Clipped Wings: Enhanced Edition
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“In my brief life, I’ve had two fathers. The both of them died by my own hands.
“I am not proud of it. I am not ashamed of it, either. It happened, and now I presently live with the consequences. That is what I would say, but in my experience there is no point in letting yourself get caught up in the past. There is no time. Not when it will not do your plans any good. Do not even stow those thoughts away to the recesses in the back of your mind. In my situation the sensible thing to do is to slash and burn those bridges. Act in the present, look to the future.
“Then, when all is said and done and that future has become the present, before it finally sinks in just how wrongly you have been forced to live your blighted sham of a life, you burn that one last bridge.
“Because once you have dragged the kind of people who deserve it all down to Hell, what is keeping you from joining them?”
◇ | ◇
It was as subtle as a truck driven through a brick wall.
The complex’s many bounded fields overpowered into uselessness, their broken energies erased from existence by the corrections of the world happened so savagely and abruptly that their destruction could be heard with human ears. One by one, in a swift, erratically-paced staccato, the shattering of the layers boomed through the streets of the company town, the sound seemingly emanating from nowhere in particular yet was heard by all residents equally. Confusion began to stir among the people, ninety-five percent of whom were rudely awakened from dreamless sleeps by the noise.
The other five percent sprung into action, as per the orders of their superior.
Confusion erupted into panic, just like that. Spurned by an irrational but powerful surge of fear directed right into the most primal sectors of the human brain, the residents poured from their beds and squeezed into narrow streets lit with too few lampposts. The stars above were erased from the sky by the light pollution from the nearby but unseen city, with only a pitiful hunk of visible moon and a cover of smoggy haze to further illuminate the night. It was nowhere near enough for any members of the rapidly growing crowd to see adequately as they jogged and stumbled in the dark.
For the other five percent, the “security,” the light was plenty. They made a beeline for the one and only entrance into the territory, acrobatically pouncing from rooftop to rooftop like they were gliding the distances, rather than jumping to and from as they made their way to what ought to have been the tightly guarded landbridge.
One more of those impossibly clear and loud shatters. Immediately next, a shadow cleared the wall taking a burst of true flight above the town with leathery wings. Something about it glinted, luminous like how Sirius the star would be if it could be seen tonight. Then it roared, and fire rained down on the town.
The nearest security was eviscerated into a mist of exploded meat by blazing blue-silver flechettes. The projectiles set miniature, red hot bonfires alight where they carved into it, further conflagrating its unholy flesh into charcoal. With its head and chest caved in and torn through the thing hadn’t even had an opportunity to let out a proper death scream.
It only began from there. The single shot became one in a barrage as the shadowy figure continued firing the light with a deafening bambambam.
Each flash brightened up the night for an instant, like a full moon. Security shrieked with alarm and anger at the intruder and amongst themselves as they took to evading the blasts, communicating in a ghoulish language; the crowd wailed as one as individuals were flayed by stray shots that burnt them just the same, not because of the say of thermodynamics, but because of their enthrallment and association with the security that had directed them lemming-like from their homes to the avenues of the compound.
The dragon-shaped decorative muzzlepiece of the Holy Crematal Artillery
continued to snarl and spew clouds of flame and steel with each pull of the trigger, the massive firearm kicking like a wild horse every time. How fitting that the beast of the pagans be expropriated in His name, enslaved as a symbol to immolate heretics for the rest of time.
Down they went. The security into seared corpses, motionless and crumbling into dust on the blacktop, the hapless members of the crowd into various states of wounded and dead from collateral, the attacker into a crouch and sprint in that of split second their feet touched the ground. Without pause, the figure stowed the shotgun onto their back and drew from the perpendicular scabbard a hefty saber. Wider near the hilt than at the tip, somehow blacker than the dark of the night and scarred with nightmarishly glowing runes that radiated more of that pitch non-light that seemed to compromise of the blade’s construction.
Brandishing this sword, the figure stomped the ground and with a kick and a flap of their wings flew to where the crowd was at its thinnest. This was done not out of choice, but neither with any care if innocents came between them and prey.
Blood ran in the streets of Hunyad,
Dubai’s secret district. The last bastion of the White Wing Lord was besieged by a single man, and any undead or the cattle they husbanded that found themselves in his way would not survive the night.
◇ | ◇
Moments before the silence of the night was broken by a lone invader, a sealed room deep underground glowed with dim, sickly green light from an extravagantly detailed magic circle. Then, the light became blindingly bright, and the room’s temperature rose. Linoleum melted, metal glowed hot red, and the very moisture in the air was baked out of it into pitiful coils of steam. But in that instantaneously made furnace that the room had become, one thing of its remained untouched by the uncannily explosive rise in temperature – the raised platform of cobblestone from which that infernal light shined from.
Ancient energies stirred in the chamber like a hurricane. Lightning surged outwards from the nexus point of the light as it continued to feed from the vein of the leyline the basement lay directly over. It gouged into the concrete walls where the electricity had danced across it, exposing steaming rebar. Then – in an instant like how it began – it all ended. The circle had burned through all of the prana required to go through the ritual it was created to achieve. The room was once again silent, with nothing to suggest the tumult it had experienced only seconds before. Nothing save cooling puddles of linoleum and a somewhat frazzled looking man whose physical years seemingly placed him somewhere between the roaring thirties and middle age who stumbled his way from off of the stone tiles, right where the focus of the circle used to be before the spell had spent itself.
He panted heavily. His countenance bore a worried expression. Though the system used to essentially teleport him to here had been a mighty and primordial Magecraft of an old age, the Greater Ritual was a one-time deal. For all intents and purposes the Thaumaturgy was broken.
That was just as well. There was nowhere to return to.
He stepped out into a windowless hallway, scarlet-hued by the redlight bulbs installed in the ceiling every few meters. He glanced to the side as he made his way to the end – all the other doors were still sealed shut. Not a good sign
, he thought with a grimace.
Into the elevator he went, and with the passcode and cardkey set a course for the highest level that his access would allow him. As the chamber ascended from the subterranean levels he produced from the breast pocket of his vest a sleek cellular, the latest model produced by the company and a standard asset for all “employees” who he shared rank with. The man tapped into the contacts list and called the one number he wouldn’t ever be calling without exceptionally extenuating circumstances or was more audacious than he’d ever been to his higher-ups.
“Lord. It’s me, Rozen, and I’m here with the update,” he said, with anxiety and weariness in his voice, “I’m calling from the elevator I took from Sublevel S. And yes, I believe that it’s safe to assume that no one else is coming. Not a single Virgin Coffin was breached, besides mine.
“I know you’ve probably received a dozen other calls like this, so I’ll keep my report brief,” Rozen said, “The Delhi villa was straight-out assaulted. No warning that we’d been compromised. Strike team of the usual expected, Executioners and hired guns. They were too confident, they must’ve known all about it. Ready to torch the place before I fled. Goes without saying that I doubt there were other survivors.”
With a chirpy ping the elevator stopped and its doors opened. Hazy moonlight filtered through the stained glass windows of this floor colored everything from an empty secretarial desk to the stack of old magazines on coffee table set up to alleviate the drollness of waiting for an appointment with a blotchy mosaic of primary colors. No longer did the architecture possess that soulless feeling in the way that only postmodern corporate style can be. Rozen knew that his own tastes could be considered old-fashioned, but he still found himself questioning his lord’s fond obsession for all things of gothic design whenever he made contact with him.
This was so few times that he could count all his meetings on the fingers of a single hand, but, all the same, the impression was a lasting one.
Rozen almost reflexively muttered “tacky” under his breath on sight of the antechamber before he remembered that he was still on the phone with his lord. He caught himself before he could say anything that would have been unbecoming of his obedient demeanour.
“I’m yours, Lord,” he said with too much stammer a little too suddenly and insistently as he reached for the ornate knockers on the door to the office, “Tell me where to go, what to do, and I assure that I’ll get straight on it with the whole of my being.”
“Very well. Guard duty on the ‘business levels’ with the others until further notice. Simple is best,” replied the velvety, stoic voice that had suddenly picked up on the other end. That worked out. For it was at that moment that the crashing boom of the first shattered bounded field, equally like a thunderclap and hundreds of breaking windows echoed through the self-contained city.
Feelings of dedication to his lord won out over his generally unassuming characterization, and with a firm and stable grip on the ceramic tube strapped across his shoulder blade that served as the sheath for his Mystic Code hurled himself from the floor. The elevator was too slow for this state of emergency, and he was able to impulsively take out one of those out-of-place windows that he found so irked him. The way he saw it he even had a reasonable excuse for doing so, provided that they all make through this new and unprecedented adversity for him to offer it up as a defense.
With thoughts like these in his head, the dichotomy between subservience and secret rebellion, it was perhaps fortunate that he had not given thought to how quickly and insistently his lord had sent him off on his way.
◇ | ◇
It was quite the sight – to see a sister and a man in a black jacket commonly accepted to be a demon praying together in the private chapel of Santa Anya
, Patron of the Scorned, at the same time as the regular service continued in the church’s expansive nave.
“This plan is far from perfect, you know.” he pointed out.
“It’s the best chance we have,” said the nun, her clear azure eyes peering at the man from under bangs that fetchingly snuck their way out from her habit, “If Altrouge Brunestud is princess of the Dead Apostles, then Trhvmn Ortenrosse is the prime minister. Or I should say the imperialist businessman. The man has had a thumb in nearly every entrepreneurial pie the Aylesburian faction had over his millennia of life.”
“Which I already know, Professor,” the demon said sardonically, “He is the head we need to cut off the snake as soon as possible. Does not change the fact that your plan has too many moving parts and uncertainties to be anything but a risk.”
“Who are you to be lecture me about unnecessary risk-taking?”
He drew his eyes from the Romanesquely-styled ‘Simon aiding Christ’
and cast his gaze at her from over the edge of his highly worn collar, meant to deter undesired lip reading.
“It does not matter to me what happens to any of you,” he said, “Though, I would rather not have any of your deaths on my conscience, even if it is only by association. I have plenty on it already.”
“We all appreciate the sentiment,” said the nun, the comment accentuated with a roll of her eyes, “Though, your personal thoughts on the matter aren’t relevant. Regardless of your opinion, which I didn’t ask for, the joint simultaneous operations on the White Wing Lord’s estates will proceed in one month’s time anyway. Of course there’s risk involved. But we’ve spent far too many hours and taken countless risks to prepare for this. We cannot possibly wait any longer.”
His hands clasped in faux prayer tightened the sterner his contact became in her tirade. He remained quiet for a moment, his silence an indication that he understood. He had no doubt in the resolve of her and her people, but this undertaking of theirs was to happen on a scale frankly never attempted before. It would dangerously spread their resources thin all the while.
Still, with that being said –
“While I would rather my fight be my fight and leave everyone else out of it, I cannot simply say no to free and willing help.”
“Quite right. We both understand what sort of situation we’re going to be getting into,” she said, “The Holy Church may hate you because you’re a vampire, but no one denies your capabilities as an asset. In times like these many are willing to look the other way and forget the elephant in the room that you are.”
“Which makes me what to them, exactly? A hunting dog to be let loose against your foes?” he asked.
“A natural disaster, in actuality. None of us truly holds any illusion that you can be controlled.”
“So I am one forest fire that you would rather see blaze unhindered, huh?”
“One that can at least be reasoned with, somewhat. Depends on who on it is that carries out the negotiations.”
“Small wonder you were the one selected to carry them out,” he quipped.
The nun allowed herself a chuckle, heartfelt or otherwise. “This doesn’t change the fact that you remain a controversial topic amongst the Holy Executioners. Opinions about you are as strong as ever. It’s technically against the creed to offer you any direct assistance at this time.”
“Jesus, one would think an impending crisis would be enough for someone to whistle a different tune,” he griped unenthusiastically.
“Like what we think matters to you, right?”
“Shut it and go on. You were saying something.”
“Indeed,” she continued, not skipping a beat, “Direct assistance may not be allowed, but you’ll find that, amazingly, it’ll be easier to slip in and out of territory under our watch, and that you may go about and do as you please, as you need to.”
“How is that for boring?” He said with an eye roll of his own as he broke from prayer posture and shoved his hands into his jacket’s pockets.
“I said that that’s boring. Having official blessings and nothing else will not change anything. I go where I want and do what I want anyway – I do not need the consent to do so, that will not clear my conscience.”
Was that his shadow flickering, or did the candlelight catch a stray draft?
“You said that the mission takes place in one month, and I am to be at the place you told me about? You may be alright, but no way am I giving my word to your organization. Natural disaster, remember? The perfect firestorm you all love to hate and cannot decide what to do with?”
Was this same draft also responsible for the way his jacket began to billow like a sail, to ripple and twitch?
“You want trust? Allow me to let you in on an open secret – there is one thing that you can trust about me: trust that I hate these guys way more than any of you could possibly ever. And that is not up for debate. Let that tell you something.”
The demon in the black and the nun had a shared moment of silence following how heated the conversation was starting to become. A good minute passed by before anyone spoke up again.
“You know I have to ask. Is it getting worse?” she asked.
“Cannot tell,” he replied.
“At least that’s not a ‘yes.’ Could you use a change of Shroud?”
“No need. I still have Erinyes.
I will be fine.”
The nun hmphed at the name and let her feelings go otherwise unspoken. “Then what of the scripture? Is it
“Seriously, woman? You know what using that does to me, and you care more about it
?” he asked dryly.
“You ought to know full well my feelings on those who use up their borrowed time in such a way.” she replied, with a vague sense of distance in her scolding. “Even though I cannot in good faith tell those with power and the capacity to use it not to in the time of all our needs.”
Once again, so soon, there was no conversation lost between the two, and for how long neither could say. In time, the hymns in the background had ceased. The usually-scheduled evening mass had concluded as it always did, and the crowd of devotees indistinctly murmured amongst themselves like a swarm of thoughtful, satisfied bees as they pushed their way through the cathedral’s heavy, mahogany doors. The father’s sermon had evidently left on a good note.
That was a natural cue. It indicated that the dialogues in the private chapel too had run their course.
“Happy hunting, Enhance,” she said.
“Don’t we know it, Ciel,” he said, tonelessly, and left without another word.
◇ | ◇
The phone that had been ringing off the hook almost constantly through the night so far was still and silent. His voicemail no longer received new distress call after new distress call from his distraught lieutenants defending his numerous mansions around the world to the last.
That was fine. Distractions were distractions, and it was better for everyone at the moment to keep to themselves. He was the thinker here in his sphere of influence for a reason. No reason for any of his people to become caught up in his thoughts and distracted from their tasks at hand.
Trhvmn Ortenrosse, the White Wing Lord himself, calmly sat at his desktop computer. When the warnings arrived so simultaneously and so en masse, his mental faculties surged like lightning and he knew from his boundless experience what he had to do now that this virtually unthinkable scenario had ensued.
His fingers clacked at a brisk pace away at the keyboard, all the while the bloodshed took place in the industrial park outside of the penthouse. Save for the initial breaching of the lair’s barriers, the noise canceling properties of his one remaining residence thoroughly muffled the sounds of violence. Though, even if Ortenrosse could have heard the battle cries and death screams of his subordinates, his attention would have been too diverted to other pressing matters the present situation brought to the forefront for him to truly care for any of their ultimate fates.
A handful of keystrokes and one final strike of the ‘return’ key brought his business to a close. A plan was a plan, and it had to be undertaken as the situation called for it, even if it wounded the planner in the outset. Though the first cut runs deepest, he always made sure that it was a price he could pay with change to spare. Now, nothing remained but to see how the rest of tonight’s events were to unfold remained on his agenda.
The White Wing Lord was in luck (of some sort), for he did not have to wait long.
Once, twice, three times gunshots roared. The thick, mahogany doors caved in like brittle plyboard, smoking where the rounds had punched through the wood. Even though Ortenrosse had taken all the measures he could to design his quarters in a way that it would drown out the intrusive cacophonies of the outside world, it had not stopped the smells
of battle that had intruded upon his last vestiges of sanctuary.
Smoldering sawdust. The iron, raw tang of stale blood. Gun smoke and ozone.‘…The simmer of slowly cooking flesh…’
The man who had passed through the empty doorframe where his beloved imported mahogany had been, and set foot in his office, Enhance, the Knight of Vengeance, stank of carnage. A thin wisp of smoke rose from the side that gripped the Artillery
with, accentuated by the gentle hiss and pop of the skin of his arm. Though his face contorted with an emotionally charged sneer beneath his pale shock of hair, he said nothing and only growled under his breath, through his glistening fangs. The pristine gun shat out hot casings and a spent page of canon that clattered and floated to the tiled floor. Its cylinder clicked a notch as part of a reloading mechanism.
“Ah, I see. It is you. I do not know much about you, I’m sorry to say,” Ortenrosse said as he willfully broke the verbal silence his chambers had become used to, “Circumstances rendered me unable to better acquaint myself with the Eighteenth to see what made him so unique. Not since he had slain his predecessor, and my friend. Not since he fled, to continue on with the kinkilling.”
“You seem terribly cool for a guy about to lose everything,” Enhance replied as he kept the hefty scripture’s serpentine barrel leveled in the direction of the White Wing Lord, the edge of his sword rigidly parallel with the floor. “Odd.”
“I’d anticipated that the Church would attempt something as the end date approached. If anything, the sheer scale of the operation would be what caught me off guard, not that fact that it happened in the first place. They have considerable power and numbers in their favor, of that there can be no doubt, but this, the systematic and ancillary assault of all of my lands, that must surely have their resources stretched to the fraying point.
“For such a daring plan to be boldly carried out, in the wake of a network as tight as mine is, someone must have quite the trust in you.”
Enhance’s sword arm twitched. The gun and its wielder roared, and it expelled a shells-worth of blazing steel at the Dead Apostle Ancestor across the room.
“Oh, clearly,” Ortenrosse said when he stood from his seat and adjusted his tie as he stepped out of the way of the veritable dragonfire. To human eyes it would have seemed more like he teleported out of the way. For Enhance’s efforts, the window on the opposite wall cracked unsatisfactorily. “How else would one explain the lack of any Executioners at my
doorstep? Not even the most superstitious of ignoramuses would take that for a coincidence. Even if they happen to merely be lagging behind compared to your gung-ho ways, the fact remains that the only one who could have laid my people low so is you. You’re a far more integral component of their plan than you credit yourself for.”
“Why the hell do all you keep talking? Trying to blow your brains out of your damned head, here.”
“As I said before, Blade
,” He sneered-smiled as Enhance’s nickname that circulated about vampire society passed his lips, “You break
in to my house,kill
my food, put to waste of resources that have taken longer to accumulate than you’ve been on this earth. It is only fair that I wish to come to an understanding with you, to get to know you, Ancestor to Ancestor. This is to be our first and last fight, after all. Simple is best – until that time I’d rather come to understand you and pick your
brain than incise what I want to know from yours after its been pulled from your broken skull.”
“Have a fun time multitasking, then, you rotten old fuck!” The world blurred, and darkness and light came together in a chiaroscuro swirl as Enhance hurled himself with abandon at Ortenrosse, snarling with feral rage.
The sword called Erinyes
ached, and when it ached gleefully drank away the life of any who came near it. Even if the life in question was of the “undeath” variety. Even if it had already gorged itself aplenty through the night as Enhance killed his way to Trhvmn Ortenrosse it would gladly continue to binge eat whatever souls came across its path. With a swing of his arm, he sent a backhanded slash level like the horizon, a void trailing in the sword’s wake like a streamer of blacklight, to slice across the White Wing Lord’s chest.
But the curving darkness cleaved at nothing but air and particles of dust, and the blade remained hungry. Ortenrosse exploded forth from a gust of wind, pounded from the ceiling and was behind Enhance in a less than heartbeat. A rending claw lashed down at the back of the Knight of Vengeance’s head.
Right in a blindspot. A killing strike.
Enhance felt Ortenrosse’s momentum displace the air behind him. In the span of time between instants, he felt the sensation of raw power just about ready to brush at the back of his neck. In that moment’s moment, the subconscious, automatic portions of his mind registered only one, simple message:Danger.
Without giving any true thought to it, Enhance surged forward and spun on his toes in rightward-favoring inertia. He had his opponent in his line of sight as he flew backwards from what would have been the strike zone. Ortenrosse’s blow, like Enhance’s only scant fractions of a second before, caught nothing.
Not promising, Enhance realized. To his keen reflexes, the other ghouls and their Dead Apostle betters he had spent the previous minutes quickly annihilating with holy incendiary buckshot and cleaving strikes from the bygone and infernal sword had been walking
into battle against him. He was so far above them in all parameters that the redundancy of clearing through their mobs had disoriented his vampiric muscle memory. By wading through such a large crowd on the way to his target, going through the motions required to dispose of any who got in the way of his self-appointed mission as fast as possible, he had inadvertently dulled himself into a position where he could be caught off-guard and overwhelmed by Ortenrosse’s awesome, primeval strength and agility.
In a fight like this, where all it took from the combatants to determine who lived and who was reduced to red-and-grey paste on the walls was a single decisive strike, there were no second chances.
He kept this in the back of his mind. Enhance lunged from the wall, focused intently on his enemy’s position, and drew his blade to his side and perpendicular with his shoulders.
He couldn’t trust his reflexes. Further so, there was no way to make up the gap in experience that Ortenrosse had on him. Ortenrosse still had an undeniable home turf advantage, even though Enhance had eviscerated his boundary fields with Erinyes
’ handiwork. All he could do was trust in his God-given ability to make the most of any given situation.
His throbbing, burdened sword arm, the vestigial relic of his existence before life as the Eighteenth and his familiarity with the truly moonlit side of the moonlit world, twitched involuntarily at the mere thought of begrudging his heritage anything. No past. No present. Only the future.
As always, it hurt to hold the sword, just as it hurt to hold the gun. But with those words overshadowing every other thought, the pain and the memories were dispelled from his mind.
Sword flashing dark even in the darkness, Enhance made once more for Ortenrosse in an inhuman burst of speed. The first strike, another backhanded slice bearing the full force of his inertia, was an attack that Ortenrosse had already dodged at the start of the fight. He stepped out of the blade’s path even more contemptuously than he had the first time he avoided the move.
Enhance intuitively knew this. That was why he played that old hand of cards. Though it would have been a fortuitous miracle if it had, his blow was not meant to kill. It was to lead. In that time between moments, when actions decide the difference between win or loss, the strike became a feint, and the sword’s edge split the air on its way into Ortenrosse.
One strike led into a string of combos, seeking to carve into the Seventeeth Dead Apostle Ancestor’s body. And still Ortenrosse stood, moving out of the way enough to avoid being torn by the black storm cloud of afterimages and aura left by every high speed swing of Erinyes
“You possess true talent for destruction, young Eighteen
. Unfortunately for you I have my years on my side. You’re far too simple, and for me, as it always is, simple is best!”
Enhance snarled as he swung his sword over and over again, the razor edge cut where Ortenrosse’s evasions should have taken him next, bitterly spiteful of his own uselessness. His bloodshot, icy-clear eyes bore like a basilisk’s into Ortenrosse, angered by how he had been one step behind the ancient vampire since the very start of the fight.
In sympathetic response to Enhance’s surging fury, a pair of massive and limber batlike wings sprung forth from the holes cut out of his jacket above his shoulder blades. The dark fleshy appendages flapped with supernaturally-charged force and blasted Enhance above and past the White Wing Lord. From the ceiling to the far wall to the other wall to finally Ortenrosse he zoomed like an angry pinball to the Magus-turned-Dead Apostle Ancestor. With their aid, Enhance had true access to the full range of three-dimensional movement the businessman’s sizable lair had to offer.
He knew now for sure that his speed surpassed Ortenrosse’s. No longer did he attempt to sneak in a sucker punch of a kill-strike in between Enhance’s movements. Now, the elder vampire seemed to have dedicated his efforts fully to dodging all of the “Blade’s”
ceaseless barrage of dive bombings and incineration-upon-impact gunfire. Ortenrosse, if his movements could be perceived unaided, stepped like a well versed ballroom dancer, or a seasoned fisticuffer, led by an aggressive partner or on the ropes in the prize fight, forced to go where his foe wanted him to.
“How exciting! Any vampire worth their salt should be able to alter themselves, and the Eighteenth’s wings look superb on you!
“Tell me, would you like to see where he got the idea from?”
With a tilt of his head and smirk on his face a flash of white tore through the space between Enhance and Ortenrosse, and it had sent the former careening away in a dizzying spiral. From Ortenrosse’s back had emerged a pair of pristine wings with immaculately white feathers. So pure and colorless were they that they glowed and lit up the darkened room.
The awe of such a reveal was lost on an unfettered, focused man such as Enhance. The wings proved to be as powerful as they were beautiful. The ephemeral wings reacted to and deflected Enhance’s lunges again and again. They were so prehensile, far more unnaturally than any should be.
That night, it was made all too apparent to the assailant that the name of White Wing Lord was a deserved one.
Where there was once undeniable pressure on Ortenrosse was now inconclusiveness. Enhance swooped and crashed into his enemy, but every effort was callously batted aside with a flick of Ortenrosse’s angelic shields, and those shields changed roles and scythed towards him where there was an opportunity in Enhance’s movements. The gap in speed had been closed, and gone was what little advantage the greenhorn had once held over the eon-old vampire.
But physics could not be stopped. A surge on Enhance’s part their brawl had forced the direction of the battle’s flow into one of the workshop’s numerous side rooms, a large greenhouse in which the sliver of moon shone down from the heavens on the vegetation like a sepia spotlight. Amidst the exotic succulents, rare trees, and unbelievably valuable flowers shipped in from overseas that together all made for an arboreal, sylvan atmosphere, the battle to the death continued with no clear end in sight.
Ortenrosse frowned as he was forced to kick up clods of moist dirt from his beloved garden with each evasive step. Enhance bore less apprehension for the state of his senior Ancestor’s fauna and kept up the pressure. Again and again he chopped at Ortenrosse. Erinyes
pulsated thirstily, as usual but even more so, like a Pavlovian dog in response to all of the life and other energies kept in the greenhouse. He continued to chase the elegantly flapping unsure-footed Ortenrosse deeper into the greenery.
That’s when it happened. In that moment, in that instant, Enhance’s dogged pursuit stopped and his world filled with nothing but pain. The agony halted him in his tracks suddenly, so unexpectedly that he nearly fell to his knees when it hit.
Watermelons. Pumpkins. Squash. His body was covered in their fruits and vines. His arms, his legs, feet, knees, abdomen, and sides were taken into the plants. Where his body had disappeared into them, blood poured from in crimson rivulets. And they moved. And every time they moved he was wracked with torture and more blood spilled into the soil beneath his boots. And the ground seemed so very much like it greedily drank every drop he lost.
And the plants moved like that because they had jaws. And they had jaws because they had mouths full of knife teeth.
Vampire melons. They were honest, Goddamned vampire melons.
In any other context, it honestly should have been funny. But it was not. It was an audienceless gag wasted on of two humorless men.
“I knew this was a trap you could fall for. Do you like them? It was I, Trhvmn Ortenrosse, who was the one who actually pioneered these familiars and popularized them in Eastern Europe. Didn’t think that you were in a duel of fates with a patent-holding Apostle, did you?”
That is until the White Wing Lord couldn’t help himself. Wingless once more, he dusted off his silver-white suit jacket and took a step closer to the entrapped Enhance.
“It appears as if first blood has gone to me, then. It’ll be the last blood, too, you little shit upstart,” Ortenrosse said, attempting to keep the composure that was expected of him but was simultaneously slipping into the ecstasy that came with the surety of victory. “You’ll spill no more my people’s blood here, and pay for that debt in triplicate. For better or for worse your story ends here, as the punchline of an incredibly dumb but disarmingly funny joke. I shall endeavour to keep your story alive and well long after you’ve been reduced to mulch by relaying it friends and acquaintances. You can bet that it’ll most definitely be a hit at the Aylesbury event.”
The very name of that forbidden ritual made Enhance quiver uncomfortably. The implications of the Dark Six’s summoning to the world were fearsome.
“You recall how I keep saying ‘Simple is best’ like I believe it? Well, I do. These little ones here are no exception, even though I did go on to cultivate them further as part of a pet project. Improved on the originals, of course. Now they can do so much more, and are still a SNAP
The fruits all bit down in unison and Enhance shrieked. His muscles spasmed. Again, the only thing that kept him standing were the plants clamped into his flesh. His head swam. He suffered vertigo with both feet planted firmly on the dirt floor. His wounds felt like battery acid spurted into them from their rows and rows of teeth.
A watermelon had bitten so hard into him that the arm that held the Holy Crematal Artillery
fell down with a plop, torn off at the elbow. Barely still attached to his body by thin sinew and stringy veins, it lay there on the damp topsoil uselessly, stained with dirt and blood, like the now wielderless Mystic Codes of so many other Dead Apostles slain by him that night. From the stumps dribbled a liquefied puddle of pinkish sludge that used to belong inside of Enhance.
“While they are not so good at direct offense,” Ortenrosse said, “I’ve found they serve as excellent traps, and as a way to dispose of undesireds. Forced decay by means of the injection of foreign, malignant prana. A hatefully handy and simple little technique, indeed. ”
Enhance could barely keep his eyes open. Even if he could, he would not see much. His vision was dissolving away.
Ortenrosse stepped closer to Enhance. He lifted his arm. The edge of his hand straightened like a sword’s edge.
“Alas, even though you can make the best possible familiars that you can, innovation can only get you so far when your prisoner so stubbornly clings to existence,” his fingers flexed dangerously, “You will feel this final strike, but not for very long. How lucky for you.”
Trying to turn his head felt like he was trying to move a mountain.
It took so long, and he could feel nothing.
After what felt like nights, he gripped between his teeth a stretch of fabric.
With one last burst of motion, possibly the last move he would ever make again, like a proud, wild wolf ripping the throat from an elk, he tore the Shroud knotted around his shoulder joint off.
All went dark.
◇ | ◇
All went dark, and in the darkness something bellowed.
It flared out like a lightless firework. It emanated the true opposite of light.
It stood in front of where the vanishing points of the black rays came together, somehow illuminated by the backdrop like an ultradark anti-halo. It clung to him. The leering mass hung halfway on, halfway off Enhance, simultaneously like a suit of armor and a mirrored shadow of the darkest sables. It was a vaguely man-shaped clump of miasma. It twitched and flickered like a staticky television set, which lent to it an unhinged, impermanent impression.
There was no doubt it was now part of reality. In the explosive instant that it appeared, Ortenrosse lost all connections with his familiars, their lives snuffed away in that moment of a moment with little familiar moans.
It raised an arm and pointed the sword right in his direction. The greenhouse, the whole building itself, rumbled, rhythmically, soundlessly. Ortenrosse’s dawning realization figured it out. That thing, that which could only be seen by where it didn’t appear, was laughing.
And it hungered like a black hole.
Hundreds of lances of fiery darkness blanketed the room. The moon could not shine here. Not a speck of light could sneak its way in, so all encompassing was the black.
Ortenrosse was overwhelmed by the sensation of claustrophobia, like pinpricks pressing into his skin. The air was thin. Even though he had rid himself of that limitation, lost the need to breathe, he clenched at his suit jacket’s chest involuntarily. His hairs stood on end. He felt the drain.
All of his experience screamed at him. Screamed at him to get out of there right this instant. That a continued existence waited for him outside, anywhere not here, just past those windows that he knew the greenhouse plentifully had. He unfurled his wings once more, ready to escape.
He could not bring himself to move even a millimeter from his position.
Once again that night, he heard the sound of glass shattering. For the last time, he heard the sound of glass shattering.
From within the shadows, a dozen broken plexiglass windowpanes swung like axe blades at his trapped form.
Ortenrosse was flayed where he stood. Over and over again.
◇ | ◇
He shambled, rather than walked, and stumbled rather than stepped forward.
However it could be described, the task was a Herculean one for Enhance.
What seemed like a league to his battered, unstable body could not have been more than four meters in reality. Slowly, ever, ever so slowly, but with unmistakable sureness driving his clumsy, limping baby steps he walked to the ruined mess that was the rent figure of Ortenrosse.
“Curse? Curse? Curse. Yes, that must be it. That has to be it, most definitely assuredly indubitably so. Yes, indeed. No, curses. No. Curses. Yes, curses, plural…” Ortenrosse said with a weakly, retching sputter, though he no longer had a stomach to heave from.
It could be said that Ortenrosse no longer cut the same profile that he used to before his fight with Enhance. His mangled limbs twisted grotesquely where they were not entirely broken off from his body. Hulking blades of shattered windows still steaming with the aftereffects of the devouring curse shredded and stuck his body like a pincushion, or an abused insect specimen. Every where the oversized shanks gored him inconvenienced any healing that would have been otherwise taken by his ability to restore himself.
But, tonight’s moon was nowhere near full. Crimson Moon would not smile upon either Ancestor. Yet, even if that were the case, the lingering presence of the spell made than an impossibility, either.
Ortenrosse finally noticed Enhance peering down and bleeding on him, moving like a Hollywood rendition of the walking dead. “You! How can one so young, so contemporary, be haunted by such an imposing curse that they are possessed by a demon of that magnitude?” Ortenrosse gagged out a wheezy hack for this outburst of uncharacteristic for a sagely vampire, but perfectly in line for a Magus who had just witnessed an event of mystery and wonder.
It was far more in character for the man he used to be, before he tossed aside the mortal coil that bound all humanity and transformed himself into a feared creature of the night.
His eyes flicked down to Enhance’s one remaining arm. It still defiantly held on to Erinyes
, the blade that was at center stage the whole time in the incident that, if it had eaten a meal, now seemed well-fed but still unsatisfied for deeper reasons.
“Was it all because of that swor –” He began to ask impulsively before his chest was impaled by the sword in question. He felt that, and yelped and went cross-eyed as the sharp metal buried itself into him up to the hilt.
“I don’t tell my life’s story to strangers or assholes,” Enhance slurred, as if he were groggy from lack of sleep. “ ’specially not assholes who sic gourds on me. But, if it really gets your knickers in a knot so badly, then let’s just say that because my family tried to play God for years and in the end they got me for their troubles. Since I’m here now, as an ‘Apostle Ancestor it didn’t end so well for them.”
“Do you believe this was worth it?” Ortenrosse asked, his senses brought back down to reality by his newest chest wound, though he still stammered to get his words out, “Have you been wronged so much you truly believe this to be a course worth taking?”
“ t’was. The Aylesbury Ritual’s effectively neutered now. Y’ empire’s gone, came apart at the seams, and y’ not long to follow it. ‘s nothin’ but over.”
“THEN I’VE HAD YOU, AND THAT’S ALL THAT MATTERS!” Ortenrosse screamed, caught up in a state of sudden mania, “IT’S ALL GONE! IT’S ALL GONE, ALL RIGHT, BECAUSE THERE’S NOTHING!! I GAVE IT ALL, ALL AWAY TO THE OTHERS!!!”
It was no stretch to say that Ortenrosse was attached to life. More accurately, to say that Ortenrosse was attached to the unlife he had achieved for himself all those thousands of years ago on the banks of those two most fertile rivers, the feat which had eventually drawn the attention and support of the Crimson Moon itself. He had seen civilizations rise and fall and rise and fall again and again. He had witnessed the histories of a dozen cultures and seen the court of the vampires at its finest and worst.
He wanted nothing more than to not die. But he recognized inevitability when he saw it. Some things could not be changed, no matter how much one wished for it to be otherwise.
“DON’T YOU SEE IT?! DON’T YOU SEE HOW STUPID AND POINTLESS IT ALL WAS NOW!? I HAVE NOTHING
TO MY NAME! YOU’VE, SIR, YOU’VE BEEN GIVING IT YOUR ALL TO KILL A BROKE MAN!!!!
Through the ages Ortenrosse had contributed immensely to the cause of the Apostles, had served as head and backbone to what was supposed to be the culmination of their greatness, even in an age where everything was changing for the continued existence of the supernatural. Though tonight may be his last, he knew that his actions would not be in vain.
That was why he chose to screech, even though he remained comparably calm inside. He had to let him know. That it was futile. That this neophyte, this selfish, ignorant, ungrateful vampire had lost more for his actions from this than the united front had. Whether his assets belonged to him or not, or whether he was part of the picture anyway did not matter at all.
The Dead Apostle Ancestors would not be stopped.
Enhance blinked slowly, his eyes glazed over and unfocused. He said nothing. An expected answer, his defeated foe thought.
“It will proceed, according to plan, like it always has been, and there is nothing you humans and traitors alike can do about it,” Ortenrosse said. Rationality was once more present in his voice, to further disturb the mind of the young Ancestor that had bested him, though he breathed harder, more arhythmically than ever before. The venerable Ancestor had neared his final, conclusive end. “Though I may die, I can rest satisfied knowing that you will be not long after me, and that I can spend my final moments in the lands of my birth. That cannot be taken from me.”
Then, Ortenrosse’s face was twisted and slammed into the bloodied dirt by Enhance’s one palm; his neck twisted almost a full one-hundred eighty degrees. The stiff bones creaked in audible, desperate protest.
“What? What are you doing?” He stuttered, caught off guard.
“Had to tempt fate, didn’t you?” Enhance said as he suddenly straddled Ortenrosse’s chest with his viselike knees, “Pretty damn obvious, ain’t it? Whether ‘r not this mission was ultimately a wash or not didn’t matter. You hurt me so badly that I was gonna’ve t’ suck y’ blood if I wanted to get out of here alive. I do. But now y’ just deserve everythin’ yer’re gettin’.”
That was the first time that Enhance had experienced a dying man balk all the way to the grave. “Crazy talk! How petty must you be?! The Dead Apostles cannot drink from themselves!” Ortenrosse barked, this time with genuine concern, “The pain has gone to your head for certain!”
“Big deal. Aylesb’ry ‘r not, Vamps’re vamps, and they don’ des’rve t’ exist. Y’ kept goin’ onanon ‘bout getting’ to know me better, ‘ight? Well, nowsyer chance to see me fer what I r’lly am.”
Enhance buried his fangs deep into the base of Ortenrosse’s neck. He snapped down with so much force that he broke all of the bones with the power of his jaws. That was when he drank. To him, Ortenrosse’s blood tasted utterly putrid. His entire being rebelled against the nature of the act. It was like vomiting in reverse. It burned, it disgusted, and the value for his body in what he downed was a virtual nil.
For Enhance, it was enough. He choked it all down, and was rewarded for his shameless drive to live. He could make the most of any given situation, after all. His talents were innate to the Nth degree, and all he had to do was apply himself. He could already feel his vampire’s Curse of Restoration at work, the biological clock turning back to make his tattered body whole once more like it should be.
“I…see……an impess…ive speci…men………he’d…be proud...” Ortenrosse said his final words with almost a sense of satisfaction as he was reduced to a brittle and shriveled husk. Erinyes
flashed brilliantly for an intense second before all “light” from it blinked out. The sword had swallowed the remaining vestige of life from Ortenrosse. Now, it seemed to be truly content, or possibly asleep.
Enhance stood up, dusted the remains of the ash formerly known as the White Wing Lord, and flexed the bicep and made fists with his newly grown arm. His body was revitalized, yet Enhance’s mood remained dour and unsatisfied.
He directed his gaze to the other arm, the one that had not needed to be restored. Not that his sword arm could be restored in the same fashion as the rest of his mostly vampiric body. It hung numbly at his side, all pins and needles and wrinkles like an old man’s. His hate curse, his own personal demon bolstered by Erinyes’ own Curse of Devouring, had done no inconsiderable number on it. It was practically necrotic at this point. Enhance would need much spiritual healing therapy to get it functioning again, assuming it wasn’t already in so terrible a condition that it would need to be replaced with a puppet limb.
He gazed at the old, thick line of scar tissue right where it met with the shoulder, the flaw to the jewel that he was that had somehow broken the “perfection” that he represented and allowed so much of his humanity to survive into his transformation into the Eighteenth.
It was comforting, he supposed, to still retain a part of himself like that. A truth that reminded him of all the wrongs committed against him, too.
It was also ugly, and Enhance had had enough of ugliness for one night. He wrapped the scar with the holy cloth he recovered from the dry, cracked earth beneath his feet, it looking all the more threadbare than before. He glared at his shoddy handiwork and was happy that at least he still had some measure of control over his Curses.
The hum of helicopter blades cutting through the air could be heard in the distance growing closer, just in time for everything to end, like a cliché straight out of an action movie’s ending. Enhance turned his gaze now to the expansive view of Dubai’s nighttime skyline. Sure enough, a row of flying lights was making its way across the bay to Hunyad.
“Well, shit,” he mumbled. “Looks like I will need to ask her for a fresh change.”
In the meantime, he took cold comfort in the fact that he was one blood drinker closer to the true goal: no one standing between him and the Black Princess herself.
~To be continued in Tsukihime II~