What Lies Behind The Mask

“E-excuse me, ma’am?” the butler timidly addresses me as I walk past him into the ballroom. “Is something wrong?” I ask, impatiently. “Well, not exactly, it’s just, I need to make sure you’re on the guest list.” “Hah!” I laugh with false bravado, “You’d accuse me, of all people, of being a party crasher? Do you know who I am?” “I do not, ma’am,” he says, “It wouldn’t be much of a masquerade ball if I did.” I laugh too loudly. “Right you are! But it’d hardly be much of a masquerade ball if I weren’t on the guest list.” “I don’t doubt you for a second, milady,” the butler says, “But I must do as I’m bid. So if you’d please cooperate…” “Yes, of course!” I say, “I hope I didn’t trouble you unduly. And I must commend your obedience. Would that my own servants were as well-mannered as you!” “You are too kind, milady,” he says, as he flips through some documents, occasionally glancing up at my face. He eventually settles on a page and squints at my mask for a few seconds. I know I have nothing to fear. The mask I had forged was so convincing, I couldn’t tell it apart from the real one with a magnifying glass. For all I knew, it was the forgery I had returned, and the genuine article I was now wearing. “It appears you are on the list,” the butler finally says, “House Aethis extends its warmest welcomes. And I apologize for any inconvenience.” “It was no trouble!” I assure him, before making my way into the ballroom.

I hope the mask on my face hides my disgust at my surroundings. Nobles spent enough money to feed a village for months, maybe even years, all for a single night of lavish overindulgence. Every mask and every dress, every goblet of wine and every plate of cheese here was purchased with the life of a peasant starved by poverty. And for what? A big game of dress-up? I suppose that these fools think that with their masks, they can buy an escape from the consequences of their actions. Tonight, they are not who they were yesterday, and they are not who they will be tomorrow. They are their masks, beings who were born tonight, will die tomorrow morning, and intend to make the most of their short time on Earth. But these are the beliefs of a child, a babe who thinks their mother vanished because she hid her face. No amount of money frees you from the chains that bind cause to effect.

I’ve heard rumors of a “Noble Assassin,” a clever moniker for one of noble intentions who assassinates the nobility. They are said to fight for the downtrodden, targeting corrupt politicians, oppressive lords, and greedy merchants who profit off of the misery of others. They take none of the wealth for themselves, and the story goes that they mean for it to be shared among the victims of their greed. If such a person existed, perhaps they would slit the throat under every masked face in this ballroom. Such a bloodbath could only be called unjust for being too lenient. A hundred murders, no matter how gruesome and torturous, would be a miniscule fraction of a suffering they and their ilk have inflicted over generations. But no such person exists; I will confess to the murder of nobles, but I must plead innocence to the charges of noble intentions. All I have done, I have done for vengeance. There is no room in my heart for compassion for others who have suffered as I have at the hands of these monsters. There is only hatred. I wield my blade for none but myself, and all those who were taken from me.

 

It doesn’t take long for me to find him. He’s wearing a mask, but everything about him – his eyes, his hair, his posture, everything – is seared into my memory. For the first time, my mask starts to crack, and I let my anger show, just for a moment. My fingers clench around the hilt of my dagger. I could plunge it through his heart right now. It would be so easy. And then it would all finally be over. But I’m not going to let him off that easy. After ordering two glasses of the fanciest-sounding wine available at the bar, I stealthily slip a few drops of poison into one of them. As much as I’d love to kill him with my own hands, to slash and stab and cut every last drop of blood from his body, I’ve been assured that if anything can bring him the suffering he deserves, it’s this poison. I return to him, and effect the flirtiest voice I can muster, “My, it seems the bar misheard my order and gave me two glasses of wine! If only I there were a dashing gentleman for me to share it with!” “I suppose I wouldn’t mind indulging in some fine wine and even finer company,” he says, probably thinking he’s smooth. “Free wine? Score!” Before I could hand him the glass, some woman snatches the glass from my hand and downs it in one gulp. I’m too shocked to speak. I don’t doubt that someone as rich as her deserves the headsman’s axe, but only one man in existence is evil enough to deserve the fate that she just accidentally brought on herself. She belches loudly. “DAMN!” she slurs, “I didn’t know they were serving the good shit here. Why, I would even go so far as to say that this wine is to die for!” My entire body tenses up. Who is this woman? Did she know the wine was poisoned? Why would she drink it anyway? “I beg your pardon?” The man asks. “Oh, you’ll be begging for a lot more than that when I’m through with you!” She says, unnecessarily loudly. “Who dares say such vulgar things to me?” He demands, standing up angrily. “Sssshhhhhh! It’s a secret!” She whispers, loudly, “We’re playing mystery dress-up pretend games, remember? It’s against the rules to say who you are!” “You have besmirched the very dignity of the masquerade with your actions!” He shouts, “Its rules will not protect you. Now remove your mask, or I will remove it for you!” “Buddy, I’m doing you a favor by keeping it on,” she says, “I’m so hot that if I took my mask off, you’d get a boner so big it’d shoot through your brain and kill you instantly. And as hilarious as that would be-“   She is cut off by him reaching for her mask. She effortlessly grabs his hand and holds him in place. “I won’t tell you who I am, but I’ll give you a hint,” she says, her tipsy cheerfulness replaced with a chilling malice, “Behind this mask is the last face you want to see right now. I trust you know exactly what that means?” He nods timidly as the color drains from his face. “Y-yes, of course. I apologize for the trouble.” “You’d better,” she spits, “Well, it’s about time for me to fuck off. Do let me know if anything fun happens.” She then leaves, followed by every pair of eyes in the room. She’d made quite the scene.

“A-anyway,” I say, trying to regain control of the situation, “I’ve already drank from this glass, but I could go get another for you if you wish.” “That’s quite alright,” he says, “I think I’ve had enough wine for tonight. I wouldn’t want to end up like that blasted drunkard from before.” I force a laugh. More work went into obtaining that potion than this bastard had ever done in his life. And it was all for nothing. But that doesn’t matter. I can still kill him. I can still end this.

“Do  you have some other business with me?” He asks, “My mood has rather soured.” “Well, even if you’re not in the mood for wine, you can still enjoy some fine company with-“ “Can we hurry up and drop the charade?” he asks, “I’m getting embarrassed for you.” “Whatever do you mean?” I ask. “I know who you are, and I know why you’ve come here,” he says, “Do you really think you’re the first whelp to try to kill me? Or even the second, or the third? I’ve made enough enemies to warrant assassins who would put the pathetic ‘noble assassin’ before me to shame. Yet I am still alive. I will not die to an assassin too stupid to realize that a masquerade ball was too perfect an opportunity to be anything other than a trap.” “I see the bait,” I say, “But where’s the trap? Unless you have something that can stop me from stabbing through your heart right now, all you’ve given me is a free meal.” “Hah!” he scoffs, “I invite you to try!”

My blade crackles with electricity as I move to strike him with the speed of lightning. Unexpectedly, someone manages to block my attack. He smirks. “My men are the best money can buy. They’ll have no trouble-“ he is cut off by an aftershock of thunder, a loud blast powerful enough to knock him back several feet onto the ground. But the sword that blocked my attack remains steady. How?

“Wha- You! Who are you!? What is the meaning of this!” The man’s questions mirror my own. The person who guarded my attack is none other than the boisterous lady from before. “Wouldn’t you like to know?” she quips. “Bah! It matters not! Neither of you will leave here alive! Guards, kill them!” No one answered his call. “I mean, you’re probably not wrong, but you’re a dumbass if you think those guards of yours are killing either of us,” she says. “Wh-where are they? What’s happening?” He asks. “Oh, the guards? They’re dead,” she says, nonchalantly. “Wh-what? How?” He asks. “I mean, it was kind of implied that I’d killed them, but I guess you need me to spell it out,” she says, “And for the record, my girl here was absolutely spot-on. Those boys would have barely slowed her down. At least, I certainly hope so, or this is all a huge waste of my time.” “I suppose that means you’re here for me, then?” I ask. “Yes!” the mysterious woman exclaimed, clasping her hands together in delight, “At least someone around here doesn’t need everything spelled out for them!” I sigh. “I’m kind of busy right now, but if you just get out of my way, I promise I’ll kill whoever you want, free of charge.” “Oh, honey, no!” she cries out in dismay, “Don’t do me like that! And after I just vouched for you! Did I not just vouch for her?” She turns to The Man. “I… wha- huh?” “And then what does she go and do? She needs everything spelled out for her! The nerve! I guess this is what I get for trusting people…” I tire of her nonsense. With a flash of lightning, I jump to a wall behind me, then up to the ceiling, then to my target, all in a fraction of a second. So quick a death is far better than he deserves, but I cannot stand to see him draw one more breath.

Huh? My blade stops just short of his breast. A shield of dark energy surrounds him. I strike with my dagger several more times, to no avail. I realize this is probably that woman’s doing, but I can deal with her once I’ve finished my job. I hold my hand out in front of me, and imagine a tall, proud oak tree. I imagine it felled by a flash of lightning, reduced to mere ash and splinters in a matter of moments by the fury of the storm. A figure rises from the rubble, obscured by a swirling vortex of smoke. The seal is weakened.

My right arm begins to change; a cloudy, greenish grey spreads down from my hand as my fingertips sharpen into claws. Electricity crackles in my hand, aching to be unleashed. The white-hot plasma illuminates a look of absolute terror on his face. I can’t help but smile. But before I can finish him, something knocks me off balance. I lose control of the lightning and it shoots at the wall, leaving a scorch mark where it strikes. I turn to the source of the attack and am unsurprised to find the same woman who stopped me before. “Ah, ah, ah!” she tuts, “You can’t have your desert before you have your dinner!” “I am going to kill this man tonight,” I growl, my voice rumbling with thunder, “And if you stand in my way, I’ll kill you, too.” “Then go ahead and try!” she says, “I-“ I’d heard all I needed to hear. I imagine a small clearing of trees, buffeted by howling winds, battered by rain and hail until they were uprooted and torn asunder. The figure comes into view more clearly. The seal is weakened further.

My left arm transforms just as my right did. The air around me stirs restlessly, eager for the chaos of the storm. With the swiftness of the wind, I charge at my opponent and strike with my blade, again and again, my blows coming down like rain. She manages to parry all of my attacks with her rapier, but my overwhelming assault leaves no room for counterattack. I begin to lose control of my body. My right hand moves on its own, wildly slashing and stabbing with no rhyme or reason, while my left hand balls up into a fist and hardens into a hailstone. While my opponent blocks an attack from my dagger, I punch her in the gut, causing her to double over, then I punch her in the face with my right hand, sending her mask flying off and knocking her to the ground. She scrambles to put her mask back on, and puts up a magical barrier just in time to block my next attack. But I don’t let up; I continue punching until her shield shatters. I throw my fist at her with the full fury of the storm: wind, and lightning, and rain, and hail all coalesce into one attack. The fight is over.

Huh? I feel a sharp pain in my abdomen. I look down and see the point of her sword sticking out from my stomach. I look at her in disbelief. How did she stab me in the back? Is this really the end? A scythe blade of sharpened bone extends from her sword. “You fought admirably,” she says, “But I’m afraid it wasn’t enough. Now die.” With a snap of her gloved hand, the scythe is pulled towards, moments from slicing me in half-!

No. So long as that man lives, I will not die. I refuse. I grab the blade. The ice on my hand protects me, but I can feel it start to dig into my flesh. I imagine a vast, sprawling forest, teeming with life. Within it are trees old enough to have seen mankind’s first steps. But they will not live to see mankind’s dying breath; the storm is coming. Lightning ignites an inferno that burns despite the pouring torrent of rain. Hail batters the flora and fauna, large enough to crush the skull of a deer with a single stone. A tornado uproots the trees and tosses them around like toothpicks. Even when the entire forest is razed to the ground, the storm only grows in fury. At the center of it all, in the eye of the storm, stands a figure, much clearer than before. This time, the figure is me. The demon is free.

My mask falls to the ground and shatters, for there is no longer a face for it to hide. The blade slices through me, but I feel no pain. I no longer have a body to cut. All that remains of me is wind and clouds, rain and lightning. And fury. “Hah! Finally decided to fight for real, eh?” She says, “I guess I should do the same-“ The wind tears the breath from her lungs. I blast her with a stream of air that could carry away a fully grown man, but she braces herself and manages to stand firm against it. “Heh, you’re pretty strong. But you’ll have to do better than that to-” I do better than that. That was just a warmup, a test of my power. For the first time, I bring the full fury of the storm to bear: Wind and rain and hail blast her against the wall, pinning her under the pressure of a hundred atmospheres. My mind grows as cloudy as my body. I can scarcely remember who is bearing the brunt of the storm before me. My purpose wavers, but the storm only grows in intensity. The minutes tick by; the storm has raged for far longer than any human can endure, but I find myself incapable of stopping it. I fear that I may lose myself entirely to the storm. But what is there to fear? What do I have to lose by giving myself to the storm’s embrace? I can no longer remember. The storm is no longer content to focus its fury on one target. When it relents, little more than a skeleton remains of the woman. It looks to expand, to find more to obliterate and destroy. It finds a man who reminds me of who I am. Why I brought this storm in the first place. The storm howls for his destruction, to tear him asunder in an instant, but my inner storm howls louder. I will see him suffer. I meet the demon within me head on, and bring it to heel. Before, I was merely a vessel for the storm’s fury, but now, it is a vessel for mine.

“Incredible!” I turn to see the skeleton of the woman standing on its own two feet. “Oh, this?” she says, nonchalantly, gesturing at her body, “I’ve been a skeleton this whole time. You just blew off my clothes, basically. Not that I’m complaining, heh.” “Who are you?” I demand, “Who could possibly bear the full fury of the storm and walk away unscathed?” “Unscathed?” she says, “Hardly. This is the most scathed I’ve been in a long time. Hell, that probably would have killed me, if I knew how to die.” “I’d be more than happy to teach you,” I say, menacingly. “But do you know how to yourself?” She asks. Her question catches me off-guard. “Surely you’ve realized by now,” she says, “Or at least suspected. You’re not human. Not anymore. Whatever you are, it isn’t something that dies. Not peacefully, at least.” “I don’t care!” I snap, “None of that matters. All that matters is-“ “You’ll have an eternity to care,” she says, grimly, “An eternity to regret choosing petty revenge over your own precious mortality.” “My revenge isn’t petty!” I shout, with a roar of thunder, “You know nothing of the suffering I’ve endured!” “And you know nothing of mine,” she says, defiantly, “But you will soon enough. And it will be all the worse for knowing that you chose it. So when you’re at the mercy of eternity, begging for release, don’t come crying to me!” “I-!” I decide it isn’t worth talking to her anymore.

I turn towards Him. It’ll all be over once he’s dead. Won’t it? But how should I kill him? How could I possibly make him suffer enough? There are too many options, but none of them seem right. I wish I still had the poison. “I’m sorry,” the skeleton speaks up. “Good,” I say, annoyed, “you should be.” “If it helps, I-“ “It doesn’t.” I say no more. She deserves no more. This isn’t about her. It’s about me, and Him.

“Do you fear me?” The question I pose is as quiet as a breeze, but dangerous as a hurricane. “I always feared you,” I say, “When I was young and foolish, I thought for sure that you must be a demon or a devil, a being of supernatural evil. The kind of villain that legends are written about. But now I understand that you are nothing so grand. You are but a man, an animal who fancies himself something greater. You think that your wealth, and your power, and the respect and fear that you have earned set you apart from a common man or beast, but you are wrong. Worms feast on the rich and poor alike. If you are remembered at all, it will not be as a ruthless criminal who struck fear into the hearts of men. You will not be known as a wealthy magistrate to whom even the king answered. You will be remembered as a fool who created the monster that destroyed you.”

“Are you enjoying this?” he asks. “Utterly destroying any who would show me even the merest iota of disrespect… that was always my favorite part of the job. How ironic that your hatred for me would turn you into the very monster you despise.” “You dare compare yourself to me?” I howl. He laughs an arrogant laugh. “You have done nothing that I would not, were I in your position. You are every bit the monster I am.” “I am a monster far greater than your comprehension!” I roar, shattering the shield between us and smashing him into the wall with a powerful blast of wind. “We may be monsters, but to compare yourself to me is to compare a slime to The Omniwyrm.” He smiles an arrogant smile, even as blood drips down from the back of his head. “You even let me think I had won. That was always my favorite way to put someone in their place. It’s so much more satisfying to take everything from someone after you give them something to lose.”

I imagine a forest. A tree is already ablaze with the fires of Hell; red tongues of flame lick its branches clean of leaves and devour its trunk in mere seconds; even ashes are burnt until nothing remains but a plume of black, acrid smoke. An ordinary flame would be snuffed out with nothing left to burn, but the flame persists, sustained by hatred alone. It begins to spread, destroying everything in its path. In the midst of the hellscape, a shadowy figure rises.

A single raindrop falls from an overcast sky, instantly sizzling away in the heat of the flames. It is followed by another. And another. Just as quickly as the flame grew into an inferno, the drizzle grows into a tempest. The flames rage against the storm, burning all the brighter to spite it, but the storm responds in kind. Puddles become lakes and lakes become seas as the downpour grows more violent than any natural storm. The flames are defiant to the last, but the storm does not relent until they and the shadowy figure among them are drowned.

He hacks and gasps for air, coughing up rainwater as the embers in his eyes die out. “You…” he sputters, “What have you done?” “I won,” I say, triumphantly. “I-it seems that you have,” he says. For the first time, he is afraid. But still not nearly enough. “I don’t intend to give you the satisfaction of begging for mercy,” he says, “But I guess they never do, do they? But I always broke them, in the end. Let us see how well I have taught you.”

I don’t break him, in the end. By the time I break him, I am only just beginning. If he begged for mercy, his pleas were drowned out by the howling wind. By the time I relent and prepare to finish him, he is hardly in a state to breathe, let alone speak. And yet the look in his eyes remains defiant. Hatred wells up within me, crackling through my body as electrical energy. I can wait no longer. All of my feelings coalesce into a final bolt of lightning that kills him instantly.

In a flash, he is gone. Had the bolt vaporized him? No, that couldn’t be possible. I don’t know what happened, but I know who is responsible. “YOU!” I fly in a rage towards the skeleton, but before I can reach her, bones burst from the floor beneath me and erect a skeletal cage around me. Though my gaseous form should easily slipped between the cage’s bars, something holds me in place. Her left eye glows with a pale blue flame more terrifying than all of His hellfire. In that mere flicker, I can see illuminated every corner of The Void, the final nothingness that awaits all things. But I’m not going to let that stop me.

“I have your poison!” she blurts out before I can break out of her restraints. “I know where he is, and I want to help you! And, uh, sorry about the cage, I just needed a chance to say that before you obliterated me.”  The flame in her eye vanishes, and with it, the cage collapses around me. “Why didn’t you say that sooner?” I demand. “I’m sorry!” she says, “It’s just, I could tell you’d put a lot of time into preparing that monologue and I didn’t want to ruin your big, dramatic moment!” “W-what? I didn’t… Anyway, none of that matters anymore! Where is he? And where’s the poison?” I ask. “Oh, he’s back at the Titty Crypt,” she says, nonchalantly. “The what?” “Oh, that’s, uh, what I call the place that I ‘live’,” she says, finger quoting the word “live.” “’cuz, y’know, I’m not really alive,” she explains, “Anyway, I think this is the first time I’ve ever actually said it out loud so I’m only just now realizing that it sounds dumb as Hell, but I refuse to change it.” “And just where is this… Titty Crypt?” I ask. “Ugh, gross, don’t say it like that!” She exclaims, “The Titty Crypt is cool and exciting, like titties and crypts. The way you say it makes it sound like a morgue for titties so ugly not even a pervert could love them.”  “Why are you doing this?” I demand, accusingly. “What ever do you mean?” she asks, coyly. “Any of this!” I snap, “Why would you ruin my plans and then say you’re going to help me just to mock me? What is wrong with you!?”

“Hah.” She lets out a sad, broken laugh. “I’m afraid we don’t have enough time for me to explain fully. Your guy would probably die of old age before I finished!” She winces at her own words. “No. Sorry. I… that is exactly what’s wrong with me.” “What are you trying to say?” I ask, “This better not be another one of your stupid jokes!” “It’s not!” She says, “That’s why… it’s so hard for me. But I want you to know… I really do want to help you.” “Then why haven’t you?” I ask, venomously. “I… I tried to, I just… I don’t know how.” “JUST STOP!” I shout, “That’s it! All you have to do to help me is stop trying! I don’t need you!” “But you need something!” “The only thing I need is the life of that bastard!” I howl. “And what about after that?” She asks, “What will you live for when you’ve had your revenge?” The question catches me off guard for a moment. “What did you live for before you lived to kill? Who were you before you became a demon?” “I don’t owe you any answers!” I shout. “But you owe them to yourself,” she says, “Do you even remember?” “Of course I-” I was cut off by the realization that I didn’t. I try to remember, but my mind can think only of The Storm. I see a planet darkened by thunderheads, continents sundered by gales fierce enough to shake the very foundations of the Earth itself. Yet, amidst the debris, not a single remnant of who I was. Where I look for my love, my passion, my hopes, my soul, I find only my hate, my fury, my despair, my storm. Had I been consumed by the demon without even realizing? No… this has to be another one of her stupid tricks!

“It’s OK if you don’t remember,” she says, “Your past doesn’t have to determine your future.” “SHUT UP!” I explode, “WHAT DO YOU KNOW ABOUT ANYTHING? HOW COULD YOU POSSIBLY HELP ME?” “I… you’re right,” she admits, meekly, “I should just go away.” “NO, REALLY!” I insist, “SAY IT. TELL ME WHAT YOU’RE BIG PLAN WAS!” “W-well, I thought, maybe instead of both of us being alone for eternity we could be… like… together.” “HAH!” I laugh a cruel, mirthless laugh. “That’s the first funny joke you’ve told all night! Here’s another one: I would rather drink that poison you stole from me! I would rather spend an eternity alone than even one more second with you! And it’s funny because it’s true!” She begins crying.

Julia. Her sobs pierce a hole through the overcast skies in my mind. The sun’s rays peek through just enough to illuminate a single name. Julia. The name isn’t mine, but it’s far more important to me. I remember how much Julia cried, and how hard I tried to cheer her up. I remember telling Julia that one day we would be happy, and safe, and that I would always protect her. I remember every lie I told her. I remember how she was the final straw. But the storm won’t bring her back. It’s too late for Julia. But it isn’t too late for the big sister she loved.

Her memory shone brighter than the sun, silencing the howling wind and roaring thunder in an instant. I hear only the rain that had been drowned out by the storm. I feel only the grief I had hidden with my rage.

I wipe away my tears by reflex, an instinct to never show that I was hurting. As I feel the warmth of my cheek against my hand, I realize that I was no longer a vessel of the storm. For the first time in far, far too long, I feel human. So I cry. I cry, and I sob, and I wail, and I grieve. I cry every last tear I’ve saved for over a decade, and the storm pours rain until the clouds themselves fell to the earth. Though the land the sun shone down on was razed flat,  I was certain that new life would bloom.

“Uh, are you OK?” The skeleton pokes me with her scythe, jolting me upright from my fetal position on the ground. “What? I…” I suddenly remember where I am, and who just witnessed my emotional breakdown. I’m too embarrassed to speak. “You OK?” she asks. She sounds genuinely concerned. “I… I don’t know,” I say, “Maybe. More OK than I was, at least. Thanks.” “Huh? Oh, uh, you’re welcome,” she says, flustered, “For the thing I did for you, obviously, and the very intentional way in which I did it.” I chuckle. “I’m sorry I said all that,” I say, “I wasn’t angry at you, I was angry at…” my words falter. “Backstory stuff? It’s OK,” she assures me, “We all have it. You don’t have to get into it if you don’t want to… but, to be fair, it was a pretty solid own. Game recognize game.” “I… what?” I ask. “Well, just, like… the joke that you made at my expense, while very hurtful, was still pretty funny,” she explains, awkwardly. “Oh.” It was all I could say. “Anyway, speaking of backstory stuff,” she begins, “I don’t remember if I had the chance to squeeze this in, but I’ve basically never talked to anyone as an actual peer or ever really treated anyone as anything other than a toy to be played with and discarded once I get bored with them, so this is pretty much my first time, and like… how am I doing? Am I nailing it? Because it feels like I’m nailing it.” I laugh. “You really have a lot to learn if this what you think being helpful is,” I say, “Maybe this time I’ll have time to teach you…” “This time?” she asks. “Oh, nevermind, it’s just…” I trail off. “Backstory stuff?” she offers. “Yeah.”

“Alright, so are we going to fucking murder that guy or what?” she asks, after several seconds of silence. “Just a few minutes ago, I would’ve said yes,” I say, “But I just realized that all of my anger towards him was just a lie I told myself to mask my own sadness. Because if I’m angry, I can take it out on someone. I can equip myself with knives, and poisons, and demonic magic, and see them destroyed. Anger gives me purpose. But sadness does not. You can’t take it out on anyone.” “Can’t you?” she asks, “Isn’t that basically just like… finding someone and talking about why you’re sad with them?” “I…” “Sorry,” she says, “I don’t know what I’m talking about, that was probably stupid.” “No, you’re right,” I say, “Surprisingly right. That… probably would have been easier than becoming an eternal murder demon.” I chuckle self-deprecatingly. “Well, I’m much better at fucking murdering guys than I am at listening to backstory stuff, but if you think that would help, I can give it a shot.” She says. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that,” I say, “But there’s something else that I realized. Despite all that… I still really want to fucking murder that guy.” “Oh Hell yeah, baby,” she says, producing the phial of poison, and raising it in a toast, “To fucking murdering that guy.”

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Party Crasher (Unfinished)

“E-excuse me, ma’am?” the butler timidly addresses me as I walk past him into the ballroom. “Is something wrong?” I ask, impatiently. “Well, not exactly, it’s just, I need to make sure you’re on the guest list.” “Hah!” I laugh with false bravado, “You’d accuse me, of all people, of being a party crasher? Do you know who I am?” “I do not, ma’am,” he says, “It wouldn’t be much of a masquerade ball if I did.” I laugh too loudly. “Right you are! But it’d hardly be much of a masquerade ball if I weren’t on the guest list.” “I don’t doubt you for a second, milady,” the butler says, “But I must do as I’m bid. So if you’d please cooperate…” “Yes, of course!” I say, “I hope I didn’t trouble you unduly. And I must commend your obedience. Would that my own servants were as well-mannered as you!” “You are too kind, milady,” he says, as he flips through some documents, occasionally glancing up at my face. He eventually settles on a page and squints at my mask for a few seconds. I know I have nothing to fear. The mask I had forged was so convincing, I couldn’t tell it apart from the real one with a magnifying glass. For all I knew, it was the forgery I had returned, and the genuine article I was now wearing. “It appears you are on the list,” the butler finally says, “House Aethis extends its warmest welcomes. And I apologize for any inconvenience.” “It was no trouble!” I assure him, before making my way into the ballroom.

I hope the mask on my face hides my disgust at my surroundings. Nobles spent enough money to feed a village for months, maybe even years, all for a single night of lavish overindulgence. Every mask and every dress, every goblet of wine and every plate of cheese here was purchased with the life of a peasant starved by poverty. And for what? A big game of dress-up? I suppose that these fools think that with their masks, they can buy an escape from the consequences of their actions. Tonight, they are not who they were yesterday, and they are not who they will be tomorrow. They are their masks, beings who were born tonight, will die tomorrow morning, and intend to make the most of their short time on Earth. But these are the beliefs of a child, a babe who thinks their mother vanished because she hid her face. No amount of money frees you from the chains that bind cause to effect. Some are forced to work themselves to death in the fields, while others never lift a finger by themselves, but we all must reap what we sow.

I’ve heard rumors of a “Noble Assassin,” a clever moniker for one of noble intentions who assassinates the nobility. They are said to fight for the downtrodden, targeting corrupt politicians, oppressive lords, and greedy merchants who profit off of the misery of others. They take none of the wealth for themselves, and the story goes that they mean for it to be shared among the victims of their greed. If such a person existed, perhaps they would slit the throat under every masked face in this ballroom. Such a bloodbath could only be called unjust for being too lenient. A hundred murders, no matter how gruesome and torturous, would be a miniscule fraction of a suffering they and their ilk have inflicted over generations. But no such person exists; I will confess to the murder of nobles, but I must plead innocence to the charges of noble intentions. All I have done, I have done for vengeance. There is no room in my heart for compassion for others who have suffered as I have at the hands of these monsters. There is only hatred. I wield my blade for none but myself, and all those who were taken from me.

The Sword Saint

(To read the previous part, click here)


“Uh, guys,” Nino said, “not to interrupt this tender moment, but… Karel’s probably almost here by now!” “I am here,” Karel said. He stood ominously at the entrance of the cave, a silhouette against the blinding white snow of the mountain. He drew his blade and pointed it at Canas. “You. Are you the one they call The Hermit on the Mountain?” “Huh? Me?” Canas asked, confused. “Uh, yeah. I mean, Yes!” He puffed out his chest and spoke confidently. “I am indeed The Hermit on th-“ Niime pushed him aside. “Did you really think I’d stand by and let you throw your life away?” Niime asked Canas. “I don’t leave this mountain enough to know what I am called by the world, but I guess that’d make me the hermit on the mountain. On this mountain, I am called Niime. But there was once a time when the world called me Vivienne.” “I care not for what you are called,” Karel said. “Then you know not to whom you speak,” Niime said, “Though the fault is not yours. I imagine the powers that be have been quite thorough in their efforts to strike my name from the history books.” “I care little for your history, or any other ramblings of a senile old woman. You are quite different from the fabled dark mage I’d heard legends of.” Niime cackled. “You think I’m senile, do you? Ah, perhaps you’re right. All that was a lifetime ago. Perhaps I’m no longer a worthy opponent.” “No,” Karel said, forcefully, “Your façade of weakness will not fool me. I understand little of magic, but even I can sense that you possess a fearsome power. The strength of your dark magic is almost enough to rival even Nergal’s.” “Almost?” Niime asked indignantly, “How dare you barge into my own home and suggest that my mastery of elder magic is second to anyone else’s? I should strike you down where you stand!” “I encourage you to try,” Karel said, “But before we fight, I’d like to be perfectly clear that if any of your friends or family intervene, they will pay for their meddling with their life. That goes for you too, Jaffar.” He pointed his sword to a shadowy corner, from which Jaffar emerged. “Tch.” “I agree,” Niime said, “I have much to teach this whelp, and I won’t have you interrupting my lesson.” “I will teach you not to underestimate me,” Karel said, “En Garde!” “Actually, hold up a second,” Niime said, “Before we fight, could I warm up a bit? It’s been so long since I’ve ever actually fought, I need to make sure I still remember how. I trust it wouldn’t be a problem if you let me cast a single Flux tome before we begin in earnest?” “Hmph. Very well,” Karel said, “My blade’s hunger will not be sated if I cannot fight you at your full strength.” “Thank you very much, young man!” Niime said, “Now, where did I put that book…” She searched around the pockets of her robes. “Ah! Here it is! Ahem…”

With an otherworldly chant, Niime summoned a sphere of darkness, which quickly melted and seeped into the ground. In then rose up from below Karel’s feet, coalescing into an orb around him and exploding with dark energy. He leaned backwards, avoiding the attack by the narrowest possible margin. His eyes widened in shock as he jumped to the side just in time to dodge a second explosion behind him. He looked down and saw that darkness continued to rise from his shadow. He just barely managed to dodge a third explosion. Then a fourth. Then a fifth. When it seemed the explosive assault had abated, he smiled. “So you can smile,” Niime remarked. “Only when fighting a worthy opponent,” Karel said, quickly scowling. “I see,” Niime said, “Why is that?” “The time for your questions has passed!” “It is a poor student who won’t answer his teacher’s questions,” Niime said. “I am not your student,” Karel insisted,”I am your opponent!” “Incorrect,” Niime said, “I may be your opponent, but you are not mine. If you want me to fight you, you must answer my questions in return.” “I am not here to bargain with you,” Karel said, “I am here to kill you!” “Then do it.” Niime said, holding her arms out to her sides as if preparing to embrace death. “What madness is this?” Karel asked. “I’m calling your bluff,” Niime said, “You don’t want to kill me, you want to fight me. And I won’t fight you unless you answer my questions.” “You’d really risk your life for some answers?” Niime cackled. “I am pretty crazy,” she admitted, “Just ask my son.” “Huh? Uh, er, w-well…” Canas stuttered, causing Niime to cackle again. “Enough of these games,” Karel said, “I believe that you are willing to risk your own life, but would you risk hers?” He pointed his sword at Nino, who shuddered in fear. He began walking towards her. “Would you fight for her?” “NO!” Niime’s voice exploded with elder magic, inhumanly loud and impossibly deep. It was enough to stop even Karel in his tracks. “You will not harm Nino. But I will not fight you. Because if you take one more step towards her, Nino, Canas, Jafar, and I will execute you. There will be no fight,” Niime calmly explained, “We will put you down like a dog. And I don’t know if you are a spiritual man, but if there is any afterlife, I will see to it that the tattered remains of your soul are in no shape to reach it.” “Pfeh,” Karel said, “Very well. I’ll answer your questions.”

“So why do you only smile when fighting a worthy opponent?” Niime asked. “I am the sword demon,” Karel said, “I live only that my blade may spill blood. It is only in combat that I feel alive.” “What must happen to a man to convince him he is a demon?” Niime asked. “I am no more a man than the sword I hold,” Karel said. “Then what are you?” Niime asked, “Because you are no demon. A demon feels only hate, if anything at all. Demons do not smile, even when they kill.” “You speak as if you know of demons,” Karel said. “I know precious little of them,” Niime said, “But certainly more than you.” “Whatever,” Karel said, “Are you satisfied with my answer?” “With that one, I suppose,” Niime said, “But why did you only smile after I attacked? Did you not think me a worthy opponent before?” “I was not yet sure,” Karel said. “And a mere Flux was enough to convince you? I hope you realize that was only the faintest taste of my power.” “It is not your magical power that makes you a worthy opponent,” Karel said. “Oh? Well, I was about to fight, but I must say that I am now intrigued. Explain yourself.” Niime said. “Any above-average mage is more powerful than the most powerful swordsman,” Karel said, “For what is a man with a sword next to the raw destructive power of the elements themselves?” “Not to mention elder magic, which is far more destructive and powerful than anima magic,” Niime chimed in. “Yet I find so few mages to be worthy opponents, for the same reason that a sword will always best an axe; combat is about more than just power. One must be quick and cunning enough to gain the upper hand over their opponent. And you have displayed a cunning that I have seen in very few mages, despite all their supposed wisdom. Which is why my blade hungers for your blood more ravenously than it has in years. Any further questions before I am allowed to sate it?” “No, I’m finished. I thank you for your compliment, and hope that you have learned from me as I have learned from you.” “Pfah.”

Karel dashed towards Niime and swung his blade with blistering speed. He was surprised that she didn’t seem to make any effort to avoid his attack, and even more surprised that his sword passed through her body with no resistance. He heard a chant behind him, and turned around to see that Niime with her hands surrounded by a dark aura, preparing to hit him with a magical blast. He ducked to avoid her attack, but it never came; instead, the energy around her hands coalesced into a manacle that bound his left foot to the ground. He slashed at her again, but once more struck only the air; the illusion he attacked dissipated into a shadowy mist. Niime had teleported to a safe distance, and summoned a small ball of dark energy energy, about the size of a fist. With a horizontal wave of her hand, it split into a row of 8 orbs, each the same size of the original. With a vertical wave, they multiplied into a square of 64 orbs. She pushed her hands forward, causing the orbs the top row of orbs to fly towards Karel one by one, then the second row, and so on, the time between attacks decreasing with each one. Even with his foot held firmly in place, Karel managed to dodge or deflect all of the orbs sent his way, causing them to bounce around the walls of the cave, eventually fusing into a large sphere above his head that grew with each dodged attack. When the second last row was depleted, Niime pushed her hands out to her sides, sending the entire final row at once, and dropping the large sphere. Karel ducked under the smaller spheres, but didn’t see the second attack until it was too late; it exploded, shattering his restraint and knocking him to the ground.

Karel laughed. “What’s so funny?” Niime asked. “It’s been a long time since anyone’s managed to hurt me,” Karel said, “You have my sincerest thanks for this excellent battle.” “Well, as the winner, the pleasure was all mine.” Niime said. “This battle is far from over!” Karel stood up and closed the distance between them in the blink of an eye, hoping to strike her down before she could react. His blade sunk into her flesh, causing everyone to gasp in horror. But something felt wrong. He turned around to see Niime far behind him, preparing to cast a spell. “I guess that trick won’t work on you anymore,” Niime said. Karel dashed towards her and struck her down before she could finish her spell. But he knew she was too clever to just lose like that. He turned around to see where she’d teleported. He turned around to see her gathering a massive amount of energy, enough to easily kill him if she landed an attack with it. But he didn’t intend to give her the chance. Before she could finish her spell, he closed the distance and sunk his blade into her flesh, immediately turning around to see where she’d teleported next. He turned around just in time to see her shoot a huge orb of dark energy at him. As he prepared his stance to dodge the attack and strike yet again, he noticed the blood on his sword, far too late. He turned around, but before he could finish off the real Niime, a lance of dark energy pierced his stomach, stabbing clear through his torso and out his back. The huge attack that Niime had been charging passed through him harmlessly, a mere illusion. He fell to his knees, defeated.

Niime began cackling, but the pain in her side cut her off. “Right. This,” she said, wincing in pain at the wound from Karel’s sword, “Canas, if you’d be so kind…” “Right, of course,” Canas said, grabbing a Mend staff and healing his mother with it. “What are you waiting for?” Karel asked,  his breath coming in pained gasps, “If you intend to kill me, be done with it.” “I don’t want to kill you,” Niime said. “Then what will you do with me?” Karel asked. “Well, I want to teach you a lesson,” Niime said, “But I can’t teach you unless you’re willing to learn.” “And what would you have me learn?” Karel asked. “That you are no demon,” Niime said. “Again with this nonsense?” Karel asked. “I have no problem letting you live,” Niime said, “I just need you to say that you want to.” “Pfeh. I don’t care either way. I want nothing but the blood of the strong.” “You can’t fight if you’re dead,” Niime said, “Is it not worth staying alive, even if it’s just for that?” “To live by the sword is to die by the sword,” Karel said, “I made my peace with that long ago.” “Why?” Niime asked, “Why are you so committed to denying your own humanity that you would die before admitting to it? I don’t understand.” “Ha,” Karel laughed, weakly, “I guess some mysteries are beyond even the grasp of the legendary Hermit on the Mountain.” “Oh, please,” Niime scoffed in annoyance, “I’m just trying to provoke you into doing some self-reflection. You’re not some mysterious enigma. You’re just afraid.” “I do not fear death,” Karel said. “I think you do,” Niime said, “But what you fear even more is your own humanity.” “If you’re going to kill me anyway, I’d prefer you do it soon and spare me your speaking in riddles,” Karel said. “No, you will listen to me,” Niime said, “You want so desperately to believe that you’re a demon, because a demon cannot be blamed for the people it kills, any more than a fox can be blamed for eating chickens. It is simply in their nature. A human who acts as a demon does is broken, but what is broken can be fixed. And that terrifies you. Because if you could be fixed, then you had a choice. You are truly guilty for the sins you have committed. So it’s easier for you to lie to yourself.” “That… that’s not true,” Karel said, shaken. “Seriously?” Niime asked, incredulously, “Since you’re being so stubborn, I won’t let you live unless you also admit that you’re scared.” “I’m not,” Karel said, “I feel nothing.” “Really?” Niime asked, “Never? You mean to tell me that you’ve never once in your life felt anything that wasn’t the thrill of combat? You’ve never enjoyed food, or drink, or the company of a friend, or family? Or a lover?” “Never.” Karel said, defiantly. “Well, I tried my best,” Niime said, “Have fun bleeding out.”

“Karla!” Nino interrupted just before Niime finished him off. “What about Karla?” “N-never,” Karel said, much less confident, “She was nothing more than another strong opponent to me.” “That’s not true!” Nino said, “I remember now. I wasn’t like eavesdropping or anything, but I happened to be nearby when I heard her talking about how you used to play together when you were kids!” “You misremember,” Karel said, coldly, “And even if there were ever any humanity inside me, it died long ago.” “It’s not too late to change!” Nino cried, “It’s never too late. I was told my whole life that I was stupid and useless. That nothing I ever did was good enough, and that I was just a burden who got in everyone’s way. And I believed it. I thought I’d be stupid and useless forever. But then I had friends who believed in me. Friends who gave me a chance to change. And thanks to them, I know that I’m not stupid or useless! So I believe in you. I want to give you a chance to change!” “Your words won’t change me,” Karel said, “They can’t wipe away the sins I’ve committed.” “Nothing can,” Jaffar said, “They will haunt you to the grave and beyond. You can either die a coward, or live to repent and atone.” “Do you really think it’s that easy to repent?” Karel hissed. “I know it isn’t,” Jaffar said, “I’ve been where you are. I know how hard it is. But all it takes is one person believing that you aren’t a monster. You know who that person is. Go to her and tell her the truth.” “I… you’re right.” Karel said. “I trained for so long to inherit this sword, that I forgot everything that wasn’t the blade. I… I just…” “Well, you seem to have learned your lesson, so I’ll just go ahead and-” the lance vanished, causing Karel to cry out in pain. Niime quickly healed him with the Mend staff.

“I… thank you,” Karel said, “It seems that you really did have much to teach me. I thought the path I traveled was the path of the sword, but I now see that I am mistaken. I will find a new path, even if I must cut it with my own blade. I hope that our paths cross again someday.” “That’s lovely,” Niime said, “Good luck with that.” With a small bow of his head, Karel departed. Several minutes later, they all heard clanking armor echoing from deeper in the cave. Niime sighed. “Is that-” “I thought I heard arguing! Is everyone OK?” Wallace asked, loudly, “I may have gotten a little lost on the way here, but I came as fast as I could!” Nino laughed. “Don’t worry, it’s all taken care of.”

The Sword Demon

“Hey there!” Nino shouted to the stranger from atop her Pegasus, “This mountain’s pretty- wait! Stop! I didn’t tell you to-” her voice trailed off as her Pegasus flew off, despite her commands. The man she was addressing continued climbing the mountain as if nothing happened.  A few seconds later, the Pegasus flew back around. “OK, now stop! I SAID STOP!! Sorry, my peg-” was all she managed to say before her Pegasus took her out of earshot once more. “-not usually like this it’s just-” This repeated several more times. “-the thing about this mountain-” “-a super scary drag-” “-sten to someone who’s trying to  save your-”

After managing to slow her Pegasus down to a brisk trot, she decided to jump off its back rather than wait for it to follow her commands. She sprained her ankle, although if it weren’t for the thick mountain snow and a well-timed wind spell, she would have suffered much worse. “I’m OK,” she shouted, “I mean, mostly. Any chance you have a healing staff?” He answered her with silence. “It’s OK, I have a vulnerary, just give me a sec!” She drank a sip of vulnerary and chased after the man on her newly healed feet.

 

“Hey there!” she repeated when she caught up to him, “This mountain’s really dangerous! You might want to think about turning back!” He continued ignoring her. “Hey, can you hear me? There’s nothing on top of this mountain but trouble! There’s also, like, dangerous avalanches! Why won’t you listen me?” She stood directly in his way to bar his passage. He walked around her, the closest he’d come to acknowledging her existence. “Hey, wait a second, I know you!” she said, taking a good look at his face, “You’re Karel!”

 

“How do you know that name?” He snarled, reaching for the hilt of his sword and looking at her for the first time. “We fought together!” she said, lowering her hood to reveal her face. “It’s me, Nino! We fought with Hector and Eliwood! Remember? We fought a dragon together!” He took his hand off his sword and continued walking. “I remember Hector and Eliwood. A Sacaean woman. Lyn? My sister…” His pace faltered, for just a step. “But I remember no others.” “That’s OK! I don’t think we talked much, so I don’t remember you too well. I remember thinking you were kind of scary, but that’s probably just cuz I was a kid!” “You remember well, then,” he said. “Hah! That’s a funny joke!” Nino said, “Anyways, what brings you around here? It’s pretty dangerous, so you should probably turn back. I can call Peggy back and give you a ride, if you want. Peggy is my Pegasus. Get it? Pretty neat, huh?” “I can take care of myself.” Karel said. “Why are you climbing this mountain anyway? There’s nothing up there! So why don’t you just go back to town and enjoy some hot chocolate?” Nino asked. “It is none of your business,” Karel said. “You don’t gotta be so mean, y’know,” Nino said, “I’m just concerned for your safety, is all.” “You should be more concerned for the safety of whoever you’re trying to protect by lying to me,” Karel said. “Huh? Why? Do you want to hurt granny Niime?” Nino asked, “er, wait-” “So someone does live on this mountain,” Karel said. “OK, fine, yes! Niime lives up there! But I won’t let you hurt her! If you want to kill her, you’ll have to get through me!” She stood in his way with her arms spread wide.

 

“Tsk.” He stopped and pulled his sword just slightly from its scabbard, “It seems you don’t remember me so well after all. If you did, you wouldn’t be foolish enough to stand in my way.” “Y-you’d really kill me?” Nino asked. “I don’t want to, but I won’t hesitate to strike you down if you stand in my way.” “I… fine!” she said, stepping aside, “But I’m not getting out of the way because I’m scared of you! I just know Niime’s strong enough for a loser like you!” “We’ll see.” He said. “Uh, excuse me,” she said, “I just remembered that I have some, uh, important business at the top of the mountain. PEGGY!!” “I take it the avalanches were just a bluff, then?” Karel asked. “Huh? No, those are very real! In fact, one almost wiped out a whole village but me and Canas and his wife managed to-” “Enough.” Karel interrupted, “If there are avalanches, then I’ll not have you endanger me with your shouting. Raise your voice again and I will not hesitate to cut you down.” “Jeez, OK, I’m sorry,” Nino whispered, “Here, let me just…” She pulled out a tome and cast a fireball into the air. Her Pegasus saw the signal and soon landed gracefully beside her. “Quick, Peggy!” Nino whispered to her Pegasus as she mounted it, “We have to get home!” The Pegasus took off, kicking up a gust of cold air and snow that Karel endured without so much as a shiver.

 

“What the devil was that noise?” Canas asked, investigating the muffled thump he had heard outside the cave. “Nino? I do wish you’d stop dismounting your Pegasus before it lands. One of these days-” “No time for that!” Nino interjected, picking herself up from the snow bank she had crashed into, “We kind of have a situation on our hands!” “A good situation?” he asked, hopefully, though he knew his hope was in vain. “Uuuhhhhhhhh would you consider a scary swordmaster coming to kill your mom a good situation?” “Uh, not at all,” Canas said, “Is that what’s happening?” “Yeah,” Nino said, “Remember Karel?” “Karel?!” A shiver went down Canas’s spine. “From what I recall, he was on a quest to find strong people to kill. Does he think my mom is that strong?” ” Do you think I’m not?” Niime asked. “I-I didn’t say that,” Canas said, “It’s just…” “Don’t worry, I won’t kill your little friend. Probably,” Niime said. “That’s not what I was worried about!” Nino said. “All I’m worried about is you two catching a cold from standing out in the snow like a couple of fools!” Niime scolded. “But I was just-” Canas protested. “I didn’t ask for your excuses, I asked you to come back inside. Don’t make me come out there and drag you back in myself!” “You actually didn’t ask anything of us, but whatever,” Canas muttered under his breath, obediently doing as he was told despite his defiant words. “What was that?” Niime demanded, “Speak up so I can hear you!” “It was noth-” “He said you didn’t actually ask anything of us, but whatever!” Nino said loudly as she rushed back inside. Canas winced in fear. He began, “Nino, you weren’t supposed to repeat-“ “And you weren’t supposed to say it!” Niime said, “You should be thanking Nino! The only reason I’m not giving you the punishment you deserve is because I don’t want to scare her!” “Uh-oh, sounds like someone’s in trou-ble~” Nino said in a taunting, sing-song voice. “And he’s not the only one!” Niime yelled, turning to Nino, “Did you jump in the snow again?” “Huh? M-me?” Nino asked, suddenly panicking, “I-I-I… yeah…” “Why? Did you forget all the times I’ve scolded you?” Niime asked. “N-no,” Nino said. “Did you think I’d be too stupid to notice that you’re covered in snow?” Niime asked. “N-no,” Nino said, starting to cry. “Then why?” “I-I was in a hurry!” Nino sobbed. “In a hurry to do what?” Niime asked, “Break your neck? Freeze to death?” “I was in a hurry to save you!” Nino sobbed. “I was just trying to help, because I’m too stupid to remember that I’m a useless idiot who only ever gets in the way!”

Niime hugged Nino. “You’re not stupid, and you’re not useless,” Niime said, “I’m sorry I yelled at you, and I’m sorry I made you feel that way. You are a very bright and helpful young woman. I know you’re worried for my safety, but I’m just as worried for yours. And you are too young to risk your life for someone as old as me.” “I’m sorry,” Nino said, desperately, “I promise, I won’t do it again. I’ll be a good girl, I’ll do whatever you want, so please, please don’t hate me.” “I just want you to be safe and happy,” Niime said, “But even if you aren’t, I’ll still love you. So if you’re ever hurt, or sad, just let Granny Niime take care of you.” “Thanks,” Nino said, “I love you, too.”

“I’m reticent to interrupt this touching moment,” Canas chimed in after several seconds of silence, “But I’m afraid the threat that Karel poses can be ignored no longer.” “Really? I’m ignoring it just fine,” Niime said. “This is no time for japes, mother!” Canas insisted, “A mad swordmaster is out for your blood! I never saw much of his swordplay firsthand, but I saw enough to know that he is no joke.” “And you think I am?” Niime asked. “I think he’s dangerous enough to warrant being taken seriously!” Canas said, “Swordsmen across the continent know him as the fabled “Sword Demon”, and from what I’ve seen, the moniker is well-deserved! If even half the legends about him are true-” “All the legends about me are true,” Niime said, “Even the ones that the world has forgotten.” “Look, mom, I know that you used to be the Mage General of Etruria, but-” “I was the Great General!” Niime reprimanded, “The first and only mage to ever hold the position! But more importantly, I am your mother, and if you continue to defy me I will blow that stupid monocle of yours clear off the mountainside!” “My monocle’s not stupid,” Canas muttered. “Yeah, I think his monocle’s cool!” Nino shouted. Niime glared at her. “S-sorry, you’re right, it’s stupid and I’m-” “It’s OK,” Niime assured, ruffling her hair affectionately, “I still love you, even if you think my son’s stupid monocle is cool.” Nino laughed.

“I…” Canas began. “What’s that?” Niime asked, “Do you have something to say?” “No,” Canas said, “Nevermind.” “No, say it,” Niime said, “I want to hear whatever stupid thought you had on your mind.” “Very well then, mother,” Canas said, “I held my tongue so we could formulate a plan for stopping Karel, but since you refuse to be reasonable, I guess I might as well tell you what’s on my mind while you’re still alive to hear it.” “And just what is on your mind?” Niime asked, “Out with it, then.” Canas paused, deep in thought. “I… am truly grateful for how kind you have been with Nino. I worried that she would be afraid of you, but my worries were entirely unfounded, and I thank you for proving me wrong,” Canas said. “I see…” Niime said, “That’s what you wanted to say to me?” “Not at all,” Canas said, “I wanted to ask you why you’ve never shown any of that kindness to your own son!” “You would really begrudge this girl my affection? After all she’s suffered, she deserves all the kindness I can give her. Unless you think she is truly unworthy of being loved?” Niime said. “Don’t you dare put those words in my mouth!” Canas spat, “I love Nino because she’s kind, and cheerful, and brave, and wonderful in more ways than I can enumerate. You insult her by letting her pain define her. But if that’s what it takes to earn your affection, I’m curious to know how much further I have to go. How much more must I suffer for you to love me, mother?”

“I’m sorry!” Nino cried, “I didn’t mean to steal your mom! I’m so sorry!” “Now look what you’ve done,” Niime said, angrily, “You’ve upset the poor girl!” “I’m not angry with you, Nino,” Canas said, “None of this is your fault. This is between me and my mother.” “What are you trying to say, Canas?” Niime asked, “Do you really think I’m as bad of a mother as Sonia was?” Nino cringed at the name. “No, but comparing yourself to her is hardly a high bar to clear!” Canas said. Niime shouted, “Is this really so important? How little do you think of me?” “As a mage and a scholar, I think the world of you,” Canas said, “But as a mother, you are surpassingly deficient! I’m sure that Hugh-” “Enough!” Niime spat. “You needn’t bring their names into this.” “Needn’t I?” Canas asked, nearly hysterically, “They’re all but dead, mother! By your hand! And I am to join them! You are as much my murderer as you are my mother!” Nino began cowering in fear. Jaffar grabbed her hand to escort her out of earshot, but she held fast. She wanted to hear the rest of it.

“My hands may be stained with a sea of blood, but not a drop of it is yours!” Niime hissed. “Maybe not yet, but it is inevitable! You said it yourself!” Canas said, “If I keep studying deep magic, I’ll end up like them! Just a thing that used to be a person.” “Is that what you think I am?” Niime asked, “Just a thing?” “W-well, no,” Canas said. “Not everyone who studies deep magic is Taken! I didn’t raise my son to be too stupid to realize that if I could learn dark magic and keep my soul intact, then perhaps he could too!” “I… I mean… I guess that makes sense,” Canas said, “But I might just as easily end up like them!” “You won’t.” Niime said, firmly. “What makes you so sure?” Canas asked. “What makes you think you have any place questioning me when it comes to deep magic, hm?” Niime demanded. “But if I won’t, why did you say I would?” Canas asked. “Because I thought you would,” Niime said, “But you changed. The boy I sent off to the Dread Isle is different from the man who returned. That boy never could have stopped that avalanche. But you did.” “What are you trying to say?” Canas asked. “I’m proud of you, Canas. You’ve always been a brilliant scholar, but on your journey,  you gained the strength of will to become a true shaman. Your mastery of deep magic surpasses that of any other druid I have ever met, and I truly believe that you have the potential to surpass me some day. That is why I am unafraid to die at the hands of this Karel. Because I know that my secrets are safe in the hands of a worthy successor. I love you, Canas.” “I…” Canas removed his monocle to wipe the tears from his eyes. “That… that means a lot to me, mother,” Canas said, “But it’s not enough. I shouldn’t have to earn my mother’s love. I am more than just a shaman, and I am more than just your successor! I am your own flesh and blood, and if you cannot love me for that alone, then you are no mother of mine.” “Then you may call me Niime from now on.” Niime said. “Are you serious?” Canas asked, “Is your heart so cold that you would spurn me if I weren’t a shaman?” “If you weren’t a shaman, you’d be nothing.” Niime said, “Just like your brothers before you. I loved them so much, but that didn’t save them. It only damned me further for my failure. So I tried to close my heart to you. To train you so that you wouldn’t die as they had. And so that if you did, maybe I wouldn’t have to suffer that pain again. I have brought my own family such pain, all for the hubris of thinking my secrets worth preserving at any cost. I do not deserve to be called your mother.”

“I… I don’t forgive you.” Canas said. Nino gasped in shock. “You don’t deserve it. Your sins are too great. Someone as smart as you should have known better than to underestimate the darkness.” He sighed. “But I still love you. Because, as harsh as you were, you truly wanted me to live. And although I’ve suffered much because of you, you’ve suffered even more. You deserve that kindness.” Niime burst into tears she’d been holding back for too long. She ran up to Canas and hugged him. They just cried into each other’s arms without saying a word.


(To read the next part, click here)

The White Fang

“Hey there!” Nino shouted to the stranger from atop her Pegasus, “This mountain’s pretty- wait! Stop! I didn’t tell you to-” her voice trailed off as her Pegasus flew off against her wishes. The man she was addressing continued climbing the mountain as if nothing happened.  A few seconds later, the Pegasus flew back around. “OK, now stop! I SAID STOP!! Sorry, my peg-” was all she managed to say before her Pegasus took her out of earshot once more. “-not usually like this it’s just-” This repeated several more times. “-the thing about this mountain-” “-sten to someone who’s trying to  save your-” After managing to slow her Pegasus down to a brisk trot, she decided  jump off its back rather than wait for it to follow her commands. She sprained her ankle, although if it weren’t for the thick mountain snow and a well-timed wind spell, she would have suffered much worse. “I’m OK,” she shouted, “I mean, mostly. Any chance you have a healing staff?” He answered her with silence. “It’s OK, I have a vulnerary, just give me a sec!” She drank a sip of vulnerary and chased after the man on her newly healed feet.

 

“Hey there!” she repeated when she caught up to him, “This mountain’s really dangerous! You might want to think about turning back!” He continued as if he couldn’t hear him. “Hey, can you hear me? There’s nothing on top of this mountain but trouble! There’s also, like dangerous avalanches! Why won’t you listen me?” She stood directly in his way to bar his passage. He walked around her, the closest he’d come to acknowledging her existence. “Hey, wait a second, I know you!” she said, taking a good look at his face, “You’re Karel!”

 

“How do you know that name?” He snarled, reaching for the hilt of his sword and looking at her for the first time. “We fought together!” she said, lowering her hood to reveal her face. “It’s me, Nino! We fought with Hector and Eliwood! Remember? We fought a dragon together!” He took his hand off his sword and continued walking. “I remember Hector and Eliwood. A Sacaean woman. Lyn? My sister…” His pace faltered, for just a step. “But I remember no others.” “That’s OK! I don’t think we talked much, so I don’t remember you too well. I remember thinking you were kind of scary, but that’s probably just cuz I was a kid!” “You remember well, then,” he said. “Hah! That’s a funny joke!” Nino said, “Anyways, what brings you around here? It’s pretty dangerous, so you should probably turn back. I can call Peggy back and give you a ride, if you want. Peggy is my Pegasus. Get it? Pretty neat, huh?” “I can take care of myself.” Karel says. “Why are you climbing this mountain anyway? There’s nothing up there! So why don’t you just go back to town and enjoy some hot chocolate?” “I’ve come to kill The Hermit on the Mountain rumored to live up here.” “You want to kill Granny Niime!? Er, I mean-” “So she does live up there?” “No! I don’t know what you’re talking about! I’ve never heard of any mountain hermit!” “You said her name,” Karel said, flatly. “OK, fine! But I won’t let you hurt her! If you want to kill her, you’ll have to get through me!” She stood in his way with her arms spread wide.

 

“Tsk.” He stopped and pulled his sword just slightly from its scabbard, “It seems you don’t remember me so well after all. If you did, you wouldn’t be foolish enough to stand in my way.” “Y-you’d really kill me?” Nino asked. “I don’t want to, but I won’t hesitate to strike you down if you stand in my way.” “I… fine!” she said, stepping aside, “But I’m not getting out of the way because I’m scared of you! I just know Niime’s strong enough for a loser like you!” “We’ll see.” He said. “Uh, excuse me,” she said, “I just remembered that I have some, uh, important business at the top of the mountain. PEGGY!!” “I take it the avalanches were just a bluff, then?” Karel asked. “Huh? No, those are very real! In fact, one almost wiped out a whole village but me and Canas and his wife managed to-” “Enough.” Karel interrupted, “If there are avalanches, then I’ll not have you endanger me with your shouting. Raise your voice again and I will not hesitate to cut you down.” “Jeez, OK, I’m sorry,” Nino whispered, “Here, let me just…” She pulled out a tome and cast a fireball into the air. Her Pegasus quickly heeded her summons and landed gracefully beside her. “Quick, Peggy!” Nino whispered to her Pegasus as she mounted it, “We have to get home!” The Pegasus took off, kicking up a cloud of snow that Karel stoically walked through.


“So. Canas.” Nino said landing in a snow bank after jumping off her Pegasus before it landed, “There’s kind of a situation.” “A good situation?” he asked, hopefully. “Uuuhhhhhhhh would you consider a scary swordmaster coming to kill your mom a good thing?” “Uh, not at all,” Canas said, “Is that what’s happening?” “Yeah,” Nino said, “Remember Karel?” “Karel?!” A shiver went down Canas’s spine. “From what I recall, he was on a quest to find strong people to kill. Does he think my mom is that strong?” ” Do you think I’m not?” Niime asked. “I-I didn’t say that,” Canas said, “It’s just…” “Don’t worry, I won’t kill your little friend. Probably.” “That’s not what I was worried about!” Nino said “What if he kills you? I don’t want to fight him, he’s too strong!” “I don’t want to fight him, either,” Niime said, “But I won’t let anyone fight my battles for me. If this man is really foolish up enough to climb up a whole mountain to see me, I might as well play along.” “Mom, this man is no joke,” Canas said, uneasily. “And neither am I,” Niime said, “You would do well to remember just who it is you speak to, boy.” “Look, mom, I know that you used to be the Mage General of Etruria, but-” “I was the Great General!” Niime reprimanded, “The first and only mage to ever hold the position! But more importantly, I am your mother, and if you continue to defy me I will blow that stupid monocle of yours clear off the mountainside!” “I… Yes, mother,” Canas said, saidly. “My monocle’s not stupid,” he muttered. “Yeah, I think his monocle’s cool!” Nino said. Niime shot her a dirty look. “Ah, I’m sorry, you’re right, it is stupid! And I’m stupid for saying it’s cool I’m so sorry!” Nino rambled in a panic. Niime’s expression softened. “It’s OK, sweetie, I’m not angry with you.” She ruffled Nino’s hair affectionately. “I will never hurt you. I love you.” “Y-yeah, I know,” Nino said, “Sorry.” “It’s OK.” Niime said. “I…” Canas began. “What’s that?” Niime asked, “Do you have something to say?” “Yeah. Yeah, I do, mom,” Canas said, “You know I’m really grateful for how you’ve helped me look after Nino. You’ve been unfailingly kind to her, and that means more than I can put into words. But… is it really too much to ask that you show your own son the same kindness every once in a while?” Niime scowled. “After the suffering this girl has been through, she deserves every possible kindness,” she said, “Would you really accuse me of being such a terrible mother that you would compare your suffering to hers?” “You do Nino a disservice by letter her suffering define her,” Canas said, “She deserves kindness because she is a kind, sweet, and cheerful girl. And I would never say anything to diminish the hardship she’s endured, but comparing yourself to Sonia is hardly a high bar to clear.” Nino cringed at the name. “Now look what you’ve done, you’ve upset the poor girl!” Niime shouted, “Is this really so important? How little do you think of me?” “As a mage and a scholar, I think the world of you,” Canas said, “But as a mother, you are surpassingly deficient! I’m sure that Hugh-” “Enough!” Niime spat. “You needn’t bring their names into this.” “Needn’t I?” Canas asked, nearly hysterically, “They’re all but dead, mother! By your hand! And I am join them! You are as much my murderer as you are my mother!” Nino began cowering in fear, and Jaffar grabbed her hand to escort her out of earshot, but she held fast. She wanted to hear the rest of it.

“My hands may be stained with a sea of blood, but not a drop of it is yours!” Niime said. “Maybe not yet, but it is inevitable! You said it yourself!” Canas said, “If I keep studying deep magic, I’ll end up like them! Just a thing that used to be a person.” “Is that what you think I am?” Niime asked, “Just a thing?” “W-well, no,” Canas said. “Not everyone who studies deep magic is Taken! I didn’t raise my son to be too stupid to realize that if I could learn dark magic and keep my soul intact, then perhaps he could too!” “I… I mean… I guess that makes sense,” Canas said, “But I might just as easily end up like them!” “You won’t.” Niime said, firmly. “What makes you so sure?” Canas asked. “What makes you think you have any place questioning me when it comes to deep magic, hm?” Niime demanded. “But if I won’t, why did you say I would?” Canas asked. “Because I thought you would,” Niime said, “But you changed. The boy I sent off to the Dread Isle is different from the man who returned. That boy never could have stopped that avalanche. But you did.” “What are you trying to say?” Canas asked. “I’m proud of you, Canas. You’ve always been a brilliant scholar, but on your journey,  you gained the strength of will to become a true shaman. Your mastery of deep magic surpasses that of any other druid I have ever met, and I truly believe that you have the potential to surpass me some day. That is why I am unafraid to die at the hands of this Karel. Because I know that my secrets are safe in the hands of a worthy successor. I love you, Canas.” “I…” Canas removed his monocle to wipe the tears from his eyes. “That… that means a lot to me, mother,” Canas said, “But it’s not enough. I shouldn’t have to earn my mother’s love. I am more than just a shaman, and I am more than just your successor! I am your own flesh and blood, and if you cannot love me for that alone, then you are no mother of mine.” “Then you may call me Niime from now on.” Niime said. “Are you serious?” Canas asked, “Is your heart so cold that you would spurn me if I weren’t a shaman?” “If you weren’t a shaman, you’d be nothing.” Niime said, “Just like your brothers before you. I loved them so much, but that didn’t save them. It only damned me further for my failure. So I tried to close my heart to you. To train you so that you wouldn’t die as they had. And so that if you did, maybe I wouldn’t have to suffer that pain again. I have brought my own family such pain, all for the hubris of thinking my secrets worth preserving at any cost. I do not deserve to be called your mother.”

“I… I don’t forgive you.” Canas said. Nino gasped In shock. “You don’t deserve it. Your sins are too great. Someone as smart as you should have known better than to underestimate the darkness.” He sighed. “But I still love you. Because, as harsh as you were, you truly wanted me to live. And although I’ve suffered much because of you, you’ve suffered even more. You deserve that kindness.” Niime burst into tears she’d been holding back for too long. She ran up to Canas and hugged him. They just cried into each other’s arms without saying a word.

“Uh, guys,” Nino said, “not to interrupt this tender moment, but… Karel’s almost here!” “Karel!” Canas exclaimed, “I completely forgot!”

Shrimp Pistol, PI

 

I tried to look alive as I saw a silhouette through the frosted glass window of my door, but I was never much good at acting. I assumed it was just another wife looking to dig up some dirt on a cheating husband; they’d have to settle for a corpse like me.

I realized my assumption was wrong the moment the door opened. The dame who stepped into my office was too beautiful to be cheated on, and far, far too dangerous. She was a rabbit with blue-tinged fur, and she was dangerous because she knew exactly how beautiful she was. She knew that sometimes less is more, and sometimes more is less. There’s a time for quantity and a place for quality; anyone can be naked, but a true master of seduction knows that the right outfit can be even more revealing than nakedness. And from how right her outfit was, it was easy to tell that she was a true master of seduction. But far more notable than her clothing was her hair, or rather, the icy-looking, hair-shaped crystal on top of her head. It seemed too rigid to be hair, yet too flexible to be crystalline. It didn’t seem to remain the same shape, yet it never seemed to change. Similar crystals jutted from her shoulders and arms, giving her the appearance of the result of an unholy tryst between a rabbit and an ice sculpture. Two long ears poked out through the ice, though one seemed permanently bent at a right angle. I wasn’t sure what could have happened to her to cause such a thing, but I was confident that she had seen to it that whoever was responsible suffered far, far worse. Though she may have had the beauty of an actress, she didn’t have any more talent for acting than I did. She wore a grimace of false concern, perhaps an attempt to earn my sympathy, but I could see in her one eye uncovered by her hair a strength that defied her dainty rabbit body and delicate, icy appearance. This was a woman who would allow the Earth beneath her to melt before she would.

 

snow bunny
Character design and art by @sugaryacid

I sat for quite some time looking her over. It’s my job to analyze people, learn everything I can from their appearance. But it’d be a lie to say I wasn’t enjoying the view. Considering how good she looked, it’d almost seem rude not to. “Shrimp Pistol,” I finally say, gruffly, “Private eye. How can I help you?”

“Miss Snow,” she said, taking a seat she wasn’t offered. It was obviously a fake name, but as someone who just introduced himself as “Shrimp Pistol”, I hardly had a place to object. “I’m afraid that I’m in dreadful need of your help, dear sir. Don’t worry; money is no object, and I will see to it that you are handsomely rewarded.” “I’m a PI, ma’am, not a dear sir,” I said, “I appreciate the courtesy, but you don’t have to go about putting on airs for my benefit. I promise, you won’t scare me off.” “Hmph. Very well,” she said, the desperation gone from her voice, replaced with a cold scorn that I’m sure some people other than me would find very hot. “I have need for a hired gun. I hear rumors that you’re good at what you do. Any truth to them?” “I’m the best at what I do,” I exaggerated, “Which is investigate. Privately. I’m no killer.” “I’m sure some corpses would disagree,” she said. “I’m not a killer anymore.” I said. “Once a killer, always a killer,” she said. “If you’re a killer, why do you need me?” I asked. “Me? A killer? Don’t be ridiculous,” she said, being rather ridiculous, in my opinion. True, it was a simple enough phrase for anyone to come up with, but the way she weighed the words convinced me that she understood them firsthand. “In any case, you hardly seem to be in the position to turn down the money,” she said. It didn’t take a PI to tell that. “How much?” I asked. “100k,” she said, “With bonuses, if you do a good job.” “Hhmmmm…” I pretended to consider accepting her offer. There was no way I could pass up 100k. In reality, I was considering whether or not I was stupid enough to go through on the idea I had. I was.

Without a word, I grabbed the unloaded revolver under my desk with my left hand, pointed it at her, and turned off the safety. She quickly grabbed my hand and twisted it away, nearly breaking my arm and forcing me to drop the gun. But I wasn’t disarmed. I cocked the mechanism in my right arm and pointed it at her. A punch from this range would be deadlier than any gun. Unlike when I pulled the gun, genuine fear seemed to flash across her face, if only for a moment. Was she familiar with this type of weapon? I had no intention of punching her, but when she grabbed my arm, I was so surprised I almost did. But then, I found that I couldn’t. My arm felt numbingly cold. I looked down to see that it was encased in ice, the mechanism frozen in place. Just who was this “Miss Snow”?

“So much for not being a killer,” I quipped. “You’re lucky I’m not a killer, or I would have frozen the very blood in your veins!” she growled, “What the Hell were you doing?” “Investigating,” I said, “It’s what I do. I had a hunch that you were more a killer than you let on, and I wanted to test it. And I was right.” “Did you not have a hunch that I’d be pissed off that you pulled a gun on me?” I picked up the gun, double checking that it was the unloaded one, then put it up to my head and pulled the trigger. “In my defense, it wasn’t loaded,” I said. “Hmph. But I didn’t know that!” she said, “And you still could have punched me!” “I wouldn’t have, and I didn’t,” I said, “I only did what I did because I was confident you could handle it.” “If you were so confident, why would you need to test it at all?” she asked. “A PI’s business is in knowing, not guessing.” “But then you didn’t know when you first- whatever. I don’t have time for this. And I have no use for a hired gun who can’t follow orders. Goodbye.” She stood up and began walking away. “I can’t be a hired gun if you haven’t hired me,” I said, “And besides, it’s not like you ordered me not to pull a gun on you.” “I bet you think you’re real clever, don’t you?” she asked, venomously. “I do,” I admitted. “Well that smart mouth of yours may help you with some clients, but I have no need for someone who is clever. Good day.” “You underestimate my skills as a PI if you really think I can’t tell you’re bluffing when you threaten to walk away,” I said, “But you overestimate my finances if you think it won’t work on me all the same.” “Perhaps I was bluffing,” she said, “But I must say, it’s awfully tempting to just walk away after hearing you so arrogantly say that I won’t.” “You came to me for a reason,” I said, “Is spiting me really more important than that?” “Maybe~” she said, coyly. Sh-she was just joking, right? “I realize it’s distressing to think you’re being attacked,” I said, “But we work in a distressing business. By showing that I could have taken you out while your guard was lowered, I’ve proven myself a valuable asset. Not to mention I forced your hand into using a skill that I can’t help but feel you’d rather keep secret. I think you’re too smart to walk away over something so petty.” At least, I hoped she was. She scowled at me, though it did nothing to diminish her beauty. “How quick you are to disregard someone else’s pain,” she said, “Would you really forgive me as easily as you expect me to forgive you?” Uh-oh.

She crossed the distance between us before I could even raise my arm, lunging towards my face with a blade of ice formed around her hand. She stopped less than an inch short of my eye. I knew what she was doing, but it frightened me all the same. “OK, I see your point,” I said, “But-”

“AAAHHHHH!!” There was a blur of motion, then a sharp pain in my left hand. She had stabbed all the way through it. “Do you, though?” she asked. “No, I don’t!” I shouted, “What was the point of that? I never hurt you!” “But you’re clever enough to know that since you only faked an attack on me, I would only fake an attack on you,” she said, “That would be reasonable, right? But people aren’t reasonable, detective, and I think it’s about time you learned that. Your reasonable arguments won’t convince me.” “Then what will?” I asked. “You’re the private investigator,” she said, “You tell me.” The way she said the words “private investigator” suddenly made me painfully aware of an alternate meaning to those words that I had somehow never noticed. I wasn’t stupid enough to ask if it was intended. “If it’s about pay, I’ll go down to 80k.” “As I said, money is no object,” she said, “But what use do I have for you if you aren’t clever enough to convince me to hire you?” “What do you want me to do, get on my hands and knees and beg?” I asked, half-jokingly. “Hah!” she laughed derisively, “I’m sure you’d love that, wouldn’t you? I may have given you that little gift for free. But if you want me to make you grovel before me, I’ll have to charge far more than you can pay.” I blushed, my smart-talking, tough-guy persona blown away in one sentence. “I-I” I began, before she grabbed my hand, causing me to wince in pain. “H-hey what’re you-” “Ssshhhhh” she shushed me, and my hand became very cold. It probably only made the damage worse, in the long run, but it numbed the pain, which I appreciated. “Th-thanks,” I mumbled. “On the other hand, maybe I could give you a discount for being so cute when you’re flustered,” she said, teasingly, “But only if you ask really, really nicely.” I’m at a loss for words. I find myself sweating, despite failing to pay the heating bill. I had to regain control of the situation. “E-excuse me for being reasonable, but don’t think you can just walk all over me,” I said, my voice far less confident than my words, “There are plenty of mercenaries in this city. You came to my door for the same reason everyone does: because you need me as much as I need you.” “Perhaps,” she said, “But I do not want you. Could you say the same of me, I wonder?” She turned and strutted towards the door. The way her fluffy little tail moved as she walked hit harder than any of my punches. “I can’t!” I yelped, and not just because I was desperate for the cash, “I want… I want to work for you.” She turned around and flashed a devilish smile. “It seems you underestimated how good I am at what I do, Mr. Pistol,” she said. “And just what is that?” I asked. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

Chemistry

The following was written for @a_pointe as a raffle prize, based on his character Mordai. If you’d like me to write a story for you, you can find info about how to commission me here!


“Would you like more water, sir?” There is a hint of contempt in the waitress’s voice, and it is far from unearned. “Ahem,” I cleared my throat to cover the sound of my stomach growling. “No thank you. Although if you could bring my check, I’d appreciate it.” The joke was that there was no check, because I’d just been drinking water for the past three hours. She didn’t laugh. “We close in ten minutes, but you’re welcome to leave before then,” she said. Oof. No ordinary man could recover from such disdain, but I was no ordinary man. “If ten more minutes I can stay, then ten more minutes I shall,” I said, “Would that I could bask in your splendor forevermore, but alas, I have no recourse but to give the next ten minutes the weight of an eternity in my heart.” The scowl on her face was broken by a smile for only the briefest of moment. It seemed that no extraordinary man could recover from such disdain, either. She left without saying another word.

The bartender caught my eye as I desperately glanced around the bar to find a last-minute mark. He had the look of one who is well versed in many areas of study which aren’t fashion; his clothes were nearly offensively drab, save for a single earring in the shape of some magical or alchemical symbol hanging from his pointy ears. He had the thick glasses, pasty complexion, and doughy physique of a scholar locked away in an ivory tower. My tiefling eyes allowed me to get a good look at him without squinting through the dim light, but they also ensured a glance from me drew as much suspicion as a stare from a human. Luckily, a glance told me all I needed to know: he was cute, and I was hungry, somewhat metaphorically, and very much literally. I snuck into the bathroom and waited until he began closing up shop to make my move.

 

“Boy, are you a mimic?” I asked, “Because you look like a treasure to me.” “Huh?” he looked around in confusion. “Are you talking to me?” “I don’t see anyone else,” I said, “And I’ve only ever seen someone as good-looking in the mirror. What’s your name?” “I-I’m an elf,” he said, blushing and adjusting his glasses as if he could hide his entire face behind them. “’I. Iman Elf’, you say? I suppose it’s only fitting that a unique beauty should have a unique name,” I said, flirtatiously. “N-no, sorry, I’m saying I’m not a mimic. I’m an elf. My name is Rofaren.” “Of course, of course, I’m only teasing you,” I said, “I didn’t think it possible, but you’re even more cute when you’re flustered. “Oh, uh, thanks, I guess?” he said, picking up a glass and idly cleaning it so he’d have an excuse to avoid eye contact, “We’re actually closed, so I can’t serve you.” “Oh, but you’ve already served me something far more delicious than any food or drink,” I said. He began blushing furiously. Well, even more furiously. “W-what’s that supposed to- oh, I get it. You’re Mordai, aren’t you?” he asked. “I see my reputation precedes me,” I said, “No wonder you seem so intimidated. But don’t worry, I don’t bite. Not unless you ask me very nicely.” I winked. It was a bold move. Perhaps too bold, but I had a reputation to maintain. He was so taken aback by my comment that he dropped the glass. I darted my hand for it and managed to catch it before it hit the ground. “That was close,” I said, my voice charged with sexual energy, “You’re lucky I’m so good with my hands.” That one didn’t even need a wink. “I won’t let myself be swayed by your ‘clever’ wordplay, so you can just drop the act already,” he said. “What act?” I asked, very much keeping the act up. “I know who you are, and I know what you do!” he said, trying to hide his bashfulness behind anger, “We’ve all heard about you, how you flirt with girls to try to charm them into giving you free food.” “Well, if that’s what you’ve heard, then I’m afraid you’ve heard lies,” I said, “First of all, Mordai does not ‘try’ to charm, he succeeds. Second of all, I flirt for their sake more than my own. Every day they are forced to toil in the service of thankless drunkards, louts, and perverts, and I wish only to offer them reprieve. Everyone wishes to feel that they are beautiful and wonderful and desired, especially by a man as devilishly handsome as myself, and I wish to fulfil their wishes. My sole selfish desire is that I may see the fruits of my labor, the smiles that I bring. Not the ugly, empty smiles their boss demands of them because it’s good for business, but true joy, the kind which can make a mere beauty gorgeous enough to rival even you. That smile is all the payment I ask of them. The free food, they give me of their own volition.”

“Wow,” he said, “I can see why they fall for you. That would be really sweet, if any of it were true.” “It’s all true! Were I as selfish as you suggest, I would’ve robbed you by now,” I said, dishonestly suggesting that I was above robbery. “It’s a lot harder to rob a place you’ve already robbed than charm someone you’ve already charmed,” he said, “You’re just doing what’ll benefit you most in the long term.” “Hah,” I laughed, “You’re pretty clever. I like that.” “I’m glad someone thinks so,” he said, more to himself than me. “Who doesn’t?” I asked, “Should I have a word with them? Or perhaps a blade?” “Huh?” he seemed panicked by my threat, “N-no, nothing like that! Just, forget it, it’s a long story.” “I have all the time in the world, darling,” I lied. “Yeah, well, I don’t.” He said, “I was supposed to have already locked up by now, so if anything, I have less than no time.” “Who cares?” I asked, “That’s what your boss wants you to do. What do you want to do?” “I… I want to be an alchemist.” He said, quietly “OK, good, we’re getting somewhere,” I said, “Why are you a bartender, then?” “I failed the alchemist academy entrance exam,” he said, “And as far as it is from being an alchemist, it’s the closest job I could find.” “So they’re the ones who think you aren’t clever?” I asked. “Yes. But I am!” He said, sounding rather desperate for me to believe him. “I believe you,” I said, “But why didn’t they?” “Because they mistake obedience and rote memorization for cleverness!” he said, with more anger than I’d imagined him capable of, “Alchemy isn’t about memorizing recipes for potions and bombs that some ancient greybeard wizard came up with a thousand years ago! If it were, anyone with a textbook would be an alchemist!” “Then what’s alchemy about to you?” I asked. “It’s about experimenting!” he said, “It’s about the thrill of never knowing if your next experiment will change the world or blow up in your face! It’s about the hours and days of menial trial and error that go nowhere, and the one brilliant moment of revelation that it all leads up to! It’s about creating new potions with old ingredients, old potions with new ingredients, or new creations that aren’t potions at all! It’s about pouring your mind, body, and soul into creating something unlike anything that has ever existed before!”

He had gotten so worked up that I could hear his heavy breathing in the ensuing silence. “S-sorry I got carried away. I didn’t mean to bore you by rambling about stuff you don’t care about.” He said, as meek as ever. “You care about it. And I care about you,” I said, “Don’t ever apologize for caring about someone or something. What you care about is what defines who you are. That is what makes you truly beautiful. Well, that and a face sculpted by… uh, do you know any gods or goddesses of beauty?” “Uh, Sune?” He offered. “A face sculpted by Sune,” I said, “Nailed it.” He laughed. For a few seconds he wore a smile as joyful and radiant as I’d described in the excuse I had made up. I could feel my own smile fade as I watched his face twist into a frown. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Maybe nothing, Maybe everything.” “Everything?” “Well, not everything,” he said, “Just you.” “Me?” I asked, “What do you mean?” “I like you,” he said. I nearly had to bite my tongue to keep from responding with a smug “obviously”. He continued, “You’re funny, and charming, and really, really hot. And, rarest of all, you seem to like me, too. You just seem too good to be true.” “Then I guess I’ll just have to prove that I am true,” I said, “lean forward and close your eyes.” He hesitantly obeyed, puckering his lips. I gently grabbed his chin. “Oh? Did you think I’d kiss you?” I asked, teasingly, “Is that what you want?” “Huh? I-I d-didn’t think anything! I-I was just-” The rest of his panicked excuse was stolen by my lips. I hoped he was too distracted by our romantic moment to notice my stomach growling. “Do I taste like a lie to you?” I asked, still holding his chin and forcing him to look into my eyes. “Er, well, I, uh…” he sputtered, “I don’t think lies have a taste.” I laughed as I released him. “You really are too cute,” I said, “But I see what you mean. I say I like you, and you want to believe, but you don’t know if you can trust me. Then again, isn’t that true of anyone? It’s impossible to ever truly know another person. Hell, it might not even be possible to truly know yourself. Trusting someone is always a gamble. But taking that change is part of what makes us… well, we’re not human, but you know what I mean.” “That’s a really nice way of putting it,” he said, “But just because it’s always a gamble doesn’t mean that the odds are always the same. Not everyone has a reputation for sweet-talking people into giving them free stuff.” “Hah,” I laughed, “Well, I’ll admit, I am a risky gamble.” I gently ran my fingers down his cheek, my nails lightly scratching his skin. I could feel the shiver run down his spine. “But I assure you the payoff is well worth it.”

“Y-you’re just trying to keep me from thinking straight!” he stuttered, accusingly. “Then I’ll just have to think straight for you,” I said, “Just think of trusting me as another one of your experiments. You don’t know what’ll happen if you pour your mind, body, and soul into me, but isn’t part of the thrill in finding out? Maybe it’ll go nowhere, or maybe it’ll lead to a brilliant revelation. Maybe I’ll change your world, or maybe, I’ll” I leaned in and whispered into his ear, “Blow. Up. In. Your. Face.” “I… that’s not fair!” he said, “You can’t use alchemy against me, that’s cheating!” “All’s fair in love and war, baby,” I said. “I… fine,” he said, “You win. I trust you.” “Thank you,” I said, “You won’t regret it.” Maybe I was even telling the truth.

“I guess they should have trained us men, too,” he said, laughing softly. “I beg your pardon?” “Oh, it’s just… the owner has started training the waitresses specifically not to fall for your charms,” he said. “Hah! Then he’ll have to train them much harder, because so far it’s been completely ineffective!” I said, “And it delights me to know that they’re wasting more time and resources failing to starve me than it would cost for them to just let me have some free food.” “I… hadn’t really thought of it that way,” he said, “It sounds so cruel when you say it like that.” “Because it is! The world is full of cruelties too civil to be seen for what they truly are. But that’s neither here nor there,” I said, despite it being everywhere. “Well, I wish I could help, but the owner’s started making us throw away any food that isn’t fresh enough to serve.” “Throw it away where, exactly?” I asked. “I… you’d seriously eat from the garbage? What happened to doing it for the smiles?” He asked. “I find that it’s somewhat more difficult to bring smiles to people’s faces when I’ve starved to death,” I said. He frowned. I may have gone a bit too far. “W-Well…” he said, hesitantly, “I have some food back at my place. I’m not as good as the chefs here, but I know the recipes, plus a few alchemy tricks. Maybe I could cook you up something nice to thank you for making me smile.”

That was… actually pretty sweet. No one had ever really seemed to take an actual, serious interest in me. I started blushing. I tasted my own medicine, and I was not terribly fond of it. “W-well… maybe some day.” I said. “But if I let that food go to waste, it’s basically like I threw it out myself, and I can’t stand that. But I really do appreciate the offer.” “Oh… that’s fine.” He said, breaking my heart with how obviously not fine he looked. “The dumpster is behind the building two buildings to the right of the front entrance, but it’s locked. I can give you the key, but-” “That won’t be necessary,” I said. “What do you mean?” He asked. “Listen,” I said, “Don’t even worry about it.” “I guess I’ll… see you later.” He said. “See you around,” I said as I left, “And stay beautiful, Rofaren.”

I found the dumpster, but I wasn’t the first to do so; I caught a red-handed bandit stealing the reward I’d worked so hard for. I laughed a broken laugh. “Any chance my devilish charms could convince you to spare a bite?” I asked the raccoon. It ignored me and continued eating, as one would expect. “I could kill you, y’know,” I bluffed, “No jury would convict me. And I know an alchemist, I’m sure he could treat whatever horrid diseases I’d contract if you bit me.” I continued to be ignored. “Why aren’t you scared?” I asked, “Can you not hear me?” The raccoon stopped chewing and gazed up at me with glowing green eyes, brighter than any light they could be reflecting. Then, after a second or two, he resumed his meal. “Why are you ignoring me?” I demanded, “How are you smart enough to pick a lock, but too stupid to know your life’s in danger?” Ignored. “Unless…” I said, “Unless you’re smart enough to know it isn’t. But how? Well, I guess I just told you, didn’t I?” I sighed. “It’s bad enough that I turned down a hot meal from a hot guy to play mind games with a raccoon, but could you at least let me win?” Ignored. “Is it OK if I sit here?” I asked, collapsing to the ground without waiting for an answer. I laid on my back and looked up at the stars. Some people feel awe, or tranquility, or humility when they look up into the vast, twinkling night sky. But I felt only hunger. “Why do you think they hate us so much?” I asked. “What drives people to hate a stranger so much that they value their garbage more than his life? That they’d sooner fill their wastebin than our bellies?” No answer. “Yet we are called thieves for taking it. We are punished for surviving while our murderers walk free. In a society that hates us, we can only survive by the kindness of strangers. I hope you don’t squander the kindness I’ve shown you the way I squandered the kindness that was shown me.”

I closed my eyes and whispered a silent apology. My stomach growled one last time. “Yeah, yeah, I get it.” I muttered. Then, silence. I could no longer hear the raccoon eating. Had he run out of food? I heard the clack of his claws as he climbed out of the dumpster, then walked across the ground. Was he heading towards me? The sound stopped, mere inches to my left. I turned my head and opened my eyes. The raccoon was standing there, offering me a stale loaf of bread. I hesitantly reached for it, trying not to startle him. Once I grabbed it, I wolfed it down as quickly as I could, chewing only just enough to get it down without choking. When I looked back up, the raccoon was still there. The moment I looked into his eyes, I knew that our souls shared a bond stronger than any magic, a connection that would outlast our bodies and minds and the very artifice of time itself. Or maybe I was just really glad to no longer be starving. “Thank you so much!” I said. The raccoon smiled, something I didn’t know raccoons could do. “Was that the last of it?” I asked. He looked down sadly. “That’s OK,” I said, “I’ll manage somehow.” He tilted his head curiously. “I don’t know! I’ll think of something. I always do,” I said. “Wait… how long have I been here? Do you think Rofaren’s still there?” The raccoon seemed to shrug, but I probably imagined it. “His offer to feed me is probably still good. But would he really be willing to feed me every day? I don’t want to be a burden on him. I’ll need to come up with another source of food.” The raccoon sniffed in the direction of the dumpster. “I guess it’s better than nothing,” I said, “But are you sure you want to give your food away?” He put his paw on my shoulder reassuringly. “I… thank you. You’re right,” I said, “but I can’t just take your food for free. How about I give you some table scraps? You won’t believe how much better actual food tastes than garbage.” He chittered excitedly. “Then do we have a deal?” I asked, extending my hand. The raccoon extended his paw, and we shook. We had a deal.