, "cracker"? I'm a redskin cracker ni-
  • Iskandaria: Where did you find the Herlimian? Have you ever been to Herlim?

The interjection - the cruelest way possible to shoot down a man's slur mid-flight.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... No. I found her in a field in Spain. She was finely perforated, like Tony Montana in Scarface, but she came back pretty happy-go-lucky.
  • Iskandaria: What caught her?
  • Tsuyoshi: I don't know. She still had rigor mortis when we got to her, so I can infer that whatever it was killed her recently. She was a weird sort from the time she came out. She saw her own body and burned it, the instant we let her out of our sight.
  • Iskandaria: Not that that was an issue, not having to futz around with a smelly body, right?
  • Tsuyoshi: I hear that they don't stink. Their blood's supposed to smell like honeydew, according to some dog chimera I met once. Still, I wasn't inclined to investigate. All I knew was that it was infested with pissants and covered in flies. I imagine it was flattened too, just like all the cat bodies I've had to pick up around that stage of death.
  • Iskandaria: Cat bodies? What the hell do you pick up cat bodies for?
  • Tsuyoshi: I keep a family of wildcats alive in Mississippi, same as I did when I was alive. They've been through the days my employers were still in business in the area, the Dark War, the Godhead's ascension... All this time later, the descendants of those two black-and-white cats are still kicking.
  • Iskandaria: But what about the bodies? Do you bury their dead or something?
  • Tsuyoshi: Done so since I was alive. I hate doing it. Even if I can't smell the stink, I can feel how that kitten I handled the day before gained 10 pounds after he died. It's always the toms, it's always kittens, and it's usually other cats killing them. I manage to keep the dogs out, but I can't control the other cats, nor can I supervise them for the rest of unlife.
  • Iskandaria: ... I haven't had a pet since I was alive. It was a Pekingese. I didn't have him long enough for him to learn his name.
  • Tsuyoshi: I've had a lot. More than I can count.
  • Iskandaria: We're almost at my place. I want you to keep quiet, keep your head in the game around here. Make sure we aren't being followed.
  • Tsuyoshi: (Aren't we hopping from spot to spot tonight? God, I hate that shit.)

In these lightless alleys, nothing stirs at this hour, save for the odd roach, big as a man's hand and loud enough to sound like a rat in the trash. It is such a noise that brings Tsuyoshi to a sweet sight in the street.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Ah, looks like somebody got down on their luck tonight.

A cat chimera, dead in the streets, in much the same state as he described Black earlier, and with a most interesting figure above him - the instantly recognizable figure of Albinia, Lady of the High Elves, seated on her floating throne, next to none other than Ben Nagutsuki himself.

  • Albinia: Where was he headed?
  • Ben: Into that ratway in front of you. Where else?
  • Albinia: Why didn't you follow him instead of just shooting him?
  • Ben: Are you daft? I can't be bothered to follow some cat-fucker's son into a scum-ridden abortion clinic!
  • Albinia: You want this city free of scum, and yet you haven't the spine to do anything yourself. It ALL comes down to whether or not you have your imbecile slave labor here to aid you.
  • Ben: Listen to me, A-
  • Albinia: No, you listen to me! My people moved here to have a decent homeland, far away from the scum of the earth that is the dark elves, your bastardized ilk, and those worm-ridden chimerae. I thought you moved to reclaim this hallowed homeland of the English upon the same principle. I thought we were kindred spirits. I had no idea that I was dealing with some privileged faux-royalty who had no intention of buffing his precious nails, even if it meant keeping this country pure! You don't see this island devolving into the old country you came from? Are you BLIND, man?! We don't have cameras in the alleys this cat was running into! We have migrants shouting in the streets! We have guns popping off left and right! You may as well have stayed in Albania, you dunce! I had no idea that you intended to come to a clean country and carry your disease with you! Can you explain yourself to me, or am I going to have to pull my people out of here before they find themselves mauled and raped by ANIMALS?!
  • Ben: NO, YOU WON'T!!! I HAVE IT UNDER CONTROL!!!
  • Albinia: DO YOU?!
  • Ben: THIS WAS A ONE-TIME PROBLEM!!! THIS DOESN'T HAPPEN EVERY OTHER DAY!!! Yes, it was a cat chimera running into unguarded alleyways, and an ARMED one at that... It was just a little slip!
  • Albinia: A little slip that could've had both our people's blood squarely on YOUR hands, Ben!
  • Ben: I'll purge them however I can! I don't exactly have all the support I need on this! Even with you, I can't just purge these people without the Godhead getting all over me! We can't have a rebel confederacy forming here, and that's EXACTLY what will happen if I start shooting the furries like fish in a barrel!
  • Albinia: I'll have a stern talk with them. We'll see how unwilling they are to clean up this mess if I start making heads roll.
  • Ben: Albinia, I don't need that kind of drama right now!
  • Albinia: If nothing will be done from here on out, I'd say your methods have failed. You attack those who personally offend you, yet you do nothing to keep anything but your own reputation clean and sterile. Your methods and my aims do not align, and if they're INTENDED to, they have failed in doing so. This conversation is over, and I'm departing for America to speak to the Godhead themselves. I had best come back to a cleaner table upon which to eat, a safer bed upon which to sleep, and a happier home in which to live!

And so, with nothing more than a snap of her fingers, the regal high elf departs her dingy surroundings, leaving only a distraught young Ben and a corpse stinking under the summer moon. Before he can hear any more juicy details, Tsuyoshi feels a tight grip on his shoulders, a painful little bugger that soon moves to his nostrils.

  • Iskandaria: I GUESS WE'RE ALL CLEAR?!?!
  • Tsuyoshi: You think?!?!
  • Iskandaria: No!!!

Thrown into the house, Tsuyoshi soon finds his eyes beset by the atrocity in front of him - not only the Bon Jovi and Gary Glitter (pedophile chic) posters unironically adorning modern walls and doors, but the balding fat man bound to a chair and gagged in the closet.

  • Tsuyoshi: JESUS CHRIST!!!
  • Iskandaria: I told you I had a friend, and heeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeere he is!
  • Tsuyoshi: That's beside the fact! You're a fucking glam fan! It makes total sense that you'd have this ugly man here! You fetishize his hideousness as a result of your unadulterated consumption of musical trash!
  • Iskandaria: Oh, this wasn't always my house... It used to be his little private shack. You see, that's just the (former) mayor of New London, Sir William Budd! I like to call him "Billy Budd" myself!

All this important info, and all Tsuyoshi can bring himself to think of is "The Bugger's Opera"...

  • Iskandaria: Of course, you're not just talking out your ass when you talk about sexual deviancy - he was too! Gay pedophiles were the only ones who ever sported a Gary Glitter poster anywhere, at ANY time in history!

... apparently, not without reason. With all the delicacy of a masochist, Iskandaria rips off the heavy tape from his lips, forcing the ball out with them.

  • Iskandaria: He should just be thankful I kept him alive as an information cow to milk instead of handing him over to the Godhead! Ben may kiss a pedo's arse, but they wouldn't!
  • William: UGH!!! There's nothing worse than eating your own soup strainer after some uppity little sadist just LOCKS YOU IN YOUR OWN GODDAMN CLOSET AND TAPES YOU BLIND, DEAF, AND DUMB!!! You'll pay dearly for this when you only cut these gray duct-tape binds loose from my arms, you white flag-waving French Fry FREAK!!!

Unmercifully does Iskandaria end his ineffectual rant with her could fingers round (one of) his neck(s), just before he could deliver that immortal one-liner, grand enough to outlast this whole story, this wiki, this writer, and all readers this will ever garner.

  • Iskandaria: Have you seen this homely little man?

His angry, bloodshot eyes scan that picture with what little fervor they have left, but his mind is elsewhere...

  • William: ... Thaddeus... Thaddeus means NOTHING NOW!!! You took me, ambushed me in my own house, and threw me into this filthy - no, IN NEED OF HYGIENATION - closet of mine, and then have the gall to use me as your informant??? NO, I HAVE NOT SEEN HIM IN ANY RECENT INSTANCE THAT I WILL TELL YOU OF!!! You have locked me in my closet and trapped me in a world of darkness... No, I should ask you something, miss!
  • Iskandaria: ... See what I have to deal with when I DON'T tape him up?
  • Tsuyoshi: Unfunny filler lines?
  • William: WHERE ARE YOUR MORALS??? Where are YOUR ethics in YOUR life??? I serve my country, I bust my bones, I grind myself to dust for my liege and god, the last Nagutsuki, and you do NAUGHT. You, naughty ne'er-do-well, are the bane of all that is lovely in the eyes of the light of day, and you shalt be BANISHED to the empty plains of oblivion by your own hands!
  • Iskandaria: ...
  • William: ... *wheeze*
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Ahem... Billy- I mean Bugger- ... I mean WILLIAM... I know it's very hard to to pick out one raging, yet submissive and secretive homosexual out of a crowd like this, but surely, you can identify this... uh...
  • Iskandaria: Thaddeus James Cale.
  • Tsuyoshi: Yeah. Guess thinking of John Cale didn't work as well as I hoped it would.
  • William: What do you even want to know?! Yes, I'm a member of Ben's own consul! How could I NOT... *chough*, *HACK*... not know him...?
  • Iskandaria: Where is he now? Where does he live?
  • William: ... *huff*... I'm sorry... gimme a moment to... catch my breath... hoo...
  • Tsuyoshi: Wow, for once, an interrogation that doesn't require any breaking from the interrogators. And here I thought I'd have to take a log and show him how it feels for those little boys to feel his stump inside him.
  • Iskandaria: He's been in there for a while. I'd say he's quite broken enough.
  • William: He lives... in northern Wembley, not too far from New Wembley Arena. His house is one of those... barely-hidden hidey-holes, small enough to pass as middle class, but too big to not stand out amidst the slums not far from him... That's his most recent residence.
  • Iskandaria: You swear on your cock rock collection?
  • William: ... You're the ones who came crawling to me for information. It's up to you whether or not the man you keep bound to a chair is right or not. I've never failed you before, have I, girl? Even now, when I would just love to ship you off to some kind of trap and see your head on a platter?
  • Iskandaria: Hey, hey, no need to get testy, Billy...
  • William: ... *sigh*, lord help me...

Her info extracted without bother, the little lady ever so cheekily faces her new companion, a grin on her cute little visage.

  • Iskandaria: Wait here. I'm gonna get dressed. Then we can go!
  • Tsuyoshi: Right-O, dear. I'm gonna see how much of this shit I can... archive for posterity.
  • Iskandaria: Don't disguise it. We all need some convenient torture music for a tough job every now and again~

And so she departs for the deeper reaches of the unremarkable homestead, leaving the fat man to watch as the weird little feman reads his every vintage CD and fingers all of his well-worn vinyls for all the cringe music of the late Holocene epoch. Nice as it is for him to have the memory to afford space for what he loves and what he hates, he can't help but feel the eyes of the big guy in the back boring holes in his spine.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Finding it hard to sleep or something? You've been staring at me for the past fifteen minutes.
  • William: You weren't with her until tonight. You know nothing of what she truly looks like, or who she truly is. Why are you here with her? Why do you seek Thaddeus?
  • Tsuyoshi: I kill for cash and I kill for fun, and it's never a bad thing to tag along with an interesting stranger whenever I can. Besides, while I do know precious little about her, I do know we both share one thing in common - we're both dead.
  • William: Unliving... I should've suspected such. You know, I actu-
  • Iskandaria: READY!!!

She doesn't lie with that cheeky statement - the decapitated Middle Eastern trashbag she wore before has given way to a simple business suit, a big crimson bow tie to break the monotone monotony, and an improvised "cape".

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Did you just make that cape?
  • Iskandaria: All it took was a pair of scissors and the fact that I was sick of wearing that damnable cover-all thing I had been wearing for centuries. It was time for a change! I'm ready to do more! What about you?
  • Tsuyoshi: I'm ready to go forth and KILL, thank you.

Thus, the last man in the room gets his own question, belched forth from the frothing bosom of Light-of-a-Firefly...

  • Iskandaria: Anything left to add before we go off, Billy?
  • William: ... Why bother? Not like I can finish a damn sentence with you around. Just leave me here. I'll shit in my own pants and wallow in it like I always have. I do that just by watching a potential thing of beauty like this country die a little more every day. Go on. Leave me be.
  • Iskandaria: Suits me! Let's go, Tsuyoshi! I've been waiting for some proper action for too long to wait anymore!

She runs out the door with an excitement in her eyes befitting a schoolgirl on her first date, but Tsuyoshi balks behind her. As she gains ground without him, he asks his last question.

  • Tsuyoshi: You wouldn't be horse-shitting us with those directions, would you?
  • William: What would I have to gain by misleading you? Ben will never know it was one of his missing comrades unless you felt the need to tell him, and even then, I doubt he'd believe you. That aside, I have nothing to gain from doing so. This is no elaborate sting operation - my house was unceremoniously broken into and I was bound to this chair against my will. I may as well give up the info in the hope that my freedom may be secured, by some mercy of you or that girl...
  • Tsuyoshi: Why do I have a hard time believing that?
  • William: Because you don't know me. You don't like me. You don't WANT to know me, nor do you want to like me. You'd be more likely to believe the hallucinogenic speak of your own feces after a bad acid trip. I know the way it is. I wouldn't believe me either if I was in your position. Problem is, you have no one else to go on. No one convenient and knowledgeable, that is. Besides, why do you even care? You're unliving. Fear of death is beyond you at this point.
  • Tsuyoshi: I'm not afraid of oblivion. I've just been dead for too long to allow myself to waste any more time. I'm not here to fuck off.
  • William: Then go. Perhaps destiny awaits you! Why are you chewing the ear off a fat man's head as your girlfriend scitters away?

His point taken, however reluctantly, Tsuyoshi bolts out the door, kicking it shut behind him. Alone in his silent home, a fly banging against the light of the fan his only company, William can only sigh once again.

  • William: ... Good luck, Cowboy and French Fry... You might just need it this time, dead or alive.

And, just when Tsuyoshi thinks he lost his newfound ally, he finds her, rolling up in nothing less than a 1968 Oldsmobile 442. Goddamn.

  • Iskandaria: Where the hell have you been?! I thought I'd have to leave your pokey ass behind!
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Oh... Where'd you get that?
  • Iskandaria: I stole it! Are you retarded? Did you think we were gonna go there on foot?

Biting his lip to paint over the dirt that is the fact that he did think that was the plan, he hops his midget ass inside, right on top of that shiny new authentic leather seat. No stains. No scratches. Only smell.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... To think, this was my dream car when I was 19... I never thought I'd be in one. Hah. How long will it be before it runs out of gas?

The leopard sleeps when he wills it, when his belly's full and his woman bred. This is the way of the 442 of the far future. And it's got that added kick of being the last of its beautiful kind. Just like the leopard. This analogy is as apt as it gets.

  • Iskandaria: So, where's the Murakumo and the Herlimian? Are they aiding on this mission?
  • Tsuyoshi: They're probably on their own adventure as we speak. We'll probably have a convenient crossroads halfway through the story. Then you can meet them.

And so, we conveniently segue into their part of this lovely affair, the one in a 2015 Toyota Corolla, not a glorious Oldsmobile. Where have they been? What have they done? Why should you care? "They're not the protagonists", you surely think. Well, this won't be a linear story, nor will there be one, two, or three protagonists - restriction, convention, and control are such dirty little words. But I digress...

  • Dominique: I THOUGHT WE WERE GOING TO STAY LOW!!! WHY THE FUCK CAN'T YOUR STUPID ASS STAY LOW?!?!
  • Black: STAYING LOW IS ABOUT AS FUN AS A FAT MAN'S COCK IN YOUR ASS - YOU FEEL NOTHING, AND YOU MISS EVERYTHING!!!

So s/he proclaims, gunning all the souped-up compact can muster as s/he flees from what little remains of the local police, all the while set to the (oddly appropriate) tune of "Pyroclastic Annihilation". H/er method has led them further north and faster so than Dominique's plan ever could, but alas, they're stuck, running in circles in a futile attempt to escape a police force that, while incompetent, has more of a plan in place than Black ever did. Evidence lies right in front of them at this point - a thick blockade of old cop cars and armed personnel blocks their sole means of escape from the pursuing force dogging their heels.

  • Dominique: Alright, Black... They know our vehicle, they know what it looks like, but they don't know what WE look like, thanks to this tint... We can still get out without botching the mission, but you've gotta think fast. I mean FAST. Can you at least do that much for me?!
  • Black: WATCH ME!!! Take my seat! DRIVE!!!
  • Dominique: WHAT?!

S/he leaps to the glovebox and produces an old cloth sack, swinging the wheel to the left with her foot as s/he does, doing so with enough force to throw the hapless Dominique into the driver's seat (and nearly out the window). Forcing the moonroof open-

  • Dominique: WHEN DID WE INSTALL A MOONROOF?!

... s/he forces the little sack over h/er head, h/er eyes barely able to see through the stitches, and aims h/er skinny little hands at the blockade in front of them.

  • Black: WITH PREJUDICE DOES THE ACETONE AZURE WHORE DECREE YOUR EXISTENCE FUTILE AND OBSOLETE!!! I BESEECH HER - LEND ME THE LIGHTNING OF JUSTICE AND LOVE, THAT MAY FRY THE BRITISH BACON BACK TO THE BURNERS THEY BLAMED FOR THEIR BURSTINGS!!!

Thus, with h/er own breed of Herlimian magic, s/he blindly fires h/er sky-fire, overheating the fuel cells of the obsolete crafts and turning their wrath against their drivers. The subsequent explosion creates a window just wide enough for Dominique to run through... but once the smoke has cleared, she sees a dead end. A construction site. And with five cars remaining behind them, there is no option to stop.

  • Dominique: Goddammit...
  • Black: ...! THAT SHEET OF PLYBOARD!!! RUN OVER IT!!!

That would send them over the walls around the area... but where would they end up?

  • Black: DO AS I SAY IF YOU WANT TO LIVE, WOMAN!!!!
  • Dominique: ... (Oh well... I'm sorry, Tsuyoshi, but once the imminent damage is repaired, this probably won't be a profitable job...)

And so, with a deep breath, she literally puts the pedal to the metal, with enough force to vaporize a petal and ding the metal. The leap of faith is taken - with her eyes sealed shut, Black still outside the moonroof, the pigs nibbling at her truffles, and the plyboard snapped beneath them. And yet... she feels the car land only a few seconds later.

  • Dominique: ... I made it...? I made it!

But where is Black? With the sizzling remains of the wrecked cops, perhaps?

  • Dominique: Black? What are you-

The quivering form of the sole survivor is all she really needs to see.

  • Black: His name is Percival Jenkins! Isn't that cute?! All the other ones died, and only the tenderfooted passenger man survived after using his superior as a meat shield! How cowardly of you, Percy!
  • Dominique: ... He was the only one, right?
  • Black: Aye! No cops, no civilians, no nothing that could get a glimpse of my face! Only a cop... Only a squealer remained intact, just as I hoped there would be!~
  • Dominique: Are you certain? No cameras, no nothing, nothing they could use to get a hold of us? Surely, we were going too fast to get an accurate freeze-frame... You were only speeding the whole way here...
  • Black: Oh, stop worrying and interrogate this acne-ridden work of art!
  • Dominique: Right... Gotta focus on the task at hand...

Producing the (now ruffled) photo from the wallet in her left pant pocket, laying it gingerly before the unsightly young recruit, and observing the grounds about them ever so carefully, Dominique finds it quite difficult to focus on that task when that sense of foreboding behind her eyes refuses to stay quiet.

  • Percy: Ugh... That's...
  • Dominique: I need to know who he is and where I can find him. Quickly.
  • Percy: Uh... I think I know... But I can't clearly-
  • Dominique: DO YOU OR DO YOU NOT?!
  • Percy: I DO, I DO, DON'T HURT ME!!!
  • Dominique: SPIT IT OUT, THEN!!! I KNOW YOU'RE STALLING FOR SOMETHING!!! I WANT TO GET OUT OF HERE AND FIND THIS RAT AND GET OUT OF THIS STINKING SHITHOLE YOU CALL A COUNTRY, AND I'D RATHER NOT BE KNOWN TO THE GODHEAD BY THE END OF IT!!!
  • Percy: Alright... I think-

The crackling he hears behind him makes him slightly more inclined to know.

  • Black: We don't have all the time in the world, Percy! I suggest you keep me from dirtying my hands any further, if you want to go home with only a few bruises! You got lucky - don't soil it on stalling!
  • Percy: I get it! He's... Thaddeus James Cale... agent of his esteemed lordship, Benjamin Nagutsuki... he lives... near the Tower Bridge on the Thames, in Southwark, last I understood. It's in some little green shack on the edge of Queen Elizabeth Street... He moves around a lot, so I can't SWEAR that he's there, beyond a shadow of a doubt... BUT... I have worked for him as a bodyguard before, and I know his habits. If he's not there now, he'll have moved out recently. Sack the place if he's not - you'll find some kind of clue as to where he is. That's all I can think to give...
  • Dominique: And you swear on your life that you aren't setting us up???
  • Percy: We can't set up a sting so quick! You're speeding suspects who were just discovered to us tonight... You're not in our databases... If you're so paranoid about someone tailing you, just lay low! That, or get that Herlimian out of your hair! She'd stand out more than anything!
  • Black: "She"... Ha, you're funny! Why do humans always forget that alien genders aren't the same as their own?!

Perhaps it's just natural, functional biology and the thinking it would induce. But that's just me.

  • Percy: Anyway... I promise, I won't tell a soul of anything that happened tonight. I just let a suspect get away, and the rest of the androids there just didn't handle the problem like they should have... I promise. Hell, I'm probably gonna look into early retirement, if they're feeling merciful...
  • Dominique: Androids... They're already using robocops here? Hm...

Strolling over to the wreckage to take a look at their shattered steel corpses, Dominique sees precisely what they are - SP-14, "Street Patrol-14". Lightly armed and armored, as would be necessary for a unit built for the speed a pursuit demands. However, it's the machine brain that one of them left exposed that piques her interest. Before the tongues of the flames can melt it, she snatches it from their grasp, and, loath though she is to do so, activates the nodes in her palm. Hacking through the meager security the brain comes packed with, she verifies the information its fleshy companion gave to her, albeit with a proper address - 22 Blackstream Avenue, in a modest house between a middle-class apartment and an old curio shop. Though satisfied with her finding, she still can't get over the bad taste that the means she used leaves in her mouth.

  • Dominique: I don't get how people like Tsuyoshi tolerate having these augmentations. I hate feeling like a damn robot. I was one of those that was an actual person. I shouldn't have to rely on this, nor should anyone else. It's just another weakness... The NOL exploited it, and someday, someone else will too. Him putting his memory into that box in his brain was the dumbest thing he ever did. He'll be even more incompetent than he was before when it dies... or worse.

However, the sight of a strange figure examining their car cuts her external monologue tragically (?) short. None other than a high elf, towering above the car with an ambivalent look on its face. Surely, this would spell their doom...

  • Dominique: BLACK, WHO IS THAT?!?!
  • Black: EH?!
  • ???: ...
  • Dominique: Um... Do you need something?
  • ???: ... Hey. I was just taking a walk down here when I heard all the noise, and I decided it was something fun to watch. That's why I stuck around. I guess I wasn't wrong. An alien and a girl battling the police bots and interrogating the fifth flesh man in our force is pretty neat. Maybe I can sketch it down when I get back to my desk later.
  • Black: STOP DANCING AROUND THE QUESTION LIKE A PAGAN IN THE SUMMER MOONLIGHT LIKE A CERTAIN WIKI ADMIN AND TELL US WHY YOU'RE HERE, PISSKIN!!!
  • Percy: Y-your highness! I can assure you, this was no major affair! These two just decided to ogle the scene after my force got involved in a chase with a criminal! Th-they decided to help, and they were just going to g-get on their way!
  • Black: "Highness"???
  • Percy: (DAMN MY BLATHERING ARSE!!!)
  • ???: ... Percy, seeing you get so flustered with so much blood on your face makes me want a big, juicy plum.
  • Dominique: That aside... Care to explain the "highness" title you evidently warrant?
  • Percy: No, don't-
  • ???: My name's Sifiniaz Ismialda. I'm the firstborn daughter of the High Ones Tosah Lsi and Emerdina Lsi, siblings of the Golden Order. They don't like me very much, so I wander the city, doing absolutely nothing but carving my dreams into trees and writing fanfiction online. I like long, red licorice, because it looks like my late grandfather's tendons, but it tastes really bad. Nice to meet you.

... but, as it were, they ran into the least-threatening authority figure in the vicinity. Their luck after this meeting could either be magnificent or mediocre, but who's to tell with such a strange little figure (figuratively speaking, of course)?

  • Black: Ah, a royal point-ear! What a diverse morning this is turning out to be!
  • Dominique: Indeed, though I'd hardly consider it a good thing. Ugly politicians, robot cops, cowardly cops, and now, one of the High Ones... Christ, if I run into the blue-skins of Mars today, we'll have set a new record for diversity in a job.

However, her exasperation cannot allow her to deny that, after an unending avalanche of inhumanity and hideousness, this is the best sight for her sore eyes. Regal, though organic and apathetic, her long ears cocked low, her long blond hair falling where it may, her sleepy eyes focusing on nothing in particular, and her thick eyebrows working with her slopped-together ensemble to complete the spectacle of an insomniac who wanted to see more of the world before she curled up and went inward for adventure. Certainly, her attire seems to visibly bridge the gap between layman and princess - her oversized green work pants suggest no one of any stature would lie beneath them, yet her pointed Italian loafers suggest otherwise, which is contrasted again by her shirt (itself cheekily advertising the fact that meat is, indeed, meat), and matched by her dainty, monogrammed white gloves, as well as her bejeweled belt. It all adds up to a getup from someone who clearly couldn't be bothered, and in and of itself, that gives her an air of lazy relaxation, which is certainly an air more people need to breathe in New London.

  • Sifiniaz: I think I know you two. A Herlimian and a Murakumo Unit... and one other... a poltergeist dwarf with hair past his rectum...
  • Dominique: It's none of your concern, your highness. Just let us go on our way, and we'll leave you be.

She stands squarely in their path, and mimics every move they make.

  • Dominique: What do you want? This doesn't need to escalate, your highness.
  • Sifiniaz: Stop being so formal. I'm just a woman. I don't need high titles. I need low titles. Like my name. That's down to Hell, I think.
  • Dominique: But why are you-
  • Black: DO YOU WANT TO COME WITH US?!?!? HOP ON BOARD!!! THERE'S ALWAYS ROOM ON THE UNLIVING HOBO COROLLA!!!
  • Dominique: Black, goddammit, that isn't what she wants!

And with those words, the towering girl gently lays her hand on Black's flinching shoulder.

  • Sifiniaz: I want to leave this island. I can't sleep because I want to explore. This meeting was preordained by lower forces, like people in high places, but not high enough to reach Heaven. Life in a tower is not for me nor my sister. I am not a High One. I am just something that came out of a High One. I am not feces nor urine, not even vomit or semen, but I feel as such here. You can take me from here and no one will know. Only you can. You are mercenaries, and I will pay you.
  • Dominique: We only accept one job at a time. We aren't permanent escorts.
  • Sifiniaz: I am not defenseless.

Whipping out her grand, pennant-bearing trident, she proceeds to stab it into the ground in front of them... and nothing else happens.

  • Sifiniaz: I am a sleepless girl, one who has never killed a poor man in my life, but I can kill the men you seek if it only aids your cause, so that you may aid mine. I will learn, and I will grow, and I will swell with pride, like a saguaro in a rainforest. My decision to walk at this hour was not a mistake. I met you. I will not let that chance meeting ordained by the fat women at looms go to waste. I leave behind nothing, but I come to see everything. I will make a down payment of Percival's life if I must.
  • Percy: WHAT?!?! NOW SEE HERE, I-
  • Dominique: Just command him to be quiet. If possible, I'd like to avoid more than a single body in the count this time.

With that said, the elf swings around, thrusting her trident just far enough into Percival's neck to make him bleed, and just a fraction of an inch away from his carotid artery.

  • Sifiniaz: Be quiet.
  • Percy: Er, um... Okay...? *frazz*
  • Sifiniaz: Thank you. I would get you a band-aid, but destiny calls stronger than another man's injuries. I have won tonight, and you will win too. Grow a notochord, so that you may grow a spine, and from there, you may grow balls. Balls big enough to tip the scales of destiny in your favor too. I bid you a fond farewell, Percival, but I pray that if we meet again, it shall be somewhere far away, on a new continent entirely. Oyasumi, Percy.

With that, she slides her tall form into the short little Corolla, and the two who shall soon save her from mediocrity follow. Short of breath and dumbfounded, the Godhead lackey watches the car speed off into the night, its noise reverberating through the now-still air minutes after its passing.

  • Percy: ... Right. Time to get some sleep and get ready for a word with the chief in the morning... As if the former's gonna happen. God, I hate this place...
  • Sifiniaz: Where are we going?
  • Dominique: Tower Bridge. We're after Thaddeus John Cale, agent of Benjamin Nagutsuki. If you have directions, they'd be appreciated.
  • Black: Yes, indeed, we need all the help we can get to stamp out the last vestige of late 2000s scene culture!
  • Sifiniaz: You're in Wembley now. Just keep going south until you reach the Thames, then go east until you reach the bridge. I know the cockroach shack he fronts as a living space. I'll let you know when I see it.

4:54 now. Only a few hours til sunlight left. If they can finish this job in the space of the wee hours, it would set a record for an assassination. Following the cop chase, tensions are high, the air is thin, and the pedal is seated firmly on the metal, driven by an adrenaline-addled poltergeist... and yet, even with this furor all around her, the strange Sifiniaz still finds time to style her hair into something heretofore unseen by the world at large (perhaps for the better) - tritails. two tails at the side, and one at the crown of her head, all held in place by different things.

  • Black: While I admire your casual attitude in serious situations, I must say, your aesthetic sensibilities are quite offensive and jarring to look at! I approve! I wholeheartedly approve!
  • Sifiniaz: I would thank you, were I not used to penetrating a thick cloud of sarcasm and tactlessness to determine the lack of truthfulness of what I hear, but as it is, I'll simply take the compliment and run with it without acknowledgement, so as to prevent an undeserved boost of your ego.
  • Black: I can't even tell if you're being blunt enough to bounce off my ego or sharp enough to slice clean through it! You're such a fascinating specimen!
  • Sifiniaz: You only stutter in your thought processes because the dead zone in your brain prohibits the information that enters your ocular gateways from processing the facts that strike them properly. You have all the makings of a Stephen King protagonist, yet none of the spunk, instead preferring to settle into the state of "dumb secondary".
  • Dominique: If you're going to talk about something, how about you actually talk about something worth talking about instead of prattling about the fascinating traits of one and the mental deficiencies of the other? I'd rather the noise I hear back there be productive noise.
  • Black: WE'LL DO THAT WHEN YOU STOP BEING A HYPOCRITE AND SLOW DOWN, DOMINIQUE!!! YOU CAN'T TALK MEAN TO ME ABOUT IT AND THEN DO IT YOURSELF!!!
  • Dominique: We don't need to linger here after what you pulled.
  • Black: OH YEAH, ANY EXCUSE BEATS NONE!!!

As the back-and-forth continues, Sifiniaz slinks into the comfy seat, closes her eyes, and out comes the Micromobile phone from her sleeve, earbuds in, 202012chan on Waterlynx Silver, and harsh noise on Findam. Gearing up for her usual run on /noise/ on /mu/, she finds something out of place immediately.

  • Anonymous: HOnestly i wish that Woof Feel My!H0wlzbeSDp would just come out and admit that she enjoys hardcore lesbian orgies to old analog edm made to sound like a supercompressed hissing snake

She is ready to plant her butt into the seat of the time machine that is...

  • Sifiniaz: I am not a scissor emulator, nor is my music so shallow as to fail to get one's feet wet, you insecure visage of severe mental disability. Your words only precede your surely prominent reputation as a sheath for flesh-pickles and a haven for basement potatoes. Please, think before you unleash your insecurities for all the world to see, lest you get firmly and irreparably seared by the steam that is my built-up reservoir of salty urine and feminine catmilk.

... shitposting.

  • Dominique: You're watching out for the place we're headed to, right? I can see Tower Bridge in the distance, so we'll need you in about ten minutes! Do you hear me? Hello?!
  • Black: She's lost in her phone! She's becoming a millennial! WHAT DO WE DO?!?!
  • Dominique: Just smack her in the chest when we get to Tower Bridge. That'll wake her up.

The ensuing debate about breast envy totally escapes her as the voices grow ever fainter, the hissing ever louder, and the earbuds ever closer to requiring replacement...

...

Which leads to Tsuyoshi and Iskandaria's part of the mission once again. As parallel as they had been up to this point, they managed to beat the now three-strong Corolla team to their sole lead. And indeed, it's exactly as described - a hidey-hole of a middle that hasn't been kept low, but remains surrounded by the low nevertheless. A green, two story house of old-fashioned make, its white gutters contrasting starkly with the black roof, it looks to be the house every modest member of the middle class could ever want. Truly, the green is appropriate, for it is the envy of all around it - those few who have stayed, at least. Wembley, too, is just another example of faded glory in a realm reduced to the likes of Detroit c. 2008.

  • Iskandaria: Almost depressing, isn't it?
  • Tsuyoshi: I've been in slums before, dear. I just haven't seen one built on pride and faded glory before. It's still no different than any other. When this whole island sinks, these will only be good dwellings for the barnacles and the fish.
  • Iskandaria: What's left of them. Nature won't be merciful on this place.
  • Tsuyoshi: No, it won't, but that's not what we're here for. Look. I see dim lights in the windows. Whoever's in there is still awake. Come on.

Tsuyoshi strides up the steps without issue, but something holds Iskandaria back. On a sudden, the eager one has become the tentative one.

  • Tsuyoshi: What's wrong? Were we followed?
  • Iskandaria: No... It's just that... I feel something in this place.
  • Tsuyoshi: Just a sense of foreboding?
  • Iskandaria: ... Yeah, I guess so.
  • Tsuyoshi: Damn, you must be rusty if that's stopping you in your tracks. Come on. I don't care who's in here. Whoever it is will only serve as Rust-Revengeance for your problems.
  • Iskandaria: Just be careful. I know more than you think I do, and I'm certainly not rusty.

A knock on the door, a sliding of the lock, and a careful creaking open of the quaint wooden door follows. Through the peephole formed therein, all that peeks out is a squint-eyed woman in big, round glasses and a casual suit.

  • Tsuyoshi: Hey! I'm glad someone was still awake at this hour!
  • Woman: Oh, hello there! Can I help you with something? Please, come on in! You must be tired!
  • Tsuyoshi: Are you sure? I'd hate to be a bother, now.
  • Woman: Oh, come now, I'm a smart young lady. I wouldn't make the offer if I had no intention of following up! I have coffee and drinks, not to mention a big king-sized bed that I never use since I got back out on the market! It's so rare to get interesting strangers here!

The door opens fully, and the house's innards are just what one could expect - well-maintained laminate flooring, family photos on the wall, certificates of achievements accompanying them, rugs underneath the dining table, as well as the couch, and a living space, dining space, and kitchen within comfortable and convenient reach. Were there anything peculiar about it, it's that there is no electric lighting on this morning - only candles. Sconces, candelabra, and chandeliers all hold the sole sources of light in the visible house. Only the opening of the refrigerator breaks their hold.

  • Woman: Who wants vodka? I have Platinka!
  • Iskandaria: THE Platinka?!
  • Woman: Unopened and ripe for a good time!
  • Iskandaria: YES, MA'AM!!!

A shot glass is grasped from the cupboard without fumbling in the eerie half-light the candles cast, as is a coffee cup.

  • Tsuyoshi: Nothing for me, thanks. I don't think it would... affect me much, anyway.
  • Woman: Oh? But you look so sleepy.
  • Tsuyoshi: I always look like this. Blame my parents. I think they smoked pot when I was still a fetus. It kind of messes with your genes, you feel me?
  • Woman: ... Ahahahahahaha!!! What a card!

The excessive reaction to such a simple joke only makes the situation feel all the more bizarre. As she sits them all down at the dining table, she takes a seat directly across from them, and only then does it occur to the both of them that they're dealing with an elf.

  • Woman: I see the looks on your faces. Yes, you behold in front of your virgin eyes the sole dark elf left in all of England. My name is Aphela Marzien. Pleased to make your acquaintance!
  • Iskandaria: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: My name's Tsuyoshi Nishimura, and this-

Iskandaria jerkily motions for him to be quiet. The Platinka still hasn't reached her system, yet already, her unliving stomach manages to turn flips, as if the trigger was pulled and the hammer slammed in her brain.

  • Iskandaria: ... I apologize for my rudeness, but may I ask that I remain nameless?
  • Aphela: If it makes you feel better. I know it's not nice to think about what the high elves will do when they discover a citizen keeping quiet about a dreg in their midst.
  • Iskandaria: I'm sorry, I'm just... funny about things like that. It's not you, it's me.
  • Aphela: It's the fact that high elves don't service everyone that needs it here. That's why I'm here. EVERYTHING is their fault, not yours, not anyone else's. Perhaps if their doctors were more like me, the populace would believe in their benevolent superiority a little more. As it is, I think only a spider's web of brainwashing keeps the people in line, both English and high elf. But I digress... Retribution will come and teach them something soon, right?
  • Tsuyoshi: Does for everyone else. Don't see why it wouldn't for them. So, you're a doctor?
  • Aphela: Mm-hm. I'm from the Graymarch. That place gives any medical professional plenty of practice, unfortunately...
  • Iskandaria: (The Graymarch... Does she mean Ashenburg?)
  • Tsuyoshi: You mean Sapporo? I heard that you can only go IN that place if you're a dark elf.
  • Aphela: They underestimate us. I've been counted off the census there for years, yet no one's come after me. Certainly, if they have, I've seen no indication of it, even in the new heartland of the high elves. Either I'm shrewd, or they're not so smart.
  • Tsuyoshi: Or they could just not give a damn.
  • Aphela: Oh, they do. They have a lot of reason to care about someone... interfering with their eugenics. Eugenics is all that matters to them, yet they have no mores when it comes to enforcing it... They'll do anything with a cunt...
  • Iskandaria: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Aphela: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Aphela?
  • Aphela: Hm?

Tsuyoshi flashes the dirty pic before her eyes, doing his level best to maintain some manners and not filth up the table (or worse, put the candles out).

  • Tsuyoshi: We've been looking for this man recently.
  • Aphela: Thaddeus?
  • Tsuyoshi: Yep.
  • Aphela: My... More strange characters for him to deal with... Well, he used to live in this house fairly regularly, but he doesn't come here often anymore. I know him, though. He's usually a guest here. Whoever pointed you here must have thought he was living here with his wife or something... Hah. He hates elves, but I'm a necessary evil, if you know what I mean.
  • Tsuyoshi: Could you call him? Or, even better, point us to his current residence?
  • Aphela: Oh, Tsuyoshi, you make that sound so easy... Well, it's not impossible, but I won't promise anything. Give me a minute, if you would. I need to step out for a quick smoke. I'll have to think on how to approach this.
  • Tsuyoshi: Hey, if it's too much trouble, you don't need to bother.
  • Aphela: Nonsense. I want to be a helper. You two just sit tight. If you get tired, you're free to go to bed! It's the first bedroom on the right!
  • Tsuyoshi: Thank you!

She opens the door after picking up that old, crinkled pack of Marlboros, shooting them one last glare before she leaves, slamming the door behind her. The gust produced leaves the flames fleeing for dear life, nearly leaving the pair in the dark.

  • Iskandaria: ... I don't like this, Tsuyoshi. That woman... something's off about her! This has to be a setup!
  • Tsuyoshi: I'll believe it when she brandishes a gun and tries to pop me. Even then, it won't be to her benefit.

Iskandaria nearly slams her fists into the table at Tsuyoshi's thick-headedness.

  • Iskandaria: Fine. Go. Go explore the house. Go look for clues! Go find NOTHING! I'll sit here and keep watch on her, and when she tries to blindside you, I'LL slit her throat!

Tsuyoshi can only give her a backhanded grin and a wave in response. And a peace sign. There is no consolation from him this morning, 5:30 AM.

  • Iskandaria: ... Point-ears and their tricks... She's feigning friendliness. I see no clinic here. I see a squatter in a living quarter. That's the least of what I see. I see a back-stabber calling for backup out there at the worst. That's what she's doing...

She just barely cracks the door open to listen to the going-ons outside, but the shouts of dogs, migrants, and bugs of the morning forbids her from hearing clearly. Opening it just a touch further is all it takes to elicit the biggest crack one could hope to hear, and thus...

  • Aphela: ? Something wrong?

... she's busted, and for nothing more than to see a cigarette in Aphela's ashen fingers, as promised.

  • Iskandaria: ... Um... No. I just wanted to know what all the noise was out here. Thought something bad might be happening... You know?
  • Aphela: Mm-hm, I do! Sounds like you need some rest. You're a little too jumpy! You even jumped when I spoke!
  • Iskandaria: Yeah... Maybe some more... Pl-Platinka will do the trick... If that's okay...
  • Aphela: Whatever you need, dear! There's coffee too, just so you remember, but I think you need to be less high-strung, not more!
  • Iskandaria: Yeah... I'd better get in before I let all the cold air out... Sorry for the intrusion!
  • Aphela: It's fine!

Slowly, she closes the creaking door, making sure everything is in place... She almost considers locking it, but doing so would be a definite tip-off that Aphela's guests were up to no good. It would do no good against a riot squad anyway. That's what she thinks. She needs a better barricade. Perhaps the alleyways she knows so well. Or maybe the furniture. China would be good at softening the impact of a hollow point, one would hope.

  • Iskandaria: *sigh*... I really need to calm down...

Turning her weary gaze over to the bookshelf, she encounters a most curiously-titled tome upon the shelf. It is a deep, fascinating title, if nothing else - "Field Diary, 1/1/3300 - ________". Tentatively does she reach for the worn-out book, expecting a lock upon it like a little girl's diary of romantic flames, but no such thing exists here. All that's here is illustrations, medical information, and magical incantations... No field diary I had ever seen, to be sure. Certainly not with this kind of subject matter.

  • Iskandaria: ("Natural fetal sex change", "The will of the child and the connotations it will bring to the developing infant", "Organ repurposing and grafting", "The feasibility of a self-fertilizing hermaphrodite", "The flesh, deified"... What is this? Magic combined with regular surgical techniques and DNA alteration? I've never seen such, even from a point-ear...)

Meanwhile, Tsuyoshi searches, not for rest, but for clues as to the whereabouts of elusive Thaddeus Cale. The second floor yields nothing but junk, as does the attic (albeit DUSTY junk in the latter case), and that leaves only the washroom, reached after walking a dark corridor behind a kitchen door.

  • Tsuyoshi: Goddamn, she keeps this place dark as fuck...

It's difficult to keep quiet and subtle when one has to stumble over fallen cleaning implements, but somehow, Tsuyoshi does it, until finally, he reaches the light switch...

  • Tsuyoshi: ... No switches? Are you fucking kidding me? What kind of freak is this? Jesus Christ...

As he lays one hand on the wall and one hand on his face, he finally gains the concentration to hear something queer - music, coming from beneath the floor. After listening to what sounds like a piano on an old phonograph for a minute and a half, he rummages through the old trash on the floor before finally finding the latch string to a door. A basement door, leading to an equally dark corridor leading outside the back of the house. As he trudges through the maze-like twists and turns, getting several tens of feet deep into the basement, it becomes increasingly apparent that he's not walking on concrete, or any other building material - he's walking on mere dirt, cleared away by hand on the accord of a previous owner, and neglected for years, as the low-hanging roots of grass and trees tickling his face would suggest. However, one thing remains constant - the music, echoing for what feels like miles in the chamber.

  • Tsuyoshi: Maybe she wasn't shitting... This place isn't exactly suggestive of a person without secrets.
  • ???: Aaah... awah... ah!

In the distance, he hears the strangest cry amid the din of the piano. It's faint, but it's there. It sounds almost like a child. Pushing further and further into the maze, he eventually comes to a long straightaway, and finally, a light shines in the distance. The music is getting louder. It's ballroom music on an old phonograph. It has to be.

  • Tsuyoshi: ...

He walks, then runs to the end of the tunnel. At the halfway point, the dirt gives way to brick, and the brick later gives way to smooth, well-maintained tile. The whiteness of the room would be blinding with incandescent lights, but instead, only three crackling torches high up in the subterranean ballroom give it light. By this point, there is no mentally drowning out the music - the phonograph it is played upon is nothing short of gigantic, sitting in the far right corner of the room, playing the same looping sample of ballroom music ad nauseam. However, it is what lies in the center of the room that holds the most interest...

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Oh, goddamn...

An infant of pale yellow complexion, long ears, and blond hair lies nude upon a table in the center of the room, the right side of its face cut, bruised, and burned. There is no giving a proper term to this. Not now. The preserved remains of its burgeoning dominance in the dimorphism of blue over pink float in a jar of thick green fluid (certainly not formaldehyde) next to it, but it is not the pride of man - no, it is but skin. Nothing more than a skin sample. None of the pods either. Only skin. Everything else, presumably, remains inside it...

  • Tsuyoshi: ... I need to get this one out of here. Fuck damn, I came for a hit, and I get this...

The infant looks into his eyes, and with the voice of two, it speaks to the very mind of the interloper before it.

  • Infant: (Wha... What... are you waiting for...? I don't want... to stay here... Feel... tired...)
  • Iskandaria: TSUYOSHI!!!

Her footsteps echo throughout the room as she rushes to meet him, only to find the same ghastly spectacle he found before.

  • Iskandaria: Ah... AGH... What is that?! What happened to that child?!?! ... Ah...!

The realization hits her with the force of a meteorite.

  • Iskandaria: "Infant repurposing"... This is what she was doing down here!!! SEE?? I TOLD YOU THERE WAS SOMETHING OFF ABOUT HER!!! YOU CAN NEVER BELIEVE A POINT-EAR'S WORD!!! THEY FAKE EMOTIONS AND LURE YOU IN SO THEY CAN-

The sound of clapping and clacking breaks up her cacophony well. There is no surprise when the one behind it emerges from her familiar shadow.

  • Aphela: Snooping in odd places can net one some strange discoveries, hm? Humans will follow their nose wherever it leads them... even if the smell is that of feces and death. Are you proud of yourselves? You have proven that all a human really wants is to get a sight of the filth at its feet, just like a swine.
  • Tsuyoshi: I'm here to do a job, not be a good little boy, dear. Sometimes it gets me into a load of shit. This is just one of many times. Besides, I think this was quite justified.

Swiping the jar and the infant, he readies to leave the ballroom, even as Iskandaria prepares to kill Aphela. Slowly, the phonograph begins to slow, and the flames begin to dim above them.

  • Aphela: If you don't want something bad in your neck, you'll put that kid back.
  • Iskandaria: LEAVE THE KID!!! WE NEED TO HAVE ALL THE ADVANTAGES WE CAN GET AGAINST THIS... THING!!!
  • Tsuyoshi: I'm not going to let it stay in that witch doctor's care, and I'm not going to let the doctor die without giving us a bit of info first.
  • Iskandaria: WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?!?! YOU CAN'T GIVE ANY MERCY TO SCUM!!!! SHE MUTILATED ANOTHER POINT-EAR!!! SHE'S A CANNIBAL!!!! NO BETTER THAN A MODERN-DAY JOSEF MENGELE!!!!
  • Aphela: If you'll only read the fine print and look at the child itself, you'll find that I did nothing to harm it. I took nothing but a piece of skin from it. Everything else remains... just altered. Perfected, as far as I can see. Even when dealing with a High One, I controlled myself... That's a feat most of you couldn't match, if you were in my shoes.
  • Tsuyoshi: The marks on its face say otherwise. Don't pat yourself on the back for simply keeping it alive.
  • Aphela: Oh, but I do, Tsuyoshi. I do it a lot.

She flicks her right hand upward, and out from the void materializes a bench of stone and chairs of obsidian. She motions for them to sit down, and once again, offers drinks as diversions.

  • Iskandaria: I'm not moving from this spot... I see what I'm dealing with. The typically arcane point-eared ash-skin, as always. You'll have to force me down if you want me over there!
  • Tsuyoshi: Calm down. I don't want this to escalate to violence if we can avoid it.
  • Aphela: Nor do I, dear. Transcend your lesser will. Come. Sit with me and hear a little story. It's based upon a true story.

Slowly, cautiously, Iskandaria lowers her hands, almost tiptoeing to her seat. Tsuyoshi, with his arms clutched around the child and the sample, sits next to her no less cautiously. Once they're situated, Aphela relaxes herself, taking a deep gulp of blood-red wine straight out of the bottle before removing her glasses and shutting her eyes.

  • Aphela: Aphela Marzien... lone doctor of Graymarch... and the sole practitioner of the magic of flesh-shaping in the world. That is who I am, and flesh-shaping is my art, born and raised under my own hands.

She opens her eyes, looking down at her stomach, and clutching it tightly.

  • Aphela: This used to be my home, dear old London Town... It wasn't too long ago that I lived here, happy as a lark, oblivious to the earthquakes, and oblivious to the island sinking around me. I was gifted in magic and philanthropic in aspiration from the time I was little. I healed animals. Then I healed children. Then I healed adults. It was all from the time I got my first period. Not long after I turned 8, I had an early one while I was at school, and I thought something bad was happening. I thought I was going to die, so I concentrated my magic on stopping the bleeding, and soon enough, it stopped. Outside of a few jeers that day, nothing bad came out of it. Everything good came out of it, though. I healed a cat that broke its leg in a fall, then a friend who nearly lost her eye in a car accident, and finally... I healed my own mother, by neutralizing and removing the tumors in her left breast. They wound up expended as typical waste the following day, which was something that would evidently happen with something of that magnitude - it would be expended as discolored waste, solid and liquid.
  • Iskandaria: This has nothing to do with our current predicament. Either stop wasting our time or-

Looking at the child in Tsuyoshi's arms, somehow, Iskandaria becomes transfixed by its stare. Judging by its expression, it would almost seem like it wishes for her to listen rather than speak.

  • Aphela: I see you looking at that child. Do you know who that is?
  • Iskandaria: A... A High One?
  • Aphela: Good. You remembered what I said. Yes, it is. You stand in the presence of the unnamed prince of the High Elven Dominion of Great Britain.
  • Tsuyoshi: The prince?
  • Aphela: That's exactly right. His - or, should I say, her - uncle availed himself of my body not long after I discovered my talent. Thirteen years old, and already, I felt the manhood of another... A tall, brutal man. It felt so wrong, but at the same time, it felt like I knew my place in the world at that point. It could be because I'm a filthy ash-skin woman, or it could be because that family's mind games were of a caliber I didn't expect. Regardless of the true reason, I was expelled to the Graymarch with the rest of my kind when the high elves were feeling kind enough to displace us all and send us to a city we could never leave. At least it was SO familiarly gray, right? Indeed. Everything was gray. The lights were gray, the buildings, the cars, even the sky was gray, all day, every day. It was there that I truly began to work my craft at a clinic. There were no other doctors there, and I didn't charge. The sick, the beaten, and the many raped came to me, even as I was expecting my own bastard child to come at any moment... And he did. I went into labor, I sat in my own clinical bed for hours, with my patients doing all they could to help me... And after the most splitting pain I had ever experienced, I gave birth to a cone-headed, blue-skinned, sunken-faced corpse. A stillborn. One that had stolen my vitality each and every day of its short existence, only to come up dead...
  • Iskandaria: ...
  • Aphela: ... And it was then that I decided I couldn't take it anymore. The day I had to grab that soft, flabby thing and toss it in the dumpster, a plastic bag being all I had to keep it from making the whole block reek... They locked me in that city, and it would be the same thing, day in and day out. They wanted to see how I'd do. How capably I'd adapt. I figured I wouldn't give them any more opportunity to have a specimen... And that was when it came knocking on my door. I put the Relotol down, and when I opened the door, there stood a tall man in a black coat and big, round sunglasses. He was a strange figure, but he opened his wide hand and gave me money and LSD. He wanted me to enjoy myself. He asked if he could come in with me, and I allowed him. He talked about strange things... of the "tyranny of the light ones", the "indecency of the grandiose", the "indolence of the pious"...

Tsuyoshi feels the child tug at his shirt. Upon looking down to check on it, he notices something off on its neck. Four marks, like pin pricks.

  • Aphela: ... And soon enough, he bared his fangs to me, and offered me a better life.
  • Tsuyoshi: No shit. You're a vampire, aren't you?
  • Aphela: I revealed it at the right time, didn't I? Indeed...

Baring her own fangs and licking their tips, she turns her stare to the High One she had warped.

  • Aphela: ... I availed myself of that one's blood more than once. But I never embraced her, don't you worry. No, I don't think she deserves to be in such a benevolent organization as my clan.
  • Tsuyoshi: So the process was only done half-ass, so she's only a dhampir who will have to squint in the sun for the rest of her life.
  • Aphela: I'd say her contributions far outweighed her suffering. After all, I discovered much in my time with her. I discovered the limits of my healing, the means to create a true hermaphrodite, and beyond... including this, my crown jewel.

Spreading her arms and gazing at the ceiling, she spins in her chair as the skipping phonograph finally grinds to a halt, and the torches nearly diminish to nothingness. As Iskandaria grinds her teeth and Tsuyoshi gawks at the table the child was on, Aphela moves to elaborate.

  • Aphela: You have the idea in your head, Tsuyoshi. Spit it out. Let us know what you think.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Living battery. You made her into a living battery. So that's what that table was.
  • Aphela: Correct. Lying upon that table enabled her to power inanimate objects through MAGIC. The magic inherent in her as an organic, sentient existence. No cords, no strings, no noises other than the noise her innards generated and her crying out for feedings. Do you understand the significance of this discovery? Do you see a future where the world is powered by the people? Where clean-burning energy is the norm and the sole fuel to burn is vitality, replenishable through mere food and water? Go ahead! Call me evil for doing what I did to her! You can't possibly say that my actions were any more harmful than her uncle defiling me, her PEOPLE shipping us off to be their lab rats and die in a gray, dead-end city! The bastard I had could have done great things if he only could've lived, if he was only born of a loving relationship between two people! Now, I had THEIR son, HIS nephew, and I had all I needed to do those things myself.
  • Tsuyoshi: He did nothing to you. If you-
  • Aphela: PREACH TO THE CHOIR!!! Don't you dare start pulling things from your backside and shoving them in my face! This isn't even the limit of my discoveries! Flesh-shaping cannot heal scars, a penis and a clitoris can be morphed into a dual-purpose reproductive organ alongside the vagina, and... and...
  • Tsuyoshi: And what?
  • Aphela: ... I... I taught her to talk... Through this music! Repetition and setting, when combined, create accelerated growth in intelligence!
  • Iskandaria: Any idiot could tell you that situational factors contribute to intellectual growth. Get over yourself.
  • Tsuyoshi: Your well's run dry. The most you ever did was discover a means to link magic to matter, and even that had a foundation prior to you discovering it. All you did was make the breakthrough. Besides, I doubt you had a justifiable reason for scarring her like this.
  • Aphela: You're right. I didn't. I clawed and singed her to shut her up. You've never heard a child wail like this one did. I got through to her incubation chamber, and she started wailing immediately. I had to get out of there quickly. The doors opened the moment I resealed the wall I broke into, and she was crying the whole way back. It nearly drove me to tears, just enduring that. And yet...

She begins to clench her midriff (as if she were embracing herself) and shut her eyes, almost as though the thoughts give her pleasure...

  • Apehla: ... even after that, after I put her through repetitive listening exercises, she looked me in the eye one day after her operation, and she spoke with her mind. She said my name, and then she said "I want to go home." All I could say was that she didn't have to go home anymore. She was already there, and she had a role to play. It was so gratifying... hearing a mere infant speak to me with the voice of a queen, the enunciation of a genius, and the forlorn manner of a princess in a tower... I had removed her so far from her role... There was no heir left to take the spot of the impotent king and his great prostitute. Only another girl. The only one who didn't have SOMETHING wrong with her genes. The only one not to feel the burden of generations upon generations of inbreeding... And what did I do? Go ahead. Say it. I RUINED her. I made him not into a her, but an it. I don't see it that way. I made her into my child... Into another ashen-skinned mistake. It was the most moral justice I could hope to ever exact upon those who had so wronged me! My child isn't rotting in a dump somewhere! There he is, right in your arms, Tsuyoshi! I took the clay while it was still wet, and look what I have molded! I have molded a hero whose destiny it is to bring the eyes of the gods to earth! Be it through her deeds or her power, this nameless child shall give succor to the weak and terror to the strong!

This fated duo gaze upon the rambling, winded form of the ashen vampire as she moves herself to tears and salivation with her own speech, and can feel naught but pity.

  • Aphela: And so, Tsuyoshi, I offer my ultimatum to you, the sole voice of reason between you two... Put her back upon her table, and let her music fill her ears again. I have much I've yet to do with her. I do not want this to end poorly for either of us... I know Thaddeus. I know where he is. I can do whatever you like with that human. Just don't take my blood, sweat, and tears away from me. It's for the good of us both. She... needs to be with her mother. Not with mercenaries.
  • Tsuyoshi: So you were just playing dumb the whole time you accommodated us. What a surprise.
  • Aphela: I didn't want to scare you off. I... wanted to show someone with the years and the mind to know... just what I had done! You've seen more years than I have! Surely, you see the implications here! My clan... even my clan could use your sword! Our coffers are endless! All we require is-
  • Tsuyoshi: I choose my employers, and I choose what I do on the job. I have no use for money. If nothing else, it ensures I can get where I may need to go just a little easier. How? Because humans and elves alike are shallow, and palm-greasing allows me to avoid confrontation far more than it should. I have no real use for money, but I have it. I don't need your clan's.

Aphela begins to tremble at Tsuyoshi's rebuke. She has only one last, desperate card to play.

  • Aphela: ... I didn't just steal away at random, you know...
  • Iskandaria: I'm tired of your mouth.
  • Tsuyoshi: As am I. We'll be leaving after you're dealt with. We've heard all we need to.
  • Aphela: I was tasked with making a statement! I was tasked with forcing the High Ones out of a place they didn't belong in!

Opening another portal in the ground, she summons forth a gargantuan annelid, long enough to loop through the chamber several tens of times and have length to spare.

  • Aphela: This island does not belong to them... Britain has a higher role to play in the future than as the homeland for pisskins. Only the loss of their heir would be significant enough to drive them elsewhere. My clan will take this island from their genocidal clutches if it's the last thing we do. We are not blood-suckers. We are saviors, and the end shall always justify the means. We are the torch-bearers of the world to come, and you are either for us, or you are against us.

The worm prepares to strike, and Aphela herself gives it the go-ahead.

  • Aphela: Keep her alive. Whatever you do, do not harm her.

Tsuyoshi reads her intentions, grabs Iskandaria's arm, and flees into the great maze before Aphela can seal it off.

  • Iskandaria: WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?! YOU'RE JUST GOING TO LEAVE HER THERE?!?!
  • Tsuyoshi: Got to have your priorities straight, Iska!
  • Iskandaria: FUCK THE POINT-EARED PISSKIN!!! WHAT'S GOING TO STOP HER FROM DOING THIS AGAIN IF WE DON'T!!?!?!
  • Tsuyoshi: We'll get her if we have to... but I won't risk the kid for it! Just keep running, and stay close!

They keep on and on, running for what feels like hours as they hear the giant worm tunneling alongside them, waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike. Eventually, they realize they've been running in a figure eight the entire time.

  • Iskandaria: Goddammit... What is she doing? Is the worm reshaping the maze, or what?!

The answer lies in the contents of the hole behind them.

  • Aphela: I made these tunnels with my own magic. What makes you think I can't reshape them? My magic has done nothing but get stronger ever since I made them!

The worm bursts from the ground in front of them, its head large enough to fill the entire tunnel, and its feelers whipping across the span of it. One of them eventually feels the young High One, and grabs it.

  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Iskandaria: Great, now you can actually fight like you mean it!

The wailing child comes to rest in Aphela's waiting left arm as her right readies a spell against the two thieving mercenaries.

  • Dominique: Tsuyoshi!

A voice suddenly pops into his head.

  • Dominique: Tsuyoshi, we've found where Thaddeus lives! We don't know what tricks he'll pull when he gets back, so we need all the backup we can get! ... Tsuyoshi?
  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Aphela: This child is mine. I may have proven my body too inadequate to give birth to a live child, but that doesn't mean I can't take care of one. Indeed, I think my care will bring this child up to the tier of Jesus Hosea Christ himself.

Her finger points squarely between his eyes.

  • Aphela: ... You tried, Tsuyoshi, but centuries of practice couldn't even protect you from me.
  • Iskandaria: TSUYOSHI, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!

The worm dives, and Iskandaria readies the only weapon she can think of - an explosive fire spell for it to eat. As it rises, she casts the spell at its throat, which shocks it enough to bring it down to a point where Tsuyoshi can scale it and reach the floating Aphela, at which point...

  • Aphela: (Oh, you sneaky-)

... her arm comes off.

  • Dominique: Tsuyoshi? Dammit, why can't you people answer me?! What's happening on your end that's so important anyway?
  • Tsuyoshi: If I don't respond, it's something VERY important, Dominique. I'll talk to you later.
  • Dominique: HEY, WAIT-

The worm begins to retreat to its native dimension as Aphela and her arm fall to the ground, along with Tsuyoshi and the little High One. Tsuyoshi turns to face her as Iskandaria readies another spell to finish her off.

  • Tsuyoshi: So, your mistakes for this morning are as follows: made your repetitive listening exercises audible from the washroom of your house, confessed your vampire identity and your clan's intentions, and underestimated a mercenary whose reputation you were fully aware of. That's one, two, three strikes. I'd say you're quite a ways out, dear.

Aphela has nothing left to say to her antagonists. All she can do is grab her disembodied arm... and reattach it.

  • Iskandaria: What... what are you doing? Is this the flesh-shaping you were talking about?!

As tendons reconnect and muscles regenerate, Aphela rises to her feet to face them again.

  • Aphela: You're right, Tsuyoshi... I have made a lot of mistakes tonight. Even for a fledgling, that is inexcusable. Indeed, that's not flesh-shaping alone doing that. It would have taken hours if it was.

She readies another spell, this time at both of them.

  • Aphela: That's the final nugget of knowledge you'll ever get from me. You already know too much.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... That's...

Tsuyoshi notices something swirling around her hands... the same darkness from which the worm arose, but different...

  • Tsuyoshi: SHE'S GOING TO BANISH US!!! ISKANDARIA, HIT THE SPELL WITH WHATEVER YOU HAVE CHARGED!!!

Her plan revealed, Aphela discharges the spell early, and in both cases, it meets the spells of both its targets before it can hit, effectively turning the banishment spell against its caster in an explosive rain of earth. Once the smoke has thinned, burning roots light the tunnel, but Aphela herself is nowhere to be seen.

  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Iskandaria: ... She's gone. Did we hit her?
  • Tsuyoshi: Most likely, she was just banished to the dimension she got that table and whatnot from. And the worm. And god only knows what else.

The child attempts to speak to get their attention, albeit in vain. Before long, however, the tired-eyed child manages to speak to their minds once again.

  • Infant: (... Won't stay away long... She... will return... Leave... quickly...)

It's not as though that wasn't the plan of action all along, but it's nice to be reminded of common sense every once in a while.

  • Tsuyoshi: Aye, it'd probably be wise to follow that advice. Let's go, Iskandaria.
  • Iskandaria: But how will we get out?
  • Tsuyoshi: Just keep looking, and if worse comes to worse, blow ourselves a path out.

And indeed, after half an hour of looking, that's what it comes to. The explosions rock the earth and awaken the surface people as they rain stones and dust upon the trapped pair below, until finally, they see a light on the other end - the colorful sunlight filtered through the shifting stained glass of the local Fire of the Mind gathering place. They have burst in as soon as the morning sun rose and Sunday services would begin - 6:22 AM. As the bemused servicegoers gawk at the uninvited guests, Iskandaria shies away from their prying eyes as Tsuyoshi extends his hand in greeting.

  • Tsuyoshi: Hail, fellow enlightened! I apologize for the rude intrusion. It's not nice to get stuck underground with no way out. I had hoped we would blow our way into some remote countryside, but as you see, it didn't turn out that way.
  • Servicegoer: You're lucky ya didn't cave the whole earth in on yaself!
  • Tsuyoshi: I hear you, sir, I hear you!
  • Servicegoer: I'm sure that bairn was rippin' it up down there while you were at it!
  • Tsuyoshi: She sure was! Now... Iskandaria?
  • Iskandaria: Huh?

Handing the child off to Iskandaria's unsuspecting hands, Tsuyoshi reaches into his Magic Satchel™ and grabs a big, 103-pound sack of earthenmarks, much to the shock of the onlookers.

  • Tsuyoshi: Take that as my voluntary communion check. Whoever's in charge of this thing can use it to fix that wall and that bit of the foundation we blew out with it. Sorry for all the trouble!

A waving Tsuyoshi and an exasperated Iskandaria slowly make their way through the crowd and begin the short trek back to their Oldsmobile (and hopefully, the job).

  • Iskandaria: God, that was exhausting...
  • Tsuyoshi: Just another day in paradise, huh?
  • Iskandaria: Fuck that, it was terrible. That point-ear made me so angry with her bullshit... Oh, and take this one before it shits on me.

Literally tossing the young one back to Tsuyoshi, Iskandaria visibly attempts to shake herself back into her pep, in anticipation of the REAL job that lies ahead.

  • Iskandaria: I just hope that kid won't get in the way when it comes time to knock Thaddeus in the head! I suppose we'll have to do the same to Billy when this is all said and done, too, since he directed us to that heap of trouble!
  • Tsuyoshi: Yeah...

Tsuyoshi tries to move himself to question Iskandaria about the point-ear hatred that seemed to cloud her reasoning so back in the depths, but he refrains - as exasperated as he is, he would merely like to move on to the reason they came to Britian in the first place. Still, the matter of the High One remains...

  • Tsuyoshi: Hm...

He stops hoists the still-nude High One up in the air, to the horror of some few passerby, looking in her eyes as her head obscures the sun in an ever-so-theatrical manner.

  • Iskandaria: ... Will you drop that thing already? Let's get this show on the road!
  • Tsuyoshi: This is a High One...
  • Iskandaria: Exactly, so either shoot it or return it to its parents!
  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Infant: ...

Her stare is blank, almost as though she's subconciously occuppied erasing her memories of her time in Hell... Almost endearing in appearance, from Tsuyoshi's perspective.

  • Tsuyoshi: No. I think I'll keep her.
  • Iskandaria: We don't need sex slaves for you to stick your spinning cock in!
  • Tsuyoshi: Ah... that brings back some old-ass memories, but that's not what I'm planning to keep her for. I think she has a role alright, but not with Aphela - with us.

The little one seems to come to consciousness again just long enough to hear what he has to say next...

  • Tsuyoshi: I think I'll name you... Sága Sigurðr... Yeah. I think that'll fit!
  • Iskandaria: ...

After hearing her name, the newly-christened Sága Sigurðr shuts her little eyes for the first slumber she's had in far too long. Putting her back in his arms, Tsuyoshi rings up the ever-beleaguered Dominique with that little phone in his brain.

  • Dominique: Finally... What was going on over there?
  • Tsuyoshi: I'll explain when I get there. We only got an old address, it seems, but it was... an interesting affair. I got a couple of new friends along the way.
  • Dominique: So did we... turned out to be Sifiniaz Ismialda, daughter of the High Ones... Christ, if it isn't Black getting into a car chase, it's this, and if it won't be the Godhead pursuing us, it'll be THEM. This case just keeps getting better and better.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Aye. It really does. I'll see you in a little bit. Where are you at?
  • Dominique: Near Tower Bridge, on the south side of the Thames. You'll see the Corolla parked in front of the place
  • Tsuyoshi: Alright. See you there. I'll be in the 1968 Oldsmobile 442.
  • Dominique: Your childhood dream car?
  • Tsuyoshi: My childhood dream car.

Hopping back in the driver's seat as the sun rises over the mossy buildings before them, Tsuyoshi settles the little girl into the back seat, a towel under her butt, and wraps her in a blanket to keep the cool morning air off her. As Iskandaria is just about to get comfy in the passenger seat, Tsuyoshi motions for her to get in the back and watch the child. The situation then goes forward as one would expect.

  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Iskandaria: ...

He sits in the passenger seat, with the little one in his arms again, and with a thoroughly miffed Iskandaria behind the leather-bound wheel.

  • Tsuyoshi: I-
  • Iskandaria: Tsuyoshi, let's get one thing straight. I can't stand those point-eared things.
  • Tsuyoshi: I'd guess not, since you toss that slur around like a hot potato.
  • Iskandaria: Well, what do you say I do? I can't stomach a race that would have the gall to act so high and mighty as their poor wallow in squalor and demon worship! That High One in your arms is just the apex of that life form! Not only that, but it's incestuous! How do I know? Because I've seen the Lsi grabbing and groping each other in public parks! They have no shame at all!
  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Iskandaria: You bring that thing along and return it to its parents. Keeping it with us only ensures that we have a snitch in the midst. Unless you plan on strapping her to a chair and forcing her to watch softcore cable porn with messages of loyalty to our organization worked in, I heartily encourage you to get rid of it. I don't care if it's humane or not, I just want it out.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Iska, calm down.
  • Iskandaria: How would you feel if I brought a snitch to you and told you-
  • Tsuyoshi: She's just a child. She knows nothing but what Aphela put her through. I wouldn't doubt it if she hasn't even seen her parents. Ask yourself what you would think if she was as human as you and I are. Just do it.
  • Iskandaria: I know what I'd do! But this is-
  • Tsuyoshi: This is a lanky, point-eared humanoid child. I lost my racism a long time ago. I only view these things as more interesting additions to my time on this planet. I don't care about the genetic connotations, because I cut all ties with the incestuous white supremacists with one drop of negro blood in them a long time ago. The elves, the cyclopeans, the Herlimians, the vampires, the liches, the beastkin, the chimerae, and more - I witnessed them all bubble to the surface, burst free from the laboratories, or trickle down from the heavens after the coming of the Black Beast, and it did nothing but make my continued existence better. I don't discriminate, on employers, targets, or anything else. I don't know about you, but after being dead for more than 1,000 years, I feel like I've outgrown it all, even though I stopped growing the instant I died.
  • Iskandaria: Don't try preaching to me. I know what you're saying. I've been gone for a long time, too. I just... *sigh*...
  • Tsuyoshi: I'm not preaching to you. I'm just giving my point of view. Unsolicited, yes, but I felt it was needed. Just give this one and the one Dominique and Black found a chance. You give me the impression that you want to come with us. Do you not?
  • Iskandaria: I do. And I know what you're implying. I'll have to deal with them, won't I?
  • Tsuyoshi: The more the merrier. Black, Dominique, and myself will welcome whomever wishes to accompany us. All it does is make unlife more interesting. However, we don't want conflict. You understand that?
  • Iskandaria: ... Yes.

Tsuyoshi, in a rare moment of seriousness, opens his eyes and looks down at the sleeping baby in his lap.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... We are all individuals, banding together for a sole purpose - the will of our employer. We do as we will, and I would never claim any leadership over this merry little trio I've kept together over the years. Take my words as suggestions, not orders, please. I just want to see what she'll grow to be... and I don't feel she belongs in the balcony of a castle, looking down on all the small people beneath her.

At the next red light, Iskandaria herself looks at the harmless bundle again.

  • Iskandaria: ... I'll leave her be. I'll just keep an eye on her. That ought to work. For now, let's just focus on Thaddeus. It's been too long since I've struck so close to the Godhead!

An uneventful drive is all that follows, and they manage to reach the house - green as something that lives off the sun, but with a more modest size - in only half an hour. No hangman's noose, no cracked sidewalk, and no croaking of migrants in the background. A smaller house, in a better part of town, with the beauty of Tower Bridge for a backdrop...

  • Iskandaria: Looks livable, eh, Tsu...?

Bored from the drive, Tsuyoshi fumbles about in his Magic Satchel™ for half a minute before he finally closes in on his quarry.

  • Iskandaria: ... You carry a child carrier in that thing?
  • Tsuyoshi: As my former employers taught me - you'll never know when you'll need old, unusable junk!

Strapping the old, dull-looking thing around his body, Tsuyoshi grabs a set of shrunken old pajamas out of the void and slips them on the limp little kid before gently slipping her into the itchy thing. As if Tsuyoshi's masculinity couldn't decrease any further, he now resembles a tacky, flat-chested mother (of white trash, mall-crawling inclination, whose only source of income is a welfare check).

  • Iskandaria: ... You just look stupid with that thing on your chest. Why don't you throw that it in the void with all that other junk?
  • Tsuyoshi: Why? I won't be able to feed her the fruit of a pair of clothespinned man boobs if I do that!

Iskandaria nearly bursts into laughter at the thought.

  • Iskandaria: Clothespinned man boobs?!
  • Tsuyoshi: Aye! I have some experiments of my own to do!

Perhaps it would only be natural to have a laugh before the apparent conclusion of a job. It's been something of a burr in the butt. Why not toss back the head and let out a laugh? Who cares about the shoes the locals toss your way? Who cares if you're now tantamount to a serenading cat on a wooden back alley fence at midnight? There's a slam to break the commotion, as expected...

  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Iskandaria: ...
  • ???: ... What is this? The sideshow stragglers?

Tall man, slanted eyes, short brunette hair, handsome face, and a .43 with a silencer. Not exactly the sight they were expecting.

  • ???: I don't think you want to go in there, darlings.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Are we at the wrong house?
  • ???: What do you think?
  • Tsuyoshi: I think we're at the right one. I just want to be sure.

His hand hovers over the hilt of his sword, ever so carefully awaiting his opponent's next move. They know what they're doing. They know what's at stake. However, as always...

  • Iskandaria: Tsuyoshi...

... to one degree or another...

  • ???: You're surrounded, darlings. It's okay, though. My home can hold two more. Come on in. Have a spot of tea. It's quite fresh, as is the music on the surround system. I'm sure your friends would tell you the same.

... one has the higher ground over the other.

  • Tsuyoshi: What kind of deviousness have you broken out this time, Gogmagog?
  • ???: You can refer to me by stale anti-Godhead pejoratives you can muster, Tsuyoshi, but we all know who I am.

As soon as they're seated in the lovely wicker loveseat, he unbuttons his suit, pulls back his beige armor, and reveals the tell-all they had been looking for all along.

  • Iskandaria: You? But... you don't look anything like what I had seen. Certainly not in the face!
  • Thaddeus: That's probably because the technology of the theocracy has far surpassed your wit and your... "penetrating" insight. I suppose you could call it that.
  • Tsuyoshi: So the photo was just a disguise you wore in public?
  • Thaddeus: Of course. Who in their right mind would go out into a hostile environment without the proper ghillie suit? You show your enemies that you're little more than a bush in the field of battle, and you show friend and foe alike that you're on their level in this grayscale hell. That ensures that not only will your enemies not fire a shot to start with, you'll also gain and maintain your own contingent of supporters. I chose the face of scum, because that's what I was surrounded by.
  • Tsuyoshi: But it's not magic. What could it be, then? Holobob?
  • Thaddeus: That's between me and my employers, darling.
  • Tsuyoshi: But what about where the... prior occupants of this premises wound up to?
  • Thaddeus: I don't think you need to know that. All I WILL tell you is "thank you". Thank you for validating old Willie's fears and making me look stupid. Perhaps I should reconsider those who provide my quartering in the field.
  • Iskandaria: What do you mean? He knew that Aphela was doing something in that house?
  • Thaddeus: Why else would he send a pair of mercenaries whose sole purpose in being there was to find me or find out where to find me? No one else saw anything to investigate in her. Everyone thought he lost his mind, but lo and behold, that transmission between you and the Murakumo, the fact that she's disappeared without a trace, and that child on your chest... especially that child on your chest.
  • Tsuyoshi: You think you'll take her?
  • Thaddeus: I know I will. He can struggle and fight like his sister if he wants. It doesn't matter. That same research that allowed Aphela to warp him as she did will change him back.

In the dark house, a shadow flits to and fro between the pitch black corners, watching their every move, hearing their every breath...

  • Tsuyoshi: You know, I have no reason to fear that gun, Thaddeus.
  • Thaddeus: I know.
  • Tsuyoshi: Then what do you have planned for when I shock you to death and go to collect my pay?
  • Thaddeus: I have a lot of surprises waiting for you. You don't know the technology that allowed me to change my face. You have no idea what our weapons can do to you now, ghost. This is no cinematic beam of ectoplasm. No, no, it couldn't be further from it. All it is... is a bullet. A bullet strong enough to shatter your brain so far beyond repair that even unlife won't be able to save you. Your companions will go to receive proper punishment for their crimes, but they're only accessories to murder compared to you. You and the faceless wench next to you will die where you stand, shot in the face like worm-riddled puppies.
  • Tsuyoshi: Watch that edge, girl. You might just slit your throat with it.
  • Thaddeus: Girl? Who are you talking to?

The sound of gunshots begins to ring from the outside. Sounds of blades in flesh soon follow, as do the sounds of tires, screeching as their parent cars scream to leave the bedlam.

  • Tsuyoshi: We've escaped these situations before, Thaddeus. To think you would end up with a different result was nothing but arrogance.
  • Thaddeus: You think they escaped?
  • Tsuyoshi: I know. It's time to leave this place. Anticlimactic, sure, but this is a biography, not the script to an action film.

She sees the bead of sweat upon his neck. She sees the tremble in his knee. She sees the smirk fall off his face. She sees the hammer cock back. She sees him lay the finger on the trigger. She feels the heat radiate from his body. She feels too late the quivering flesh of his neck.

  • Thaddeus: ... Ah. I missed.

A shot rang out, striking not the ancient murderer, not the defiled infant princess, not even the TV behind them, but...

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Ah, no... Are you okay?
  • Sága: AAAAHHH!!!! AWAAAAAAHHHH!!!!!!
  • Iskandaria: ... Buhah...

... the hapless tagalong who just didn't deserve it.

  • Thaddeus: I feel your claws in my neck, wench. What is it YOU are doing here?

The gilded knife of Sifiniaz fights to taste the blood of the elusive agent, even as her nails eagerly help themselves to his flesh.

  • Sifiniaz: No means no, Thad Cochran! I tell my subordinates to do things, I expect them to be done posthaste and correctly! I care not about your doings or the crowns of respect you seek! I am your better, if I am no one else's!
  • Thaddeus: Then slit my throat, since I've done so much wrong. Please, by all means, put blood on your hands and incriminate yourself so you can assist this massacring midget. All that'll do is ensure that your parents will put you to the guillotine when you HAVE to go back to them, and-

That insult was to be his final statement. His windpipe slashed with his carotid, he falls to the ground, blood gushing from his neck, before that same knife that executed him morphs into that infamous brand - the superheated metal which forever branded a body as the conquered ground of a High One, mashed firmly into his cheek.

  • Tsuyoshi: Damn... I was just gonna stick it through his eye and be done with it.

The tall one grabs both their hands and, like a chameleon, forces her eyes to meet both their gazes at once.

  • Sifiniaz: I AM NOT YOU!!! QUICKLY, WE MUST MAKE HASTE TO LEAVE HERE!!! THE MACHINE FLIES FLY FAST AND STRONG, AND THEY SEEK US ALL IN SHALLOW PLOTS OF DIRT!!!

Certainly lacking the daintiness of her stature, she drags them both by the arms and gently sets them in the speeding, cramped Corolla, which is once again fleeing the same brand of cop bots as before, but with a different face to lead them.

  • Sifiniaz: LOOK AND BEHOLD, THE LORD OF LAWDROIDS REVEALS HIS FACE TO US!!! WE ARE FUGITIVES OF THE GRANDEST ORDER AMONG SKELLS NOW!!!
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Ugh, a chief. I hope Black is driving.
  • Dominique: UNFORTUNATELY, SHE IS!!! I TAKE IT YOU'VE NOTICED THAT SHIT'S HIT THE FAN?!?!
  • Sága: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!!! WAAAAAAAAA-AHAAAA!!!!
  • Black: WHERE ARE WE EVEN GOING?!?!?!
  • Iskandaria: Huh...? What? Oh, SHIT, WHAT HAPPENED?!?!

The screaming only intensifies as the number of cars behind them increases, until finally, after a long, aimless looping, they reach Tower Bridge yet again... and a blockade.

  • Tsuyoshi: SOMEBODY TAKE THIS KID AND LET ME TAKE THE DAMN WHEEL!!!

Hastily ripping off the strap and shoving Sága into Dominique's hands, Tsuyoshi pries Black's hands off the wheel and readies to meet the challenge before them.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Dammit... only half a tank left... Jesus, I hope you're all ready for a one-way trip!
  • Iskandaria: What are you doing?!
  • Black: They'll still find us!
  • Dominique: It's our only chance! I've got this kid, just gun the thing and get us out of here!

Flicking the switches on the dash as fast as he can, Tsuyoshi picks the wheels off the ground, extends the wings in the rear of the car, allocates energy to the anti-gravity modules in the tires, and finally, readies the ignition to the launch driver.

  • Dominique: I never thought I'd say this, but THANK YOU for getting all of that extraneous trash!
  • Tsuyoshi: I wouldn't have gotten it if I didn't think it could be used! Just hold on!

Only 48 feet from the blockade, the bullets already begin to fly, as does the Corolla - the driver flashes white, until the energy allocated therein unleashes a shockwave grand enough to punch a hole in the concrete, and send them rocketing to the north, leaving a small piles of wrecked cruisers in their wake.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... One quarter... We won't last long in the air...
  • Dominique: Just keep going...
  • Tsuyoshi: No, you don't get it. This thing's on an old fuel cell. At this rate, we'll have to crash land before we can even think to make a proper landing.
  • Black: At least we got the job done, so we can cover expenses!
  • Dominique: Dammit, this is why I hate these close call jobs! Had everyone just been a little more careful, we would've at least been able to leave here peacefully! Now we're wanted... We won't be able to go anywhere without them tailing us anymore! We killed not just Ben's agent, but a big-time GODHEAD agent in full view of everyone!
  • Tsuyoshi: Calm down... Let's just try to crash softly up here in the middle of nowhere so we can actually think for a bit...

The force of their liftoff has propelled them far above the island, and by the time the fuel cell has hit its last leg, their only safe spot to land is...

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Looks like we're heading to the Cumbrians until further notice.
  • Iskandaria: We're headed to the mountains...
  • Dominique: How are we going to get out of here if we crash in the mountains?!
  • Tsuyoshi: Guess we'll have to think of something!
  • Sifiniaz: DO AS YOU MUST!!! WE SHALL SUBSIST AS NECESSITY DICTATES UNTIL-

Through gray clouds, Tsuyoshi just manages to avoid the dull spires piercing the sky, but not for long - soon enough, the hapless gang come to a fiery rest in the side of Kirk Fell. Groggily, they rise to their feet, lucky enough that only one of their living members escaped with mere bruises.

  • Sifiniaz: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Not feeling dizzy or anything, right?
  • Sifiniaz: I am alright. I am fine, now, in this fell... I just wish I were not in this fell.
  • Black: Well... well said, friend!

It's a sad time when even Black's optimistic voice cannot detract from the dejection all around them. Battered and bruised, with a smoldering husk being all that's left of their best means of escape, they look about the hills and see the rain on the horizon. Rain, thick and dark enough to blot out even the bright morning sun of London, so dark that even the halfling Sága does not squint in its presence. At this point, there's only one thing they haven't tried. With a stumble in her step, Black cuddles next to her lover and softly speaks into his ear...

  • Black: Maybe we could call Gustav? Surely... a... a little help wouldn't be too much to ask of him. Right?
  • Tsuyoshi: I'm already on it...

Somehow, the fourteen seconds it takes him to answer feels positively agonizing. Finally, he picks up.

  • Gustav: Ah, Tsuyoshi! Where-a you-a been-a, huh?
  • Tsuyoshi: Oi, Gustav! Spaghetti, ravioli, tortellini, ah!
  • Gustav: AH-HAH! Whatcha need, son? Got me some good news? How's our dear photogenic man today?
  • Tsuyoshi: He's... taken care of. It was a bigger job than I anticipated, but we got it done. I... think you'll see it in the news before long, unfortunately.
  • Gustav: Ah! How you take care of it's your business! I just be glad you got it done in the first place, no? You got pictures?
  • Tsuyoshi: ... No. Forgive me, but the scene was a little bit... hectic for me to work my photography skills. Like I said, though, he'll probably wind up in the news. Just know that he won't look like the pic you provided. I think it's some new second skin technology they employ in the Godhead now, but I'm not certain.
  • Gustav: Oh, it's alright, no? Just come on over, and when I see things are taken care of, I'll getcha your hard-earned moolah to go! Ah!
  • Tsuyoshi: Well, that's just the thing... During our escape, we got trapped in the Cumbrians. We had to resort to... drastic measures, and now, our ride is totaled.
  • Gustav: Ah! That's terrible! Oh well, I won't gamble the money away before you get here, no?
  • Tsuyoshi: Could you... send help?
  • Gustav: No?
  • Tsuyoshi: Could you send help? DISCRETELY send help? I don't like asking for this, but I have a small fry with me now, and she can't go too long without food, water, you know...
  • Gustav: ... Eh! ...
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Gustav? Hello? Gustav?

His expression sinks. For the first time in this expedition, he feels truly lost.

  • Black: How'd it go?!
  • Tsuyoshi: ... I guess he's just not feeling nice today. Looks like we'll be hoofing it.
  • Iskandaria: ... I've been here before.
  • Tsuyoshi: As have I.
  • Iskandaria: Then you don't need to be told that these are strange places, I take it?
  • Tsuyoshi: That's the whole reason they still aren't settled. So beautiful, yet so...
  • Iskandaria: Dark... I don't believe this place has ever been safe since the Dark War.

Indeed, with such an unwelcoming, alien aura teeming in the misty mountaintops, one would never think this place was anything but vile. It's as though the place has been suspended in time... like it never truly progressed from the dark days of yore. The sun cannot penetrate the fog of the mountains as easily as the eyes that seem to lurk beyond the reach of focus can.

  • Dominique: *cough*... Ow... I guess... I guess the kid made it out okay... with just a... quivering lip. And I feel something in my chest now...
  • Sága: (... Miss?)
  • Dominique: What...? Did you say that?
  • Sága: (Thank you for protecting me. Your bosom was very soft. It was like there was no impact at all...)

Dominique can only stare at the little one and wonder where the sound she hears is coming from.

  • Dominique: Tsuyoshi? Has this kid spoken to you since you found her? Who is she?
  • Tsuyoshi: ...

Tsuyoshi simply stands and stares at the ground, almost catatonic.

  • Dominique: Tsuyoshi?! Dammit...

Just before she can pound him in the back of the head, he turns around, with an expression grim enough to stop her in her tracks.

  • Tsuyoshi: More importantly, I'm already seeing news reports about that fiasco in London.
  • Dominique: ... You're kidding...

Sifiniaz, too, is attempting to find out the extent of public knowledge of the assassination and its aftermath, but to no avail.

  • Sifiniaz: How can you see what I cannot? I receive no waves of radiation out in these hills...
  • Tsuyoshi: That doesn't matter. "Marauding gang of terrorists murders special agent, kidnaps Lsi daughter", "Burrow discovered in Wembley home reveals torture chamber that housed the missing Lsi heir", "Special agent Thaddeus Cale brutally stabbed to death after thief uses Lsi child as human shield", and all kinds of other shit. They're already rolling out the propaganda machine.
  • Sifiniaz: Lsi heir...
  • Dominique: Then they're busy. Did they lose us, at least?
  • Tsuyoshi: ... I'm afraid not. "... The terrorists were boxed into a blockade at Tower Bridge when the vehicle, a modified 2015 Toyota Corolla, went airborne after utilizing a launch driver, one powerful enough to leave a crater in the road where they achieved liftoff. The driver's tail was seen moving northbound before it disappeared, implying that the vehicle's fuel cell had run dry. Given the likelihood of a crash landing and the presence of two members of the Lsi family in the vehicle, the police will be collaborating with military forces in an investigation of all lands north of London, with mobilization expected to begin in the next hour. Suspects are considered armed and dangerous, and citizens in the rural north are urged to stay indoors and lock all vulnerable entryways until this investigation is completed..."

Dominique can almost feel her heart sink into her gut.

  • Dominique: ... They're coming... They know where we are... And we have no means of escape...
  • Black: HEY!!! If this is true, we need to put out that beacon over there! If we can't see far in this muggy atmosphere, they can't see us either!
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Good idea.

Out from the Magic Satchel™ comes two weathered old shovels, and thus, the two begin the work of staunching the flames with the surrounding earth. The tedious work certainly takes up far too much time - half an hour in, and the smoke finally turns from black to white, at which point they call the half-buried shell a finished work.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... We need to get moving.
  • Dominique: But where do we move to?
  • Tsuyoshi: I don't know, but it's not southward.

And how convenient would it be... that the sea-borne fog to the north only seems to get thicker than it does in the south. The only option remaining is one where sight is sacrificed for some chance of escape, and it's one that hardly beats a standoff with the Godhead.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Whatever you do, don't light torches, shine flashlights, or start magelights. I don't want them to have any indication that we're here. If they will see us, it will be an individual who strayed too far into the fog, and he'll be killed quickly and quietly, before he has any chance to report contact. This will be our modus operandi until we leave. We do not need a standoff, and we do not need to stay here longer than a day, or they will find us, and at that point...

His eyes dash back and forth between Sifiniaz and Sága, worry written across his face...

  • Tsuyoshi: ... at that point, we won't be able to leave without casualties. We came here to kill a man, and we did. Now we need to leave in one piece. We've been fortunate enough to make new friends here. Let's not have two out of three die on us.

Thus, they make their way off the side of Kirk Fell, overlooked by the shadowy figure of Scaffel Pike, and reach its peak. The steepness of the northern slope deemed too dangerous to cross, they instead opt to take the longer route down. Proceeding thus, Sifiniaz finds a moment to press Tsuyoshi about a question she had on her mind for a long while.

  • Sifiniaz: Tsuyoshi, sir...
  • Tsuyoshi: Something wrong? You aren't thirsty, are you?
  • Sifiniaz: No, not in this moment. First, I must introduce mine self... Sifiniaz Ismialda, daughter of Tosah Lsi and Emerdina Lsi. I make pornographic lesbian fan stories in my spare time. Good to meet you.

Awkwardly, they shake on it.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Tsuyoshi Nishimura, dead guy who makes other people dead. Well met.
  • Sifiniaz: Yes... Now... I must ask you something of grave import to myself... The Lsi heir you spoke of was not me. I am not the heir of the Lsi. I was chosen for nothing. I am just their progeny with female flesh.
  • Tsuyoshi: Yes, and?
  • Sifiniaz: ... Was my sister kidnapped? She is the only one I know of that could have been the heir!
  • Tsuyoshi: ... You never knew you had a brother?

The look of confusion and the mental scrounging thereafter makes the answer clear enough.

  • Sifiniaz: A brother? No... No, I never knew of any...
  • Tsuyoshi: Do you see that kid in Dominique's arms? That's him... or her, now.
  • Sifiniaz: But... but this "torture chamber"... What did that mean? I was never informed of a brother, let alone a missing one!
  • Tsuyoshi: ... A vampiric dark elf doctor managed to stay in the city, presumably on Thaddeus' blessing, and she evidently had a bone to pick with your family. She stole the boy, brought him to a specially-made chamber underground, turned him into something with functional organs of both genders, and used him as the first magic battery.

The revelation drives Sifiniaz' face to resemble a lightly microwaved tomato, with all its shiny redness and heat.

  • Sifiniaz: Yes... This shall surely end relations between my family and the deified heads in power...
  • Tsuyoshi: Not as long as you look like a victim, alongside her. Remember, we kidnapped the both of you. You're not here of your own will, whether you say you are or not. It's just another Patty Hearst situation of kidnapping and indoctrination that no one will care about until it affects them personally, as far as the public is concerned.
  • Sifiniaz: Oh! What is his nominyme?
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Sága Sigurðr. She didn't have one, so I named her.

Sifinaz stares at the squirming baby in apparent fascination. The reality of the Lsi being so apathetic as to neither name their child nor inform at least one of their elder children of its existence just seems to fade away into nothingness, as the path gets rougher, the fog thicker, and... the droplets begin to fall.

  • Black: That rain feels cold!
  • Tsuyoshi: Grand... Dominique, do you think that blanket and those pajamas will keep Sága warm? Do I need to carry her?

Dominique simply shrugs at the questions.

  • Dominique: She seems comfortable in between my breasts, and she feels plenty warm already. I can't really help with that, though, so it may be best for Sifiniaz to share her own heat. Those droplets do feel icy, after all, and...

Deeper, darker clouds on the horizon only foreshadow a tempest of epic proportions for such a land, more often visited by light snow than heavy rain nowadays.

  • Dominique: ... it looks like we're going to get a lot of it.

Sifiniaz wastes no time in snatching up her little sister, cuddling with her and exchanging her own unique perspective on things in a quiet, gentle voice.

  • Iskandaria: At least she has someone to keep her warm and keep her entertained, I guess. But, Tsuyoshi... You realize that we're not going to be able to just, I don't know, swim somewhere with these two in tow, right?
  • Tsuyoshi: I'm not a dumbass, Iskandaria. I know Scotland is too far north for them to make it that way. I'm not pinning my hope on a benevolent beach savior or an abandoned boat with a full fuel cell.
  • Iskandaria: Then how are we going to get out of here? Scotland is the only civilized area north of here, and chances are, it'll be just as dangerous as south England is, if not more, since they'll extend the search that way sooner or later.

Tsuyoshi shakes his head, exasperated, but confident.

  • Tsuyoshi: Elusion, improvisation, and survival. Those are the three words we can run on here. We can do little else. There are so few people out there willing to risk their necks for a rival pack of sellswords - in this situation especially - that we have no other choice. I don't want to put Sága through more than she's already gone through. We can only sink into these hills and hope something worse than the Godhead doesn't wait for us there.

They reach the bottom of Kirk Fell and continue on between the crags all about them, as noises begin to fill the whole of the area - not just the sounds of faraway planes and helicopters penetrating the stillness of the region, but growls, chirps, and squeals from the dark. As the fog gets thicker and the sounds of pursuit grows louder, so to does the group merge ever closer together. Soon enough, the rain begins to fall in torrents, as lightning flashes and thunder reverberates throughout the mountains. The rain becomes far too thick and frigid for Sifiniaz and Sága to tolerate, as they begin to chatter their teeth and tremble beneath every drop. At the first sight of woodland, the group decides to come to a stop and make camp to wait out the rain, with nothing more than a tarp spread out above a 7 by 7 foot radius.

  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Dominique: The rain should provide SOME cover, at least. We're in the woods, taking shelter from heavy rain under a green tarp. How determined would they have to be to find us now?
  • Tsuyoshi: That's not what I'm worried about now.
  • Iskandaria: That racket back there just confirmed my worst fear.
  • Dominique: What?
  • Iskandaria: The things that lurked here were never pushed out. That means they're not likely to try an on-foot expedition, but it does mean that we're never really safe here.
  • Dominque: What do you mean by "things"?
  • Tsuyoshi: Last time I came here, they looked like savage, incestuous hill people with a few beastkin girls among them. That was before I met you or Black. I have no idea what they could have evolved into after all that time.

Iskandaria's stare goes blank at the thought of the inhabitants of these mountains.

  • Iskandaria: ... I think they came from the south after the Dark War. Those types infested the rural areas down in the southwest, especially, but I never thought they would have come up so far. Certainly not without the high elves driving them here.
  • Tsuyoshi: They found a good place to hide from people they didn't like. Official types. I'm almost certain that's what it was.

Their origins don't matter. Not now. All that they can do is sit and listen to the raindrops drowning out the region's usual silence, barely able to see under the darkness their parent clouds cast about the land. Not even the sounds of the machinery above can drown out the whimsy of nature's sudden tempest.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... It's beautiful, isn't it?
  • Iskandaria: It is. This place is nothing but beautiful. I only wish its mountains didn't house so much... filth.
  • Tsuyoshi: Its triumph over that setback only adds to its beauty, don't you think?
  • Iskandaria: ... Yeah. It really does.

Hours pass. The sleepless unliving in the group succumb to that primal urge to lay back and bask in the world around them. Closing their eyes, they cannot dream, nor can they sleep. They can only retreat to their own imaginations until some external stimuli should rouse them. Sifiniaz is the only one to fall asleep, and even then, only lightly, not due to the cold in the air, but fear of the prospect of a return to the life of royalty... and separation from the new center of her existence.

  • Sága: Mm...

And it is her, the one among them who has been through so much in so little time, who refuses to sleep. She peeks her little head out from under the tarp, just as far as she can get away with, so she can see the lightning flash from under the leaves of the tall trees. Every few seconds, it pops again, sending the strangest chills down the slender infant's spine. She loves it so much. The rain, the thunder, the lightning, and the nearly untainted wilderness around her. It is in this formative period of her life when she discovers that Martense-esque fascination with the mountain and its rages, tears, silence, and solitude. She wants to crawl away from her big sister to see more of it, but she refrains. The warmth she provides is not only protection from disease, but also a comfort, given what surrounds her - she knows what the others do not. She knows the things that lurk in the mountains and lurch toward the woods are not men, nor beastkin. They are something worse. Far worse. But she does not cry. She does not wish to flee. Somewhere, in the back of her mind, she wants to see what these things really are. But when their footsteps snap a fallen limb, fulfillment of that wish is inevitably delayed.

  • Tsuyoshi: Dammit... What was that?
  • Black: I didn't hear anything!
  • Tsuyoshi: You weren't even paying attention!
  • Black: Neither were you!
  • Dominique: They'll hear us. We need to stay quiet. Just stay on the alert, and we'll know when to mobilize.

She hears them retreat over Tsuyoshi and Black's arguing. Almost able to make out the form of one, she only succeeds in seeing one definite feature - the hole in its head.

  • Sága: W... wai...
  • Sifiniaz: No... only 180 more seconds... I will not be tardy... nor am I 'tarded! Insults... taunt me with their ineffectiveness...

Their argument finally comes to a halt, with a highly recognizable expression on both of their faces.

  • Tsuyoshi: You really need to calm down...
  • Black: I'm sorry. I'm just so... tense! And you... you look a bit... tense. Afraid. Worn-down. C'mere...

She grabs him by the hand, and with little resistance, she drags him off to the woods, rain still pouring above their heads.

  • Dominique: ... Fucking idiots.
  • Iskandaria: Where are they going? We need-
  • Dominique: Don't tell me what I already know. Of course we need to stick together. It's just that s/he's an idiot and he's compliant with her.
  • Iskandaria: But what are they going to do? Go find the source of that noise?
  • Dominique: No. They're going to make more.

Their path is short, but winding, as they make their way through the thick woods. Soon enough, they reach a hidden grotto, with a lone laurel tree at its center, surrounded by rainwater. It is here where they will practice the same old song and dance they've done for centuries...

  • Tsuyoshi: Black...
  • Black: Shh...

She crosses her fingers and grins, optimistic and happy as always.

  • Black: You'll feel so much better once I've pulled this thing off your chest...

That thing isn't his clothes, but that's what comes off regardless. So too does her Herlimian suit, and once again, her alien body becomes his plaything, his body becomes hers, and all becomes harmonic and peaceful between the pair. Something about the athletic build of Black and the androgyny of Tsuyoshi's petite body appeals to the both of them, as does the person beneath the skin. Little time has passed since their last liaison, yet still, they attack each other with the ferocity of starving dogs. It is the only pleasure an unliving may hope to feel - that dulled pleasure of procreation, the act of seeding something beyond oneself, even as the act comes, but not the product. One can only guess why this pleasure's survival is nigh universal, but none would care about the reason. Only that it's there to enjoy. Grasping their bodies, kissing, whispering, gasping, thrusting, squeezing, and shouting such classic lines as "stay in me forever"... It's just another day for them. They are whores in every sense of the word, but more than anything, they are friends. They have loved and lain together for hundreds of years, and to deny the relationship that bloomed therein its proper due would be nothing less than a gross injustice.

  • Tsuyoshi: Black...
  • Black: Come on... Do it...

... yet to say "I love you" seems an impossible task for the both of them. Perhaps this kind of friendship is the final stage of their relationship. But that can wait for another time - duty calls today.

  • Sifiniaz: Mm...?
  • Dominique: ... Jesus Christ, don't tell me they're sending in minitanks...
  • Iskandaria: ... It's just one... and... that's not a headlight on the front... Is it on fire?

Too far away to tell, but too close for comfort.

  • Dominique: Sifiniaz, wake up. We're going to find Tsuyoshi and Black and get out of here.
  • Sifiniaz: What is their whereabouts...? Are they... copulating in the woods...?

High elven precognition never ceases to amaze.

  • Dominique: ... Yes. Butt naked in the woods, and that's probably how they'll be dragged out.

In that fated moment, before they all leave the safety of the tarp, little Sága cries out...

  • Iskandaria: Look!

Dark creature, of putrid gait, lurching closer to the swerving tank, its gunners vainly attempting to land a shot on its amorphous form, before finally seeing their own gun ripped off and shoved through the engine. It forces the barrel deeper and deeper, until finally, it ruptures the fuel cell, with the subsequent explosion rocking the area around it.

  • Dominique: ...
  • Sifiniaz: IT IS NO MOUNTAIN MAN!!!
  • Iskandaria: ... That... that's nothing like what I saw...

The flames can mask the creature's presence, but not the silhouette its fuzzy visage etched into their minds. Overpowering the crackling flames of the wreckage and the pounding thunder and rain, it cries its shrill, agonized wail, sending a vile chill through the bodies of the ghosts and reducing Sifiniaz to tears.

  • Sága: W... Wr... WRAITH!!! WRAITHS!!!

Sága's first word manages to penetrate the deep woods and send the copulating pair scrambling to dress themselves and meet the threat, as it rises above the flames, a strange green light encompassing its shattered form as it begins to feast upon its charred victims.

  • Iskandaria: ...
  • Dominique: Wraiths? What does she mean "wraiths"?!
  • Sifiniaz: I... I... I cannot say... vile... terrible... THINGS!!! THEY SEEK OUR FLESH!!! THEY ARE NOT PRODUCTS OF NATURAL NATURE!!!

Black and Tsuyoshi, in nothing less than hastily slapped-on attire, burst forth from the thicket, only to balk at the sight... of not only the feeding taking place before them, but the growing number of shadows seeping forth from the hills around them, lumbering toward their position.

  • Tsuyoshi: Wraiths...
  • Black: Ghosts that eat?!
  • Dominique: I DON'T KNOW WHAT THEY ARE, BUT WE'RE LEAVING!!!

Just as the gang coalesces to flee, they hear something strange - a rumbling, almost like that of a hungry stomach. Surely, it couldn't be their collective hunger joining together in a chorus...

  • Sága: WAAAAAAAAAAAA-AAAAAAAAAH!!!

They turn to face the cause of her screaming, and already, one specimen has closed in on them - a tall black shape, at least nine feet in height, with three spindly fingers dangling from one sleeve of its ragged tunic, a long knife from the other. But even these features pale in comparison to the face - behind the tousled white hair, blown to and fro by the storm, lies nothing. Naught but a hole, itself a seeming portal to the deepest, most vile reaches of what remains of its deep-seated psyche. Merely looking into the void therein is enough to knock Sifiniaz unconscious.

  • Tsuyoshi: TAKE HER AND GET OUT OF HERE!!! I'LL HANDLE THIS THING!!!
  • Iskandaria: LIKE HELL YOU WILL!!! WE'RE IN THIS TOGETHER!!!
  • Black: I'LL GUARD THE ROYAL KIDS!!!

Thus, the roles have been chosen. With Black standing awkwardly over the unconscious Sifiniaz's face as Sága rests on her bosom, the rest of the group stands ready to face that ever-growing army materializing out the hills. They can only hope to slay this one weeping angel in time to flee the zombie-like throngs that seem to follow it, but their confidence does not budge. All at once, Tsuyoshi unleashes the thunder cracking around them, Iskandaria shoots the thing with her shotgun, and Dominique summons all the steins and swords she can muster against it... and yet, once the fervor has died, the creature simply stands there, drawing the flesh it lost in the attack back to it. Rotted tendons reattach to their proper places, muscles slowly crack back into place, and bones regain their marrow and twist into their former frame. And through it all, the creature's head was never so much as damaged.

  • Tsuyoshi: Hah... Looks like our brave little stand failed, ladies!
  • Dominique: No shit...
  • Iskandaria: I can't believe it... It's like something out of a movie...

Tsuyoshi grabs both their hands as Black takes her cue to pick the Lsi sisters up and leave. Despite what they expected, there is no chase. They see the wraiths drawing nearer and nearer from the shadows, but they never see the faceless one again. They can only hear its stomach, roaring loudly in their minds, overpowered only by something even worse - its inhuman mind-touch, manifesting as the warped falsetto of a broken young woman, whispering its indecipherable Gaelic brogue, though it knows the deafness of the ones it speaks to. Eventually, Tsuyoshi looks back, and finds the worst has come to pass - the eyes in the sky have been notified of the minitanks destruction, and have closed in on the woods they're in.

  • Dominique: THIS REALLY COULDN'T GET ANY WORSE, COULD IT?! TALK ABOUT A BOTCHED JOB!!!
  • Tsuyoshi: WE'RE NOT DONE IN YET!!! WE JUST HAVE TO GET OUT OF HERE, AND-

More explosions come from all around them. The sky and the ground seem to light up with fire, as the shambling legion overtakes the interlopers who would seek to capture their prey. It is here, in this ever-expanding warzone, that Tsuyoshi spots their lone opportunity for escape - a large four-seater recon unit, with its mounted driver pulled off and eaten.

  • Tsuyoshi: ISKA, SHOOT THAT DRIVER ON THAT JEEP!!!
  • Iskandaria: ON IT!!!

A clap of thunder hides the blast of her gun, and she manages to kill the driver while wounding the other occupants, which the group quickly shoves out. With Black manning the gun and the children under the roof, Tsuyoshi slams on the accelerator and dashes for the north. They know not where they're going, nor how they will leave the island, but all they can do now is survive. As Tsuyoshi sees in the rear view, their escape has succeeded - with the army of darkness clashing against the army of God, they finally have a chance to break away from the pack. The rain continues pouring as they drive along a secluded footpath in the mountains, hoping for some chance of letup.

  • Black: WHAT NOW?! CAN THIS THING DRIVE OVER WATER?!
  • Tsuyoshi: Hell no! What made you think it could?!
  • Black: I WAS HOPING WE COULD MAKE A BREAK FOR IT AT THE COAST, BUT I GUESS THAT IDEA'S A STILLBORN CHILD!!!
  • Iskandaria: ... Wraiths...

Tsuyoshi slaps his hand on Iskandaria's shoulder, an ironic grin across his face.

  • Tsuyoshi: Hey, don't worry. That's certainly not what I remember seeing either. We both shat the bed when it came to being ready for this!
  • Iskandaria: But... what ARE they? Unliving? Undead? I can't tell...
  • Black: GHOSTS!!! THAT!!! EAT!!! WHO CARES WHAT THEY ARE?! THEY'RE WEIRD, SO WE SHOULD FEAR THEM AND KILL THEM ANY TIME WE SEE THEM!!!

Good plans, explained simply - ever and always Black's specialty.

  • Dominique: I just shudder to think what kind of surprise will await the high elves when they realize that they settled a land full of... those things. I mean, did you see all of them?
  • Tsuyoshi: Fuck yeah, I did. That's an army right there. I don't even know how they were downing helicopters like that, but it must have been through some means advanced enough to threaten a substantial fighting force.
  • Iskandaria: I saw it. It was with some sort of acid. They put the acid under pressure and shot it at the pilots, and it was clearly strong enough to melt through bulletproof glass. That's something. I've never seen something that corrosive, not in all these centuries I've been dead.
  • Tsuyoshi: Nor have I...

All this distance put between them, and they can still hear the cries, the rumbling, and the explosions behind them...

  • Iskandaria: ... I guess they took precedence over us. Ah well. I suppose we should take what we can get.
  • Tsuyoshi: Mm-hm. I suppose something that was producing more casualties for your men than the people you set out to kill WOULD be more important.
  • Dominique: I just wonder what that one did to Sifiniaz. One look at it, and she went out cold. No dreaming, no sleep talk, no nothing... A pulse, but nothing else.
  • Tsuyoshi: Mortals must be more sensitive to that kind of post-mortem visage. I know I would've been terrified if I saw something that indescribable while I was still alive.
  • Iskandaria: ... How did the other kid take it?
  • Dominique: She's actually okay. I don't know if she caught a glimpse of the thing or not.

She did. She did, but she knows not what she saw beyond the gaze of death. Her sole word was spoken out of fear and concern for those around her. This knowledge has no such impetus behind it. Nevertheless, Sága cannot help but wonder what it all meant - the imagery behind the void, the mind-touch it imparted, and the mangled words it spoke... The only one whose slate was clean enough to catch it all is the only one without the faculties to efficiently vocalize it.

  • Sága: Mmm...

She still hears their stomachs howling, their pain moving them to their own twisted serenade, and their pleasured grunts as they feasted upon the flesh of the slain. Still, she wonders how she knew their names, and how she was able to look into the creature's void face without consequence.

  • Tsuyoshi: I think I'm gonna call someone if we don't get out of here within a day.
  • Iskandaria: Who do you have to call?
  • Tsuyoshi: Hastur. Some pack of blue elf legionaries from Mars that will do just about anything for the right price. They're mercenaries like us, basically, but we never took jobs that demanded we rape a man's wife to teach her a lesson.
  • Dominique: I hate those people so much. Have you even seen them? They're a pack of augmentation addicts, and they have the faces of meth heads. They're scum. Why would you ever think to hire THEM to bail you out?
  • Tsuyoshi: Because this shit is getting more real than any job I've tackled before. I've seen shit, but not this kind of shit. I've never ran into these so-called "wraiths" before, nor have I gotten waist-deep in Godhead troops before. I'm not one to shy away from conflict, but I'm also not one to fuck around with these people.
  • Iskandaria: Even so, give us some time before you call them. I think I've had my fill of point-ears for this job. I just want to leave this island and its pisskins behind. Albania probably looks better than this place by now...

Tsuyoshi gazes at the tumult in the sky with her. He shares her desires to leave and move on to the next trial. He has no desire to stay here and confront the steady flow of troops, nor the unknown legion of the mountains they now face. And yet...

  • Tsuyoshi: ... I'm not willing to risk anyone's skin just to preserve my pride, Iska. If we're going to last, we need to think about each other, and that's what I'm trying to do.
  • Iskandaria: I don't know about the kids, but you don't need to worry about me. I've seen what Dominique and Black can do, too. We're all capable of handling ourselves.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... But for those two, lying on Dominique's lap... I want to be sure they make it.

Even as Sifiniaz's head rocks violently amid the many bumps in the mushy, rocky road, she does not rouse from her slumber. The creature's visage almost seems to have shocked her comatose.

  • Iskandaria: ... I'll tell you one thing, Tsuyoshi.
  • Tsuyoshi: Spit it out, then.
  • Iskandaria: Those kids may not be made to be princesses in crystal towers, but they're not made to be killers, either. They'll have to be trained for that. I may not like their kind, but I still think it would've been wiser to take them back to their parents. They're just liabilities to us now.

And with that statement, Tsuyoshi's ever-present number 3 grin returns to his face. He knows that the challenges their presence face will only be another reason to press on in unlife. As there is no reason to live without toil and reward, there is no reason to unlive without toil and reward. It is with these fragile flesh dolls that he seeks to till the ground and grow a big, powerful orchard... perhaps, it seems, because he never had the opportunity to do so before. He has had many, many places to stick his manhood over the millennia he has been dead, but never once has he had the opportunity to see the result, nor the life it would live. In unlife, he has done so much, yet so few.

  • Dominique: I know what he's thinking. They're his kids now. They're all of our kids. And really, why not allow them to be that? We get lonely here, even with each other's company.
  • Black: THE MORE BRANCHES OUR SAPLING GROWS, THE GREATER ITS PROGRESS!!! SOON ENOUGH, WE SHALL RAISE THEM AND OURSELVES INTO A GRAND, MIGHTY OAK!!!

It is that cheery, unburdened statement that carries them through the goddamned rain, the dismal skies that brook no luminary intrusion, and the groaning, echoing reminder that their pursuers have not forgotten their smell. Tsuyoshi keeps the pedal pushed, Black keeps the little caravan safe, Dominique provides a soft pillow for the traumatized and the insightful, and Iskandaria... is Iskandaria. They all have a place here, and nothing reminds them of that like the peril at hand.

  • Tsuyoshi: (... What an exhausting roller coaster today's been.)

With the exception of the odd wraith appearing in the periphery of their vision, the ride is generally placid (about as much so as a ride in torrential rain can get, at least). Opting for the obscure route, they decide to take a detour deeper into the mountains, hoping to reach what remains of a central lake through the craggy passages in the central mountains. On the way, it becomes clear that neither Tsuyoshi nor Iskandaria can name where they are any longer. The place has simply changed too much over the centuries they have been gone. It's depressing, really - nothing makes men feel like ants more than the helplessness of ignorance.

  • Tsuyoshi: How's Sága? Is she hungry?
  • Dominique: She's just enjoying the ride. At least somebody is.
  • Tsuyoshi: Aye...

The lull in the field gives him one more chance to check the news, hoping that the subject has since changed from Thaddeus' death and the kidnapping of the Lsi heirs to the wraith legion's convergence upon the pursuing army...

  • Tsuyoshi: "... The military's pursuit of the terrorists into the Cumbrian Mountains was met almost immediately by an ambush by a large force of humanoids not far from Kirk Fell. They were apparently well-armed, given that five helicopters were lost in the skirmish, but survivor accounts indicate that the weaponry used was neither conventional nor magical. The personnel's association with the terrorists, if any, remains unknown. However, upon the retrieval of the Lsi children, Lord Ben Nagutsuki will personally lead a 2,500-strong company into the area and meet them again, with the intent on cleansing of the clear and obvious threat to civilians in the region..."
  • Iskandaria: So we're still the top priority. How typical.
  • Dominique: If we can get to a spot where we can hide without being sandwiched between two hostile factions, we might just be able to wait it out.
  • Iskandaria: God only knows what's left to find in here. We just need to keep the pedal to the metal for as long as this fuel cell will last and leave, never to come back.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... I recall seeing a township somewhere in here when I came a few centuries ago.
  • Iskandaria: Really? I never saw it. Why do you bring it up?
  • Tsuyoshi: That's where I'm headed. We need a spot for Sifiniaz to rest at, and if it's still inhabited, we may be able to get Sága something to eat and drink while we're there.
  • Iskandaria: ... That's a big gamble, Tsuyoshi.
  • Tsuyoshi: Do I need to remind you that we've already shat the bed on this one? The least we can do is keep the living alive.

Iskandaria sighs and throws her head over the back of the seat, exasperated with Tsuyoshi's preoccupation with the point-eared tagalongs they've accrued on this venture.

  • Iskandaria: (... Maybe I should've waited. Maybe I should've stayed here. I didn't know I was dealing with an unprofessional sentimentalist. You had best prove yourself worth my while, or I'll only see you to your next destination off this dead island. This is bullshit.)
  • Tsuyoshi: Stick that lip out and pout, Iskandaria. It only shows how little team spirit you have in this situation.
  • Dominique: Does she have a problem with elves or something? She always looks at these two so... spitefully.
  • Black: DAMN DIRTY RACIST, YOU'LL GET THIS THING DELETED AGAIN WITH YOUR BACKWARD ATTITUDE!!!
  • Iskandaria: I don't see the worth these two have when one faints at the sight of a threat and the other can't take care of herself. That's all.
  • Tsuyoshi: And that's an understandable critique, but it's called investment, Iska. Besides, something's improving deep down, I hear - you're calling Sága "she" and "her" instead of "it". Just wait it out. We'll make it.

Indeed, he's not a good man, nor a wise one, but he knows potential when he sees it. Iskandaria has survived far more misfortunes than a bullet to the head, Sifiniaz wants to aid those who would take her to places she would never see otherwise, and Sága will be what she will become under the care of her new family, and nothing else. In over 1,000 years of unlife, he has dealt with more shit than he can say, and in this time, what was once an angry and bitter young man has mellowed into someone who can barely critique anyone any longer, for he has seen more in more people than any individual would ever wish to see. He knows it is not his charisma that holds them together, but a mutual bond - a bond forged of familiarity with one another's troubles and conditions, of the knowledge of going beyond a life unfulfilled, only to come back as something completely different, unable to feel much of anything, and all alone in the world...

...

And it is through these means that a vapid midget managed to drag a technophobic machine doll from the ruins of Kagutsuchi, and how they managed to pull an amnesiac alien from her broken body, and go into the howling Spanish wind together after s/he cremated h/er shattered remains... The machine doll became the matriarch, the midget the incompetent patriarch, and the alien his casual lover, in whose bosoms they both found comfort after a hard day's killing. It all started off so rocky, but in the end, they could not leave the pull of the black hole between them, for it was just too infrequently that they found fellowship in their continued defiance against the chipped blade of Death. It could not be wasted. It gives them all something to unlive for - their continued companionship. Sappy, yes, but true. The sapient psyche, even when extracted from the corpse, can only withstand so much solitude...

  • Tsuyoshi: ... There it is.
  • Iskandaria: Hmm?

... But I digress. At the peak of a tear between two tall hills, they see it, in the middle of a valley, with a lake to the north and a tall peak to the south. Here they are, Marylith Township, population 1,083. Tall houses, short houses, a well, and a church, all made and remade from masonry and wood, and without a single modern convenience in the world. It is little different than Tsuyoshi remembers.

  • Iskandaria: ... Damn, you were right. Not a satellite in sight or anything... They don't even have 2000s technology.
  • Tsuyoshi: What, did you think I was bullshitting? I was an Amerifat, and even then, I knew that this was a popular spot for tourism and whatnot. It'd make sense that after that national park nonsense was tossed out the window, someone would want to settle these parts, especially if they didn't know those wraiths lived here too. Now then...

He locks the parking brake and crawls about the vehicle like an insect, seeking something, but not anything apparent to any onlooker.

  • Iskandaria: ... Uh...
  • Tsuyoshi: "Uh..." what? I'm looking for a livery.
  • Iskandaria: Oh... Yeah.
  • Tsuyoshi: Yeah, stupid, I don't want them to think we're Godhead folks, nor do I want them to think we stole this. I CERTAINLY don't want them to think we stole this. I want to be sure they'll only see some newfangled hoverwheeler thing when we get down there. I don't care how isolated these people are, we can't be taking risks like that. If we do, that'll be a real gamble, Iska.
  • Iskandaria: I get it, I get it. You could at least tell someone what you're doing before you crawl all over the place like an autistic cockroach, though.
  • Tsuyoshi: Hey, now, don't you go messing with autists! Some of them are stone cold enough to freeze their dick, so what makes you think they won't ice your ass?! WITH THAT SAME FROZEN MEMBER, AT THAT?!?!
  • Dominique: ... Hehe.

That rare Dominique chuckle begins as Tsuyoshi hops back in and releases the brake, sending them down a path so steep that all he needs to do is tap the brake every now and again, to keep them from flipping over and turning into a piece of modern art on the way down. The path is lined with pretty cedars, shooting up high enough to almost challenge some nearby hills for supremacy of the valley's skyline. Once they reach the town's border, the townsfolk are surprised to not only see a motor car disrupt their typical lunchtime proceedings, but the crew manning it. One swarthy farmer marches forward to make their names known to the town at large.

  • ???: Oi, trav'lers! Me name's Scooter McBrian! What's yours, if I may ask ye?
  • Tsuyoshi: Fufufufufu... Funny you should ask...

Out of the Magic Satchel™ comes an old Washburn M10 bass, showing just how grand an entrance Tsuyoshi is planning on making...

  • Dominique: (Dear god...)
  • Tsuyoshi: My name is Tyrone NaQuan, and we are... a sloppy, hastily-assembled mockup of the 3301 Village People tribute band! We make only the best and brightest original tunes!
  • Scooter: Hm... How good are your tunes?
  • Tsuyoshi: HOW GOOD ARE OUR TUNES??? Why, filtered through our spectrum, Five Finger Death Punch sounds good! Evanescence is trve goth music! J-rock is given substance and style! I'll leave the final judgement to you, Scooter, to whom I send my sincerest condolences for being named as such!

Shockingly enough, he and the surrounding populace genuinely believe it. They truly believe that this motley crew and their bass-wielding midget of a mascot are a traveling cover band that makes original songs. Mountainwilliams will believe anything if you package it correctly, it seems.

  • Scooter: Well, can't argue with that! What brings ya here, Tyrone?
  • Tsuyoshi: I have come here to requisition quartering for my band so that this unconscious siren may recover from a climbing accident that occurred only a few hours ago! Surely, there are some among you that would be so kind as to provide for...

He grabs poor Sifiniaz by the hair, unceremonial and tactless as always.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... This paragon of point-eared beauty!

They stare in awe at the young woman, whose skin gleams in what little light can penetrate the clouds, brightly enough to blind Scooter et al even under the shield of their umbrellas.

  • Scooter: O-of course! We have an inn at the east end of the town square! I'm sure Lady Vivian will be willing to house ya for a while!

Shoving his bass back in the void (but seeming to shove it up his ass), Tsuyoshi hops back into the driver's seat, waving and flashing peace signs before he drives like a cautious old lady through the old stone streets of the untouched mountain town, receiving the prying eyes of every awestruck citizen along the way.

  • Iskandaria: They've never seen a point-ear before? Geez, you'd think these were the people I saw last time I came here. Only they could be that isolated. They're everywhere these days.
  • Tsuyoshi: Don't question it. Just roll with the punches and go with the flow, and we'll find an opportunity to make a break for it in no time.
  • Dominique: I can't complain. I just hope this isn't another too-convenient scenario.
  • Black: WHAT DO YOU MEAN "TOO-CONVENIENT"?!?! YOU THINK THIS IS ANOTHER RUSE?!
  • Dominique: I'm worried about it, yes. That, or it's just a corner we're working ourselves into.
  • Tsuyoshi: But still-
  • Dominique: You don't need to say it. I know why we're here. I just hope she recovers quickly. An extended stay can only mean bad things for us.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... She will. I'm sure of it. Unless that thing fucked up her head, we should only have to wait until she wakes up...

Even at a snail's pace, they soon reach the town square, bloody gallows, web-ridden well, and rusty prison cages and all.

  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Iskandaria: ... I guess they're not exactly enlightened when it comes to punitive measures.
  • Tsuyoshi: I guess the gallows are better than the guillotine...

Their treatment of miscreants notwithstanding, they park the recon in front of the building and proceed inside, to a (comparatively) clean scene - aside from the wet prints left by recent arrivals on the worn wooden floor, the place is well-kept, and Lady Vivian herself is hard at work scrubbing the counter down when she sees the new customers at her doorstep, the stone-faced girl holding a tall girl in her arms as the midget beside her struggles to wrap an infant comfortably with one hand.

  • Vivian: Ah, what have we here? A traveling party? Your kind are rare as of late.
  • Tsuyoshi: Hey, it must be less maintenance for you to do, right?
  • Vivian: Yes, but it's also less money, and fewer stories to here, you know?
  • Tsuyoshi: Oh, I hear you there... Now, then, if I may... I need a room for that sleeping beauty there.

Strolling out from behind the counter, Vivian nearly stumbles on her oversized dress on the way to examine Sifiniaz. Her short blond locks tickling the sleeping one's nose, she determines the obvious - she's only asleep, and not dead.

  • Vivian: Yes, I have a room for her to use!
  • Dominique: ... But why the inspection?
  • Vivian: I've been in this business since I was a kid, sweeping the floors for my mother. I've seen people use this place as a hospital, and even hide the recently deceased in here. I just have to be careful, you see.
  • Iskandaria: Sounds like you get an interesting clientele.
  • Vivian: You have no idea! Travelers are such fascinating people, but they do the damndest things! I've even had one grope me! With my flat chest! Please, fetishists need to rest in Hell, not an inn...
  • Tsuyoshi: That's just men for you. I know. I am one, after all.
  • Vivian: Oh? I thought you were a girl... Hm...

Before Tsuyoshi can even have his typical reaction to the mistake, she comes in close and examines the bundle in his arms. A point-ear, just like the tall one, but small. An infant, clearly, but no normal one... The infant's eyes shoot an unblinking stare at hers as she slowly moves her hand in to pet her soft hair... and when she does, something inside her screams bloody murder.

  • Sága: AAAAAAAAAAAH!!! WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH!!! AAH!!!
  • Vivian: Oh, dear... There's no reason to soil yourself at my touch, little one...

Tsuyoshi's face goes blank at the statement.

  • Tsuyoshi: She shat herself?
  • Vivian: I'm afraid so. I heard it, I smelled it, everything. Go on, I'll clean her up. I like kids.

The very thought makes Sága cling to Tsuyoshi for dear life.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Nah, nah, I've cleaned up dog shit, cat shit, and rodent shit before. I can clean up humanoid shit, too.
  • Iskandaria: Pff... Looks like your little pet has finally consumed too much real shit to hold it all in! Do you want to keep her now, Tsuyoshi?! That's the biggest thing she's done since we've gotten her! HAH!!!
  • Tsuyoshi: Oh, don't worry, I'll keep it and make sure its final destination is your head, just like that bullet!
  • Iskandaria: ... What bullet?
  • Dominique: ... At least this job is still entertaining. I can't deny that much.
  • Tsuyoshi: WhAt d ID YoU jUst ʎɐs?! ... Hur... sHI... at YOU t...O...
  • Sifiniaz: *Huff*... *huff*... what is... transpiring... in the world around me...?

Somehow, she has regained enough consciousness to see and hear what lies beyond the veil of sleep. She lacks clarity, but she is aware... Only to feel some foul grip on her foot, dragging her back down to the abyss...

  • Sifiniaz: NO!!! I DO NOT WISH TO SEE YOUR FOUL MAGIC!!! I WANT TO WAKE UP!!! I WANT TO WAKE UP!!!

She slams back onto the ground she leaped from to achieve that one moment of lucidity, and that same figure greets her... gray trench coat, hat of a witch, and featureless face, communicating through hell-borne means.

  • ???: Why rish to turn you⸮ You here have no fear, and you here have all rightly is yours. You sense fail to have make. I am not your enemy. I am your savior. Listen to me, so I may free you from that wrought prison of flesh...

The creature's sole lucid statements send Sifiniaz fleeing as fast as she can, doing the exact same thing she has been doing ever since she was scared comatose... Under a jet black sky, under the skin-burning stare of the grinning moon's eclipse of the violent pulsar sun, she runs through a flat field of flesh grass, where the faces on the cliffs stare at her with unblinking eyes and speak unintelligible messages that she can only glean one meaning from - surrender.

  • Sifiniaz: I cannot... flee forever...
  • ???: I'm coming. Do not run cease. It delays the failure inevitable longer than nothing.

She sees a deep pit between a burial mound and a pyramid battling its presence with the sun atop its spire... She ponders jumping inside, but the presence beyond will allow her no further - its hungry mouth and grasping tentacles reach from beyond its personal Hell to end its famine with what amounts to a blade of grass to a full-grown bull... But she flees again, running over the burial mound... and running... and running... and running... until she realizes the mound itself has become another planet, birthed by the grim, decaying ground of the field below, and writhing with the starving ghosts of the banished, who attempt to take her down with them. This time, she has nowhere else to run. Pulled by her tritails and all but one of her limbs, she has no choice but to break out her trident. Even though it decays as she wields it, she beats back the indigenous ghosts as they take progressively larger bites out of her muscles, until she finally falls the mountain-sized drop back to the planet below.

  • Sifiniaz: ... My limbs... are sawed off... I can go no further... Wake me up... Wake me up...
  • ???: You can't.

Its hand comes forth from the ground beneath her and locks its giant fist in a death grip around her neck.

  • ???: This punishment must disobedient be. You are disappointment.
  • Sifiniaz: Agh... UGH!!!

Her trident takes on a life of its own, as it aims for her heart and fires. The strike hits its mark, but it cannot kill her... It is the touch of another creature on her feet that sends her into a frenzy, and it is this stimuli that-

  • Sifiniaz: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

Her blurry vision sees the group in muddled action around her, all staring at her as she violently kicks and thrashes to force Vivian and her son off her as they prepare to lay her in her bed.

  • Vivian: DoN't StRRgle NoW!!!
  • Tsuyoshi: SFINAZ?!
  • Sifiniaz: THEY SURROUND US EVEN AS YOU SPEAK!!! WHY DO YOU NOT FIGHT, OR EVEN FLEE?!?! THEY WISH TO FEAST UPON OUR FLESH AND LEAVE OUR SOULS FOR THE DEMON GODS!!!

She screams, thrashes, prays, and curses, even as Tsuyoshi attempts to calm her... His hand reaching her forehead, she bites it, screaming incoherently at the top of her lungs.

  • Sifiniaz: THE MAN WITH NO FACE MOCKS ME EVEN NOW!!! HE WILL COME AND FULFILL THE PROPHECY OF BLOOD AS HE RIPS THIS TOWN FROM THE ROOTS IT LIES UPON LIKE AN OAK IN A TORNADO!!! RUN!!! RUN, BEFORE THEY SEIZE YOU AND RIP THE FLESH FROM YOUR BONES AND LEAVE THE ANGELS AND THE DEVILS TO TAKE YOU ALL HOME!!!

Their voices are inaudible to her once again, and eventually, she breaks free of the human lockbox binding her. Barely able to keep her footing, she runs for the door, but no sooner does she reach the knob than she feels a sharp, ringing pain the back of her head - a pistol whip, courtesy of Iskandaria.

  • Tsuyoshi: Godamut!! YoU Di... haVE to hIT her... J... uS...
  • Iskandaria: Say... dId... to SaVe... lF...

Surrounded by pain and blackness, she again lapses into slumber. She awakens several hours later, not feeling at all dazed or harmed. The bed is comfy, and there are no signs a struggle ever took place.

  • Sifiniaz: Mm... Hello...? Any individuals present here?

Groggily, she lifts herself out of the bed. There is no clock, but the darkness outside would indicate that it is deep in the night, and the rain hasn't let up since she was last lucid.

  • Sifiniaz: ... Where am I? They took me here... to this bedding facility...? But where are they...?

She nearly trips over her own foot on the way to the door, as the storm thunders and groans behind her, the lightning lighting her way. The old, rusty knob seems to struggle at first, as if the door is locked, but after enough working, it finally frees up and opens. The candle-lit confines of the inn suggest no habitation here. It must be the early hours of the morning - there is no noise loud enough to penetrate the rain and thunder. Not even a snore...

  • Sifiniaz: Tsuyoshi? Dominique? Iskandaria??? Black??? Where are you all? Where is my little sibling?

She hears no response. Nothing. The entire place is tidy and clearly inhabited, but there is no one there now. A small cuckoo clock on the wall gives the time clearly - 2:13. If it is AM, the people should be asleep. Knocking on the doors, however, produces no response, and all are locked. Eventually, after what feels like hours of pacing, she becomes so desperate as to kick one of the doors until it shatters, only to find no one inside. A well-made bed, a room lit only by lightning, and a used glass, but nothing else.

  • Sifiniaz: ... TSUYOSHI??? ANYONE??? COME OUT!!! I'M AWAKE!!!

All throughout the inn she rushes, only to come back to where she started - her own room. A note lies on the side table.

  • Sifiniaz: "Outside"...? Outside? What is out there? Rain? More of... of them?

She drops the letter in disbelief, and bolts toward the entrance as fast as she can. Forcing open the door, she cannot believe the sight that lies beyond - a grand, vast expanse of torched mountains and ruined buildings. From the torched beams of the homesteads hang the twisted bodies of those who inhabited them, with marks suggesting something other than mere fire caught hold of them...

  • Sifiniaz: They have come here... Come here... and left me to live...

The lightning pops angrily above her, and even as the storm continues to pour upon her, so too does something else - ash. There is no fire to burn anything, but there is still ash, falling from the sky in sheets, clashing starkly with the rain above.

  • Sifiniaz: ... This isn't real... This is a dream... THIS IS A DREAM!!!

And yet, when she hopes to find safety in the inn she came from...

  • Sifiniaz: ... It... IT'S HELL-BOUND!!! What...

She looks down at her body. She is the only thing that escaped the holocaust, but now, she feels the heat upon her, even in the freezing rain. She is burning, with no visible fire around her, and everything anathema to it surrounding her.

  • Sifiniaz: I'm kept here, bound by the will of that... monster...!

She can only run again, as she did before. Run, run, and run again, until she scales the mountain and sees the land below. All around, the life has been purged. Mars itself is more lively than the Cumbrians she sees beneath her. A lone helicopter in the sky is her sole source of salvation left.

  • Sifiniaz: HEEEEEEEEEEEEELP!!! PLEASE, I NEED ASSISTANCE!!! I WANT TO GO HOME!!! I WANT TO GO HOME, I WANT TO GO HOME, I WANT TO GO HOME!!! I MISS MY PARENTS, I MISS THE PALACE, I MISS THE WHOLE OF IT!!! JUST EXTRICATE ME FROM THIS PLACE OF FIRE AND EVIL!!!

The helicopter ignores her, fleeing from her pleas as fast as it can. Sifiniaz collapses on the peak, left aghast at the pilot's apathy to her plight. Soon enough, though, she sees the craft turn... almost as if it wants to help her now... But once it attains 90°, the winds pick up intensely, and force the craft into the side of the mountain. The wreckage is far away, yet its acrid smoke reaches her little nose all too clearly... as does the visage of the occupant.

  • Sifiniaz: Tosah... Tosah?! TOSAH!!! FATHER!!!

She leaps from the peak in spectacular fashion, diving headfirst for her still-breathing father, determined to save him even as she sees the land stretch itself and keep her practically locked in the same spot. Eventually, her head lands roughly on some unseen force between the peak and the ground, and the blaring buzz of space engines fills the land. A grand interstellar ship parts the clouds and beats back the tides of the storm as it slowly makes its way toward Earth. Suddenly, it stops. The hatch bursts open, and from a bloody, venereal shape bursts a malformed fetus, its cries piercing the very stone around it, deafening the unfortunate princess for more than a minute.

  • Sifiniaz: ... *sniff*... Dear god, dear god, I implore thee well, extract me from this chain of torment at the bottom of hell...

She clasps her hands and prays as hard as she can, repeating that same mantra over and over again. Soon, her prayers receive some response - the infant turns its cries to machine-like whirring, turning its head like an owl's to face the despondent one behind it. Their stares meet, and it instantaneously morphs in front of her.

  • Sifiniaz: ... WHAT IS IT YOU DESIRE FROM ME?!?! WHAT WRONG HAVE I DONE YOU?!?!

It responds not verbally, but through the shock of seeing her short-lived friends' skulls adorning it - its mangled male genitalia is pierced with the head of Dominique, its nipples with both halves of Tsuyoshi's head, its ears with both halves of Iskandaria, its nose with Black's Herlimian head, and its rotten black heart with...

  • Sifiniaz: Sága... FIEND!!! YOU WOULD RAPE A YOUNG ONE'S BODY FOR USE AS YOUR OWN ADORNMENT!!!

From its belly emerges a familiar... face.

  • Sifiniaz: You...
  • ???: It is vio you latenot child or IsL.

Before it can wrap its hands round her throat again, she feels another touch upon her neck - the violent jarring of two hands and the smack of a cold, wet rag upon her face, imploring her to wake up.

  • Vivian: Is she opening her eyes yet?! I can't tell!
  • Tsuyoshi: Her eyes are opening! Get your son off her neck!
  • Vivian: Stop, John!
  • Sifiniaz: I'm awake... I'm awake...?
  • Dominique: Are you alright?
  • Sifiniaz: My head hurts... Are you grounded in the clay of reality, Dominique...?
  • Black: ARE YOU, SIFINAZ?!?! YOU SOUND SO DELIRIOUS!!!
  • Sifiniaz: I woke up in this place this morning, long before sunrise... and... the whole of the land was set in Hell's burning confines... What time is it? That was around... two of the clock, antemeridian...
  • Tsuyoshi: It's 3:00 PM. You woke up before we set you in that bed, made a break for the door, and Iskandaria had to smack you in the back of the head. In hindsight, that was probably for the best. We don't need to lose you in the mountains. We'd have no choice but to cross our fingers for a convenient meeting later on and leave it at that.
  • Sifiniaz: Ah... So that explains this large bubble on the back of my cranium... Thank you, Iskandaria. I feel somewhat superior to what I would in the cold rain, starving and delusional.

Iskandaria glances over in silent acknowledgement of her gratitude before redirecting her stare outside the window.

  • Iskandaria: ... I kept you from being stupid. That's all I did. You think that rag and that strangling brute of a kid woke you up? Think again.

A swarthy, crimson-headed, and fanged cyclopean in a thick black jacket taps her foot in the corner of the room, her expression leaving no doubt as to her discontent.

  • Cyclopean: Yes, some people attempt to sleep out the sun and the rain, and what do they hear? Feet stomping, people screaming like a clan of monkeys in a warzone, and cookery banging against a soft skull! Pitiful point-ears and ghosts alike, screaming and yelling, orgy-style! Most amusing.
  • Sifiniaz: ... Eh? What did you do, melanistic one-eye?
  • Cyclopean: I kept that thing in your head from cornering you and slipping its stuff into bad places. Believe me, I know how to keep a pervert out of a woman's cracks and crevices.
  • Sifiniaz: ... Ah... You must be mystically-versed to crawl around in my gray matter like that... Thank you, miss...
  • Cyclopean: I've just been around long enough to know how to cure bad dreams. I've never seen one of those... things in there before, though.
  • Sifiniaz: Mm... Who may I address this kind act of unwarranted servitude to?
  • Cyclopean: Pardon?

Sifiniaz can't help but crack a wide grin at her incomprehension.

  • Sifiniaz: ... Your nominal title, miss...
  • Cyclopean: ???
  • Tsuyoshi: Your name.
  • Cyclopean: ... Oh. My name's... Minerva. Minerva Song.
  • Sifiniaz: ... What's Minerva's song about?
  • Minerva: ... Lots of things.
  • Sifiniaz: You should tell me about them sometime...

She slowly looks up to Tsuyoshi, concern writ across her fading eyes.

  • Sifiniaz: My sister... Where is my sister?

Simple words coming from a complex young woman, with an equally simple answer.

  • Tsuyoshi: In my lap. I think she's been worried about you, but if she has been, she hasn't shown it for the past half hour. She's been sound asleep.
  • Sifiniaz: My... nightmares... have not leaped from my ear to hers, have they?
  • Tsuyoshi: Not that I can tell.

Indeed, she sleeps soundly in his lap, prepared for the worst, but hopeful for the best upon her awakening. Sifiniaz reaches her long, trembling hand out to scratch her head, but decides not to.

  • Tsuyoshi: I don't think she'd mind, now...
  • Sifiniaz: No... do not rouse her from her slumber... Just lay her... lay her next to me...

Slowly does he lower the delicate bundle into the arms of its exhausted sibling, and from its contents does she, at last, find some comfort from the terror she witnessed in sleep. She draws Sága to her side and buries her head in hers, her ringed, bagged eyes nearly obscured by the child's locks...

  • Sifiniaz: Thank... mm... My eternal gratitude to you, Tsuyoshi...
  • Tsuyoshi: Dominique, Black, I want you both to keep an eye on her. I'm going to go speak to Iskandaria and Minerva in the lobby for a bit.
  • Dominique: Why can't it be said here? There's nothing you should be keeping secret, Tsuyoshi.
  • Tsuyoshi: I know. It won't be only them. I'm going to need to ask around and see what the people here know about the wraiths.

At the mere mention of the word, Vivian and John drop the dishes they were carrying.

  • Black: Aw, man! What was that for?!
  • Vivian: ... W-what did you say?
  • John: Something just caught us, that's all...
  • Tsuyoshi: Uh... I said I'm going to see what the people here know about the wraiths.

They flinch when he repeats it. Something about the thought seems to elicit nothing but fear...

  • Vivian: ...
  • John: ...
  • Dominique: Well, since you dropped a bunch of plates on the floor and shattered them into a million pieces like that, do you know anything about them?
  • Vivian: ... Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

Certainly, though, the way the mother and child exchange looks and narrow their gaze at the inquisitive party doesn't suggest it's in the manner one would expect.

  • Vivian: ... How many nights do you expect to stay?
  • Tsuyoshi: Not many more. Why?
  • Vivian: You had best hope it won't be much longer. The struggle that elf put up will make your rate go up... doubly.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Well, excuse me. I don't know what happened. I didn't expect her to go off like that.
  • John: I'm sure you didn't. Once she comes at my mum, you'll find her bleeding on the floor with a hole in her head.

Slamming the door on the way out, they leave the whole group in utter confusion.

  • Black: Wow, cunts really do give birth to as many dicks as they take!
  • Tsuyoshi: An about-face if I've ever seen one...
  • Minerva: They're usually so nice, too... Ah well. We going or what? You woke me up this early, so we ought to at least make the early times productive.

They walk over the shattered dishes daintily, shutting the door just as quietly behind them. The entire inn has become quiet, the air having stilled to a stiflingly stagnant state. Slowly, they walk to the lobby, only to find Vivian - and no one else.

  • Vivian: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: Is anyone around?
  • Vivian: ... I don't know. You tell me.

Suddenly, Iskandaria feels a faint, warm breeze on her back... right above her neck, at the base of her skull...

  • Iskandaria: ... Can I help you?
  • ???: I think you can only ask questions that we ain't too keen on answerin', lass.

They turn around quickly, to an unarmed young man who stares them down with a look of blank, dry, lifeless wrath.

  • Minerva: Easy, man. We're not after anything bad. We just want to jet out of here. Judging by your face, I guess you would, too. Eh?
  • Iskandaria: I think you'd be wise to keep from sneaking up on me like that, too. I'm on edge, after the day I had. I might do something we'll both regret if you act like some slinky chink with a knife in his hand.
  • ???: I think you'd better watch your mouth.

They backpedal to avoid confrontation, and upon turning, they find the lobby noiselessly packed with patrons, all of whom give them that same cold, wrathful stare...

  • Vivian: Want to check out? I think that would be best for you. Johnny's getting anxious with you here, anyway.
  • Tsuyoshi: No, ma'am. Not until our charge has fully recovered...
  • Vivian: Better knock on wood for that one, cupcake.

Tsuyoshi snatches Minerva's arm and runs back the way they came, only stopping when he's certain to be out of earshot of the mob behind them.

  • Tsuyoshi: Your room's here, right? Next to ours?
  • Minerva: Uhhh... Yeah, it is... But-
  • Iskandaria: Get in.

They unceremoniously rush into her room and bar the door behind them, trapping them in the near-total blackness of the place - shutters shut, lights off, candles snuffed, electronics off... nothing can be seen, aside from Minerva's single, glowing red eye.

  • Tsuyoshi: I don't know about you, but I'm not going back out there. I'm not attracting that mob's ire while I have two ailing kids in there.
  • Minerva: Then why didn't you just go back to your room and keep them safe, dumb-dumb?
  • Iskandaria: We're not stupid, Minerva.

Minerva's tiny, impish grin alone gives all they need to know away.

  • Tsuyoshi: You're a vampire.
  • Iskandaria: And an obvious one at that.

Minerva's eye dots around the room, perceiving all that's in it as only her kind can as her hands tremble in poorly-hidden agitation as her mind struggles to choose whether to fight or flee... But, in the end, she relents. Walking over to her desk, she turns on a lamp, its old-timey bulb flickering on with just enough vigor to light up that one corner. Seating herself on her bed, she tosses one leg over the other and quietly pats her hands together at the triumph of the two unliving over the one undead.

  • Minerva: Good job, men! Good job. I'm glad that one moment of weakness was all it took for you to see through a veil thinned by a sleepy head. You're more experienced than I thought. Both of you.
  • Tsuyoshi: It doesn't take a genius to figure out that a fanged fruit who sits in the dark is a vampire.
  • Minerva:Oh?
  • Iskandaria: All that threw me off was your skin, but then, I've seen darkie vampires before. It's all about native pigment.
  • Minerva: That's nice, that's all very nice and commendable, but where does it all fall in all of this suddenly turning against me?
  • Iskandaria: It's not turning against you. I think Tsuyoshi and I would be in agreement that it wouldn't be wise to stay out in the middle of that mob and ask questions. Thus, we turn to you... the second vampire we've encountered, but one that can actually help us.
  • Minerva: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: You're not wanting to stay here. You know as well as we do that those things, those wraiths are going to come for you sooner or later. You're someone who might be able to get us out of here. I know how well the vampires are connected. Surely, you can get someone out here to extract you.

Minerva twiddles her thumb and bites her smiling lips...

  • Minerva: ... I'm not going to say a lot, but you should know that I'm not from here.
  • Tsuyoshi: I can infer that, but-
  • Minerva: No, no. I'm not from Earth.
  • Iskandaria: Well, you're clearly not Herlimian, so that can only leave a few other planets. Let me guess - Mars. The Ruddy Quarter.

She snaps her fingers in approval.

  • Minerva: Born and raised, babe, born and raised. I know I'm a vampire. I got bit when I was a kid, sucked a few necks and my late boyfriend's wrist, and that was it... I don't even know the clan of the man who bit me. I'm of muddled blood. I know that much.
  • Tsuyoshi: So, what?
  • Minerva: The Senate won't want to hear shit from me. I might as well march up to a Godhead encampment and bite a man on the neck. I'm hardly safer on here than I am on Mars, but I'm a little safer. As long as I'm safe from that... thing... I'll be okay. Maybe. We'll see.
  • Iskandaria: ... Well, these freaks are being REAL helpful to us, huh, Tsuyoshi? Fuck... I hope Vivian will at least serve drinks.
  • Tsuyoshi: As if that'll do anything to your dead ass.
  • Iskandaria: Beats the piss out of nothing... Come one. Let's go. We won't reveal your secret, Martian. Just go back to sleep in your coffin or something.
  • Tsuyoshi: I still need to figure out what we're going to do to get out of here...
  • Iskandaria: Fuck it! We'll jack a boat and lose them after a firefight! I'm tired of fucking around for safety precautions! Geez, I thought I tagged along with Tsuyoshi Nishimura, not Dr. Double Meat Patty!
  • Tsuyoshi: Will you keep your voice down?! We don't need them hearing us! Tugging at my nostalgia heartstrings like that won't make me any more lenient!
  • Iskandaria: Then what's your plan? Like, what's the plan? Like, what's the fucking plan, man?
  • Tsuyoshi: ... I-
  • Iskandaria: YEAH???
  • Tsuyoshi: ... I guess I'll call Hastur. Fuck it. Fuck iiiiiiit...

Just as his brain enters the deep web to find them, a shocked Minerva opens her eye wide an interjects.

  • Minerva: Hastur? THE Hastur?
  • Tsuyoshi: Mm-hm. Scum, but scum that's good at what they do.
  • Minerva: Obviously not. They're gone.
  • Iskandaria: ... "Disbanded" gone, or...?
  • Minerva: FUCK no. More like "dead" gone. More like "dead and left to rot in the Martian desert" gone.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... I reckon you aren't shitting with that one. Their site has been Godheaded.
  • Iskandaria: Hastur? Goddamn...
  • Minerva: You haven't heard of that law dog up there?
  • Tsuyoshi: I haven't been to Mars in over two centuries, dear.
  • Iskandaria: And I never concerned myself. I didn't want to go to the frontier.
  • Minerva: ... Okay. That's good on you. Just be careful when you go up there.

Tsuyoshi and Iskandaria balk at the blatant tease.

  • Tsuyoshi: Don't stop short like that. Who is it? What is it?
  • Minerva: How it affect you? It doesn't.
  • Iskandaria: We have a whole mob out there that would affect you if they knew what you were. Spit it out!

She slowly sighs and tosses herself onto her bed, nearly banging her head on the board as she does.

  • Minerva: ... Listen, I don't want to reveal too much about myself. I know you all have nothing against me, personally, but I don't want to become easy prey for mercenaries in the future.
  • Tsuyoshi: Just say it. If nothing else, would it convince you to open up if I said we'll all get out of here together?
  • Minerva: ... Hm...
  • Iskandaria: Dammit, Tsuyoshi!
  • Tsuyoshi: ... It's the least I could do after she ended that bad dream for Sifiniaz. She helped. We can at least see her through.

She opens her big eye wide and stares at the shuttered window, able to pick out the light from what little penetrates the slats, and she begins to open up...

  • Minerva: ... If you promise to... *ahem*... It's a thing in a space suit. Lots of arms, only two natural ones, and a big helmet made of this tinted glass that didn't bust after a canon hit it. The worst part about it is its stare... with those blue eyes. One's clear and penetrating, but the other is so... dull, painful, and hideous to look at. I could never quite make out its face from the outside, but those glowing eyes could penetrate through it all... All I saw clearly was some misshapen head at the center and this... thing, floating around it. I could see hair, but there was something else in there... It almost looked like a fish... Anyway, all I know about it comes from my own experience with it. It seems to pursue these people that the Godhead would, like vampires, paramilitary types like Hastur, you know.
  • Tsuyoshi: So you were a target.
  • Minerva: Oh, yeah... For a very, very long time. I first got bit... before I turned ten. I first saw that thing when I... went to a parade with my mom, to ease the pain of the changes that brought and all.

She chooses her words as carefully as possible, ever wary that the two she speaks to are only going to turn on her once she has served her purpose. As they will soon discover, she has little reason to trust outsiders such as them, especially after all she had been through.

  • Minerva: ... It came during the parade, and it singled me out. I ran as fast as I could, never looking back out of fear of getting shot in the face... That was the day I flew the coop, and I didn't come back for years. All that time spent away from home, and it pursued me for every day of it. But even though it was such a menacing thing, it never seemed to hunt me for a simple kill. I saw it shoot a couple of lawmen after they stomped on a woman's face after they arrested her husband for scuffing their ship, I saw it mow down a bunch of blue elf cultists before they sacrificed an infant to their desert god, and... when someone had me down on my knees, forcing me... out of my innocence... it... it... shot the man. It killed him, and it let me go. It was too busy dousing him in fuel... and by the time I looked back, he was on fire, and it was just looking. I saw another set of blue eyes looking at me, but it wasn't from the head. It was from that fish thing. But it didn't pursue me any further that day. I almost think... it'll stop and take care of worse people before it'll come for me. It's like... I'm a priority, but not as much so as a rapist, you know? Even if he's... raping me...

The story somehow moves the pair to silence...

  • Minerva: ... That's all I... feel comfortable telling.
  • Tsuyoshi: That's... fine. We only wanted to know what we would risk with your company.
  • Iskandaria: Sounds like too steep a risk for me to take. That, or a classic case of frontier freak gossip.
  • Minerva: ... Honestly, I don't care what you think. You know what's chasing me, and I don't know if it's followed me down to Earth or not. Just be careful. I think I have a plan to get us all out of here.
  • Iskandaria: Without getting set on fire?
  • Minerva: Maybe. I suppose I'll just go for broke and call the Senate. Do either of you have a phone that uses Earth's satellites?
  • Tsuyoshi: I do, in my head.

Minerva can't help but plant her face in her palm at the revelation. So close, yet so far...

  • Minerva: ... It's always something...
  • Tsuyoshi: Don't sweat it... What do I need to do? What's their number?
  • Minerva: Hah, a non-vampire calling the Senate? Are you insane? All you can do is send them into a security scare!

He slowly, carefully strides over to her bed and lays his hand in hers, squeezing it tightly in a rather persuasive deathgrip.

  • Tsuyoshi: Just tell me the number so I can dial it. If you're paranoid, just ignore my yuck ew dead guy mouth fumes and speak into my mouth. They'll hear you just fine.
  • Iskandaria: But what will they do when they get here? Are we going to just hijack their craft and run off? We can do that now, since we jacked that UTV thing out there.
  • Tsuyoshi: No, I don't think we'll run with that plan. We'll just have to thank our extractors with our services, which suits the shit out of me. I know you don't like point-ears, but I hope you like vampires, because if this works, we may be working for their underground society for a little while.

Perhaps it could be unsavory work, but as they both see, it's work nevertheless. A mystery world under the one we see is nothing less than a gold mine for a bored, unemployed ghost, after all.

  • Iskandaria: ... I'm good. Call them. Just be sure to let them know the plan, one-eye - we're here, and they're to bring accommodation for seven people in total. In return, I suppose we'll become their own unliving legion for a while.
  • Tsuyoshi: And name us. Our core is Tsuyoshi Nishimura, Black Hole Sun, and Dominique Rygg. We'll be bringing one Iskandaria Hotarubi and two members of the Lsi with us, of their own will, in the latter case
  • Iskandaria: That's fairly risky, isn't it? The last thing they want is-
  • Tsuyoshi: I've worked with some individual vampires from clans belonging to the Senate. Surely, word of us would have spread by now. I'm most concerned about the fact that we're carrying two Lsi heirs with us while there's an active search going on, but hopefully, our reputation would precede that little scuff on our chances. If they do, oh well. You'll be vindicated in that case, won't you, Iska?

Soon enough, Minerva gets sick of the back-and-forth, and clasps her hand around Tsuyoshi's mouth.

  • Minerva: Let's do this today, while I still have the nerve. I'm gonna have to speak up now. That girl can just keep an ear on things out there while I call them. The number's 1777-654-6969. Dial it.
  • Iskandaria: ("That girl" indeed... Just because you're getting us out of here faster doesn't mean you're all that, one-eye.)

The number is dialed, the systems predictably stick them on hold with mind-numbing contemporary gospel tunes making them regret every second they spend waiting for someone to answer their call. After a solid thirty minutes, though...

  • Receptionist: Two five, seven six, acht, sieben, twelve.
  • Minerva: ... Uhhh... In English?
  • Receptionist: I am of in requestments of the veracity of questionable hemoglobin fellatio that I can never other way verify you have did.
  • Minerva: You want to know if I'm actually a vampire? Uh... Can I just give my name or something? I never really... uh... registered with the Senate, you see...
  • Receptionist: Registration is was never ever performed, so it avail is nothing to cause your verification of veracity.
  • Tsuyoshi: (Goddamn, the mental backflips that kind of language must take...)
  • Minerva: Um... OH, WAIT!!! What about my... progenitor?
  • Receptionist: Embrace did he you?
  • Minerva: Yes!
  • Receptionist: Ejaculate.
  • Minerva: ... Um... He was... I'm sorry, I don't like saying it in this, uh... company I'm in... but-
  • Receptionist: Friends secret are allowed never in telecommunications. Byeg-
  • Minerva: NO!!! Hear me out! He was Kevin Thorpe, kindergarten teacher at Ruefield Kiddie Academy!
  • Receptionist: ...
  • Minerva: He-
  • Receptionist: ... No, no, quiet down... Alright. I just needed to add one more level of signal encryption, since I found his name in our database... Mixed Plebius and Æternus blood. He did report your embrace approximately... twelve years ago, so you pass that first hurdle. Your name is... Hecate Trevail. Is that right?

Minerva bites her tongue at the mention. Even though it doesn't harm her to have her cover blown at this point, it nevertheless leaves the stink of stupidity firmly entrenched in her lower gut.

  • Hecate: ... Yes, that's correct.
  • Receptionist: Well met, Ms. Trevail. For future reference, my name is Annabelle Wilson, Plebius of many decades.
  • Hecate: ... Nice to meet you, Annabelle.
  • Annabelle: Now, why is it that you call us today? Why on Earth? More importantly, whose presence is making you feel uncomfortable?
  • Hecate: I'm in a little mountain town called Marilyth, in the Cumbrians of England. I got stuck here after fleeing a little... pickle up on Mars, and now I'm stranded here. I'm with a little troop of mercenaries in the same funk.
  • Annabelle: What kind of mercenaries?
  • Hecate: Um... Unliving. Ghosts, for the most part. They have two high elf kids with them, too.
  • Annabelle: And they know who you are and who you're talking to?
  • Hecate: Yes... actually, I'm talking to you through one of them. But hear me out! They've kept my identity secret, and since I had no other means of contacting you, one of them let me use the aug phone in his brain! I was hoping we could-
  • Annabelle: Who are they, Hecate? Are they Godhead affiliates? Are they-
  • Tsuyoshi: Search for "Thaddeus Cale" or "Godhead agent murder in London" and you'll see who we are. We're not affiliates. We've killed one of them, and thanks to lots and lots of fucked-up shit, we're on the run, now.

Erudite, as always, Tsuyoshi.

  • Annabelle: Is this the man you're speaking through?
  • Hecate: Yes, he is! Just look it up! It's all in the news at this point! I was hoping we could get someone out here to extract all of us! They've already offered up their services to the Senate and everything!
  • Annabelle: ... So, this is a group of three or four ghosts that killed a high-profile agent and have a whole unit in pursuit as we speak... AND they kidnapped two Lsi kids.
  • Hecate: No, they didn't! The baby was rescued from some other vampire and-
  • Annabelle: Stop. What other vampire? Do you know the clan it was from?
  • Tsuyoshi: Aphela Marzien, some dark elf from the Graymarch. All she let on to me was that she was a fledgling of whatever clan she was in. She looked the part, too - I never noticed she was a vampire until I saw the bite marks in the baby's neck and the fangs in her grin.
  • Annabelle: Was the child turned?
  • Tsuyoshi: Only partially. She exhibits traits of a dhampir, so it seems Aphela had enough self-control to keep from adding another member to the clan. She squints in the sunlight, she tried to bite my arm when I changed her diaper earlier, etc., etc. Now she's not only a dhampir, but a GENDERFUCK dhampir.
  • Annabelle: What do you mean?
  • Tsuyoshi: She was a specimen of Aphela's. I'm only calling the kid by feminine pronouns because it's just easier that way. She used some sort of flesh-shaping magic to meld the kid's natural organs into something completely different. The testicles are inside the body, a vagina is where the scrotum would normally be, and the penis is evidently some sort of... enhanced clitoris. I don't know. It's not like I've been messing down there to find out what they do now.

A dreadful moment of silence fills the room. Aside from the odd footsteps outside the door, not a sound is heard. Not even Hecate's own nervous breaths as she anxiously awaits a response. Finally, after almost five minutes...

  • Annabelle: Hecate.
  • Hecate: Yes?
  • Annabelle: We're going to send an extraction unit to you from Scotland. We'll send an air car with a license plate reading "402EA" to the north of the Cumbrian Mountains.
  • Hecate: We have seven people, myself included. Will it be big enough to fit everyone?
  • Annabelle: I'm sure. If it isn't, just stuff someone behind the engine or something.
  • Tsuyoshi: Annabelle, we're mercenaries. We're not Syrian migrants from 2015. Can't you send something you know will have enough space?
  • Annabelle: I've already dispatched it, and since this is an operation of concern to us, I'm going to let the driver go on as he is. We need no further interruption. I want to get all of you where we can speak freely as soon as possible. In other words, you need to leave Marilyth immediately.
  • Tsuyoshi: I only stopped here to ensure that the comatose Lsi girl would be able to recover from her close encounter near Kirk Fell. I'm going to stay here until she can get a decent night's sleep.
  • Annabelle: ... "Close encounter"?
  • Tsuyoshi: With something the kid called "wraiths". The one we saw up close looked like some humanoid with a hole in place of a face. It's a long story. Just tell your driver to watch out for them when he gets here. Fuck knows there were a LOT of them. The townsfolk here got all on edge when I brought them up, so I'm guessing they're some kind of deep-seated nuisance around here.
  • Annabelle: Well, well... I suppose that you'll have a lot of new field info to give us, if nothing else. Anyway, our driver can wait for a day or so. Just don't keep him waiting.
  • Hecate: Can do.
  • Annabelle: And before I sign off... Thank you in advance, Tsuyoshi Nishimura. I took a little time to speak to one of our clan heads, and she sounds very interested to meet your little troop. We look forward to doing business with you.

Thus, the click is heard, his mouth is shut, and the plan is clear at last. Perhaps now, they'll finally have a concrete means of escape from the island... but after today, they can never know. Be it a wraith attack, Godhead sabotage, or even part of the island taking their driver down into the sea, it feels like anything could blindside the group at this point.

  • Iskandaria: So, it's decided, I take it?

Stretching her stiff body oh-so sensually, Iskandaria tugs at the sleeve of her suit, almost as if she wishes to disrobe... but then, she knows the man who lurks behind her. Well enough, at least.

  • Iskandaria: ... Get back there and watch those kids. I'm gonna go find a spot to bathe.
  • Tsuyoshi: And I can't ride witcha?
  • Iskandaria: No, I don't like the thought of a brunette Konata Izumi with a dick watching me clean myself. I'll be happy enough by myself.
  • Tsuyoshi: Fine then. If you're gonna ride that Konata Izumi horse until it dies, I don't think I'd want to bathe with you anyway.
  • Iskandaria: I'm sure. I know you like tomboys, anyway. You're just a little tomgirl yourself, so I guess it's appropriate.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Did you-

Before he can even finish his sentence, she hastily departs, almost slamming the door behind her... but closing it quietly, lest she draw a staring crowd all by her lonesome.

  • Hecate: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: Did you hear that? She just fucking referred to me with a Chris Chan adjective! Ugh, the nerve of that bitch...
  • Hecate: ... I have no idea what you're talking about.
  • Tsuyoshi: Pfft, dumb kids have no understanding of early 2000s autist e-celebrities... Whatever, whatever. I need to go back there and babysit...

That familiar tug on his arm just won't let him leave the room...

  • Hecate: ... Thanks. I know this wasn't necessary for you. Surely, as a mercenary, you expect some kind of repayment...
  • Tsuyoshi: Nah. I didn't want to leave the one who roused Sifiniaz from her nightmare hanging, that's all.
  • Hecate: But anyone with some degree of psychokinesis could do that.
  • Tsuyoshi: Yeah, but a cyclopean vampire that we rudely awakened with our incessant racket wasn't duty-bound to aid us or anything. I'm just giving a favor for a favor. I'm not duty-bound to anything, either. Just take the damn help so we can get the fuck out of this insufferable island forever.

Still, Hecate persists, pulling his arm in, reeling him in like a fish, until she can finally lock a strong kiss upon his lips. Even though her breath is fresh and her lips are soft, Tsuyoshi isn't even fazed enough to open his eyes.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... You aren't exactly the patient type, are you?
  • Hecate: ... I'm sorry, I just-
  • Tsuyoshi: It's okay. I was about that promiscuous at your age... but that was a long time ago.
  • Hecate: Come on... We have a night left, right? I don't think it'd kill us to have some fun for a little while...
  • Tsuyoshi: No, dear, I'm afraid I got my urges out a few hours ago. Besides, we just met. I can tell you've had your share of youthful indiscretions just from your manner and the way you work those lips on mine. A word of advice - don't be a slut. I had my experience in that field when I was in my early twenties, and believe you me, it does nothing but land you with a bunch of nastiness that you won't want to do ANYTHING but forget later on in life. Keep it in your pants. At least fuck a friend, not the flavor of the minute.

Still, as he leaves, he has to make one word two...

  • Tsuyoshi: ... I will say one more thing - with those boobs, you could get any man you wanted. Make him a good one!
  • Hecate: !!!

Perhaps that's the remark of what amounts to an average, pervy old man, but perhaps it's also a way of fighting inappropriateness with the inappropriate. It doesn't matter, though.

  • Hecate: ... Hmph. Man, I may be young, but I'm not that stupid. At least it's not some hairy beastkin. You were actually kind of cute... Ah, fuck men. I need to get myself clean, too. I'm sure he'll be wanting to spray his fluids in every place he can after that! Asshole.

The rain still pours unceasingly, rapping against the windows and clattering atop the roof. That aside, the inn is nearly as dead quiet as it was before. On his way back to Sifiniaz' room, he encounters one lone soul - John, back from putting newly-cleaned towels in the washrooms, just in time for the girls to bathe.

  • Tsuyoshi: Evenin'.
  • John: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Kid.
  • John: My name's John, dumbass.
  • Tsuyoshi: K, John, can you answer a question for me?
  • John: No.
  • Tsuyoshi: Well, I'll ask it anyway - why did everyone turn so nasty after I said something about wraiths?

The word still has the power to make the kid flinch.

  • John: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: C'mon. I don't bite unless I'm bitten.
  • John: ... You really are a fucking idiot, aren't you?
  • Tsuyoshi: I'm not clairvoyant, no. That's why I have to ask questions. I can't pick your brain like a psychic can.
  • John: Then I guess you'll stay stupid, shorty.

As he turns the corner and departs, Tsuyoshi's smile slowly fades.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Goddamn Brits still can't raise their uppity little brats for shit. Jesus, those blood-suckers better not be putting me on another goose chase. I can't leave soon enough.

And so he swings the door open, sullen as he's ever been, a moron in an imbecile's land, only to find the most heartwarming scene he's seen since coming to this whole land of feces - Sága sucking on Dominique's pinky, Sifiniaz sound asleep, and Black reading... hentai.

  • Dominique: So, how'd it go?
  • Black: He didn't find SHIT! He just went out there to eat some one-eye pussy and say "look at me, I fooled that dumbass Herlimian like I had done it all my life"! Fuck you too, Tsuyoshi, at least I have my brand new husbando!
  • Tsuyoshi: What's his name? He's long, tan, and handsome, right?
  • Black: Uh... I don't know what his name is. I don't know where you got this, but it's in some rune-speak shit. I DO know he's long, though, and he came enough to make this little flat-chested girl explode!
  • Tsuyoshi: Tan and handsome???
  • Black: ... He's not in any color pages! How the hell should I know?!?
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Anyway, I didn't get any help from the locals, but I did get something from dear Minerva. First, her real name is Hecate. Second, she's a vampire. Third, and most importantly, we called the Kindred Senate to request extraction. I'm guessing Iskandaria said something to you before she went to shower?
  • Dominique: Not much, really. She said we found a way out and that we were leaving the instant Sifiniaz woke up, but that's it.
  • Black: Aw, she sucked you, didn't she?! Fucking vampires!
  • Tsuyoshi: No, to this day, I remain untouched by a vampire's teeth. She did try to suck me in another way... but that's all I'll say.

The implication, as light as it may be, manages to arouse Black's interest regardless. As always, the scenario Tsuyoshi doesn't want to happen transpires right before his eyes, with h/er eyes widening with a kind of tacit rage, never once betraying h/er hunger for the flesh of this impudent little girl who would dare intrude upon her centuries-long reign over Tsuyoshi's pantaloon drake.

  • Black: ... What did she do, Tsuyoshi?
  • Tsuyoshi: ... She kissed me.
  • Black: French-style? Did she wave the white flag and surrender to you? Did she let you Petain her petticoats?
  • Tsuyoshi: No, no, and no. She just pulled me in and kissed me, and only because she expected a mercenary like me to want some sort of payment for the services we'd provide for her.
  • Dominique: Like what? Allowing her to accompany us on the way out of here? This is all in our best interest. We can't ask for pay from someone who's basically our ticket out of here.
  • Tsuyoshi: I know, but... I can infer that she had to deal with far more demanding people when she was on Mars. I guess she was just trying to be safe and ensure that I couldn't use any debt I felt she owed me against her.
  • Dominique: Hm... A Martian vampire... That's a first for me.
  • Black: ... Not like it's inconceivable or anything! Surely, a bunch of scum would love nothing more than a frontier planet that's in a slippery grip of the officialdom they fear!
  • Tsuyoshi: I don't know. All I know is that she's just what we needed-
  • Black: JUST WHAT WE NEEDED!
  • Tsuyoshi: We needed someone to bleed! And help us fucking leave!
  • Black: We don't mind her sucking d-
  • Tsuyoshi: Shh, shh. Not now, Black. Let Sifiniaz sleep and don't stir those staring fruits up. If I see that stupid kid of hers again, I think I'm gonna break the law again.
  • Dominique: He was pretty quiet when he came in here to put up towels. I don't know why they turned so quickly. They seem to be hard, honest workers, all attitude aside.
  • Tsuyoshi: Just don't say the W word, and you'll be fine! Otherwise, you'll get an attitude worthy of an angsty kid with daddy issues who decided it was a good idea to base the whole of his personality on some emo Square Enix leftover.
  • Black: "Wigger"? "White trash"? Oh, wait, that's two words in one pejorative...
  • Tsuyoshi: "White-bread, redneck, chicken-shit motherfucker", obviously.

The meaningless conversation is broken only by the quaint cooing of young Sága, as she looks and reaches for Tsuyoshi...

  • Sága: Mm... T... T... To... yoshi?

Hearing the infant's words is enough to bring that kitty grin back onto his face.

  • Tsuyoshi: Ah, so fear isn't the only thing that'll induce you to speak... That's good. What is it?
  • Sága: Firth... Wha... Wha was dad thong you and Black were thinging?
  • Tsuyoshi: "Just What I Needed", some old shit by The Cars. And you know, it's okay to talk with your mind like you've been doing. You can't speak properly until the proper apparatus develops. It's understandable.
  • Sága: Bu... I need ta learn ta thpeak wit my mouth, as well... I thaid "wraiths" so clearly, but now... I feel... thrange, talking wit my mouth.
  • Tsuyoshi: Don't worry. I wasn't talking too well as a baby, either. I certainly didn't have the mental faculties to put my thoughts in the heads of others, either.
  • Sága: ... Thfiniaz doesn't, either... and the'th an elf, too...
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Well, you're special. I don't think you'll turn out like she did. You won't walk the same... developmental path, either. That much is certain.
  • Black: ... What was it like, Sága? Getting your cock mongled by a dark elf?
  • Tsuyoshi: Black, dammit!
  • Sága: ... What are you talking about? Who did that?
  • Black: Mm... So, do you even know what that means? Getting rearranged down there?
  • Dominique: Black, don't push her like that.
  • Sága: ... You mean my hole?
  • Black: Yeah!
  • Sága: ... It's always been like this... hasn't it?
  • Tsuyoshi: Mm... It's changed over time, but... yeah, the fundamentals have all... remained the same.
  • Black: (... Wow, I expected to have his foot in my ass right now! I guess she just... forgot it! Ah... I suppose we'll get along well! Haha... Rotten elf kid!)
  • Sága: ... Um... Toyoshi?
  • Tsuyoshi: Hm?
  • Sága: I'm hungry...
  • Tsuyoshi: ... M'kay. I'll go see if Bitchian has some... milk and apple sauce.
  • Dominique: You're aiming for the biggest mess you could possibly make. Thank merciless god you can't smell anymore, boy, thank merciless god.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Hey, I sucked my mom's tits and ate that and pudding before I grew teeth. Since she doesn't have that former option, she can at least have a bovine's produce and some mush for her mouth. I'm not aiming for a stinky mess, I'm just giving her what I had when I was little.
  • Dominique: I'm just playing. And try to tone down your language around her. She doesn't need to be a pirate when she's a toddler who speaks mostly with her mouth.
  • Tsuyoshi: Alright, then, Momma Domi, you're the boss. I'm glad you've taken the role of caring mother in this relationship. Now I can be the piece of... POOP father who brings in the bacon and gets POOPfaced while you slap me across the face and give the kid her first taste of domestic violence!
  • Dominique: You bet your BUTT I will. Besides, I'm not the mom here. We're all her family now. Don't you think that would be best?
  • Tsuyoshi: It won't be normal, Dominique. She's in with a pack of mercenaries after being through... what she was through. She won't have a normal upbringing. She'll see things far worse than the hentai I read and hear things far worse than my bad words. I don't want her to be a pervy sailor mouth either, but she's gonna toughen up at some point. I'm going to teach her to fight when she's old enough to stand on her own two feet, after all.
  • Sága: ... How to fight... on my own two feet...
  • Dominique: And how old would that be?
  • Tsuyoshi: When she's old enough to stand on her own two feet. SECURELY. That's all I'd add to that statement. I don't care if it's two years old or four. She's going to be able to fend for herself. We can't protect her forever. Even someone as dumb as I am knows that much.
  • Dominique: Clearly, you are dumb. No joke. You want to train a little kid at that age? When did YOU start swinging hammers and busting up cylinders? Think about that!
  • Sága: ... (He wants to train me to fight... when I can walk... Maybe... I should... be ready for that day.)
  • Tsuyoshi: I started when I was eighteen years old, and it took me years to learn to do it on my own. I didn't take any time to gain the strength, but I took forever to learn. I don't want her to be a fumbling idiot like I was at that age. This isn't just machine filth in the heat. This is everything and anything. She can't afford it. WE can't afford it.
  • Black: He just wants to sow the seeds while the soil's fresh and the temperature's right! What's wrong with that?!
  • Dominique: Good god...
  • Tsuyoshi: This isn't an argument for now. It's almost 6:30. I need to go get her something to stuff her face with before Vivian decides to disappear and lock the kitchen doors behind her.

With that, he opens the door and quietly slams the thing behind him, quietly enough to keep from waking Sifiniaz, and loudly enough to make Sága jump.

  • Dominique: What a rock-skulled idiot... What's next, teach her how to drive before she can reach the pedals or see outside the windshield? Jesus Christ.

Meanwhile, Iskandaria continues her extended soak in the tub, the window above her just slightly cracked to let the copious steam out and let the oddly serene air of the evening storm in to keep her big ears cool. Her earrings on the counter, set upon her neatly-folded suit, safe from the occasional splashing of the largely-sedentary girl, who's more than content to let her hair float on the surface like spilled oil in the Pacific...

  • Iskandaria: Hoo... Thank god they have decent baths here... Even in unlife, I feel like I'm in paradise. Stress is just as important to vent as the toxins in my skin...

Thus, she's sure to massage the foamy soap atop the water onto every inch of skin, from the sweatless pit of her arm, to the curves of her hips, to the soft pink landscape of her nipples... Just the kind of night a young woman needs, sealed from all but the pleasant mountain storm and left with no one else but the real girl hidden behind the facade of ghostly flesh and locked within the psyche within a remnant psyche. Indeed, to all who could ever relate, it's a beautiful thing...

  • Iskandaria: ... I need to be quick. We need to go before it gets dark... but... shit, I haven't felt so close to drowsy since I died...

She sinks deeper into the water, and on the impulse of a formless voice, she closes her eyes, letting things come before the back of her eyelids to the tune of the soft, watery music in her brain. With every strum of the upright bass, another fish is born in the water, and with every little note the violin produces, they evolve just a little bit more, even in a pool composed of nothing but gin, rum, whiskey, and vodka... They don't evolve into a drunken Paddy, though. No, they evolve into pretty little girls, skipping across the side of the pool they were born in, growing a little bigger with every note the organ belts... until one day, the music of another band comes to join them - boys, handsome ones, from a pool far, far away. They shake hands, they blush awkwardly, converse in unintelligible languages, and kiss. Not much later, they mate with passion and flames in their hearts, and the young girl's belly swells every time the fat black lady sings her soul out. Would you believe it, though, the child born therein is birthed alone, far away from society or the lover she conceived it with... and born dead, at that. In her grief, the ensemble begins to cease playing, one by one... until the young one fades. In a sudden burst of dissonance, she reappears for only a moment, dangling from a Laurel tree, and left to return to nature in the countryside. And all that remains is the echo of her older self's words - "my dear, we children are all so foolish..."

  • Iskandaria: !!!

She jolts forth from her short drift into dreaming, slinging water all over the rug near the tub. Breathing heavily, eyes wild with bemusement and fear, she stands up and wrings her hair, readying to leave as fast as she can.

  • Iskandaria: Damn... Now I'm getting these... dreams! Even though I can't sleep!

Tossing the towel on the back of the toilet over her dripping body, she rushes to throw her clothes on, but takes her time with her hair. After a few minutes, it lies flat on her head, brushed straight back... and, once her breathing has calmed, she hears another heavy breath from the direction of the window. In the biggest lull the storm has seen since its coming, she hears it - flashing her eyes toward the window, she sees nothing until a heavy crack of lightning reveals the bald figure watching her.

  • Iskandaria: ... WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!?!

Grasping the business end of the brush in her hand, she throws the handle square at its eye, and a short time later, she hears it hit the ground, many feet away from its target. Its target is gone, vanished into the heavy air of the late evening rain. The tapping at the door startles her as much as the bald man himself.

  • Black: OI, ISKA!!! WHY ARE YOU SCREAMING?!?! DON'T MAKE ME BREAK IN!!!
  • Iskandaria: ... It's nothing, Black! Just keep quiet! I'll be right out...
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Shit, could you people at least stay quiet? I can hear you from here...

So says Tsuyoshi, seated at the lone stool at the counter in the small eatery within the inn, twiddling his thumbs impatiently as he waits to be served... but as half an hour drifts by, no service comes. The lights are on, the washing machine is humming in the distance, and a microwave signals its presence several times, but no one seems to remain in the inn. Wandering around and looking outside the windows at the dark, bleak town outside serves to do nothing but kill time, and soon enough, Tsuyoshi decides to simply raid the fridge himself.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Hmph. First time I've committed petty theft in a long time, and it's for milk and applesauce. Boy, have I hit an all-time low... Oh well. If you won't be served, you have to serve yourself.

The wind picks up outside, enough so to rustle the candles with what manages to make it through the cracks and crevices of the doors and windows. Still, it does not bother Tsuyoshi as much as the conspicuous absence of patrons does. Every door he passes, he opens. None of them are locked, and there are no signs of life within them. All have the same well-made bed, the same bare table with the same cloth resting upon it, and the same dark, creaky chairs pushed beneath them. There are no sounds that can be heard in the inn, bar the reverberations of his own footsteps, the clatter of rain upon the building, and the rumbling thunder outside. Eventually, he passes two rooms, one with a pink door, and one with a blue door. The connotations ought to be obvious. Inside, however, are not the usual noises of those rooms, but a strange... huffing. Upon opening the pink door, he sees it - a small laptop, glowing in the dark, looping a five minute long video that seems to be an average nutshelling of bestiality freak fantasy (complete with the transformation of a beautiful, self-sufficient girl into a filthy, submissive pony) but becomes something stranger. Halfway in, and the well-trodden imagery of the degenerate gives way to that of a queer blue creature - bald head, pointed ears, and nude body - speaking in a language indescribable, unintelligible, and literally unspeakable by human faculties. No sooner does the creature speak than the video ends - "Loop 52 = DNE".

  • Tsuyoshi: ...

Normally unaffected by such things, Tsuyoshi leaves the room with a slightly faster walk than when he entered it.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Get in. Get her fed. Wake Sifiniaz up. Get the fuck out of here and don't kill them in the process. We get to the Senate...

He reaches the door to her room, taking a deep breath...

  • Tsuyoshi: We don't look back...

... looking both ways, listening for footsteps...

  • Tsuyoshi: And hopefully... we'll never have to face these wraiths again.

... and ensuring that the wrathful populace has gone, by saying the magic word to no clear response.

  • Dominique: Talking to yourself again, Tsuyoshi?

Not from the desired one, at least.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Yeah. Just paranoid, I guess.
  • Dominique: Why? What did you see? Iskandaria evidently had to put a brush to a perv outside the bathroom window. Maybe it's related.
  • Tsuyoshi: It's less of what I saw than what I didn't see, given that the place is so dead that I had to swipe the shit myself. I DID see something weird, though.
  • Dominique: What? I wanna get weirded out, too.
  • Tsuyoshi: Furry porn and propaganda looping on a laptop inside the girls' restroom.
  • Dominique: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Dominique: ... Why were you in the girls' restroom?
  • Tsuyoshi: *sigh*...

Locking the door behind him, Tsuyoshi finds that someone is none too pleased with his pervy ways.

  • Iskandaria: So, you're a bathroom stalker? I should've known! I'm sure that hair you wear is a wig, too, since the asshole I saw outside the window is bald as a chink's nut sack!
  • Tsuyoshi: ... First, this IS my real hair, and it's been this way since I died. Second, it's not my fault that these mountainwilliams thought putting WINDOWS in a bathroom was a good idea.
  • Black: NOT EVERYONE IS AN IRREDEEMABLE PERV LIKE YOU ARE, THAT'S WHY!!!
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Third, just how many Chinese testicles have you seen? Takes a career teabagger to know that kind of biological lore, you know.
  • Iskandaria: Oh, shut up. You know I was just messing with you. Surely, someone as ancient as you can deduce that much.
  • Tsuyoshi: Yeah, I can. Even so, I suppose it's worth noting that I've been eyeing your cute little underwear ever since we met at the Gull, and not only do I want to sniff it, I want to freeze your vaginal excretions, crush the frozen result into crystals, line them up, and snort them through a rolled-up United States dollar.
  • Iskandaria: Nice asspull.
  • Tsuyoshi: Oh, I'm just joking! I'm not trying to be funny, I'm just trying to get a rise out of you, and there we go!
  • Iskandaria: Your jokes suck ass.
  • Tsuyoshi: As does your vocabulary, you heathen dummy. Now if you'll excuse me...

Out comes the ever-so convenient bottle for infants, which he found and kept for no real reason, along with a less bizarre silver spoon.

  • Tsuyoshi: I HAVE A STOLEN ROYAL KID TO FEED!!!

And so, without further ado, Sága migrates to his arms, sucking heartily upon the long-disused nipple and sapping the bottle of the cold milk within minutes.

  • Iskandaria: You do realize that this isn't just some sleepless hallucination on either of our parts, don't you?

Once the top comes off the little cup of applesauce and Sága has enough tucked into her chipmunk cheeks to occupy her, Tsuyoshi lifts his barely-open eyes to Iskandaria's.

  • Tsuyoshi: I know. Good thing we're all together in one room, right? Not like a bunch of mountain men OR wraiths are going to come at us with flashbangs or frag grenades.
  • Iskandaria: It doesn't matter. SOMETHING is out there, and with that... thing you found inside the bathroom, it's obvious that something's going on out here. Just like we all suspected there would be, at some point or another.
  • Tsuyoshi: Hey, it served its purpose. Sifiniaz is rested, Sága's belly is almost full, and her bowels are empty. If the townsfolk have gone to get their pitchforks and torches, that's fine. It's not like Sifiniaz isn't bound to be awake by then, anyhow.
  • Dominique: I feel tired, myself. This whole place has that effect on you.
  • Iskandaria: I feel like I fell asleep in the tub. I still don't know what happened there. That was the closest I came to an actual dream since I died...
  • Tsuyoshi: That happens to me all the time. It's called daydreaming, and it involves becoming indifferent to your surroundings and becoming absorbed in your dream world until something knocks you out of it.
  • Iskandaria: It wasn't a daydream. It was something... morbid. Nasty. By the way... Do you think that video might have some importance? I mean, you surely didn't see the whole thing, and you didn't replay it.
  • Tsuyoshi: I don't know. I just wanted to get back in here, get Sága fed, and be ready to leave. Besides, that whole place was so still that I didn't want to stick around. It was like some nasty, smelly pool of dead water.
  • Iskandaria: I don't care. I want to see it.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Fine. I don't see any reason not to, and I suppose that'd be a better way to wait for Sifiniaz to wake up than playing cards with Black.
  • Dominique: ("Cards". Only someone who doesn't know you would be fooled by that old euphemism.)

He lays the stuffed and happy Sága beside her slumbering sister, to which the latter seems to convulse in surprise, throwing her arm up and letting it fall beside Sága. Black, however, is in another zone entirely. Not a card-playing one, either.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... What are you looking at, Black?
  • Black: ... I don't know!

S/he stares outside the window, where nothing is visible to the naked eye except the drops falling upon the pools outside, illuminated by the light from the inn. Amid the flashes of lightning, nothing else is shown, save for the hills and peaks around them, and yet the strange Herlimian still stares, as if she sees something the others cannot.

  • Black: I don't see anyone... I don't see anything... But still, I feel something out there! I can almost hear something beneath all the rain!
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Call us if you find out what it is.
  • Black: Where are you going, again?!
  • Tsuyoshi: The ladies' room. Iska wants to take a look at that video I found, and I need to get Hecate in here with us, anyway. We all need to be together, in case these people really do come out for blood.
  • Black: As you say, so shall I do, m'lord! I tip my antiquated, wide-brimmed hat to you!
  • Tsuyoshi: Righty-O, Selwyna C. Sun.

As they exit, the lights in the hallway begin to flicker as the storm becomes stronger and stronger. The beating outside could be anything from trees falling to furniture flying. Regardless, it's clear that they chose a bad time to go on an excursion.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Let's make this quick.
  • Iskandaria: Ditto.

As they roam the increasingly creaky floors, they find a familiar face - a cockroach, the sole sign of life that has appeared in the inn for more than an hour. For this reason alone, Tsuyoshi allows it to live, and at the nearest step he takes, the feces with legs skitters off into the widest crack in the boards it can find. Within minutes, they reach the girls' bathroom, only to find the lights back on, and the laptop gone.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... How predictable.
  • Iskandaria: Hold on. Maybe it's in the men's room.
  • Tsuyoshi: I'm not searching for this thing all night, Iska, I-

Lo and behold, a switched-off laptop lies in the sink of the men's room, its screen on the verge of going to sleep.

  • Iskandaria: Stop bitching. We aren't going back empty-handed.

Strolling over to the sink, Iskandaria fishes the thing out and props it against her body. Awakening the screen only a second after it darkens, she finds nothing but a black background and a transparent taskbar, itself bearing nothing more than the "start" icon. Tapping her sole lead, she finds only one file, and without a second thought, she plays it. This time, however, there is no pony girl to be found - only a dog, a human woman, and a torch, with the equation leading to its (tragically) logical conclusion.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Geez, I hate seeing that kind of shit.
  • Iskandaria: ... It's an encrypted file. And it's a bigger one that's disguised with a smaller file... This isn't its typical payload... That's atypical. Hm... I think that whoever got this was some sort of operative for somebody, but they didn't know how to crack the file. That, or they forgot. ASSUMING this has the same thing on it that you saw. Let's find out...

A keyboard warrior in her own right, even with only her left hand, Iskandaria clacks at the keys with the ferocity of a shark in bloody water, until finally, the torture video is bypassed, revealing a new video - "I'm Alive.avi".

  • Tsuyoshi: It's an antiquated file format, that's for sure.
  • Iskandaria: That's so no dabbler would know how to get through to it. The new methods wouldn't work on a .m59, since it's masking a .avi, but no dabbler would know that. Most government security firms wouldn't know that, either. This was done by someone who knew something about what they were doing, but not enough to keep out your average security freak.

Just then, after displaying the title for almost thirty seconds, the video flashes to a grainy filter, barely masking the bald blue figure that is its subject. The black background it's up against only serves to offset the bizarre, almost sky blue color of its skin.

  • ???: My greetings, servers, subjects, and faith filled! It is my glee to inform you of your choosing to take up arms in aidship of our cause!

This time, it's not in some unearthly language, but broken English, spoken with an uneasy smile across the creature's face.

  • ???: It is with this time that you are have been choosing to go to Earth and bring forth converts for the faithdom! In this doing, you will bring our bretheren and sisteren to our side and join our hands and hearts together in the lightening of souls which shall soon take place in our kingdom of Olympus!
  • Tsuyoshi: ... (Shit, all this English mangling is enough to make me want a lead aspirin.)
  • Iskandaria: Hm... Yeah, I know who this is, Tsuyoshi.
  • Tsuyoshi: Oh, you do? Is it the baldy that was stalking you out there?
  • Iskandaria: No. He didn't have blue skin or pointed ears. I don't think it's related... This is another Martian. Have you ever heard of Tilium Chranz?
  • Tsuyoshi: The shipping guy that started IPPS?
  • Iskandaria: No, the banking magnate. The MARTIAN banking magnate, born and raised there.
  • Tsuyoshi: No, I don't suppose I've heard of him.
  • Iskandaria: Well, this is his granddaughter. Lucidite Chranz... of the Army of Olympus. I suppose the rumors were true. She must have been kidnapped and brainwashed. I don't know for sure, but I want you to download this file to your brain. I wanna pursue this later.
  • Tsuyoshi: You want to pursue some point-eared heiress?
  • Iskandaria: Just do it. This interested me from the point I saw it a few weeks ago. Even if we never get the chance to follow the lead, it may prove useful elsewhere, you know. Someone might pay handsomely for leads on her... especially her grandfather.
  • Tsuyoshi: Fine, fine. Just keep an eye on the halls and listen for any... unusually intense footsteps. I don't want any of us to get taken by surprise.

Shrugging his shoulders, Tsuyoshi extends his finger into the USB jack of the antiquated thing, reading the data, and...

  • Tsuyoshi: (Password required. Great...) It says it needs a password, but I think I'm gonna just bypass it and swipe the thing's hard drive.
  • Iskandaria: Don't be lazy. You have enough time to crack the thing, so don't act like you can't.
  • Tsuyoshi: *sigh*... Whatever you say, dear. I just hope you don't find anything too important to do while I'm at it, if only so you can suffer in this filth with me.
  • Iskandaria: You'll get it before I have to spill any blood, I'm sure.

Back in their room, Sága lays beside her slumbering sister, but she cannot bring herself to sleep.

  • Dominique: ... I know, it must be rough to sit there again after you had been there for a good while, but-
  • Sága: No... I love my thithter... but...
  • Dominique: But...?
  • Sága: ... Thomething's wrong with her... head...
  • Dominique: ... I figured that out when I first met her.
  • Sága: It's... thome thort of... perthon. Perthon in her head...
  • Dominique: Do you think it had something to do with those wraiths?
  • Sága: I don't know...

Dominique stares silently at the troubled infant and her trembling sibling. The nightmares have clearly begun again, at a time where they're at their least convenient...

  • Dominique: ... Black.
  • Black: ... Yeeeessss, Dominique???!
  • Dominique: Pry your eyes out of that window and watch these two rugrats for me.
  • Black: WHY?!
  • Dominique: I'm going to go get Hecate, or Minerva, or whatever her real name is. Sifiniaz looks like she's having her nightmares again...
  • Black: But why must I pry myself from my self-appointed vigil?! Why must I do so when I KNOW that the blame shall be saddled upon me if we're blindsided tonight?!
  • Dominique: It won't be. Think of it this way - with the way it's blowing out there, staying away from that window and shutting the shutters may actually keep a limb out of your eyes. You have to think about things like that.

She softly exits the room, making sure to have Black shut the shutters and bar the door until they get back. In the meantime, with a prominent pout writ across her face, Black decides to stare at the duo with a cartoonish flair worthy of any 1940s animation superstar. Still, that is not the focus of Sága's concerns...

  • Sifiniaz: ... Don't... do not come back here... I do not... want to go as you... come...

A long way away, on the coast of Sardinia, she sees it as it happens - the embryo falls from far above, high in the sky, but not in a trail of flames. A trail of tears is what this meteorite leaves behind. Thin, vaporous tears, obscuring its true form. Perhaps it is this that piques her inherent curiosity, as she silently treads the water that spans the long distance between her and the void-spawn object in the horizon. The closer she gets, the farther down she goes, though not in the sense of sinking - the whole of the Mediterranean is being swallowed by the entity, until all that remains is a dull, dark, and lonely bottom. Far from those she loves, far from those she knows, she can only wander to the lit space beneath the glowing embryo, where she meets her mother, sullenly cradling a shard in her arms.

  • Sifiniaz: ... Mother? Why are you in this damned space? You never left the big castle of a palace you loved. Why this day?
  • Emerdina: ...
  • Sifiniaz: Mother? Mother!
  • Emerdina: ...
  • Tosah: I'm sorry, Sifiniaz, but your mother and I... simply have more important things to deal with right now. Why we're here is of no concern to you. Go back to the palace, now, without any trouble.
  • Sifiniaz: Father, I have no knowledge of nothing transpiring in this place at this moment! Why am I present? Why in this moment? How did I come to this point?

A snap of the fingers behind her is the given signal. Turning to see her mother for the last time, she is snatched by big, bulky men with hidden faces, and dragged by her wrists away from her parents. Kicking and screaming, she sees her sister come to join them, laughing and happy as always... though the scene is broken by her mother punching her father, kicking him when he falls to his knees, and shouting him down when he meekly attempts to right himself as her sister cowers and cries behind her. An all too common scene, replicated in an inconceivable environment beneath a massive water moon...

  • Sifiniaz: Mother... father... I only wanted to lay eyes and arms on and around my own people... Sister... Tbisi... Why do open your mouth about dreams of the day so often, yet shut up when mother clenches her fist? Why are you only concerned about self and nothing more? Have you no good will...?

The sediment on the ground gets harder as the place grows dimmer, the further she gets from the embryo. Eventually, she cannot see at all, and the cowardly men lose their grip and fall into the nothingness around her. In this dark place, where nothing can be seen and everything must be felt, she can only feel her own discontent and contempt. It is in this setting that the faceless one appears before her again...

  • ???: ...
  • Sifiniaz: ... You haunt me in a manner so dog-like. Do you starve for despondence? I have none I would wish to impart unto you. Leave me be and let me sleep in tranquil peace again... Please...
  • ???: I starve for all, girl.

It speaks with clarity, itself a rarity.

  • Sifiniaz: Then why do you target that which is not all?
  • ???: Because you were there when my stomach knotted and twisted again after more than 5,000 years.

Five thousand years indeed. It is something whose existence predates even that of the Romans...

  • Sifiniaz: ... What individual are you? What individual WERE you?
  • ???: I cannot answer that, girl. I do not know. I know only one thing about myself in life - I starved to death when those around me would not aid me.

Whether he was a parasite or a discarded member of society, none can know now. Still, the story arouses sympathy in the naive little girl...

  • Sifiniaz: What may I call you, then?

She reaches out for its head, brushing across the rough, weathered skin upon it in the most gentle manner she can. She lifts up its hat... and there, she sees its true nature.

  • Sifiniaz: F-faces... Visages... OF MY OWN PEOPLE?! MY FAMILY!!!

Lain upon its head like layers of an onion.

  • ???: Don't call me anything, girl.

From its face emerges many more masks of the lives it has and ever will cut short.

  • ???: "The future", "the past", "the savior", "the Jesus Hussein of Mars", "the second coming of the Bloodedge", "the second coming of Alpha", "the final rebirth of the Beast"... I have too many for merely one to be appropriate.

It thrusts its wriggling, wormy fingers through her chest, barely missing her heart.

  • Sifiniaz: ... Ah...
  • ???: ... But you can call me a special title. One I will bequeath especially to you - your Final Destination.

Her right lung begins to spasm and pound, and eventually, the faceless one disappears as blue flames gather around her. They reveal the long, steel corridor she's trapped in - one not unlike the Grand Hall of the palace. Before she can so much as think to run, however, the eyes themselves emerge from the gray, fleshy walls, as dark, fetid blood gushes in droves after them.

  • Sifiniaz: ... Ah... I get it, mother... so this is my penance... for being incompetent, inadequate, and not good enough... Those who cannot carry the mantle further... must go to Hell itself.

Tramping through the fluid, a gut-wrenching squishing accompanying her every step, she blindly proceeds through the dark passage, the flames being her only illumination. Words are spoken, but unheard. They can't be heard over the noise of the eyes, all batting at once, several times a second.

  • ???: Are you really alive, dear?
  • Sifiniaz: ...

The slow going turns to sprinting, and the batting turns to beating as the eyes turn progressively larger, the pool in the hall steadily rising to her knees. Louder and louder it grows, until the eyelids' meeting sounds more akin to a colossi's footsteps than blinking. She runs, faster and faster, as a breeze breaks behind her, steadily turning into a gale, blowing away the eyes and bringing with it the blaring of a siren. The eyes are gone, but not the beating, as her conscious will is gone, but not her subconscious urge to live.

  • Sifiniaz: Run... Flee... Go... GO!!!

The lack of expression on her face is shattered as her eyes nearly pop out of her head, in fear of what will happen if she stops running... or if she even looks back, a fear that occurs to her all too late.

  • Sifiniaz: ... Wha... Colossi... giant men... giant machine...

What was a failure to assemble easy-to-dissect sentences becomes an inability to even speak at all - rendered rotten and inert by the gaze of the gigantic machine android-thing behind her, plowing through the corridor like a spider's web with every step it takes. With all her might in every step, she flees, as a gigantic mouth opens at the apparent end of the passage... with some form of exit in view, she still stops short, balking at the sight of the cloud tops, thunder, and lightning on the other side.

  • Sifiniaz: This is not my planet... Where am I...?

No time for questions. Only action. And yet, it is her own loss of hope - the knowledge that doom awaits at her front and at her back - that causes her to lose her balance and fall into the maelstrom below. Tossed to and fro by the violent wind, she manages to see through the wind and unearthly rain to find that the giant was never there. The craft she was on flies out of the atmosphere, leaving her at the mercy of this alien cloud top, falling too slowly as deafening thunder and blinding lightning crack all around her, the rain and wind ensuring that all warmth in her body will be gone in minutes. The stink of chemicals not of her world fills her nose as she realizes she cannot even breathe in this clime. She takes one last look at the sky, barely long enough to see the sun for a fraction of a second, before, she closes her eyes and passes on, her body slowly collapsing under the weight of sheer atmospheric pressure.

  • Sifiniaz: (... Yes, this is how I close the door and seal the book... Pancaked by a foreign world, a foreign body in its lifestream, damned to fly in these clouds of perdition in a place of purgatory forevermore... So... poetic...)

... And yet... perhaps even the storms of a thousand years cannot hold a soul forever...

  • Sifiniaz: ... Hm?

Indeed, she can speak again. Awakened in a blank world with no sound but the echoes of her voice, she sees nothing but white, all around her...

  • Sifiniaz: Have I... survived? To the end of time...?
  • ???: ...

The hole in the pale answers her question for her - she is still locked in her hell, pursued forever by a starving wraith. This time, though, it does not speak. It does not even feel the need to dress for her. In the nude, its outline barely visible, it lets its grand, snake-like tongue loose to lap up its prey - still liquid, and an easy meal.

  • Sifiniaz: ... It is clear that in my own mind, I know anything no longer... The bells at the houses for worship do not toll for me. I comprehend what you have done, wraith thing - you have invaded my mind, plucked your weapon from my days long past at will, and used them against me, effectively and summarily. I lie defeated before you for no other reason than that I could not repel the things that claw at my legs from days I should have abandoned a long, long time ago.

From the whiteout, the army comes into view. At this point, the dream crosses over into reality - she realizes that they are coming. This is no mere trauma nightmare. This is prognostication. How accurate it is is anyone's guess, but one thing is clear - what she has gone through in these sleepless naps is only the beginning.

  • Sifiniaz: ... I met my blood-sibling, and now, I will be devoured by a reject of death, all in the span of a single sun-moon cycle... Sága... even as a stripling, you stand stronger than I do in the face of wrongs and bad things. Truly and honestly, you were the proper heir...

Her vision becomes blurry as the tongue brushes across her eye, tasting its prey before reeling the little droplet of liquefied life back into the void in its skull... but before it can, the tongue comes off. Without a sound, something too fast to be seen comes and slices it halfway through, dropping the disintegrating appendage at her metaphorical feet. It screams as its army falls, cowering before this shining figure - the sole thing of color in a realm of nothing. Out of space it came, and with its shining sword of the rainbow, it impales the wraith and slams it upon the ground, planting a pole in its void-head and closing it off forever. Out from the inert body comes the pennant of the Lsi, the King of the Angels, who rules over the kingdom of flowers that the blood of his conquest birthed and fed. Given substance and authority over her own movements once again, Sifiniaz kneels before her savior in tears, offering her hands for whatever deed the otherworldly being would have her do... But upon feeling the tender grip of the rough, calloused fingers, she feels strangely... comforted. The warmth courses through her, and the shadow of the glowing sword propped upon her shoulder makes her feel safe. Eventually, the sword is sheathed, and both hands come to meet the fearful Sifiniaz, bringing her to her feet, and her eyes to the brave one's face...

  • Sifiniaz: ... You...

A teary-eyed grin breaks across her face - she recognizes the scars on the face of her savior.

  • Sifiniaz: Sága?! Are you... are you the one who...???

She is met with only an affirmative smile, whereupon she rewards her grown-up sister with a well-deserved hug... Only to find herself in a place of thunder and lightning once again.

  • Sifiniaz: GAH!!! No... I'm... I'm not there again... am I?!

In her room again, pouring sweat under the covers, blissfully unaware of the hapless Black she just headbutted out of her way.

  • Black: ... Hot... chowder... Mm, you aren't hurting a bit, are you?! Cheeky bitch!
  • Sifiniaz: Black...? But where's-

The bemused one lies beside her, rudely awakened from the sleep she just fell into by her sister's own awakening. Her rude treatment does not end there...

  • Sifiniaz: Sága!!!

... as she is yanked from her position and shoved between the warm breasts of her sibling, struggling not to wretch at the strong smell of sweaty by-products wafting from that crude region with every tightening of the arms.

  • Sifiniaz: Sága, Sága, thank you so much! I feel like I am bouncing upon the pinballs of the astral plane now that that faceless inhumanoid is forever banished by your sword and your magic pennant! I owe you my life, Sága... I promise, I shall be a sister of legend for you and all offspring you produce, legitimate and illegitimate!

As she sways in Sifiniaz' anaconda grip, Sága cannot help but give a mental shrug of the shoulders. Happy that her sister is feeling better, yet confused, because, after all...

  • Sága: (I didn't even do anything...)

Elsewhere, in the garden of urine and feces that is the inn's men's room, Tsuyoshi vainly attempts to crack the password while uncomfortably seated atop a dirty toilet seat inside a claustrophobic stall. After nearly 149 tries, the process has certainly become rather tedious, for both parties involved.

  • Iskandaria: How long does it take? Didn't you do anything regarding computers in your life? This is something I'd expect from a toddler, not a professional!
  • Tsuyoshi: Iska, in my day, I was considered a computer expert, even though I knew next to nothing, save for what sites were safe to pirate shit from and that I'm not looking for a .exe file when I'm looking for MUSIC and VIDEOS. I had NO formal training, and I learned everything I knew by toying around and learning from my mistakes. I damn sure wasn't some cybersecurity freak. I just wanted to keep myself from getting infected instead of riling through other people's shit, thank you.
  • Iskandaria: Well geez, it's taken you soooooooooooo long! How hard can it fucking be? Really!

At the 150 mark, a notification pops up - "attempt limit reached - device will now format".

  • Tsuyoshi: ... (Goddammit, why does everyone I work with have to be so fucking HARD-HEADED?!?!)

Iskandaria starts to tap her foot at the door, a pouty look on her face, when finally, Tsuyoshi swings the stall door open. No laptop in hand, and nothing else visible.

  • Iskandaria: Uhh...?

Tsuyoshi shoves the laptop's disc drive in her face and drops it on her chest, causing her to scramble to catch it before it hits the filthy floor below.

  • Iskandaria: ... So, you just quit.
  • Tsuyoshi: Fuck yeah, I did. I felt like that was the logical thing to do when the thing was telling me it was about to format, since I failed so many times. Wouldn't you rather get a locked treasure chest than just have it and its contents jettisoned off into the void? I'd go with the former.
  • Iskandaria: Well, I told you to crack it. It's not that hard, especially at your age! It CAN'T be!
  • Tsuyoshi: Then you should've done it yourself, since it's easy-peasy lemon-squeezy for you. I'll do what I can do. Nothing more, nothing less. Don't ask anything more of me, because I assure you, you're not likely to get it.
  • Iskandaria: Oh, what are you doing talking to me like that? I thought you weren't any sort of leader here!

At the end of the hall, Tsuyoshi turns to face her, eyes wide open, mouth set in a dead-serious frown.

  • Tsuyoshi: I may not be the leader of this band, but goddammit, I'm certainly not anyone's bitch.

A serious statement, eliciting nothing more than a sigh, smile, and chuckle from Iskandaria. Tsuyoshi, too, reverts to his common, nonchalant expression afterward.

  • Iskandaria: Good on you, then. I'm surprised you didn't shove me into it.
  • Tsuyoshi: Hey, we're not under attack. I thought we could use a stupid little challenge to lighten things up, what with that hurricane blowing out there and all.
  • Iskandaria: We should've saved it for when the lights went out and trees started getting uprooted. Wouldn't that have been fun? "The place is collapsing all around us, extract the data before it's too late!"
  • Tsuyoshi: It would've been amusing, but we don't need to risk the Lsi like that. I like stupid games like that, but not enough so to risk any tagalongs.
  • Iskandaria: Yeah, yeah, goody two-shoes wants to go to Heaven instead of oblivion, so he'll let any stray dog he finds on the street eat him out of house and home and keep him from living unlife. I wish I was as morally sound as you are, Tsuyoshi-sama, Tsuyoshi-senpai, Tsuyoshi's-Island! Save the baby, save the princess, save the world, blah blah blah. That's all you are - you're a stupid green dinosaur with a saddle on your back, carrying some kid you found all over the place, even though you don't have to.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Hm. You're actually apt with that comparison. I played his games as a kid, and now look at me - I'm him. Funny how life works.
  • Iskandaria: Unlife, dumb...
  • Tsuyoshi: Dumb...? Dumb wh-

Iskandaria comes to a complete stop in the middle of the hall before slowly backpedalling to Tsuyoshi.

  • Iskandaria: ... Did you hear that?
  • Tsuyoshi: Isn't it obvious that I didn't?
  • Iskandaria: The lobby door just opened and shut, and I'm hearing several sets of footsteps.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Those sound like heavy ones, too. Reckon they went out to buy some new duds after a beer run?

Ignoring the idiot's question, Iskandaria drags him behind the curve with her.

  • Iskandaria: Be serious, man. I don't know who that is. That doesn't sound like any patron's footsteps. Those boots sound... thick, heavy, steel-toed. That kind of stuff.
  • Tsuyoshi: I get the feeling it's a big force, too. Want to go for broke and kill them all before we make a break for it?
  • Iskandaria: Fuck, no. I don't even know if they're soldiers. Regardless, we shouldn't risk it. Someone's gonna go check it out while the other goes to get everyone out. I don't care if Sifiniaz is still sawing logs or what. This whole "entire inn is suddenly dead" deal is making me a little too uneasy. It's just too suspicious, don't you think?
  • Tsuyoshi: Mm-hm... Well, I suppose I'll be the one to go check. You've already had your run-in with injury for the day, so I guess if anyone should get hurt this time, it should be me. Go get the rest out. I'll see if I can't meet all of you with the UTV thing at the back of the inn. Stay far away, stay hidden, and run like hell if I brought a group with me.
  • Iskandaria: Uh... I've got it, but what injury are you talking about?
  • Tsuyoshi: Uh... Uhhh... Just go. That's the injury I'm talking about. The "uh" injury.

Flipping him a departing bird, Iskandaria taps along quietly, as Tsuyoshi slinks along the halls to the lobby, the faint tapping of his boots only hidden by the increasing severity of the storm outside.

  • Tsuyoshi: (I guess they took the ground route, since this shit would blow most standard-issue helicopters around like paper in an industrial fan... Hm. They're a persistent pack, that's-)

His internal monologue is cut short by the chattering only a few tens of feet away - in an unoccupied room.

  • ???: Damn, this place is dark... Not even a patron in sight! Why are all the lights on if this place is a ghost town?
  • ???: Beats me. If they're out in that Biblical deluge out there, they're fucking stupid. Their arses would've been better off at Ararat than in London, that's for sure.
  • ???: Eh, stupid mountain men do stupid things...

After a little rustling, a dropped lamp, and a few texts, they start again, slowly unfurling their talk with sighs and exasperated voices.

  • ???: ... Do you think we'll even find them here?
  • ???: Honestly? I hope we don't. I want to sleep, and as long as we don't get blown away, this place looks perfect. This could easily keep a squadron happy for a night or two.
  • ???: Yeah, but you know Ben. He doesn't want us happy! Not with that point-ear on his arse!

Quick tramping from wet boots is Tsuyoshi's signal to turn the corner and hide, and soon, a familiar voice belts out its displeasure.

  • Ben: What?! WHAT?! What is this I'm hearing in here?!
  • ???: Sir, it's-

A firm, open-handed slap rings out across the vicinity.

  • Ben: YOU WANT TO LAZE AROUND HERE, IN DANGEROUS TERRITORY, WITH FUGITIVES ON THE LOOSE!!! WHAT ISN'T WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE?!? I HAVE ANOTHER SIX SOLDIERS DOING THEIR JOBS WHILE YOU TWO SIT IN HERE CHIT-CHATTING!!!
  • ???: S-sir, apologies, sir!

Upon the frantic exit of the three sets of footsteps, Tsuyoshi's unliving heart is jogged, and he flees the scene as quietly as he can, hoping to reach the group without issue...

  • Tsuyoshi: (... Eight soldiers, plus Ben. That's all that made it up here... Good. Now, if we can just make it out of here alive...)

Progress through the building at such a slow pace wears at his mind, as the place seems to become increasingly labyrinthine, the halls and the doors looking alike and the storm firmly stuck in the back of his head. Eventually, after what feels like hours, he sees a tell-tale landmark - after a whole path apparently clear of soldiers, he sees Dominique and Hecate emerge from the latter's room, both baffled by Tsuyoshi's rustled appearance.

  • Hecate: Tsuyo-
  • Tsuyoshi: They're here! Keep your voices down!

Grabbing them both by the arms, he leads them back into the group's collective room, where the remainder anxiously awaits their coming.

  • Dominique: Let me guess... They're near our best means of escape, right?
  • Tsuyoshi: Yeah, they're in the lobby. It's a force of eight, plus Ben. They're gonna do a door-to-door search, so you might want to jam that door or something.
  • Hecate: Force of eight...? Why so small?
  • Black: Because it's too good to be true! I see humanoid shapes outside the windows! I ju-
  • Tsuyoshi: Black, goddammit, keep your voi-

A strong smack on the barred door indicates that the warning came too late. The windows near the bed and in the bathroom are both smashed, and the gun barrels and shouting personnel that follow them send Sifiniaz into a trembling fit as Sága screams in her arms.

  • Soldier: OPEN UP!!! WE KNOW YOU'RE IN THERE!!! COME ON OUT, OR WE'LL BLOW YOU OUT!!!
  • Ben: Out of the way, out of the way!

One punch from the last pure Duodecim is enough to send the door flying into Iskandaria's face, and thus...

  • Ben: ... Well, Tsuyoshi? Would I be wrong in saying your days of running from justice are over? Hands up, now. Come on, don't act like you don't know the drill.
  • Tsuyoshi: I've been cornered before, Ben, though not twice in one job.
  • Iskandaria: ... Not one for negotiations, are you, Ben? Are you a little bitter over Thaddeus?

Ben's stony expression is all the answer they need, but...

  • Ben: Oh, no. I don't need a cocky man with a facade to keep up in my right pocket. I have all I need in some things called my right arm and my left arm. I'm the motherfucking enforcer in this New England country, and I don't brook no intrusion on my land. All I need you point-ears for is some purity help. That's it. Once that's done, I won't need your support no more. I'll have the England that the English want. We won't be brown under my watch. England for the English, and Albania for the brown folk who hate us. I'd say that'll work just fine, wouldn't you? Let the Muslims, the feminists, the bleeding-heart leftists, let them ALL fester in one spot and inbreed until they become infertile. I ain't got no problem with none of them personally, but if they've got a problem with a conquering people and their crown, I'll send them packing. I AM the new crown. I trace my ancestry back to Anne Boleyn, mother of Good Queen Bess herself, and in those days, royalty earned its keep. Now, with our land sinking and our people impoverished, we must do the same to differentiate ourselves from the slums of Karachi and the scum they put out every other day. I am a Godhead man now, but let me assure you, there WILL come a day when the sun will ONCE AGAIN NEVER set on the British Empire, once royal blood is at the helm again! ... And your kind, Tsuyoshi? Sifiniaz? Brat? Oh, your kind will be the first to donate the blood and iron necessary to fuel any grand empire. Consider it an honor that my hand will even allow you latter two to live, if only to grow up spoiled, and then crash and burn when I've no use for you any longer.

... it just wouldn't be a Ben speech if it weren't a grandiose treatise.

  • Tsuyoshi: Aren't you ever a big man, Ben?
  • Ben: I am, ain't I not?
  • Tsuyoshi: Yeah, talking to two elven kids like that when one's scared stiff and one's an infant, even as you cower to their superior. You're about as big a man as I was when I was in my mid-teens.
  • Ben: I do what I got to do, lad.
  • Tsuyoshi: I'm many times your elder and many times greater a man than you are, lad.
  • Ben: Are ya now? You sure don't look it.
  • Tsuyoshi: I've been getting that a lot today.
  • Ben: You only get what you deserve, lad. I'll give you something else you deserve...

Out from his sleeve, he produces a tiny revolver, just big enough to fit comfortably in his little man hands. A swagger in his step, he approaches Tsuyoshi, keeping the gun aimed between his eyes at all times...

  • Ben: A bullet in your head... That's what ya deserve, lad.
  • Tsuyoshi: You people all do the same thing, forcing my hands up and then FUCKING AROUND AND ACTING LIKE YOU'LL SHOOT ME!!!
  • Ben: You want me to shoot you? In front of the kid?
  • Tsuyoshi: I want you to shut the fuck up and do something! Jesus, you people are all bark and no-
  • Sifiniaz: BENJAMIN NAGUTSUKI...

The sudden outburst draws the eyes of all in the room.

  • Ben: ... It's okay, baby. You'll be home soon, and then-
  • Sifiniaz: I ALREADY VERBALIZED TO THADDEUS THAT I DID NOT HAVE A DESIRE TO RETURN TO MY PALATIAL HOMESTEAD!!! YOUR INSUBORDINATION IS EGGING ME TO THE CLIFFS OF IMPATIENCE AS WELL, AND I AM DANGEROUSLY CLOSE TO PLUMMETING ATOP YOUR PENCIL NECK!!!
  • Tsuyoshi: Hah! Pencil neck! You just got torched, scrawny man!
  • Sifiniaz: YOU WILL ABANDON THIS PLACE WITH NO HARM TO THESE PEOPLE... TO MY FRIENDS... OR-

Her tirade only ceases when a visible lump forces itself into her throat.

  • Iskandaria: Sifiniaz?
  • Dominique: What the hell...
  • Black: It's no frog!

Thrashing as violently as the storm outside, the lump slowly makes its way up her trachea, as she falls back onto the bed and gasps for breath. With Sága screaming and the lights flickering, one soldier diverts his eyes long enough to see the encroaching creatures outside the window.

  • Soldier: ... Sir, unknown personnel are gathering outside!
  • Ben: Don't tell me that! Scot, watch your six!
  • Scot: Uh... I don't see anything but leaves in the wind, sir!

Ben leers at the paranoid soldier with every ounce of animosity he can muster.

  • Ben: I don't need false flags, Eric.
  • Eric: ... Yes, sir. I just-
  • Ben: Don't "I just" me.
  • Tsuyoshi: (Christ, these people are so incompetent...)
  • Sifiniaz: He... He is correct... He sees... no falsehood... they... they come for us!
  • Sága: They're coming back! Outhide the windowth!
  • Ben: Shut your mouth, kid!

The lights shut off as Scot's screams echo outside.

  • Eric: Oh no...
  • Ben: ... He was right... SHIT, ghosts and their lorddamn TRICKS!!!
  • Tsuyoshi: I didn't do it!
  • Ben: New plan of action - kill the ghosts, take the Lsi, and leave tonight!

Uneasily, the soldiers aim their guns at the heads of all the unliving in the room, just hesitating to pull the trigger.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Fuck this subordinate shit.
  • Ben: STAY WHERE YOU ARE!!!

Snatching the gun out of Ben's hand, Tsuyoshi wraps his hand around Ben's neck and points it squarely at his temple.

  • Tsuyoshi: If any of you shoot anyone in this room, he's dead!

With the lights fading in and out intermittently, the fearful soldiers' minds flit from one extreme to the other, unsure of which order to follow.

  • Ben: Alright... Don't kill them! L-lay down your weapons!
  • Eric: Sir, it's too late for that! Those things outside-
  • Ben: THAT'S AN ORDER, ERIC!!!

Amid the commotion, Sifiniaz is all but forgotten... save for her sibling. With the queer lump in her throat stuck at the very top of her neck, Sága crawls up to her mouth to investigate.

  • Sága: Thifiniaz, open your mouth! I need to see what's-

Before she can, however, Sifiniaz forces herself up, her jaw's spasming hard enough to nearly fly out of place, before she opens her mouth wide... and goes catatonic.

  • Ben: ... What's going on? What's wrong with her?
  • Eric: Uh...
  • Sága: ... Thifiniaz?

At the mention of her name, her eyes turn to Sága... and roll back into her head. The fine, black mist that bursts forth from her throat spills forth onto the ground into a messy pile, just before she completely loses her breath. From the writhing pile comes nothing less than the thing that struck her comatose in the first place - similar but different, with a blank visage of humanity, but a steaming, fleshy torso that reeks of diseased innards and dried blood.

  • Tsuyoshi: ...
  • Sága: Thifiniaz!
  • Black: THE WRAITH!!!
  • Ben: Wraith?! What's a wraith?!
  • Eric: Ugh... It's on top of me, isn't it? Get it off... Get it off!
  • Dominique: TOSS HIM TO IT!!!

Following her orders before he can even process them, he kicks the struggling Ben into the nonexistent arms of the faceless menace. Frantically, he swipes the salivating, gasping Sifiniaz and the crying Sága before he escapes with the rest, fleeing the inn as the screaming of wraith and man echo through the whole of the building. Once outside, they find nothing short of a shambling army of moaning drones outside - and the UTV nowhere in sight.

  • Hecate: ... They're everywhere...

With the rain in their eyes and their path blockaded at every turn by a legion of unlife, they can only stand in awe, gazing every which way for some glimmer of hope...

  • Sifiniaz: ... We will make it... We must escape these mountains... I refuse to allow myself to pass this world so young, so inexperienced, feeble, and vulgar!
  • Dominique: I just hope you're willing to put that resolve to work.
  • Black: This is gonna be messy!
  • Iskandaria: ... Naive point-ear. You almost make me blubber with your optimism...
  • Tsuyoshi: Have I ever told you all...

He says it with such nonchalance, as though the starving creatures and the heavy storm surrounding them have no importance at all.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... I've never confronted such a large force with such a small one.
  • Hecate: And how long have you been at this?
  • Tsuyoshi: Longer than all of you...

Letting Sifiniaz out of his arm, he unsheathes his sword and readies to fight for unlife. So too does Black adopt her typical stance, and Dominique shed her outfit for the classic bearings of a Murakumo... and so too does Iskandaria unsheathe her knife, pull her pistol, and await the coming of the mindless masses with the rest.

  • Iskandaria: I've kind of been wondering if I made the right decision when I joined you three.
  • Black: I bet! I think we all did when we first tagged along with each other!
  • Iskandaria: ... I think it's gonna be a fun time.
  • Dominique: We'll see if you say that when you're having to pull your own corpse through the field out here.
  • Iskandaria: I will. Tsuyoshi?
  • Tsuyoshi: Yeah?
  • Iskandaria: ... Keep that kid safe. You put that weight upon us, so you'd better be damn willing to carry it.
  • Tsuyoshi: I always intended to, Iska. I'm not a feeble-minded twentysomething anymore. You, Sága... You should just squeeze my arm if they try to get you. We're in this together, so that means you have to do your part as well!

With a twinkle in her eye, Sága cracks a smile and nods in affirmation.

  • Sága: I will! I promithe!

With that final optimistic word, they bolt out into the breach, running through the least-packed pathway they can find, swinging, shooting, and summoning their way through the field, maiming many, but eliminating none. Each and every one of them rises again after being struck, and before they can see the end of the unliving wall, a new problem arises - the creatures grow impatient. They rush the small gang with mighty sprints and heavy blows, with some unleashing a far worse horror - a wail that, in all its shrillness and sheer volume, can only be described as personifying the loneliness and hunger that has bred among them in the innumerable years they have dwelled here. Blinded by lightning and deafened by the agonized screams of the legions around them, they slowly lose their mental footing, struggling to even stand their ground against the sea of shucked humanity. As they struggle to progress, tightly stuck together amid the groaning hoard, Hecate eventually trips...

  • Hecate: ... (Oh, Christ...)

... into the welcoming arms of the remnants of the pursuing officers who made it to late, piled into a collapsed, low-lying mound of bones.

  • Tsuyoshi: HECATE, GET UP!!! WE DON'T WANT TO LEAVE YOU HERE, BUT WE'RE NOT HAVING MUCH CHOICE IN THE MATTER!!!

Trembling and slipping on the wet, slick ground, she sees the main group moving further and further away...

  • Hecate: C'mon, get up... I've come too far to die because I keep slipping like an old woman...

Soon enough, a wraith reaches her and claims her for its own. A familiar wraith.

  • Hecate: Those... those are John's clothes!

Before she can make out its shadowed face, Black and Iskandaria force him and the surrounding wraiths off her.

  • Hecate: ... I-
  • Black: Come on, one-eye, it's not like you're one-legged!
  • Iskandaria: This is your only spare life! You'd better use it well!

Black scoops the baffled young cyclops up and surfs the wraiths to rejoin the group, while Iskandaria is left to largely fend for herself. Chopping and popping her way through proves productive, until...

  • Iskandaria: ... Outta bullets. Great.

Not only that, but her knife is taking a little more effort than usual to extricate.

  • Iskandaria: Ah, SHIT!!!
  • Tsuyoshi: ISKA, CATCH UP!!! I CAN SEE THE END OF THEM!! HURRY!!!
  • Iskandaria: I'M TRYING, DAMMIT!!!

The lightning flashes long enough to give her a clear view of her target - a giant with a split belly, with teeth lining the two halves, stinking offal dropping from the inside, and a quivering heart... just above where she hit. Now, it has a firm grip upon her knife, and though it can barely move, it will not let go, either.

  • Iskandaria: You fat fuck! I liked that knife, too!

She lets it go and pushes the creatures off her as best she can, never minding the odd bite to her arm and kicking off leg-grabbers as quickly as possible. Too frantic to pick out more weapons, too close to the group to quit, and...

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Iskandaria...

... too mangled to stop without getting finished off, she makes it back to the group, only barely unliving, with that thick, gray ghost blood bleeding at a frightful pace from the tens of bite wounds and open bruises in her body.

  • Iskandaria: I'm sorry... I didn't think fast enough...
  • Sifiniaz: It's okay! I will keep you safe from these shambling cannibal things!
  • Iskandaria: Sifiniaz, you don't-
  • Sifiniaz: IT IS NOT ABOUT WHAT YOU DESIRE!!! THIS IS MY DEEPEST DESIRE!!! THEIR STARVATION WILL NOT BE SATED WITH US!!! NOT ON THIS INCLEMENT NACHT!!!

Still weary from her own battle with the loathsome creatures in her mind, Sifiniaz carries the chewed-up Iskandaria on her shoulder, ever and always keeping an eye on her dragging feet.

  • Iskandaria: (Hm. A point-ear keeping me alive... how ironic.)

Soon enough, though, their progress grinds to a halt, as the wraiths block the last clear passage of escape they had. They converge upon the hapless group, and with one crippled and one incapable of fighting, the entire fight degenerates into wild swinging, shooting, and screaming. Above all noises, they hear the rumbling of their stomachs - the incessant rumbling that does not cease, even when their stomachs themselves are destroyed. Bite after bite is taken from their unliving flesh, and Tsuyoshi becomes the worst victim, taking bite after bite from jaws tighter than a vise to keep Sága safe.

  • Sága: (Isn't there something I can do?!)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Not until I teach you how to fight, no! Just keep still and let me concentrate!)

As if by divine will, at the point when one big hand goes for his chest, the sky flashes gold, and the spear produced therein strikes the ground in front of them, making such a lane through them...

  • Iskandaria: They... They're distracted! Now's our chance!
  • Sifiniaz: Exacta!

... that they have little mind to close again.

  • Sága: Father, RUN!!!
  • Tsuyoshi: (Father... Aw... I guess I must be doing well enough if you can call me that after only a day.) I will. I just hope my leg doesn't give out on the way!

They take that miracle and run with it, as the sky unleashes strike after heart-stopping strike in the vicinity. They flee with all the energy they have left, until the rain has calmed, the moans have ceased, and the lightning's apparent targets are far behind them.

  • Sifiniaz: Is... every individual among us... alright?
  • Iskandaria: We all got hurt, p- ... Sifiniaz.
  • Dominique: They tore up my face. At least it was just scratches.
  • Black: I lost a few teeth, but I'm okay! They'll grow back!
  • Sifiniaz: I am uninjured... I must be the only one.
  • Iskandaria: You're the only one who thinks they're uninjured.
  • Sifiniaz: Pardon?
  • Iskandaria: I've got your blood dripping all over my boobs, Sifiniaz.

Indeed, the torn muscle, the ever-dripping pool flowing across her arm, and the shaky grip she has on Iskandaria betray her ignorance to the magnitude of her wounds.

  • Sifiniaz: But... but I feel nothing! Surely, there's no reason for my arm to be oozing like a good pastry!
  • Iskandaria: You let yourself get eaten alive for me... and for that, I thank you.

She forces the elven princess' stiff arm off her and shakily regains her footing.

  • Iskandaria: ... But save your benevolence for the ones who aren't already dead.
  • Sifiniaz: I-
  • Iskandaria: That's an order, sol-
  • Sifiniaz: YOU ARE MY FRIEND, ISKA!!! I WILL NOT LOSE ANOTHER ALLY LIKE I DID IN ALBANIA!!! THE ALBANIANS LEFT ME WITH NO FRIENDS, AND IF YOU WISH TO PLUMMET TO HELL, YOU WILL HAVE TO TAKE WHAT IS LEFT OF MY LIMB WITH YOU!!!

The declaration over Iskandaria's imperative leaves the whole group in reverent silence. Certainly, Tsuyoshi knows the irony of the whole thing - the living dead weight calling the one who refuted her thus a friend, after such a short time...

  • Iskandaria: ...
  • Tsuyoshi: Aw, that's sweet.
  • Iskandaria: ... Sifiniaz.
  • Sifiniaz: Hm?
  • Iskandaria: ... I don't know how old you are-
  • Sifiniaz: I am 57 years old!
  • Iskandaria: ... Well, you're still a kid, like it or not.
  • Sifiniaz: ... What do you mean by this?
  • Iskandaria: You give your trust away too quickly.
  • Sifiniaz: But you have earned my trust, Iskandaria!
  • Iskandaria: If I, of all people, managed to earn your trust in only a day, then you'll have a hard time as a mercenary. I kno-
  • Sifiniaz: DON'T TALK TO ME LIKE I KNOW NOTHING!!! I have had my trust betrayed by many people I thought to be good before. I am no child, lonely and melodramatic and inserting myself into a self-projected world where everyone is good! I have experienced much in my years, Iskandaria! I have not questioned you tonight, so why do you question me?! I must know!
  • Iskandaria: ...
  • Sifiniaz: Do not sew your orifice shut at this instant! I sense a certain kinship with you, too...

Iskandaria's bloody face lights up at the statement, almost as though it shocks her.

  • Iskandaria: Sifiniaz, you are a kind young soul, and I appreciate what you have done for me tonight. Nevertheless, I must make one thing clear - we are not kin, certainly not blood kin.
  • Sifiniaz: I never opined that-
  • Iskandaria: AND we must move north quickly, lest we be finished off when those wraiths return. I am tired, I am beaten, and I am surely cursed... I want to leave, and I don't... *sigh*... I don't want to have to worry about the rest of you idiots anymore.
  • Dominique: Well, excuse me. If you don't want to worry about us, then leave.
  • Iskandaria: I thought about it, but then I realized that you all would die without me. Just look at Tsuyoshi, cradling that kid in his arms with a broken leg.
  • Tsuyoshi: I get by. I'll just need a new pair of pants after all of this... Been a long time since that happened, but I can't turn down a good old challenge.

Thus, a hobble in their steps, they continue down that long, lonely mountain road to a warm bed and a new employer. Their only source of merriment in this cold, dark clime is each other, now. With every bite in the back, every joke at the size and shape of a wound, and every time they make each other's hearts jump, a smile creeps across their collective consciousness. Were the prying, predatory ears not upon them, the lovers may even sing... but the safety of the fragile comes before the thrill and amusement of the moment. The fells themselves will recall their exploits here as they recall the death and ruination of what once lived here, though not through the unliving remnants of their consciousness, but through other ways. Greater ways. The many mangled soldiers, the wreck of the UTV at the foot of a long-off fell, and the groaning ghost town they leave behind all testify to the deeds they did here... but perhaps the things they do now, with their lone hour of merriment echoing through the surrounding fells, and with their footprints deeply ingrained in the wet, muddy path... perhaps those will be what generations to come will see, and question, and recall. But that is neither here nor now.

  • Dominique: How long does this road go? My feet actually hurt.
  • Tsuyoshi: Damn, that's saying something.
  • Iskandaria: I don't know. I came here a long time ago, and I was actually able to make a round trip - in and out, same road I came in on being the same one I went out on. This... this is just too deep. I don't know anything about the northern Cumbrians... We can just hope we don't wind up straying from the compass' point.
  • Sifiniaz: Why do we not continue to sing and dance and smile? It makes no sense when our ordeal of desperation and struggle is so large and intimidating!
  • Black: Bullshitting will only carry you so far, Sifiniaz! ... At least, for these folks. I never get sick of it, but they get all prickly-assed and turn into downers if you burn them out on it!
  • Tsuyoshi: I yearn for the apathy and stamina you possess, Black. That same apathy and stamina that lets you snap me in half and go on for hours without a care in the world is the same thing that carries you many other places in life...
  • Black: ...

She stands still in the path, surveying the surrounding fells with a stone face and unblinking eyes.

  • Tsuyoshi: Don't do that. You can't hear OR see any better than I can. If there are any snakes out there, they'll have to bite you for you to notice them.
  • Black: Oh, it's not that! I just thought I saw moonlight peeking through the clouds...
  • Iskandaria: This is one of those... uh... "clockwise hurricanes"? No... Ah, I don't know what the hell they call it...
  • Tsuyoshi: It was a damn sudden one if it is, which makes me doubt that it is.
  • Iskandaria: It could just be some warm, north Atlantic squall. I don't know...
  • Tsuyoshi: You can't know.

Being the only one with her eyes kept upon the path, it should come as no surprise that Hecate would be the first to notice...

  • Hecate: Do any of you notice how the hills we pass keep on... repeating?
  • Black: BULLSHIT!!! You might as well say that a country road in the southern US is repeating because all the trees and houses look exactly alike! The conclusion is understandable, but incorrect nevertheless!
  • Hecate: No, this is different. I've been traveling on my own long enough to know how to recognize landmarks. See that one tree, about twice as tall as I am?

A little pine sapling, hardly half the height it soon shall reach, stands at the foot of the hill to the left of the path. Were it not the only one in the immediate area, there would be nothing remarkable about it.

  • Hecate: We've passed that same tree at least three times already. I looked back the second time to see if the last one was there too, but it wasn't - it was just out of my sight. So was the second one when we reached the third one. And now, the third one is gone as well.
  • Tsuyoshi: You're paranoid. You can't be certain it's the exact same one we're passing.
  • Hecate: But it's not just that. The hills, the road features, things I could take all night describing are all repeating. Not to mention just how straight this path is. I've NEVER seen a straightaway in the Cumbrains last this long or run this perfectly straight.
  • Tsuyoshi: I have an idea, then.

He nonchalantly scrapes an X into the middle of the road with his boot, nearly tripping as the slick mud loses its grip on his other foot.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... If the path's repeating, we should come across that X again in a while. It's deep enough to keep the rain from filling it, in case you think it's gonna get filled through NATURAL causes by the time we get back.
  • Hecate: Don't talk to me like I'm crazy, Tsuyoshi. That thing used illusion magic on me! My gut tells me all I need to know when I'm under its sway, and my eyes only vindicate it!
  • Black: SOMEONE FORGOT HER PILLS AT THE INN!!!
  • Iskandaria: ... Let's just keep going. We'll find out if we're going in circles soon enough.

They proceed thus, always looking out for the X, and never finding it once, even as the pine sapling accompanies their every hundred feet or so. With further protests from Hecate come a large gouge in the path, again courtesy of Tsuyoshi's boots. It, too, never appears again, quite unlike the sapling. Hecate eventually silences herself, even as the path seems to go on and on, looping the same point over and over again. It does occur to her that it could, in fact, be mere fear getting the better of her, but...

  • Hecate: (I can't chalk up that pine to coincidence...) Tsuyoshi, I need to do something.
  • Tsuyoshi: *sigh*... Just kill the thing, Hecate. I'm sorry for being an ass to our ticket out of here, but you're drawing this out far too much.
  • Hecate: I know. Now, I'm going to end it.

She summarily lights a fire in the middle of the hapless pine, ensuring it burns the whole of the thing to a shining beacon, and a skeleton of its former self.

  • Hecate: There. Now we'll KNOW if we're looping the same road.

Always keeping an eye on the burning tree, she lags behind the rest of the group, never pulling her head away from it until the light is well out of sight for her cyclopean eye. However, by that point, the group itself is far off as well. Without uttering a word, she sprints ahead, silently lamenting her own paranoia, desperately attempting to catch up to the only protection she has on this dark, long, lonely road...

Onward, ever onward she goes...

Until, to her horror...

She never comes any closer.

Always remaining at the same point, stuck in the metaphorical mud while they move on. Perhaps it is all too convenient for that same tree to have appeared again, as green as it was before she touched it, cheekily bobbing in the heavy wind and relishing the feeling of the rain upon its leaves.

  • Hecate: ... This is a trap. That... that thing's trying to separate us. It has to be! TSUYOSHI!!! TSUYOSHI!!! COME BACK!!! ANYONE?!?! CAN ANYONE HEAR ME?!?!

They cannot, and no sooner does she come to a standstill than the last vestige of visibility fades, leaving them far and away, out of sight.

  • Hecate: ...

In silence, her brain flitting to and fro in a futile attempt to work out a solution, she retreats to the tree and props herself against it, allowing the rain dripping from its long, skinny needles to fall into her big eye...

  • Hecate: ... I don't know what this is. All I know is that it isn't what that thing can do. It's worse. MUCH WORSE!!!

Again, she moves to set the tree ablaze, but this time, there is no tree - only the group she had failed to catch up to only seconds ago, tired, laconic, and dragging their feet through the mud, with Sifiniaz and Sága again trembling at the wrath of the freezing rain.

  • Hecate: Tsuyoshi???
  • Tsuyoshi: Hecate...? What are you doing? You had already set one tree on fire. There's no need to drive the whole species in this region to extinction.
  • Hecate: But I... I fell behind, and you all-
  • Tsuyoshi: I never noticed that you left, least of all that you jumped to another tree. I'm not gonna kill you if you annoy me, but I may just konk you in the back of the noggin'. You seem like you've had that done already. Don't go psycho on us, now.
  • Dominique: Oi, just calm down.
  • Black: YEAH, OR I'LL SEND YOU BACK UP THERE TO GET YOUR ONE-EYE RITALIN!!!
  • Iskandaria: ... Sifiniaz, do you agree? Is she freaking out over nothing?
  • Sifiniaz: No... this whole place is infested with these howling, shrieking unlifes... It is they who pelt us with freezing rain, THEY who make this road extend forever! They're trying to claw us out and pick us off like a skill crane!
  • Tsuyoshi: Oh, give me a break...
  • Iskandaria: Tsuyoshi...
  • Tsuyoshi: What?
  • Iskandaria: ... Don't take their words with anything more than a grain of salt. You know as well as I do that things are never as they seem, and certainly not on this job.
  • Tsuyoshi: But I can hope that we can have a peaceful trek this time, can I not?
  • Iskandaria: Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. I wanted something entertaining... and now, look at me. I've been reduced to a chew toy. I've gotten far more than what I bargained for. We need to anticipate these things coming. It won't stop them, but... maybe it can reduce their impact, if nothing else.
  • Dominique: But the path repeating just seems-
  • Iskandaria: I know, I know. But give her a chance and keep that thought in the back of your mind. We've all had those things bite chunks off our hides tonight. I don't think we can afford another instance like that.
  • Black: You're just as paranoid as she is! Give it a rest! It's not our fault you got chewed like a rawhide!
  • Iskandaria: You need to remember that, for all that we've seen of them... we still don't know everything they're capable of.
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Good point.
  • Hecate: ... Can you at least watch out for things? We don't need to turn on each other. Not when we have nowhere else to go but forward, in the dark, with nothing to keep us safe but each other.
  • Tsuyoshi: We will, we will. I just... wish this whole thing would end already.
  • Dominique: But I'm not seeing it, and you can't pretend you are, either.
  • Tsuyoshi: You know me, Dominique. I've seen your face and Black's for centuries now, and yet, I still don't know every feature either one of you possess. I don't pay attention to those things, because they never matter to me until it's too late. All I can do now is try to be sure it isn't too late.
  • Hecate: Aye, there ya go...
  • Black: ... You really don't know me that well? Even me?
  • Tsuyoshi: No, Black. I was a deadhead when I died, and I'm an even bigger one now. Maybe I should change that when this is through. Not like I don't have any incentive, after all.
  • Sága: (Father?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Yeah, I'm talking about you. If you see anything coming with those strong little eyes of yours, don't scream. Just squeeze my arm.)

He holds her up high, shares a mutual smile with her, and wraps her extra tightly in her blanket as the rest look on in varying degrees of serenity - the last moment of warmth they share together before they press onward on that muddy dirt road to extraction. The path finally begins to ungulate, crest, and depress, as the fells and the windbreaks they provide come and go, the greater flora grows scarce, and what grass they find turns dull and lifeless. Hours pass until midnight approaches, and the fells start to look as uniform as the storm raging about them. They observe what they can, take note of what warrants it, and keep close tabs on each other, but the hours inevitably wear upon their focus. With every hill that they must cross, every fell that looms over the horizon, and every dead bush they find on the side of the road, it all begins to look exactly the same as the last. Nothing ever changes. Nothing they can perceive. And so, blank-eyed and cloudy-minded, they reach it - road's end. The apogee has been reached, and from here on out, they will have to rely on instinct to guide them north.

  • Black: Aw, come on! I don't think I can deal with a big spate of mountain-climbing tonight!
  • Dominique: Like hell you can't. After this ordeal, you're probably the most energetic among us.
  • Iskandaria: This isn't right.
  • Dominique: How so?
  • Hecate: There was a path beyond this point. Do you see the horizon beyond this point shimmering? It's like there's a translucent curtain in front of it, blowing in the wind.
  • Tsuyoshi: I don't see it. Even if it is something ominous, do you have any alternate paths in mind?
  • Hecate: No, but-

In an instant, Tsuyoshi dashes past the ethereal barrier and scales the nearest hill. All he sees beyond is a shimmering black lake. All that could lie beyond remains hidden by the fiercest torrent he has yet seen tonight. Yet for all the noise one would expect from a deluge so intense, all he hears beyond this veil is a low, discordant humming. Humming in his ears, like poorly-grounded speakers attempting to speak through their own inhuman code.

  • Hecate: What's up there?
  • Tsuyoshi: ... N... nothing. I can't see anything but a lake. It looks like the rain's gonna get fierce beyond this point, though.
  • Dominique: How much more fierce than this?
  • Tsuyoshi: "You can't see your hand in front of you" fierce.
  • Hecate: ... Grand. They have us boxed in.
  • Black: What do you mean?! We can just take a different route! This isn't rocket science!!
  • Hecate: Black, I can tell you aren't the most attentive thinker in this group, but isn't it common sense to think they would be following us while we were moving at a snail's pace? We can't tread the same ground twice without risking an ambush. We have to keep moving... Even if the path ahead looks so ominous.
  • Black: Eh? They're not that fast, Cate! All we-
  • Hecate: Black, it's not about speed. As Iskandaria said, we do not know what they're capable of. Looks are always deceiving.
  • Dominique: So we just wing it and see what happens?
  • Hecate: Unless anyone has any brighter ideas. Unless someone wants to lie to themselves and everyone here and say that retreading has no risk, since we can just stand and fight instead of fleeing.

Indeed, no one would dare to utter so flagrant a lie. Nevertheless, the path ahead certainly doesn't appear ideal.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... It's northbound and it's got plenty of cover, so I guess we will wing it. Just thicken your skin for the coming shitstorm, or what's left of you in the wake of it won't be a pretty sight!

Hesitantly, the remainder of them take their first steps beyond that shimmering veil, and immediately, they feel the same assault on their ears.

  • Sifiniaz: Rumbling... Vibrating... This is more bad than those creatures' wailing!

She can hardly hear herself speak, and the others fail to hear her as well. Sága is the only one to escape the roaring, ugly noise surrounding them, and it is to her benefit in more ways than one - even amid the unliving, the racket soon brings with it a throbbing, rumbling headache. Were there any focus left in their minds to kill, it is gone now, melted away beneath the unyielding flames of this hideous noise. Trudging further and further into what becomes a darker, murkier region than before, they find their feet beginning to sink upon rafts of thin, dying grass, falling into the smelly, swamp-like water below. The sky turns blacker as they force themselves further and further, the rain falling thicker and thicker, and the noise grows louder and louder.

  • Tsuyoshi: (Goddamn it... I can barely even hear myself think!)
  • Sága: (Is everyone alright? They're all starting to fall out of line...)

Even with her mindspeak, she fails to reach her father, only being heard as whispers and mumbles, far too small and discrete to be interpreted as actual vocalization. She turns her attention to Tsuyoshi, tugging on his hair and squeezing his arm in an attempt to reach him...

  • Tsuyoshi: (Is someone there?! I can't see shit!)
  • Sága: (No! I just-)
  • Tsuyoshi: (I can't hear you!)
  • Sága: (I JUST WANTED TO KNOW WHY EVERYONE IS ACTING SO STRANGE!!!)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Oh... It's this fucking rumbling, bad ground shit. I've never heard anything so crushing, in life or unlife. It's giving me a splitting headache...)
  • Sága: (BUT I DON'T HEAR ANYTHING!!! I WONDER WHY!!!)
  • Tsuyoshi: (I guess you're just that kind of special snowflake! Just don't squeeze me like that unless you KNOW there's something coming! I can't guarantee I'll attack the right thing in this kind of darkness!)
  • Sága: (I'LL TRY NOT TO, BUT I CAN'T SEE MUCH OF ANYTHING EITHER!!!)

They go on, tripping over roots...

  • Hecate: Ugh... Jesus, this mud stinks...

... losing their train of thought...

  • Black: (Haaaaa... Tsuyoshi... Why do I feel so rumbly all over when you're not here...?)

... futiley attempting to push the noise out of their mind...

  • Dominique: This is terrible. I've never heard of anything that could actually overpower my own thoughts!

... and finally, doubling over and giving in to the throb of the enemy.

  • Iskandaria: Sifiniaz? Sifniaz!
  • Sifiniaz: It hurts, Iska! It pains my person! These things are hunting us like raptors in the sky, waiting for us to collapse and await their coming! I feel as though my cerebrum has blown a seal and is leaking away my thoughts into the deeper recesses of my cranial cavity!

Fighting her own battle with the throbbing agony of the growling, vile racket, Iskandaria hoists the defeated one upon her shoulder, carrying her onward into the unknown as she struggles to keep her balance. Finally, the midnight bell is tolled...


AD3301/05/18
00:00


... and at that point, with Tsuyoshi on his knees and Sága fearing for his unlife, the rumbling fear finally begins to ebb.

  • Tsuyoshi: Jesus Christ... about fucking time.
  • Sága: Father! Can you hear me now?
  • Tsuyoshi: Barely, but yeah... I can hear you now.
  • Sága: (Father, I had been trying to get through to you for so long!)
  • Tsuyoshi: About what...?

Coming to a standstill, he listens. He cannot see, but he can hear the ebb of the rain as well... but no footsteps. No voices. Only the cawing of crows and the clatter of equine hooves on a far off flat.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... Oh. I get it. They're all gone now.
  • Sága: (I stopped hearing their footsteps at least thirty minutes ago... I don't know where they could've went.)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Did they go away slowly, or just disappear abruptly?)
  • Sága: (Slowly. It was terrible. I could cry, scream, and shout my throat to pieces, but they couldn't hear me. They all had that same noise you had in your ear.)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Great...)

He seats himself on the wet, marshy ground, staring into the abyssal darkness as far as he can see. No longer does the ran fall so heavily, and no longer does it drown all sound around them. It only leaves a delicate, chilly mist upon their skin. Even so, the darkness in and of itself lends the place a new breed of bleakness.

  • Sága: (... What do we do now? We can't leave them back there.)
  • Tsuyoshi: (What can we do? I don't even know if what we're seeing now is what's actually around us.)
  • Sága: (You think we're in an illusion?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (I've thought a lot of things tonight, but none of them seem to be accurate. I don't know anything. That's the problem...)
  • Sága: (...)
  • Tsuyoshi: (...)
  • Sága: (... Father?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Sága, I hoped you would have learned this at an applicable time, but I guess this will have to be learned sooner.)
  • Sága: (Hm?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Don't ever take a job and act as if it's "routine". It's never a routine assassination, never a routine rescuing, never a routine, well-planned, and typical ANYTHING. Not in THIS job.)

Flinging himself to his feet, he lands a solid kick on a large rock in front of him, propelling it straight into a nearby puddle and scaring some invisible wildlife out of its wits.

  • Tsuyoshi: (... Save that for your office job. Otherwise, you'll wind up botching every job worse than I did this time around.)
  • Sága: (Well, you can't exactly anticipate the unexpected...)
  • Tsuyoshi: (You can do better than this, though. Just remember that. You're alive, and if you choose to follow me, I'd rather you stay that way. I don't want anything I raise to die before it can eat, drink, sleep, fuck, and raise a biological child.)
  • Sága: (Father... Can you not-)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Yeah, yeah, I talked like a sailor in front of you. Good thing Dominique isn't here to chew me out about it. Let's just... go north, I guess.)
  • Sága: (... You interrupted me.)
  • Tsuyoshi: (What were you gonna say? I thought I was going to hear something about my bad words.)
  • Sága: (No... Can you not do any of those things? Is that really how things are for you?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (... Yeah. I can still feel it when I fuck, but I guess that suits me, as... foul-minded as I was when I died.)
  • Sága: (But not eating, sleeping, or drinking... that sounds horrible.)
  • Tsuyoshi: (... I might tell you more about it when we go home, Sága. I don't need to get all wrapped up in sentimental shit while we're out in the field, not even knowing where we are. We need to focus. Both of us.)
  • Sága: (I know. I'll focus.)

Forging ahead for a mere quarter of a mile through the quiet, windswept mountains, Tsuyoshi feels something he hasn't felt in a long time - exhaustion, mental and physical. His arms begin to tremble as he holds Sága in his left arm, his sword in his right, but throughout the shaky ride, Sága can only think of one thing...

  • Sága: (Father?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Hmmm?)
  • Sága: (Where is home?)

Never once do his feet stop as he dwells on the question for a long three minutes, yet during that time, his expression slowly fades into futility.

  • Tsuyoshi: (... Your guess is as good as mine, Sága.)

There is no good answer.

  • Tsuyoshi: (Anywhere you can lay your head without bugs crawling all over you and rain keeping you cold. That's been home to me, Dominique, and Black for a long, long time...)
  • Sága: (You never had a real home?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (... Nah, I guess we didn't.)

And then, on that odd note, his expression upturns to its usual nonchalance.

  • Tsuyoshi: (I guess it never did make sense for a traveling trio of mercenaries to anchor themselves to any one spot on the planet.)
  • Sága: (Hm...)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Just think of it this way - at least we're free. Bound only by what we choose to bind ourselves to, we can go anywhere we want at any time. Should there be a paywall, my own stinginess, the lack of bills, the lack of taxes, the lack of necessities of the living... all of those things help ensure my pockets remain full enough to get us through.)
  • Sága: (But what about that man and the people following his orders?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Just nuisances. Ass itches that take a little more effort to scratch.)

Beautiful analogies from a lovely mind, hm?

  • Sága: (So you don't fear the people who hunt you?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Mm... Not as long as they're only after me. I don't like it when they start popping off a storm of lead when I have you and Sifiniaz around. That stuff hurts the living more than it hurts ghosts like me, you know, so I try to keep your exposure to a minimum.)
  • Sága: (Would it take you away if you got shot, father?)

He barely manages to hide that little mental flinch. A stutter in his throat, he coughs and hacks to break it loose, and yet his tongue still flutters when he finally spits it out...

  • Tsuyoshi: (I don't know, Sága. I've made it through a lot, but I still have yet to be shot in the head. Iskandaria made it, though, so why couldn't I?)
  • Sága: (That sounds so uncertain, father...)
  • Tsuyoshi: (... That's only because I haven't experimented with my person enough to find out. I'll just say that getting my leg mauled by wraiths ranks among the least of what I've lived through. It hurts like Hell, but it'll heal soon enough. I have that much of an advantage in unlife. At least I'm hardier than I was before.)

They lapse into silence, retreating into their own individual minds once again, doing all they can to focus on their cool, dark, wet surroundings. As time goes by, the clouds run across the sky, clearing the way for the first rays of light they have seen in too long - little rays of moonlight, peaking through the clouds, setting such a pretty theme, alongside the cawing of the crows and the grass rustling in the wind...

  • Sága: (It's almost beautiful, isn't it? Or is that just me?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (It would all be beautiful if it were only as placid as its face implied, Sága. You know as well as I do that the clouds clearing up means nothing in the long run. We'll never stop being watched until we're out of here, and we're a long way from there.)
  • Sága: (I know.)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Besides... I won't be leaving anyone behind. I'm just gonna bide my time, wait for the right moment, and then... I'll find everyone. No one's ever stayed lost, and this won't be an exception.)
  • Sága: (... I wonder how Sifiniaz is doing...)
  • Tsuyoshi: (She's okay. We'll all be okay when we can get out of here and rest long enough for these marks to go away.)

Soon enough, the clouds clear entirely, allowing the hazy light of the full moon to shine through and light their way. Along this path, there is no death or shadow - only greenery and serenity. Sága happily takes in this lovely sight she has never seen before as Tsuyoshi bears the burden of watchfulness, proceeding onward and upward with only a small limp in his step. Even in this situation, he feels, it is her right to have time to be a child... to be caught in the wonderment of the world for as long as it will last, and keep her innocence, as painlessly and sensibly as possible.

  • Sága: (Do you think the crows think like we do?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (If their beastkin hybrids have the capacity, I don't see why they wouldn't.)
  • Sága: (But what about they themselves? Humankind would pass that on to their descendants, but what about the crow itself?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (... I can't answer that, Sága. I haven't engaged in an intelligent conversation with a crow before. I rarely have one with a human. I'm one of those least fit to answer that.)
  • Sága: (I wonder if I could...)

Just a slight, hesitant twitch of the lip...

  • Tsuyoshi: (... You'll never know until you try. You've got all the time in the world at your age. Do it. It's never too late. Don't let the opportunity pass you by.)
  • Sága: (Do you think I could?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Neither of us know anything. Let us know. Just be sure to tell me what it said to you when you're finished!)

... and the beaming expression that breaks across her face is enough to lift his spirits higher than he could ever lift her body.

  • Sága: (I will, father! I'll talk to them all and let everyone know what they think! All voices should be heard intelligibly!)

Ah, the ideas and ambitions of youth... Never sensible, but always with their heart in the right place. A typical thing for those of her age, but something that's almost depressing to witness for the aged Tsuyoshi, who lost his own ideals long, long ago... And so, not wanting to risk her smile, he retreats into internal monologue once more.

  • Tsuyoshi: (... Maybe I could learn something from this kid. I've been killing and sleeping around for more than a millennium now. Maybe it's long past time for me to look at what I do and why I do it. I don't know how much longer I've got here, after all... Might as well make it productive. There's still too much I haven't done, too much I don't know...)

And yet, the call of the job casts the wistful look off his face and toss him back into the lovely hills they tramp upon here and now. Not far from Skiddaw, its peak visible in the horizon, they reach the peak of a modest hill overlooking a clear, flowing river. The path to the north clearly in sight, they look each other in the eyes, exchange their smiles, and silently vow to hold each other through the remainder of the journey, before they bring the rest of the motley group back together...

  • Tsuyoshi: (... Maybe I'll climb on Skiddaw and crack some more lightning. In this atmosphere, I'm sure they'll-)

Suddenly, Tsuyoshi feels a sharp clamp upon the foot of his mauled left leg.

  • Sága: (Hm? What's that?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (A bear trap...?) Hm... Funny that someone would put a bear trap out here when there AREN'T ANY BEARS!!!

Gently setting Sága down in a soft patch of grass, Tsuyoshi attempts to pry the rusty thing off his foot, burying its points into his fingers as he does, all to no clear avail.

  • Tsuyoshi: Well, this one's wanting to be a bitch... If only I bothered to keep some Panther Piss in that Magic Satchel™, maybe I wouldn't be having this issue!

So he struggles, on and on, growing wearier and wearier, more and more frustrated with every failed try, as the ancient thing refuses to let go of the one specimen it has captured in what feels like centuries. After an agonizing ten minutes, he manages to pry the jaws just out of his flesh, when a loud crack echoes across the hills.

  • Sága: (Father... Your nose is bleeding! Did something hit you?)
  • Tsuyoshi: ... Yeah. It was a bullet. A rifle bullet. And it sounded old...

From the peak of Skiddaw, a quiet, under-the-breath snicker is heard.

  • ???: Eh-heh-heh-heh-heeeeh... Complacency... will be the end of you, lad!
  • Sága: (Who is that?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (I'll be fucked if I know, Sága.)

Another shot cuts clean through his hair, barely grazing his back as it does. As it happens, it seems as though all the assorted black birds of the region move to settle on one low-lying tree behind them, watching all too eagerly...

  • ???: Look at how they hunger, lad... They want me to get it over with. Sit still, lad... pay your respects to them... those carrion crows... those winged streetcleaners who will usher your soul into oblivion. If you have any respect in that imitation body of yours, do it now... I want the game to begin now. Don't make me wait.

The noises of reloading echo through the hills, and Tsuyoshi decides to make a break for it, with the bear trap hobbling him worse than before, clanking and clattering with every step he takes.

  • Tsuyoshi: Goddammit... Just about right. I get spotted by a sniper in an open field with a bear trap on my fucking foot!
  • Sága: (Are we just going to run?)
  • Tsuyoshi: Not just anywhere, no.

Another shot strikes (and blows off) his left ear as he runs, but he does not flinch.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... I'm gonna find some woods for us to hide in. All I have to do is clear that mountain and leave his field of vision, and he won't be a problem anymore.
  • Sága: (But why should we seek woods, then?)
  • Tsuyoshi: Because I'm not leaving anything to chance. I want to make a pursuit as difficult as possible, and nothing will do that better than a region with a shit ton of cover. At least then, we'll-

Yet another shot strikes him in his right jaw, leaving it almost slack.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... we'll be able to hunt the hunter, should he ride our coattails that well!

So he continues, the sound of a horn pursuing him as finely as the bullets that continue to perforate his being, until the bullets begin to taper off, the sound of their firing growing more and more distant as Skiddaw ebbs further and further into the horizon behind them. Out of curiosity, Sága peeks her head out, only for Tsuyoshi to jerk her back in front of him.

  • Tsuyoshi: I don't care if we're losing his aim or not. Don't ever look behind me until we're well away from that peak. I can take a shot to the face, but you can't.

On that note, Sága's attention turns to her father's missing ear, his bloodied nose, his wobbling jaw, and his panting. Even though a ghost needn't breathe, he still pants as he struggles to keep himself upright in this mountain marathon, the bear trap tearing more and more skin from his ankle in its brutal death grip. She contemplates how she can possibly aid him at this point, before the deep, bovine bellow of the horn again echoes through the land around them. Luckily, they spot peaks of another kind ahead of them - trees, and a solid pack of them, hidden away behind a small hill. The perfect cover.

  • Tsuyoshi: Thank god...

He slows his hobbling as he reaches the point where the wood begins, giving himself a moment's rest... and time to look upon the dark, thorny confines within, upon which no moonlight shines. Foreboding thought it is, he has no time to think. They proceed into the limb-ridden entrance of the rustling, chirping forest far enough for the light from whence they came to shine no longer. Aggravated by the noise of the bear trap for the final time, Tsuyoshi clears out a pile of leaves for Sága to lay upon and seats himself next to her.

  • Sága: (Father? What are you doing?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (Getting rid of a liability. You be my eyes while I'm at it.)

Thus, a hammer, a chisel, a punch, a crowbar, a pair of vise grips are utterly destroyed in the span of minutes, and in his frustration, Tsuyoshi opts for a more drastic measure.

  • Tsuyoshi: (Sága?)
  • Sága: (Yes, father?)
  • Tsuyoshi: (I'm fixing to go the idiot's route, because I don't think we have time for me to break this motherfucker. Could you close your eyes?)

The little one hesitantly complies, but the moment his back is turned, she cracks open her eyelids just widely enough to see him take his sword and chop his foot right off. It is not a clean cut, either - the first hit alone implies hesitation and regret at the measure, as does the final failed attempt to force the trap open after the fact. Once Tsuyoshi rights himself, however, she turns her head opposite to him, shutting her eyes tightly as tears stream down her cheeks. They are only abated by her father's gentle touch, as she reclaims her position beneath his chest.

  • Tsuyoshi: ... (Let's go. I can already hear that horn again. I'm sure he'll surprise us, just like everything else involved in this job.)

The winds howl from the east, where the one-eyed vampire has found herself in a similar predicament - hunted like an animal, just as she was on Mars, she has found herself in a dark, dry, dead part of the woods. Her sole eye can see through the darkness the skeletal trees cast upon the hard ground, but it can only be cold comfort when the tripwires, charges, and pits of the hunter are no more easily seen than in the open field.

  • Hecate: (... The darkness clears only when it's too late. How convenient. Now we're sitting ducks. For all I know, I could be the only one left... Oh well. It was sweet of them to get me this far.)

She must keep her mind on her surroundings, though, as that wire in front of her would have cut her head clean off if she were only a smidge less focused. The pit, too, would have claimed her just as easily if she didn't notice the depression in the leaves disguising it. Hazards lie everywhere in a place that, as she knows all too well, may not even be real. Her stomach writhes in fear... enough so to make her kneel at the base of a dying oak and do something she has not thought to do since she was young.

  • Hecate: Mother...

Dappled in moonlight, hands a-tremble, and eyes sealed shut, she clasps her hands together and breathes a deep breath of fresh, cool mountain air...

  • Hecate: ... I don't know if you live or not, nor do I know if there is a place beyond this plane, but I will do as you told me when I was green and frail... Gods, if you are there to listen, I beseech you... Do not let me- ... No, no...

Though she knows so little of them...

  • Hecate: ... Do not let us die tonight. Do not let us all waste all we have built ourselves upon and fought for on one collective mistake. Do not let us go alone. Do not let us... pass away tonight, lonely and afraid, at the hands of the screaming legions of unlife...

... she implores the gods to save not just her, but all of them.

  • Hecate: ... and let us all meet again at the end of our divergent roads. Those kind enough to aid a sinful soul should not be pried away from those to whom they give so selflessly. They deserve more than that...

Solemnly, she opens her eyes and rises to her feet, having delivered as heartfelt and poetic a prayer as any lonely, desperate one in these woods. She fears for herself and for those who brought her this far, yet she cannot bring herself to shuck her vocabulary in front of the gods she now entrusts their survival to. The horn sounds a great distance to the west, yet it spurs her to flee with the spring of a flea, sending her darting through the myriad traps with all the grace of a deer, the crows and the ravens dogging her every step along the way. Through this labyrinth of former glory she runs, like the warm-blooded mammalians who once ran as lifeblood through the same worn paths, and where only cockroaches and other insects now stay, settled firmly in the dark, rotting forest floor. The pursuers caw, the huntmaster laughs at all his prey, and once again, the moonlight slowly begins to fade.

  • Hecate: Hm... I hope that storm isn't about to come back...

Stopping for a moment to observe what little of the sky she can see, she sees the obstruction clearly - the grand limbs of some far-off tree, fully green and dripping with rainwater. Focusing upon the road she runs upon, she sees a path of glowing bodies lighting the way to a long, clean way, where no dead leaves lie upon the floor and no end is in sight, even for her grand eye. Before she thinks to tackle the road ahead, however, she notices something far more recognizable in one of the bodies attempting to guide her.

  • Hecate: M-mother...?!

She rushes to take the hand of her long-lost mother as she whispers to her daughter unintelligibly, leading the little one-eyed rabbit upon the trail with her arm and hand as the stick and the carrot. Unseen fauna burst through the woods, spooked by her heavy footsteps upon the hard ground beneath her, and to her benefit, the traps seem to disappear upon this route. Tripping on her own feet, as she has so often tonight, she pursues her mother with every ounce of vim and vigor her immortal body can muster, baring her fangs as she swallows and belches the air, her mouth dry as a bone by the time she inevitably reaches the end of the long, pretty trail...

  • Hecate: Mother, stop! Why are you here?! Surely, you didn't pursue me to Earth!
  • Mother: No, Hecate, I did not.
  • Hecate: Mother, speak louder!
  • Mother: I only came here to heed your call, my sweet...
  • Hecate: I can't hear you, mother!
  • Mother: I have guided you as far as I possibly can, and now, I must tell you one thing before I leave...

She leans in close to her daughter's cheek, illuminating her dark face, the light reflecting brightly from the sweat soaking her...

  • Mother: Go north from this point, and do not expect to see me again. Try as I might, I... could not endure your absence, sweetheart. I love you, Hecate. Never forget that.

She softly kisses her progeny upon her sweaty little cheek, disappearing only a second afterward. She never heard the words before, but spoken so close to her face, they became as clear as the sky above is now. Whether it is truth or illusion...

  • Hecate: ... Mother...

... it still has the strength to snap more than a few heartstrings. Still, she hasn't the time to sob. She wipes her tears upon her trembling arm, only for the weeping master tree above her to supplant them with its own. Indeed, were this an illusion, it would have to be a damn good one. Only real rainwater can make a cold, dead vampire feel as cold as this does.

  • Hecate: ... *sigh*... I suppose that's the mark of a good illusionist. They know how to get under your skin... and I guess I must make the method to do so far too obvious.

As she has her little external monologue, she hears a faint little buzzing, far above her head.

  • ???: Hai-ho! Who would be so daft as to make their thoughts known to our bones beneath this lovely little tree?
  • Hecate: Just a lost little girl. Don't mind it. I suppose my types tend to talk to themselves.
  • ???: Oh, hush, silly! Do not speak with such a meek countenance! I've not seen a visitor in this lonely, lovely, thousand-acre wood for many a year! Sit down upon a toadstool, missy, and tell me the story of the glory you mask beneath your humility!

Such a loud and forceful voice, and yet, it only comes from a little humanoid no bigger than a hummingbird. A glowing creature, fairy-like in size, but with the wings of a chubby cherub, any guess as to what this is would likely be incorrect.

  • ???: My nominym would be Ryminym, but you may call me Redbird, miss...?
  • Hecate: Minerva. Good to meet you, R-
  • Redbird: Ah, ah, ah! I know when I am being hoodwinked, so speak your true name, lest I dismiss you as a liar and send you to Hell with all the impious friars!

Unsure of whether the strange little thing speaks the truth or not, she stutters before she finally lets it slip.

  • Hecate: ... H-Hecate.
  • Redbird: Oh, a Greek name! Isn't that a beautiful nominym! A beautiful nominym for a beautiful nymphet!
  • Hecate: (Nymphet? How am I a nymphet...?) Uh, thanks.
  • Redbird: You are welcome as they ever come!

She can only stare at the little winged imp and wonder. Is it real, with its unflapping white wings, its short blue hair, its big red eyes, its noseless face, and its little shirt-and-pants ensemble?

  • Redbird: Oh? Why do you stop speaking? Am I truly so beautiful that I have stolen the words from your peephole?
  • Hecate: No. I've just got a lot running through my head.
  • Redbird: Mm, that's common as a button! You can't be blamed, really, as I would be surprised to see a giant machine man myself! We would all be surprised to see something that looks so similar to us while standing at the opposite end of such a wide gulf, wouldn't we?
  • Hecate: Yeah... So, what exactly are you?
  • Redbird: Heavens, nymphet, don't you read the tales of your tall, earthbound kind?
  • Hecate: You're a demon of some sort?
  • Redbird: No! Quite contrary, I am only a fairy!

Only then does Hecate notice the tiny, pointed ears, and only then does sense begin to be made.

  • Hecate: Did your kind come from elves or something? I never thought they would've become so... small.
  • Redbird: Heritage? Are the words across your lips truly serious, nymphet? We have no need for creed, no place for race, and no reverence for inheritance! We do not know, nor do we care! Things are so much simpler when you are you and those who spawned you are themselves, too! You have but one eye in your head, but I can feel the humanity oozing from you! They always preoccupied themselves with things that were neither there nor then!
  • Hecate: Oh, it's not that big a deal. I had just never heard of fairies before. I thought some things stayed in myth after the Dark War, but I guess they didn't.
  • Redbird: Does that not make the world so much more fun to live in, for fantasy and reality to come together and meld into one lovely alloy?
  • Hecate: I suppose it does...

As she trails off into silence, the odd little one throws her arms together and reclines upon the air itself.

  • Redbird: What led you here, nymphet? As you have surely gleaned by now, visitors are a rare occurrence in this place! Are you lost?

At the mention, Hecate's brain hatches an idea.

  • Hecate: ... Yes. Actually, I myself and a few others got separated not long ago. If I could have a little help in finding them, that would be appreciated.
  • Redbird: Oh, I see your intentions! You find someone in this little wood, and you think them fit to aid you on this little excursion of yours!

Accusatory in tone, and angry in expression, yet...

  • Redbird: ... You were as right as the greatest writer, nymphet!

... as compliant as a child plied with candy.

  • Hecate: You'll help?
  • Redbird: Ah, I cannot deny a pretty little princess the desire of her heart of hearts! I delight in paving the road to Hell with the good intentions of the dwellers of the fells!
  • Hecate: Um... alright! I'm glad you're willing to aid me!
  • Redbird: I heard something about north being your destination a few minutes past. I take it that is where you intend to go?
  • Hecate: ... Yes, but... Whose voice did you hear?
  • Redbird: Yours! You were talking to yourself the whole time, as if your mind was in the dance called a trance!

Relief attempts to penetrate that glass wall in her mind, but even now... it is hard as ever to feel relieved when even the apparent savior of you and your prior saviors may not even be real.

  • Hecate: Alright. I've just been a little tired, I suppose.
  • Redbird: I can take you up into the arms of the tree if it is dreams you need!
  • Hecate: No, no! I need to get out of here as soon as I can.
  • Redbird: Haste is such a waste, though, nymphet!
  • Hecate: Not when I really don't need to get caught in the sun, it isn't.
  • Redbird: With your dark skin, I doubt you've anything to fear from the sun's kin!

They fall silent and go on their way, and mercifully, the little fairy does not feel the need to press the issue, instead leading her through the thicket at a leisurely pace, the moaning of the horn growing ever closer as they proceed through the thorny woods.

  • Hecate: Do you know what that horn is?
  • Redbird: That is who I call an interloper! I do not know what it comes from, but I do know that whoever is blowing it does not belong here!
  • Hecate: I've been hearing that horn, that laughing, and those gunshots for too long now. I wonder if the people I was with are dealing with it now...
  • Redbird: Time will tell all, nymphet! Interlopers always do bad things to good people here! The interloper must have been feeling audacious, though, since its kind rarely comes here!
  • Hecate: Are these "interlopers" wraiths?
  • Redbird: ... Yes! Different terms for the same thing, just the same as with the dark sodas of the humans!
  • Hecate: So you know that whatever that thing is, it's a wraith?
  • Redbird: Please, don't act like I said something I did not! They are wraiths, they are men, they come to breed on the side of the beaten path, they come to dispose of rubbish bodies, they come to take this rotten timber, they come to do lots of things! Bad things are interlopers, nymphet! My language is not difficult to comprehend!
  • Hecate: (I suppose it wouldn't be if I was a fairy, too, but as it is...)

They continue pressing northward, with the brush parting like the Red Sea at Redbird's command, as the racket continues to be made far to the west. Every shot, every cretin laugh, and every blowing of the horn chips away at Hecate's brain...

  • Hecate: ... We need to go west.
  • Redbird: Ah, have just a sliver of belief in your companions, nymphet!
  • Hecate: I've found my way to get to them without going through a maze, fairy. It'd be stupid of me to just sit here while they're out there, possibly getting slaughtered at the hands of god only knows what.
  • Redbird: Doubt is deeply seeded inside that clouded head of yours! Just because someone you loved in the past was weak does not mean these few are so easily streaked!
  • Hecate: ... I know, but-

The little winged imp flies into her face, mere inches from that gigantic eye, staring as deeply into its cavernous depths as deeply as its eyes can muster.

  • Redbird: Do not doubt that I know what I am doing! I can take you through the Bloodwood without once seeing you harmed! Continue on north, and come whatever may, we will find them and that which hunts them at the end of the wood! Until then, keep your doubts clouted! I am young, it is true, but still, I know I know far more than you!

The rebuttal she attempts to give is stifled by the wire she nearly trips over, and the ensuing recollection that they, too, are targets.

  • Redbird: Careful, nymphet! The interloper leaves no space uncovered in his quest for death!
  • Hecate: Don't worry, I'll be careful. I suppose I just got a little... distracted.
  • Redbird: Your head is far too clouded by tiredness to continue unabated!
  • Hecate: I'll be fine. Let's just go before he catches up to us. If we won't aid them now, the least we can do is avoid confrontation.

Things go on the same way for tens of minutes, the racket never fading, and the forest never thinning. However, by now, there is another noise eating away at Hecate's concentration - the sound of tinkling bells, fluttering above and behind her and her fairy guide.

  • Hecate: ... What is that?
  • Redbird: Another interloper!
  • Hecate: I know that. I just want to know what it is.
  • Redbird: I cannot tell you all. All must first fall from the fells from whence it stalks you, and only then, nymphet, will you know the form it takes!
  • Hecate: You think that thing followed us from the fells? I never heard that thing ringing when we were wandering in the dark up there.
  • Redbird: It did not want to be discovered there!
  • Hecate: And now it does?
  • Redbird: Aye!

As suddenly as it came, the tinkling leaves, as its presumed bearer leaves a queer memento - a dust, sprinkled over their heads, smelling vaguely like cucurbita pepo.

  • Hecate: Pumpkin dust...
  • Redbird: I assume our lovely pursuer has a penchant for pumpkins!

From there, they diverge slightly to the northwest, as Redbird tacitly concedes to Hecate's concerns. The path they take gets wetter and wetter, eventually leading to a small pond, hidden away by the thicket. Under the moon, at the center it, a lone pond serpent sleeps with its eyes open, staring into the soul of the one-eyed Hecate.

  • Hecate: My, that's a pretty one...

The long fish stirs as she squats to beckon it, slowly swimming to the shallow edge, catching itself a few chubs as it does. It peeks its little head out of the clear water, and it accepts her cool hand upon its cool head.

  • Redbird: Do you miss it, nymphet?
  • Hecate: What?
  • Redbird: The days when the water that pond serpent calls home would be enough to sate your thirst.
  • Hecate: ... Am I that obvious?
  • Redbird: Do not answer a question with another question, nymphet!
  • Hecate: ... Yeah. Sometimes I miss the days when I could just open wide and drink a few handfuls of water and feel refreshed. I just wish I didn't have that dirty little secret for people like you to point out. It wasn't my decision to be a blood-sucker.
  • Redbird: I knew what you were before you even mentioned your aversion to Helios, nymphet! It cannot be helped by you! You must do what you do to survive and thrive, hm?
  • Hecate: I hate it, though. You know where I would be if I was never bitten? I would be in college, studying astronomy. Who knows? I may even BE an astronomer in another timeline, at this very age. As it is, I'm the prey of a freak, and a fugitive from the law, all for a crime I didn't commit. I didn't lay down and take it. I was held down and made to take it.

Young Redbird flies down, frisky and gleeful as always, patting her upon the shoulder with its little fly-foot hand.

  • Redbird: There is a cure for vampire's despair, you know!
  • Hecate: A cure for vampirism, I'd think.
  • Redbird: It is the same thing!
  • Hecate: Can you give it to me, though?
  • Redbird: Yes!

It is the grown woman in her that tells her to take it with a grain of salt, but it is the little girl in her who, holding out hope, wishes it to be true, with all of her little heart.

  • Redbird: It is man and vampire coming together inside you, and accepting the mate produced therein as the new you!

Disappointment, rage, irritation, and humiliation - all things strong enough to make her want to smack that damned flying demon out of the air... an act from which she refrains, wisely choosing not only the to keep her guide alive, but to keep the moral high ground. To be the "good vampire".

  • Redbird: Like it or not, this is what you are now, nymphet! Loathing your current self, bathing in the waters of despair, none of it has any use to you!
  • Hecate: I've known that for a long time, fairy. Even then, I can't reconcile myself with biting the necks of little boys and girls, just to keep myself half-alive.
  • Redbird: Then do not bite their necks! Bite the necks of the rich and depraved, the bankrupt and unsaved, the amoral and horrible! Those who need it, those who deserve it!
  • Hecate: ... If only things were always as easy as you make them sound... Redbird.
  • Redbird: I know they can be! The ease of going all depends upon the way of looking, Hecate!
  • Hecate: Thanks for calling me by my name, for once. I was just about to get sick of "nymphet".
  • Redbird: I call as I am called, Hecate! I like your nymphet nominym more than your birth nominym, but I will call you as you call me nevertheless!
  • Hecate: ... Strange. You, of all things, remind me of that one boy I had a crush on in school. He always called me stupid nicknames unless I called him by his real name. I-

This time, a kiss on the cheek is what she receives from the tiny thing, who flutters into her ear and says...

  • Redbird: Speak not of what was and could have been. It will only weigh down your soul with the sands of time, Hecate.

... perhaps, just what she needed to hear.

  • Hecate: ... We need to go. I can't keep getting sidetracked.
  • Redbird: It shall be so much easier without all that weight upon your shoulders!

Indeed, as it shall also be now that the noise has, strangely, ceased. Treading ground not trodden by the feet of mortals for millennia, they forge on, with the leaves crunching and the soil sinking with every step, as what little wind can make it through cools their bodies. Hecate looks back upon the pond, hoping to see the fish she left one last time, but the light breeze creates a layer of ripples upon the surface, distorting all beneath it and all reflected in it. Pecked and patted by Redbird, she moves on, never knowing whether the ancient thing coiled back up beneath the moon or laid there, lamenting such a lonely existence in the middle of nowhere... a predator, surrounded by prey, but unwillingly locked in such a tiny pool that there will be no escape from the humanoid bearer of death that will inevitably come. An existence that seems so identical to hers, in times long since gone, back in your youth on Mars.

In all her attempts to focus on the hazards in the path ahead, these thoughts still haunt her mind, as do the quiet, prying eyes she never feels look away, ever and always boring holes into her back. Breathing, beating, muffled tinkling, all masked by nothing more than the noise of her own footsteps and the buzzing of her guide. Always an unpleasant feeling, made all the more so by the knowledge that, whatever it is, her arsenal will likely be too small to stand and face the unknown. And so she moves on, quietly uncomfortable, uncomfortably numb to it, and to the second batch of noises from something else, hidden deep in the brush. She does not know what it is, and perhaps that is for the best. If it stalks without harm, tis better to tolerate it than to face it. Such thought always makes a person meek and complacent, but when nothing can be done, nothing can be done...

Silently, now, she implores the Lord to keep her and her friends safe, as the wires and the mines become ever more plentiful. More than once does Redbird's presence and precognition save her from an untimely, messy destruction, and that only serves to nail her own incompetence deep into her head. Matched with a superior, less direct hunter than that which she fled in the past, she still stumbles and falls, only narrowly avoiding the edge of the cliff. With all this in her mind, and the cleverness of their hunter's traps growing more clever by the moment, it should come as no surprise that she would take that final, inevitable slip - running into that one fateful wire, Redbird's warning coming too late, she is bound by the arms of the roots themselves, taken to the ground, her back nearly snapped as her legs lie flat, her arms pulled down, and her neck pulled back, almost curling her into a ball. It is then, and only then, that this elusive hunter would grace his quarry with his visage, before Redbird can free her.

  • Redbird: Ah, so THIS is our senseless little interloper!
  • ???: And this is the prey I seek... an insect and a one-eyed fell deer. How beautiful. You can toss a hundred traps, even a thousand traps at one big buck, and I guarantee you, only one of those will work. And it'll ALWAYS work on the doe, not the buck.
  • Hecate: Ugh... Who is it? I can't see him!
  • Redbird: He lies in the shadows in front of you, Hecate, too craven to show his face!
  • ???: I'd watch who I was calling "craven" if I were you, bug. I squash one of you with every step I take. I don't squash a little doe, though...

Here the crows come, cawing at his back as the wind guides them to their meal.

  • ???: They hunger, children... You don't want to keep them waiting.
  • Redbird: Swallow-eyed crows and graven ravens, all for a craven man!
  • ???: Go on, bug. I can't shut my stomach up with a thousand of you. Let me bag a kill tonight. Tonight's been making me a hungry young wolf. The stomach of the regal never ceases to hunger... for glory, or for flesh.

He readies his rifle, aiming for Hecate's heart as Redbird does all she can to remove the root restraints. Cocking the hammer, finger over the trigger, his aim is marred by only one thing - the shape that followed them leaps down from the treetops, the thud rattling everything in a radius of eight feet. The bells on its boots, around its arms, and around its neck tinkle as it rises to face the hunter, the light emanating from its Jack-o'-lantern face illuminating all but the face of its opponent. Turning its head as far as an owl's, it studies Hecate and Redbird, burning the skin of the former with the light of its face.

  • Redbird: Hm... Now, what is this? A hunter protecting its prey from another? I do not see the face of a benevolence behind that pumpkin mask!

It slowly turns its head back to the hunter, its six hands emerging from the night black cloak it wears. A maniacal cackling is all that precedes it wildly launching itself against its enemy, unaffected by the shots of the sniper, even as they penetrate its body and fly past the bound vampire and her sole aid.

  • Hecate: Redbird?! I can't see, and my chest feels like it's on fire! What's going on?!
  • Redbird: The right time for flight, Hecate! All I need is time to undo the root chains, and we can flee!
  • Hecate: The sun isn't coming out, is it?! It's too early for the sun to be coming out!
  • Redbird: It was not the sun, Hecate! It was the gaze of that tinkling gourd wizard, a gaze as bright as the sun itself!

Redbird struggles to keep its focus upon the roots binding her charge as the hunter and the stalking menace trade blow after blow, shot after shot, neither one doing more than forcing the other through the trees. Every crack of the rifle runs through the creature, vaporizing a black blood that melds into the night as it does, while every wild strike the creature lands produces a sickening noise not unlike the sound of a body falling for a high building. They both tear each other apart, at an apparent impasse, until the hunter jams his rifle into the pumpkin and fires, forcing blood and brains out the back of the pumpkin as light begins to envelop the whole area behind it.

  • Hecate: I see it... It's getting bright! REDBIRD, HURRY!!!

Having unraveled the grassy roots at her legs, Redbird hastily struggles with the more stubborn tree roots around her arms, silently begging for the creature to not turn the wrong way.

  • ???: ... Hm. Little bright head underneath a big gourd. How scary. You hit like an old truck, but I suppose you break down just as easily, lad... lass, whatever you are.

Though the figure stands still, bracing what is left of its pumpkin upon its shoulders as the crows move to snap up the remains, the fragments of blood, brains, and gourd all being to hover above the ground, threading through the air and making their way back to their progenitor, reforming head and mask as the creature spreads its "cloak" - four wide, feathered wings that mask the tall, slender body underneath them. Roaring in its own unintelligible, lyrical tongue, it sees the rifle pointed in its face once again, but this time, it forces the weapon out of the hunter's hands and grabs him in a viscous chokehold, all as the crows mobilize to defend their master, forcing their way through the gourd and pecking what little they can see through the blinding light, the blood they spill frenzying them all the more.

  • Redbird: I almost have you free, Hecate! Come, now, force your arms through these rotten chains that bind you!

With an adrenaline-fueled surge of strength, Hecate manages to break free and stagger to her feet, only to stumble back onto her rear as she backpedals from the light the crows continue to force through the pumpkin mask.

  • Hecate: A head... a head like a sun?
  • Redbird: A sun, Hecate... Aye, in all circumference, it is a sun, bright and true.

It batters the hunter until it can tolerate no more of the crows' beaks, tearing them from its face with all six hands, shattering the mask and lighting the area with an intense light it had not seen in years, driving the critters of the floor far away. Behind the cover of a fallen tree, Hecate trembles as the shadows she sees move with the light behind them, while Redbird cautiously peeks above a limb. As the hunter snaps his leg back into place, it slowly closes in upon him, with his flock of crows firmly in its grip. Taking one last shot at its head, he destroys what remains of the pumpkin, allowing the light to shine with all its strength, effectively masking its true face. Before the fragments come together again, it releases the crows. Waving one of its right hands goodbye, a peace sign forming upon it, it belches flames to the sky they fly in, torching them and igniting the forest in dark, ruddy flames. Again, the horn sounds, as the pumpkin envelopes its face once more, giving the prey the clearing they need to flee...

  • Hecate: ... That thing...
  • Redbird: Hecate, do not stop!

... But she makes the mistake of looking back upon its monolithic black form, ruddy pumpkin, feathered draconic wings, inhuman body and all. It takes out a big gourd flask, tossing back the contents into its jagged gourd mouth without a care in the world. From a distance, it seems so tame, but when the thing comes within arm's reach without a step, Hecate feels her legs seize up from shock.

  • Redbird: HECATE, RUN!!!
  • Hecate: ...

She would stutter if she could only muster the breath to spit it out. As it is, nearly having to break her neck just to sight the chin of the gourd-thing alone makes her afraid to even move. No matter how far she went, she would still be within range for it to catch her. And so, with no movement on her part, the thing squats down to meet her fearful eyes, burning and blistering her face with the light it radiates.

  • Hecate: I... I didn't do anything...
  • ???: Shhh...

It masks the sole eye and the wide mouth of its mask with two opaque hands, keeping the light from harming her...

  • Hecate: I can't see...

... but the damage is done.

  • Redbird: Ah, I smell it upon your breath, interloper! That same yellow-skin sake the high-headed ones drink! Yellow bastard should be your only drink, beast!

A loud, low, rumbling chuckle is all they hear from the annals of its false head, rattling their bones and finally reducing Hecate to tears.

  • ???: No, I is "beast"... Yes, I is "Y.O.B.".

Redbird can only just see through the nose of the gourd, and through it, she sees the radiant golden eyes open and a wide, fanged, white-toothed grin spread across its pitch-black face, surrounded as it is by an aura of red and a thick halation of nigh-impenetrable light.

  • Y.O.B.: ... Yes, I is "sun". No, burn you, never I before have.

When her vision returns, she sees the thing reaching out for her shoulders, and runs through the brush as fast as she can, with Redbird sealing all passages she makes behind them. As the sound of them rushing through the woods begins to fade out of mind, it returns to its feet, wraps its wings around itself again, and finishes off the sake in its flask before gazing off at the fire it spawned, already encroaching upon the rest of the unsuspecting wood.

The smoke billows over the horizon, blotting out the moon to the pair stuck to southern wood, barely able to advance as they lean on each other like elders on crutches. Elf and ghost alike stumble through migraines and the agony of their wounds respectively, completely unaware of the hazard that begins to roar and crackle, far, far ahead.

  • Iskandaria: I really hope that isn't what I think it is.
  • Sifiniaz: ...
  • Iskandaria: ... Sifiniaz, come on, now. I know you've had a rough night, but I have, too. At least give me a little conversation!

To her side, the princess slumps, struggling to keep her eyes open, and bleeding out the nose.

  • Iskandaria: Sifiniaz... Sifiniaz, wake up. Come on. There's nothing that wrong with you.

Propping her up upon her own two feet fails. Pinching her cheek fails. Opening her eyes shows no sign of life - only a blank stare.

  • Iskandaria: Sifiniaz, wake up! Come on, we don't have all night!

Thus, she resorts to drastic measures - slapping her across the face, punching her in the gut, forcing her nose into a puddle of water - but to no greater avail. All she gets in return is a snort and a phlegm-ridden cough. Taking her by the arms and hoisting her upon her own back, Iskandaria once again drags more than her own weight. That 148-pound elf girl feels a lot heavier when her arms have been eaten alive, without a doubt.

  • Iskandaria: Goddamn, Tsuyoshi, I don't know WHAT you were thinking when you dragged these kids along... "I see somefin' in em! I see somefin' in em..." Should've kept it to... four professionals... who at least... had SOME idea... what they were DOING!!! Instead, you got this big... heel-dragging... weird... father... fucker... and that... that kid...

Only 14 feet, and already, she's barely able to continue.

  • Iskandaria: Jesus... Why do I... get stuck carrying this tall bit-
  • Sifiniaz: Mm... My talk tablet is rumbling...
  • Iskandaria: Uh, your what?

The sharp change in demeanor accompanies the headline passing by her face, as Sifiniaz lifts it to where they both can view it...

  • Sifiniaz: "Squadron Leader Benjamin Nagutsuki Lost in Mountains During Pursuit - Search Temporarily Suspended".
  • Iskandaria: Really? What else does it say?
  • Sifiniaz: Says they came onto Marilyth and found a piling of bodies in the sleeping quarters and found the whole location otherwise vacant. Benjamin was unsighted, and they believe he flew. Mayhaps, Benjamin escaped with his vitality?
  • Iskandaria: Fat chance. We barely escaped with our bodies intact. How could he have made it this far?
  • Sifiniaz: Not nothing is never as it seems, you see.
  • Iskandaria: ... Yeah. I still can't believe he would've ever made it past those wraiths.
  • Sifiniaz: I cannot claim knowledge either, but it is possible that it is not impossible. I do wish I could claim intelligence as to the whoabouts of that horn's origin are, however.
  • Iskandaria: It may be a wraith.
  • Sifiniaz: Mayhaps, we could never know... Oh, Iskandaria, I should mention as well...
  • Iskandaria: What is it?
  • Sifiniaz: Thanks are due for dragging me to where we are. I'm apologetic for being a big burden as I am.

Iskandaria grimaces at her words, her eyes gazing a hateful stare into hers for just long enough for her to understand what she means when she says-

  • Iskandaria: It's no problem. I've carried the weight of the powerless before. I've done it for hundreds of years, kid, and it's never bothered me.

Her heart sinks when she feels the veiled sting behind Iskandaria's words.

  • Sifiniaz: ... I will become better, Iskandaria. I will make my worth proven, I swear and promise, truthfully and honestly.
  • Iskandaria: Well, you may want to do that sooner rather than later. I already hear some sort of crackling and rumbling ahead. You're less injured than I am, so I guess you'll have to carry my weight now... as bad as I hate to say it.

Her big ears go tall, and she, too hears it in the distance. Close enough to hear it, too far away to make out what it is, it tantalizes her. No positioning of her ears can accurately decrypt what it truly is, thus, they sink with her face, her gut, and her heart.

  • Sifiniaz: ... They couldn't get ahead of us. I don't think they could've.
  • Iskandaria: When I'm hauling your limp ass, I can't exactly move fast enough to outrun these zombie things. Had you decided to stop imitating them a long time ago, maybe we wouldn't be wondering what lied ahead right now.
  • Sifiniaz: I apolo-
  • Iskandaria: Stop. Apology after apology just shows how unfit you are for this. When are you going to stop saying sorry and start figuring out how we'll get out of this? Hell, when are you going to START thinking about how we're going to reunite with the others? We got lost in that storm, and now, for all we know, we could be separated from them forever. We don't know what's happening. We're ignorant, wounded, and stuck in the middle of a maze of dirt and dead wood, all in the dark of the early morning.
  • Sifiniaz: I would think on things like these if I only knew what to think of... How to fight them off.
  • Iskandaria: Sifiniaz, this isn't rocket science. It's survival. Even a royal fool ought to have some sort of survival instinct.
  • Sifiniaz: ... I have been in fields of war prior, but I have not used that sage knowledge since-
  • Iskandaria: "Fields of war", huh? Knowing you, that could mean anything. Anything but what we need.
  • Sifiniaz: I found out how to slay in Albania.

The very thought of her being a serious soldier takes Iskandaria off guard.

  • Iskandaria: What happened in Albania?
  • Sifiniaz: I've said all I will say.

She straightens herself out, walks with a renewed vigor, and beckons for Iskandaria to come with her, lest she be left behind.

  • Iskandaria: Come on, now, don't leave me hanging like that. You aren't talking about something that happened in that native insurrection back in 56, are you?
  • Sifiniaz: In that temporal moment, yes.
  • Iskandaria: But what did you do?
  • Sifiniaz: I will inform you if we escape with our vitality. If you will accept my thanks with bitterness, mayhaps you will accept my spine on the line.

Simultaneously frustrated and intrigued, Iskandaria does as common sense would dictate, putting the issue in the back of her head and hoping that Sifiniaz is fully willing to live up to her words. A whole mile of silence passes between them, as Iskandaria slowly heals and Sifiniaz' resolve keeps her upright. Never once do they divert their heads from the worn dirt road they tread, the shallow stream they cross, or the droplets of blood they find beyond it. They follow the marks of the wounded, in an ethereal hope that it will lead them away from their pursuers.

  • Sifiniaz: ... You realize, Iska...

And yet...

  • Sifiniaz: Stuff was so much more simpler, back in Albania. More prettier, too.

A calm stretch eases the clamshell tightness Sifiniaz' muscles held, allowing her to talk again, to reach out to what she hopes will be a longtime companion.

  • Iskandaria: I just looked down there and saw a land with brown grass, mines in the dirt, and a bunch of point-eared bestkin types. Miscegenated types.
  • Sifiniaz: Those types were my company when I was but a sapling. I was learned by a non-public tutor bought by my mother, but I always fled to their learning place, just so I could see them. There, next to the Mediterranean, we would clamber to the peak of the building, and we would catch sight of a lovely little star in the sights.
  • Iskandaria: The planemo near Gibralter?
  • Sifiniaz: Hm? I always named it as "Shalala" when I was a sapling. All we called it "Shalala", for we would dance and sing that same refrain - "shalala, shalala, we will come for you, shalala, shalala, someday soon, shalala, shalala, in a boat of peat, with a pocketful of wishes and a head full of sunshine, shalala, shalala, for we know you will give as you receive, shalala, shalala..."
  • Iskandaria: Isn't that where the Hole in the Sea is? Right beneath it?
  • Sifiniaz: Mm-hm. One could see one above the other with their own eyes from the school peak, it was so big. The blue would come out from the sea and surround Shalala, like it was drinking it. My mother lived to see it fall, like a fetus from its mother.

Not an entirely inapt analogy, but still enough to evoke that strange image hers so often do.

  • Sifiniaz: I could always see that star from there, but when we flew to here, I couldn't see it. Not even from the highest tower in the gleaming, quiet place they told me to call home... I don't like it here. I'm not joyous and full of mirth like I was in Albania. My sister isn't, neither. I want to go to Shalala someday, and it's so far away here that it makes me wish to scrawl my wish in blood on the wall, just so a ghost could come forth and make my wish come true.

Perhaps she found those ghosts without invoking such a morbid ritual, but the ghost she is with found something in her, too.

  • Iskandaria: ... Well, at least we have something in common.
  • Sifiniaz: You want to fly to there, too?
  • Iskandaria: Yeah. I've wanted to for a long time. I just... never found the proper time, I guess. Maybe after we repay our debt to these vampires, I can get Tsuyoshi, Dominique, and Black to take some time out for me.
  • Sifiniaz: I know you will. I will go with you, too. I do not know what it's like to be dead, but it must be cold. If you should do that which you've always wanted to get done, you shouldn't be cold when you do it. I'm alive, so I can keep you a little warm.
  • Iskandaria: ... Ah, shut up...
  • Sifiniaz: No.

They follow the bloody trail unwaveringly, silent but connected, Sifiniaz' consciousness always pushing upon Iskandaria's. An unwelcome one, yes, but an informative one, if nothing else.

  • Sifiniaz: ... It will never be all to keep you warm, Iskandaria.
  • Iskandaria: What are you talking about?
  • Sifiniaz: The thing within Shalala.
  • Iskandaria: It's just a small planemo, Sifiniaz.
  • Sifiniaz: Negative, it's isn't.
  • Iskandaria: Then what is it?
  • Sifiniaz: It's a baby incubator.
  • Iskandaria: ... Baby incubator. Alright, if you say so. I'll take your word for it.
  • Sifiniaz: It's a young god, Iskandaria. Just like we're walking all over the dermis of the old god, it's the young god. Ever time I stared at it, I could see the little embryonic heartbeat, rippling in the air all around it. It was like looking into the manhole in Tiranë. It was so drab and dark, dank, but not smelly, but there was something alive in there, deep down inside. It's just like an embryo.
  • Iskandaria: You're not talking about those old relics, right?
  • Sifiniaz: No. It has the power, but it's not the exactly same thing. It's same, but different. I don't know what's inside - all I know is that it's extant.
  • Iskandaria: ... Well, I'll believe you. You do have one vantage point over me - I've never seen the thing, but you have. I guess you'd know better than me.
  • Sifiniaz: I can't wait to let you see, Iskandaria.

As so often happens, it's less about what they wish to see, and more about what they see in front of them - the humanoid shadow, still as a stone in the middle of the path, embers burning dimly in its singed clothes, its face the only thing they cannot see.

  • ???: I don't think it's wise for a weakened animal to follow this... queer blood trail. You see, this is not the iron-rich blood of man and beast - this is the blood of those who passed long ago. It does not smell, it flows slowly, and yet it bleaches all it touches with this silvery stain that never seems to come loose.
  • Iskandaria: ...
  • Sifiniaz: This is a freak.
  • Iskandaria: I never would've guessed.
  • ???: You see, by following the trail of your fellows, you inevitably put yourself in the path of those who seek them for motives not of your liking. It is this bloodhound devotion that always works to my advantage. I only need to let one leave a trail, and the scattered of the herd will follow, even if they cannot know what lies at the end. Of course, I'm wasting breath. The hunter's modus operandi is lost upon those who do not hunt.
  • Iskandaria: I've hunted for a long time, but I've never stooped to the level of some backwoods American, hunting herbivores in the thicket while wearing a ghillie suit. You're only one step shy of that classification, from what I can tell. You're a killer, but you're a cowardly one. I've hunted, I've stalked, and in the end, the only kills worth making were the ones where I could stare them down as I ended their lives honorably. They had a chance to fight back against me.
  • ???: That's the same lack of discipline that got you killed, Iskandaria.
  • Iskandaria: Don't talk like you know me. If you're going to do that, show me your face.
  • ???: I don't owe you that much. Not even that much. I'm here to make sport of a few rouges. I'm here to see you all lined up against a bush before I drop you, one by one. You will know me then, and only then. All of you.
  • Sifiniaz: You will have no chance if your own cranium snaps before then.
  • ???: Pampered princesses have about as much chance against a hunter of the Cumbrians as a mouse against a tomcat.

So provoked, Sifiniaz whirls her trident, braces it against her shoulder, aims, and throws, only for the man to fizzle out in a bright white light. From the trees, the horn sounds, the wind blowing at their backs as a legion of black converges upon them from the sky. They cannot fight. They can only flee, as the crows peck at the backs of their heads, chasing them headlong into the crackling blackness that lies ahead of them all. One knows what will come then, but the other only suspects the same shambling corpses they have fought off all night. The path begins to deviate from its width and straightness, deviating into a narrow maze, bottlenecking the flock behind them and forcing several of the bloodied crows to take the lead, grabbing onto the faces of their quarry and attempting to pluck the eyes clean out of their heads.

  • Iskandaria: Sifiniaz, shut your eyes!
  • Sifiniaz: May-
  • Iskandaria: Just do it!

She pulls an ancient flashbang from her suit and tosses it high into the air. Before the flock can think to flee it, it detonates, blinding and deafening those she does not swat to the ground and trample as they flee, far from the blood section and into the thicket, where the birds cannot properly pursue them. Even here, however, the hunt does not cease - behind them, a red light shines as the horn sounds yet again, its notes longer and louder than before. Thundering through the brush, they feel its breath upon their backs, but they dare not turn back to see it. The shadows cast by the trees it meets and strikes down - and the limbs scraping across their backs - are all they sense. This is not the hunter. This is not a hound. This is not a crow. But woe befall them if they should take curiosity before survival, even as they feel that infernal, slow exhalation upon them as its rattling, noisy breathing bays as strongly as its footsteps behind them.

Coming upon a steep hill where they treeline ends, they ascend it without thought, clawing their way up the ten-footer to an ironically serene sight - the lake in view before they passed the veil, its waters rippling in the cool breeze of a new day, the moon etched into its center, its reflection pierced by a single monolithic stake of a stone. As beautiful as it is, however, they have no time to bask in it. The red-eyed thing scales the hill with difficulty, but soon, it finds itself upon their level once again, clearly repulsed by the light of the sun that the moon deflects upon its face. They only see the spike-riddled arm that swipes at them before they flee again, dashing to who-knows-what at god-knows-where. Iskandaria notices the stumble that is beginning to permeate Sifiniaz' every step. She cannot take this pursuit for much longer. Only now, in her desperate search for shelter, does she see the flames and the smoke, reaching for the moon, guided by the wind to come their way.

  • Iskandaria: (A forest fire? What could've started a forest fire? It couldn't have been recent, as huge as it is...)

A decrepit cabin on the lakeside pulls her from her thoughts, and instinctively, she grabs Sifiniaz and swings them both through the door, barring it and all but the rear windows with bookcases, the bed, and all else they can find.

  • Sifiniaz: ... That is no hunter... that is one thing far more bad...
  • Iskandaria: Maybe you should stop pointing out the obvious and start thinking about how we're going to either kill this thing or get away from it!
  • Sifiniaz: O-of path! Methinks I shall!
  • Iskandaria: Well, you'd better do it quick.
  • Sifiniaz: I realize. I know this domicile will not hold far-
  • Iskandaria: That's only half of what I meant. You didn't see that fire?
  • Sifiniaz: ... Fire?
  • Iskandaria: All that smoke, that fire, that big red light to the east? Don't tell me you're that oblivious, Sifiniaz!
  • Sifiniaz: I-
  • Iskandaria: Even if that thing doesn't make it in here, if so much as one good ember lands on this thing and manages to start something, we either head into the lake, or we're dead. I may be able to make it through some burns, even with these wraith wounds, but you... I don't know.
  • Sifiniaz: Mayquite we can force the beast into the conflagration?
  • Iskandaria: I don't even know what the fuck this is. I don't know if that would kill it, maim it, or do anything at all to it.

As they talk, the beating on the front door ceases. The breathing begins to ebb and flow away, until only silence remains.

  • Sifiniaz: Did it-

Iskandaria's hand over her mouth keeps her from tuning any noise out.

  • Iskandaria: Don't you let your guard down for a second. If you do, I'm not gonna risk my neck for you.

They wait and wait for the attack that never comes. Ten minutes passes by, as they stand in deathlike stillness at the center of the room. Iskandaria loosens her grip on Sifiniaz' mouth, looks out the window, and finds nothing.

  • Iskandaria: I don't know where it is, but it's not gone.
  • Sifiniaz: It's awaiting our flight. I can feel it!
  • Iskandaria: I don't know... It could just be hemming us up in here, hoping that our fear won't let us move until... I don't know! I don't know!

The instant the pair turn their back upon the unguarded window, it shatters the whole rear of the cabin, forcing itself in with a shrieking roar, its thorned arm removing all barricades in its path. It is then that they see the full weight of the creature's vile physiology - the boneless, octopoid right arm connected to the mangled body of a man, its face warped and rearranged, the vestigial, soulless eyes staring their dull red gaze in no particular direction as the toothless mouth above them releases as much saliva as it does steam, the smell of which reeks of old, nasty blood. Bones protrude through the calves of the legs, but they do not impeded its gait as it stalks upon its prey, mouth opening ever further as its strikes become harder and harder for the pair to parry.

  • Iskandaria: SIFINIAZ, RUN!!!
  • Sifiniaz: NO!!! I CAN'T NOT STAY HERE!!!
  • Iskandaria: DAMMIT, SIFINIAZ, YOU'RE THE ONE WHO'S STRUGGLING!!!

The thing uses the exchange to its advantage, forcing its arm though Sifiniaz' trident, one thorn managing to slit the side of her neck wide open. As she collapses onto the floor, Iskandaria dives in front of her, taking what remains of the beast's attack. She resorts to the only counter she has left...

  • Iskandaria: IN MY TIME OF NEED, I PLEA TO THEE, O BONES OF THE SHALLOW GRAVE - CRACK THEIR SKULLS AND SKIN THEM RAW!!!

... summoning the power of death itself, hoping to burst the bones and tear at the skin of the looming menace. It tears the arm and leaves it riddled with gushing wounds, but still it comes, hobbled rather than stopped. The scathing magic only affected the arm, and the taxing nature of the spell itself leaves her with a phantom exhaustion - one a ghost should not have. It looms over her head and peels back the skin of its face, its gnashing teeth peeling back in flesh petals to show more. Hundreds more, all lined up behind one another, like the teeth of a shark. Drool drips down upon her as she raises her fingers, preparing another defiant incantation to mangle the thing before it eats her. Before she can, however, a golden shape rises up and impales the creature's head.

  • Sifiniaz: HAAAAIIII!!!

Brave Sifiniaz, lacerated but undaunted, rising from the floor to bind the creature's mouth with her trident.

  • Iskandaria: ... Sifiniaz...
  • Sifiniaz: ARROGANT ABOMINATION!!! YOU TRUTHFULLY AND HONESTLY THOUGHT THE ROTTEN WOOD WAS MY PLACE AFTER A SINGLE WOUND?! YOU WERE INCORRECT!!! MORTALLY INACCURATE!!!

The thing smacks and gargles as it struggles to close its mouth, with the only weapon it has left being an impotent little human hand, itself struggling to move as it spasms violently. The eyes stare squarely at the vulnerable, distracted princess, and Iskandaria grabs her by the torso and drags them both into the lake, carrying the abomination with them.

  • Sifiniaz: WHAT IS IT YOU'RE DOING?!?! I HAVE NOT YET BEGUN TO SLAY!!!
  • Iskandaria: Leave it! Leave it to drown!

By now, the fire looms high over the cabin, and the door begins to shine with the light of ignition. Awestruck by the sight of such high flames, Sifiniaz loses her grip upon her trident. The weight of it begins to drag the face of the creature below the water, its arms gripping the wooden posts supporting the cabin, vainly attempting to lift its body above the water. They both sink slowly into the murk of the dark, cold lake, until eventually, Sifiniaz sees the upper body come back above water - headless. It loosens its grip upon the posts, the dark red light shining once again from the place where its eyes used to be, before the flames consume the posts and send the burning cabin to consume it. As it does, Sifiniaz can swear the shriek of a wraith came with it, as dark blood begins to rise to the surface, the pool it forms being all that does not reflect the mighty conflagration behind it.

  • Iskandaria: Assume it isn't dead and swim for your life, Sifiniaz! This isn't over until we're out of here!
  • Sifiniaz: ... I realize. It's only that... from here, where the big hot red cannot reach me... it looks so lovingly beautiful.

As she says those words, she turns and spots a cave, far on the north side of the lake, consuming its waters. She nudges Iskandaria and shows it to her, and with her blessing, they leave for the only shelter in sight. Swimming the long way there, Iskandaria dog-paddling and Sifiniaz paying her respects to the frog, they hear the horn sounding yet again, from the direction of the flames. They do not look back. The flames themselves keep comfortably close to them along the shore, ensuring that the cave shall be their sole means of escape. The floor of the entrance is only ankle-deep in water, giving them the chance to walk the rest of the way, should the cave remain level. Iskandaria proceeds to survey the place, but Sifiniaz looks back upon the bright, burning land they left behind. Staring upon the shore where the cabin once stood, she sees not only a man-sized dark spot amidst the flames, but the flames encroaching upon the lake itself, taking to the water as smoke turns to steam. Still, she feels the heat from the cave, so it is not inconceivable for nearby water to evaporate, especially along the shoreline. That spot would surely take the brunt of the heat, so it is only natural for some of it to get hot enough to turn to steam.

That is what she tells herself, anyway.

  • Iskandaria: Come on, Sifiniaz. We don't have time to wait for that thing to come back.

Iskandaria holds a dim blue light in her hand, barely illuminating her face, and least of all the cavern they will soon travel together.

  • Sifiniaz: ... Are you competent to make that magelight just a little smidge brighter?
  • Iskandaria: Don't be an idiot. We don't need to give ourselves away. Not even in this cave.

She sighs as she moves on, keeping within a foot or two of Iskandaria at all times, her arms outstretched and her steps tentative, fearful of some sudden drop or some unseen wall despite the light that dimly shines ahead and the water that slowly creeps up on their legs. The long, winding corridor eventually reaches a dip - a spiraling descent into murky waters, the end of which is far, far from sight, even as Iskandaria sends her magelight to investigate the depths. All it does is leave the pair's view, changing from a bright light to a distant, underwater star in mere minutes.

  • Iskandaria: ... Got deep lungs?
  • Sifiniaz: I used to dive on rocky outcrops and only fear breaking something.
  • Iskandaria: ... So?
  • Sifiniaz: Maybe. I never feared losing my breath.

Thus, they dive deep into the water, the magelight dancing around them, barely managing to illuminate more than a few feet directly in front of them, owing to the dancing clouds of mud and impurity dancing all throughout the passage. Every now and again, a small fish brushes its fins past their faces, indifferent to their presence. The cool water itself is soothing, especially to the one who can actually feel it. Sifiniaz fights to keep her eyes open, both because of the water-borne things constantly battering her eyes and because the cold seems to be slowly taking her mind away, relaxing her until she wishes to simply stop moving. Still, she fights on, forcing the words of the lake out of her mind, even as they grow ever louder, ever more persuasive as time goes on. The passage ungulates only slightly, always continuing downward, never curving more than a little. It has been five minutes since they first dived into the passage, and already, Sifiniaz feels her iron lungs beginning to rust. For her, it is only another adversary to fight off, but she knows that she cannot hold her breath forever. That is her only mortal enemy here.

The monotony slowly gets broken in the queerest of ways - Sifiniaz feels the water getting warmer and warmer as the minutes go by, slowly rousing her from her cold stupor. From cool, it turns to warm, and then warm turns to hot. It is then that she thinks to look around her, and it is then that she sees the light from above, scantily masked by the thick mask of bubbles in front of it. She frantically swims her way to Iskandaria and forces her head to look behind them, and she, too flees as quickly as her limbs can propel her. The path continues on and on, as fish swim into the entity without a care in the world, at times getting knocked aside by the frantic humanoids forcing their way through the increasingly unbearable depths. Sifiniaz' ears ring as she feels the pressure increasing all around her, her breath getting progressively shorter with every foot of depth, until the breath is practically being wringed from her lungs. Finally, the magelight spots a curve in the cavern. They take it, with Sifiniaz clawing at the walls in a vain attempt to propel herself faster. Snaking through the tunnels, they find one that runs upward at a fork in the path, and Sifiniaz darts up without hesitation. Desperately, she gasps for air before she can even reach the top, having to spit out a mouthful of gritty water before she can take in fresh air.

  • Sifiniaz: This place is terrible...

Looking down the tunnel from whence she came, she sees the light pursuing a wide-eyed Iskandaria, the magelight having been lost behind it. She reaches down, offering her hand, only to be knocked in the head as Iskandaria flies out of the water and drags her by the hair, sprinting through the dark cave as fast her legs can carry her.

  • Iskandaria: I'm at the end of my rope, Sifiniaz! They don't fucking QUIT!!! I can't escape it!

The low rumbling that echoes through the caves only makes her flight more frantic. Slowly, her composure bleeds out behind her, as the awestruck Sifiniaz stares behind them, indifferent to the rocks she strikes along the way, no matter how sharp or dull they are. She begins to see the light, creeping out behind a corner, and when that first strand of drool hits her chest...

  • Sifiniaz: ISKA, CEASE!!!

... she sees the whole place light up around them. The earth shivers and quakes, as its own laws are bent and twisted in its very innards. Within the cave's central chamber, on a peak overlooking a great underground lake at the mouths of innumerable rivers, they witness the unthinkable. It was no sentient entity that followed them here. The conflagration they fled, unthinking and inanimate though it is, followed them into the waterlogged cavern, burning the water in its path.

  • Iskandaria: ... It was... the fire...
  • Sifiniaz: ...
  • Iskandaria: Fire... burning water... Sifiniaz... This isn't real! It can't be real! Surely, you know something, right?! Somebody has to!

The tall princess stares at the fire as it spreads to the lake, mouth agape, her tears meeting the drool that drops hopelessly from her chin.

  • Sifiniaz: I only realize that we have gone to Hell. There is no escape now.
  • Iskandaria: Ah, maybe for you, but for ME?! I'll leave here with a few burns, and it'll all-
  • Sifiniaz: Not even unlife can stand against a fire that water cannot quench. I know you persevere after a lot, but I find it difficult to believe that you will persist after all that remains of you is ash.
  • Iskandaria: Sifiniaz...? What's gotten into you? Don't get all fatalistic on me now!

Her words go through one ear and out the other. Sifiniaz stands still as a statue as the flames surround them both, encroaching up their position as the scalding steam begins to feel the chamber around them, the light becoming ever more blinding as the earth continues to shake and rattle, moreso with every minute.

  • Iskandaria: Goddammit, you useless point-ear! Think of something! I'll leave your yellow ass behind!
  • Sifiniaz: But to where will you leave? Will you escape at all?
  • Iskandaria: I've escaped fires before. Don't you worry about me. I'm your escort, brat. The least you can do is contribute!
  • Sifiniaz: Iska, my thoughts do not cease to move in times of trial. I will do all I am able, but I cannot swear it will be plenty.

The increasingly frustrated Iskandaria's stare darts about the chamber, looking for anything that could staunch the flames. Soon, she is unable to see through the plumes of steam that are steadily displacing all breathable air. Magic disperses neither the steam nor the flames for very long, as they all fill the voids she creates within seconds of their departure. She tires as the failures mount, each one looming larger over her head than the last. They both fall to their backsides, their minds worn blank, seemingly awaiting the inevitable as the flames draw closer and the steam gets thicker.

  • Iskandaria: ... I'm out, Sifiniaz. I don't know what we can do. Do you have to piss?
  • Sifiniaz: I can't take in the air without it burning me.
  • Iskandaria: It's starting to hurt me, too. It takes a lot to hurt me. I don't even need to breathe, but when I do... it sears my lungs.
  • Sifiniaz: Don't breathe, Iskandaria. Do not gift unto the phantom man of the woods that which he seeks. This isn't a scuffle he should win.
  • Iskandaria: I don't think we have a whole lot of choice in the matter, Sifiniaz. I yelled at you, I freaked out, and I wore myself out for nothing.
  • Sifiniaz: That is because you are foolish, Iskandaria. Foolish, just like me, which rends me something incontinent to judge you...

The malapropisms she spits out only highlight her deteriorating mind. She cannot breathe the steam much longer. Iskandaria loses track of time as they sit in the same spot, the water having long since evaporated, but the fires remaining restless. This fire does not crackle, nor does it roar - it only rumbles, quiet and low. The serenity of the soundscape is almost mesmerizing. Looking into what was once the lake beneath them, Sifiniaz sees many people - a pudgy one in Posadist garb, a towering menace with a pumpkin head, a fighting heroine in a skimpy suit, and many more, all backed by the shadowy thing whose ambition rules them all.

  • Iskandaria: Wanna run through it? It's better than doing nothing.
  • Sifiniaz: Those blood creatures down there scare me.
  • Iskandaria: Are you seeing things?
  • Sifiniaz: I do not know. I don't know if the conflagration is imparting these things to me or if I am seeing my mind made manifest. It's fearful. Whatever it is, it's fearful.

She begins to tremble and sweat at the sight. When Iskandaria extends her hand to comfort her, she flinches, nearly losing her balance and falling to the blood creatures she fears so much. Her ears begin to ring again. She cannot hear the words Iskandaria says, and she cannot pay attention to the movements of her mouth. The wound on her neck begins to ache and bleed again, as she discovers when her dirty hands introduce yet more foreign matter into the gash. Flinging the blood into the flames, she sees something strange - the fire avoids the blood she threw, moving feet away to avoid droplets.

  • Iskandaria: Sifiniaz, you need to do something about that wound! I don't want you to bleed out before we try something!
  • Sifiniaz: ... The wound is the key.
  • Iskandaria: Do what?
  • Sifiniaz: Dip your phalanges into the blood of my neck. I have an idea.

A light breeze seeps through the cavern they came from as Iskandaria tentatively obeys. Sifiniaz stands at the end of the peak, clasps her hands to her chest, and looks back upon her keeper, tritails fluttering in the breeze she does not feel. Against the backdrop of blindingly bright firelight, made all the brighter by the steam that swirls about the chamber, she speaks to her...

  • Sifiniaz: I do not know if I will live after this, so I must say it again, Iskandaria - thank you.

It is a pithy sight she will carry with her for the remainder of her days.

  • Iskandaria: ... Hey.
  • Sifiniaz: I have not the temporal elasticity for chitchat, Iskandaria...
  • Iskandaria: Let me go with you.
  • Sifiniaz: So that if I may burn to death, you will burn, too?
  • Iskandaria: No. I'm not gonna let you be the brave one all by yourself. I didn't come along with these people just to go like a coward. I was brave enough to join them in the first place, I can be brave enough to take oblivion with a smile, too.
  • Sifiniaz: ... If you desire to put on that face, that's your prerogative.

They hold hands as they leap into the fire below, arms spread wide, their waving and flapping never once betraying the fear they both have of the long, long way into the inferno below. They fall onto an incline, tumbling down into the bed of the once and future lake. They lie there for a moment, awestruck at the fire all around them, wondering if this is what it is like to die, ever awaiting the fiery death that never comes. They feel the heat, they feel the boil of the inch-deep water that remains, but they do not feel the fire devouring them. They stand, and the flames ebb and flow with the movements of their bloody hands.

  • Sifiniaz: Flames which fear blood...
  • Iskandaria: Nothing makes any sense anymore.
  • Sifianiaz: Don't utter that. There's always a reason things are the way things may be.
  • Iskandaria: So, why would they fear blood? Iron?
  • Sifiniaz: ... I do not understand, Iskandaria.

They grope forward blindly, squinting at the glare of the inferno, tripping over the stalagmites they cannot see. Sifiniaz' body becomes coated with sweat, and both of their soles begin to disintegrate from the sheer heat of the ground they walk upon, but still, they press on, climbing out of the lake and navigating the maze of tunnels beyond. Soon, they hear a voice, calling out to them from beyond the caverns. A beautiful one. They struggle to find its source, through dead end after dead end, as Sifiniaz' mouth begins to dry, and her eyes begin to blink more and more. This time, Iskandaria willingly offers her hand to the exhausted, bloody princess, carrying her onward to the sound of that repeating voice...

  • ???: Come, come, lost ones. I hear you deep down in there. Come, come, you don't need to grope through the dark all morning long. The sun will rise soon, and I need to get you home. I know you're tired. I know you're hungry. Just come on out, children. Follow the sound of my voice, and see the light again. I know it must be so frightening for a little princess to be down in the depths with a killer. Come, come...

The voice gets closer and closer, and it soon becomes the only lead they have outside, as both their eyes become blinded by the glare of the fire. It has only been eleven minutes since they leaped from the peak, and yet, even Iskandaria finds herself exhausted, her energy sapped by the sheer heat of the inferno around them. How the stone beneath them has not melted with their shoes and blistered with their hands, she will never know. Sifiniaz, too, suffers, and the knowledge that Iskandaria has been brought to her level of frailty is of no comfort to her. The visions continue as she looks over Iskandaria's black hair, rendered white from the salt of her sweat - visions of warped androids, grand centaurs, lumbering triffids, and more, all encroaching upon other worlds after overrunning their own. Humanoid in form, but something far different in function, and all standing squarely as the enemy of her and those who rescued her. From the flames, a hand reaches out, and she moves to take it. But...

  • ???: ... Ah, at the end of your rope, huh?

... Iskandaria trips at the end of the cave. She falls to her face without a word, exhausted beyond all words.

  • ???: Took you long enough.
  • Sifiniaz: Who mayhap you be...?
  • ???: If I could only say it, I would, little one.
  • ???: Where are the others? Aren't there supposed to be more?
  • ???: You know there are. We have these two, though, so we may as well give them what they need. Fetch this living one some water. She looks like she could slip away from thirst at any second.
  • ???: Yes, ma'am.

In the distance, she hears the sounds of waves, coming in and out as something crackles and pitter-patters with it. Stricken by fever, her skin red and blistered, she feels nothing but heat, even as she is peeled off the back of the unconscious Iskandaria and lain upon the cold, wet ground. Propped up on a leg she cannot see, she feels the cool droplets of water hit her lips, and snatches the canteen from whoever bears it, chugging its contents as fast as she can manage, nearly choking it back up more than once.

  • ???: So, this is the Lsi kid. She's a tall one.
  • ???: For you.
  • ???: Tee-hee. Should I go get the rest? These two look pretty much worse for wear.
  • ???: No, stay where you are. I brought you along to protect, not to retrieve.
  • ???: But we don't need any of them dying on us, least of all the vampire.
  • ???: They'll be alright. We have ourselves to worry about, they have themselves to worry about. We'll just have to work together on this job.

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