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Mitsuba 3.33: You Can (Not) Finish This Damn Story

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Night had fallen, and I was alone.

The sun’s last rays had long since guttered and died, and the wan, sickly light of the crescent moon did nothing to dispel the darkness all around me. If anything, it only served to accentuate it, the twisted tangle of power lines and ventilation piping above and around me casting long, ragged shadows all around. Somewhere, a ventilation fan ceaselessly droned a mantra of monotony, sporadically interrupted by a dull thump from within a vent or the rustle of a plastic bag borne by a stray breeze. The cloying stench of old garbage assaulted my nostrils, but I pressed on, my footsteps echoing in the enclosed space.

This place sure felt a hell lot less foreboding in daylight.

Then, I heard the footsteps. The first time I heard it, it was a muffled thumping, near-imperceptible against the background noise – perhaps nothing more than a figment of my imagination, making up boogeymen where there were none to be found. Then, I heard them again, a slow, staccato rhythm of heavy boots hitting asphalt. Goosebumps rose on my neck as a shudder went down my spine, and I redoubled my pace, keeping my gaze locked straight ahead. It wasn’t safe here. I had to get home.

I couldn’t let them find me.

The footsteps were getting louder. Closer. They were gaining on me. No, I couldn’t look back. I couldn’t hesitate; couldn’t waver. If I looked back, they’d be upon me in an instant. Just keep walking, and don’t turn around.

I could hear the footsteps clearly now. They couldn’t be more than ten paces behind. Perhaps with my back turned, they wouldn’t notice it was me, not in this light. Just a little further; I could already see streetlights. Once I made it out into the open, they wouldn’t dare to lay a finger on me.

I heard a muted ringing, like a moist finger dragged around the rim of a wineglass, and pain lanced up my leg as my toes crunched against an obdurate wall where there had been nothing but thin air moments before.  In the dim light, I could barely make out the transparent, ephemeral veil, its surface iridescent like a sheet of cellophane, but there was no mistaking the two lines of chalk drawn across the ground, the space within glowing with lambent light. I couldn’t read the cursive, flowing script etched in between them, but their message was clear. “You Cannot Escape.”

Slowly, I turned, a lump forming in my throat as my gaze fell upon the length of gleaming steel leveled at me. The silhouette of its wielder was indistinct in the gloom – male or female, young or old, I couldn’t tell. All I could clearly make out were their eyes, pinpoints of blazing blue like stars in the void.

Then, they spoke.

...

“Next station: Matsuura. The doors will be opening on the left.”

Erin’s eyes snapped open with a start as she jerked upright, her eyes flitting back and forth nervously. A frigid sensation ran down the nape of her neck, and she reached towards it tentatively, her fingers running along the smooth metal of the plain silver necklace she was wearing. It felt cold, almost icy to the touch. She took in her surroundings, and to her relief, they seemed almost disappointingly banal – just a train carriage, its plastic bucket seats almost all unoccupied, the floor gently shaking and jostling as it sped down the tracks through the countryside. Huh, a dream. Ride must have lulled me to sleep.

Then, her brow crinkled as her mouth twisted into a frown. Hold on, Matsuura? That’s, like, three stops east of home. And this is an eastbound train. So… uh… like, carry the two… and… um… damn. I think I missed my stop. And I’d promised I’d be back home on time for dinner, too.

Pausing for a moment to stretch, she bent over and picked up the book lying on the floor before her, carelessly dropped when she’d dozed off. I guess I’m just going to have to get off at the next stop. Matsuura, right? Should be there in like five minutes. She flipped open her book, leafing through the pages to find where she’d left off.

“Next station: Matsuura. The doors will be opening on the left.”

Erin chuckled, her face reddening a little. “L-lewd,” she murmured, flipping the page again. Despite herself, she let out a little gasp, her blush only intensifying. Then, she froze up, eyes slowly sweeping from side to side, before heaving a sigh of relief. Well. No one saw that.

Isn’t this train taking a little long?

“Next station: Matsuura. The doors will be opening on the left.”

Erin glanced at the side of her book briefly – there weren’t many unread pages left. She sighed as she glanced back at the page – with so little left, there was no way this volume wasn’t going to end in an unsatisfying cliffhanger. She gazed out of the window for a moment – just the same old monotonous tapestry of fields and little country roads, now bathed golden by the rays of the setting sun.

Hold on. Sun’s almost down? I'm supposed to be back by seven!

She fished inside her bag, pulling out her phone and prodding at the screen. Seven-thirty.

Shit, shit, shit! I’m late for dinner! I’m so dead; I’d made a promise to Sis, too. She frantically swiped at her phone screen, anticipating a deluge of missed calls and reproachful messages – and saw nothing. She glanced at the top of the screen – instead of the usual stack of bars was an icon she didn’t see often. No signal? What the hell, this is Japan! We aren’t even in the mountains!

“Next station: Matsuura. The doors will be opening on the left.”

And what’s up with you, you piece of junk? Shouldn’t we have passed Matsuura hours ago? And what’s with the lights? It’s practically night already and they still aren’t on! What kind of shoddy train is this? She looked out the windows again; the light outside was already dimming as the sun began to dip beneath the horizon. The ubiquitous forests and hills that dotted the Japanese countryside looked decidedly gnarlier and more shadowy than she remembered, too...

Darkness fell as the train rushed into a tunnel with a roar. Erin blinked in confusion as she got to her feet, clutching her bag closer to herself as she stepped towards the doors. Wait. Wait… there isn’t a tunnel before Matsuura… What’s going on? A bead of sweat streamed down her cheek as her gaze slowly swept the darkened train from end to end – it was empty, and the carriage doors on either side had slid shut, their windows dark and opaque. The trundling of the train’s carriage had taken on a sinister cadence, the carriage shaking and rattling in time with its gradually-accelerating staccato rhythm.

The PA system screeched a burst of static and Erin winced, her hands clamping over her ears unbidden as it played once again, the sound tinny and crackling.

“Next station: Matsuura. This train service terminates… at the next station. Thank you for… riding… with us…”

There was a hiss and a rush of frigid air, and Erin slowly raised her head, gazing wide-eyed into the darkness behind the now-opened door between the carriages like a deer caught in headlights.

 From the darkness, a pair of eyes, its irises pinpoints of electric blue like stars in the void, gazed right back.

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I sat down at the dining table, looked steadily at my wife and said, “I think you are in danger.” Haruka Murasaki was a tall woman of imposing stature, though she was a lot meaner now than all the time we’d seen or fought each other in the past. Months in bed and more months in therapy had left her a shadow of her former self, and she never could find the stamina to eat and exercise back all the missing muscle. Still, she remained as one of the fittest and finest ladies I have had the pleasure to meet, in this life and the last.

 

Haruka smiled at me, eyes leaving the menu to gaze directly at mine. Those hadn’t changed. If anything, I could have sworn her smile seemed more content, more flushed with mirth than when I had first met her.

 

“Danger?” she asked me, a hint of catty playfulness. “Good grief.”

 

I took off my overcoat and handed it to a waiter in exchange for the bottle of red wine he was handling. “I know I’m a master of poorly-timed jokes, but this time it’s serious.” I reached over and poured into our glasses.

 

“Tatsuya, dear. You do realize a Knight of the Cross being troubled by danger is like a fish afraid of drowning, yes?” She cupped a palm around her rosy lips, pretending for it to be a respirator. “Warlock. You merely adopted danger. I was born in it. Molded by it. I didn’t even know about handrail and seatbelt until I was already a woman,” she spoke in a nasal, theatrical voice.

 

“Make it Mr. Ex-Warlock please, Ms. Ex-Knight of the Cross.” Despite the gravitas of the situation, I couldn’t help but left out a quiet laugh at the reference. “Difference being I could still kick your ass even with us both going into early retirement though.”

 

“Well, well, someone sure is full of himself today. I heard the couch is rather cold and hard this time of the year, would suck for someone to have to sleep on it.” She took a swig from the glass, her other hand steadying the wooden cane leaning against the seat next to her. Nerve damage had left her right leg rigid to the point where a prosthetic would offer more flexibility, and her internal organs were about half as capable as they used to be. It made her run short of breath doing mundane stuff as jogging. I knew she was looking at me with her clear, blue eyes, but not seeing very well with at least one of them. Coming face to face with a Demon never leaves one whole.

 

And yet, she did it without a moment of hesitation. All for the salvation of one wayward soul that deserved to burn in hell for eternity.

 

“So, what sort of trouble is it this time?” she asked me at last, smile still not faltering.

 

I looked down at the envelope I had in my right pocket and wished I couldn’t picture its content with near eidetic memory. They were photos, grainy and taken from near impossible angles. They were Haruka playing the organ for the choir kids; Haruka walking next to me in our courtyard; Haruka at her prime, wearing a white robe marked with a bright red crusader’s cross, the Blade of Compassion  gleaming with sacred light in her both hands.

 

The pictures had come in the mail directly to my office at Tokyo University. I checked and checked: no note inside, no sender’s name, no nothing. But it was clear as day what the intention of the person behind them all was.

 

My old nemesis, my savior, my wife, the former Knight of the Cross, was in danger.

 

I showed the envelope to her, eyeballing the room to make sure no one else could see its content as Haruka flipped through them. “I think you should hold on to the Sword. Its divine power still lingers, if anything happens while I’m not there, it will protect you.”

 

She stared at the pictures for a moment, then me, then the steak and salad plate freshly served before saying. “The Sword is where it should be at the moment. It was meant to save others, not its wielder. It’s not my calling to take it up again, Tatsuya – especially not for the wrong reason. I will not live in fear, and neither should you.”

 

“Well, I will settle for the both of us living in healthy caution.”

 

“Would you believe me if I told you that He wouldn’t give both of us a second chance only to call us back to Him right after? I don’t think we have reached the end of our allotted time.”

 

I gave her a dry smile, cutting into my steak with half-hearted enthusiasm. “Well, I seem to recall a phrase that says: No one knows when that day or hour will come.”

 

She looked impressed. “You have been reading. Color me delighted. But I’m afraid you misjudged the meaning of that sentence.”

 

My shoulders drooped. “Love. I know you have the best of intention in your heart. And I do think that God loves his children equally, which is precisely why He won’t play favorite. A lot of people get dealt a devastating hand by fate even when they don’t deserve it, no matter if they are a saint or a sinner. I have seen that far too many times, and I don’t want to see it again, especially to you.”

 

“Listen to me, Tatsuya,” she grabbed my hand tenderly. It felt warm. “I’m not afraid.”

 

The knot in my gut tied itself ever tighter. If that was the case, then it was time to play dirty. “What about your parents, love? Your siblings? Your choir kids at the church? If people have a grudge against you, they will get to you via ways that hurt the most.”

 

I’d seen her displaying less severe expression on that night when her soul was rend by my Patron. Her eyes opened wider, and she looked at her cane uncertainly.

 

“What do you have in mind?” she asked me after what felt like an eternity later.

 

I opened my mouth, on the verge of forming my reply, when a cold chill crept down my spine and jerked my head sideway. My eyes caught sight of a train heading into a tunnel on the far side of the city, and every muscle and nerve within my body suddenly went into overdrive at the familiar sensation.

 

I turned to face her. “We need to leave, now.”

 

“What’s wrong?” she asked on our way to the car. I shot a glance in the direction of the train tunnel and rested my foot on the pedal.

 

“Pandemonium has leaked into this city. It was hovering around the train that passed by our restaurant just now. I can sense it, something between a Bedlam and a full Manifestation, and it’s growing fast.” My eyes narrowed as my hand ripped into an unseen dimension through a hovering portal, pulling out a wet, still beating purple heart that radiated raw power. Darkness reached up and consumed the car, depositing it a few dozen miles away from where we were just seconds ago. “Go into the underground shelter, open your door for no one but me and the padre. I will intercept the train.” 

           

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She hums softly by faint candlelight, working her way through a pile of paper and ticking the names off a list. Murakami, Ogawa, Nakamura…

Six notes over and over and over, matching the dance of the flames. The beginnings of a song, hesitant and wavering but holding the promise of something far greater…

All done. Hang on, where’s–

She looks over at Takamine and her eyes go wide. Oh, God… how long has he been reading that?

Still humming, she shakes his shoulder. He makes a distracted noise without looking up.

She shakes him again, urgently, and he leans away from her touch. “Hang on, I’m a little–”

She stops humming and the candles go out.

~~

“Fine,” he says a few moments later, when she stops yelling to take a breath. “I’ll ease up on learning the Hymns, but… honestly, shouldn’t I be spending as much time as possible–”

No more than two hours a day,” she says.

“Yeah!” He shoots back. “Look at the time – it’s barely been half an…” his voice trails off as he looks at the clock, and she sees apprehension creep onto his face. “Oh, crap. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize–”

She shakes her head. “The fault is mine.” When he opens his mouth to argue, she continues: “It will not happen again. My apologies, Takamine-san.”

“No worries,” he says with that grin of his. “You know, there’s this thing called a cellphone alarm–”

A discordant note rings through the air, faint but distinctly wrong, and she goes stock still.

It’s shown itself.

“Is something wrong–” Takamine says, but she sings three notes, high and pure, and is gone.

~~

She sprints down the road, each step coming swift and sure in time with the Hymn of Saint Theresa. Faster than any horse she ran, she sings, in pursuit of the beast.

She feels the eagerness of the song, an almost-living thing coiling and growing around her woven scaffold of word and melody and rhythm, aching to be unleashed…

Faster than any wind, faster than daybreak, borne on wings of light–

The world falls away beneath her, strength and joy and raw purpose flooding her veins as she steps off the ground and into the air.

~~

The wind screams in her ears, rooftops blurring past beneath her as she heads toward the disturbance. Below her, the grating screech of its presence rushes eastward, matching the trajectory of–

The train.

She stops singing, heart plunging into the pit of her stomach as Theresa’s hymn frays and dissipates, sending her into freefall…

Through the cloud of deception lies heavy on the land, the truth will be seen, she gasps, and in a brief moment of clarity she sees–

The not-train dragging itself onward, a million chitinous limbs clattering on metal rails as it heads back to the Beyond, demonic energy swirling in a dark miasma as the beast placates its hell-bound cargo. Home, home, home…

Hunger and glee and eagerness mingle in its twisted song as she falls from two hundred feet up, fear and anger battling for dominance as she remembers Master Isidore broken on the anvil of duty, torn almost beyond recognition by a hundred unearthly claws and teeth and talons; remembers his last gurgled words…

A wave of grief washes over her. And just before impact, as she whispers a quiet remembrance for her fallen mentor, the Hymn of Isidore unspools into the night air for the very first time…

I am the shield of the helpless. I am the cleansing flame. I am the blade that strikes down evil, the light that drives back all darkness.

Farewell, she murmurs, and for a moment there is only white.

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“This Train Service… terminates… at the next station. Thank you… for riding… with us…”

Erin screamed, frantically scrabbling away from the door, her bag crashing to the ground and scattering books and loose notes across the floor. A crash resounded throughout the train and the floor heaved and spasmed like a living thing, throwing Erin off her feet and slamming her painfully into a door with a bone-jarring crack. For the briefest of moments, the creature at the far end of the carriage was silhouetted from behind by brilliant white light like lightning in a darkened sky – it could have passed for human in bad light, if not for its lower half being completely gone; it hung suspended in mid-air like a mannequin, ropey, glistening entrails spilling out from the ragged tear at its waist and trailing off into the darkness beyond. It lurched into the carriage, its eyes blazing like searchlights and its mouth distending into a monstrous parody of a smile, a tongue spilling out from between tombstone teeth.

“T-T-T-T-Thank you… for… r-r-r-r-r-riding… with… us…”

Erin clambered to her feet with a yelp, the world spinning around her as she momentarily lost all sense of weight, and all semblance of balance and coordination with it. Her spilled notes were now hanging motionless in the air, but whatever the creature was, it seemed undeterred by the change in gravity, slowly, purposefully pulling itself forward along the handrails. With a trembling, pale hand, she slapped at the faintly-luminescent red button beside the carriage door, and surprisingly enough, it worked, the train doors parting smoothly with a hiss. For a moment, she felt a surge of hope – only her blood to turn to ice as she gazed beyond the door to the world outside.

Outside the train was nothing. Not the inky darkness of the oceanic abyss, sporadically lit up by sparkling bioluminescence, or the star-strewn void of deep space – but complete emptiness, a gulf of pitch blackness that seemed to swallow the meager light streaming from the failing lights of the train. For a moment, she caught a glimpse of a brassy, segmented leg skittering along beneath the train, and then pain shot through her as her Japanese-English dictionary pummeled her on the back of the head before shooting out of the door into the void. The howl of decompression deafened her and she blindly groped around, grasping onto a handrail by blind luck just moments before she too was sucked into the void. Oh god. Oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god oh god

The howling of the wind completely filled her ears, but she could just barely make out the broken-record droning of the PA system again. “Erin… Akizuki… terminates… at…the…next station… Thank…”

A brilliant lance of pain shot through her neck as her necklace, snagged on some piece of loose detritus, was ripped off her neck and cast into the void, leaving a thin, painful line of blood. Her eyes were becoming blurry, and it was getting harder and harder to breathe. She tightened her grip on the handrail to avoid joining it, her knuckles going white and trembling, but she felt her strength starting to leave her, darkness encroaching into her vision with every clickety-clack of the not-train’s movement. This is a dream. I’m still on the eastbound train home. Soon, I’ll wake up and everything will be alright-

Abruptly, the entire train lurched and trembled again as gravity returned – albeit with ‘down’ now facing the front of the carriage. Erin’s grip faltered and failed, and the new floor rushed up to meet her with deadly speed-

Someone grasped her hand, and she stopped falling.

Tears blurring her vision, she looked up to the face of her savior – and saw two glowing electric-blue points of light and a grin too wide and crooked to be human.

“Free me…” the wraith whispered hoarsely through yellowed teeth, and as easily as picking up a feather, pulled Erin up towards it and into a twisted parody of an embrace. Then, its other arm clamped around her neck and squeezed, its grip as cold as ice and as unyielding as death. For a moment, Erin felt an uncomfortable wetness running down her thigh, and then everything beneath her neck went numb. Ha. Ha. Ha. This is some kind of joke, right? I’m fine. Any moment now, my eyes are going to open, and I’ll be just fine…

The wraith’s grip redoubled in strength, and Erin vision narrowed to a reddish tunnel, the blazing fires of the wraith’s eyes filling her entire world. “Sleep… child… sleep now… and let me… be… free…”

Her arms, raised to feebly claw at the icy-cold hand wrapped around her neck, lost all strength and went numb, falling limply to her sides as her consciousness flickered and guttered like a dying candle. This is fine… I’ll be alright… I’ll… be… alright…

The staccato, throbbing drumbeat of her pulse, the only thing she could hear over the howl of the wind and the rasping, choking breathing of the wraith currently killing her, skipped a beat. It faltered and weakened to a thready pattering, its frantic rhythm dissolving into chaos… and faded away, and for a brief moment, clarity returned as her eyelids closed like lead shutters on her life. This is it, I guess. Goodbye, mom. Goodbye, dad.  It’s… I don’t know, like three in the morning where you are? You’re probably asleep now. I wished I’d said more the last time you called, but I guess I mess up everything, don’t I? Can’t even die without messing up with a bunch of regrets. So ends the story of Erin Akizuki, the story of the girl who messed up everything she touched… will I see Grandfather again?

No.

No, I can’t.

Erin heard a drumbeat. And then another. Her chest tightened painfully as she felt the rhythm of her heartbeat throbbing through the very fiber of her being – not merely the defiant rhythm of a life that refused to go gently into that good night, but the indefatigable cadence of a war drum, a rallying call to battle.

Erin Akizuki, the useless girl who couldn’t even die without messing even that up, is dead, as she should be. But that doesn’t matter.

I’m not her – not merely her.

Unbidden, Erin’s arm lurched upwards, fingers wrapping around the arm throttling the life out of her. For a brief instant, the veins beneath her skin were starkly outlined, glowing from within with bluish light – then, the pressure around her neck abruptly ceased as she wrenched the arm away from her neck, its fingernails leaving long, shallow cuts as they yielded their hold on her, and in the same motion, tore the foul appendage from its socket.

It’s slowly coming back to me. That wasn’t a dream I woke up from earlier. It was a memory.

The wraith howled in agony as black, tarry ichor spilled from the ragged ruins of its shoulder, its remaining arm tearing her shirt like rice paper and raking a deep gash across her belly in an attempt to disembowel her. Before it could get far, its arm stopped – held fast by Erin’s other hand.

Then, she ripped that arm off, too.

It’s still a blur to me. I don’t remember how that encounter in the alleyway went down, or the name or the face of the one who had hunted me down. But I do remember this -- they had my back to a wall. I was cornered like a rat, weary, frightened and defenseless, and they had a blade to my throat.

And yet, I knew they were afraid. Perhaps more so than I was of them.

Erin’s eyes snapped open, her irises now coronas of blazing electric-blue light. The literally disarmed wraith howled a wordless scream of defiance at her, black spittle splashing into her face as the ghost-lights in its eyes flared.

So they hunted me, an. They bound me with fetters of silver, and bade me to sleep. To forget.

She let go of the severed arms dangling limply in her grasp, letting the decompressing air carry them into nothingness, and she silently counted down from ten, the fingers of her right hand flexing as sparks of light danced between her fingertips. The wraith lashed out with tendrils of stinking offal, but as they touched her, it shrieked, the vile appendages charring and blackening as they pulled back.

For too long I have been denied my purpose. For too long, I have been helpless and afraid. But now my fetters are cast away. My slumber has ended.

The count reached zero, and when she closed her fist, it was around a polished ivory shaft, its contours fitting snugly in her hand – where there was once empty air was a seven-foot length of smooth, flawless ivory banded with intricately-etched silver, its tip menacing with a gleaming silvery spearhead, its rune-etched length tapering gently to a single shining point.

“I, Erin Akizuki, hereby reclaim my birthright.” she whispered.

Gravity returned once more, and Erin’s feet once again found purchase on what was once the not-train’s ceiling. The wraith hurtled at her with jaws agape, bluish corpse-light pouring from within its throat, from its eyes and leaking from its ruined shoulders and waist. With almost meditative calm, she raised her spear in answer, and cast it forth, a hurled thunderbolt of judgment.

For a moment, even the rushing wind seemed to still itself as the spear met its mark, piercing into the collapsed chest of the monster before Erin.

No longer shall I cower, forlorn and helpless.

There was a peal of thunder, and the walls of the carriage were stained black as a dozen barbed pikes erupted from within the wraith, tearing it into ribbons. Then, the vile creature and the spears were gone with a reedy sigh, leaving nothing behind but the strangely unblemished spear.

No longer will I close my eyes and ignore the shadows cast upon this world.

With a gesture, her spear sprang up like a living thing, leaping back into her outstretched hand as the compartment door behind her opened, revealing a dozen pairs of cobalt-blue eye-lights in the darkness. Grimacing, she cast off glasses sullied with the spittle and ichor of her vanquished foe, and they clattered away into the shadows.

All the evils of the world may assail me, but I shall stand unbowed.

Behind her, a dozen monsters howled and charged, hands poised to end her.

And should God cross my path, He shall be struck down.

 

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She feels the not-train shudder as the force of her fall punches through its armored back, a rumbling ripple in its bowels as it recoils from her assault. A surprised cry of agony goes up in a piercing wail, awakening its servitors…

Just like the last time. They haul themselves from pus-laden pockets in their progenitor’s flesh, leaping and oozing and crawling and flying in their hundreds toward the intruder in their master’s sanctum, and

She remembers the look of alarm on her Master’s face. She remembers their headlong flight through the belly of a greater beast, their frantic last stand. She remembers their voices trembling in harmony, the wash of her mentor’s power holding off a tide of chitin and brass as she turned her power against the walls, trying to cut a way out…

Half sobbing, half singing the final words that led her to freedom, feeling the thuds against her back as he interposed himself between her and them, shielding her a final time with flesh and bone and blood…

“No more,” she says, raising her hand. The floor shifts and undulates beneath her feet as she gets up, song-armor clinging to her like a second skin. “Never again.”

Her voice echoes like the tolling of a great bell, piercing through the bowels of the demon in a resonant cry, rising and rising and rising on a wave of power that soon verges on the unbearable–

She unleashes it with a shout, anger and sorrow and grim purpose spilling forth in a torrent of purifying fire. The demonspawn howl and shriek and sob – a few of them go so far as to beg for mercy in the voices of the departed, but she gives them no respite. When the flames finally recede there is nothing left but ashes, and she strides forward toward the head.

This one’s weak and hurt. It should put everything into a single overwhelming blow, she thinks with a savage grin.

Perfect.

~~                                                                                                                      

The next chamber seals itself off, a slab of iron-hard muscle and pulsating brass slamming shut to bar her passage. She touches a finger to its surface, singeing it with purifying flame, and it flinches open long enough for her to slip through the gap…

Into a horde of monstrosities who strike as one, a many-headed many-limbed creature throwing crushing bodies and razor-sharp appendages into her path–

But she’s already moving, diving past the attacks and into the throng. Her song of destruction rings through the fetid air as she ducks and parries and steps to its ebb and flow, a ray of moonlight leaping into her hands on the seventh syllable. It flashes through the air with a flick of her wrist, leaving smoking ruin in its wake, but there are too many for her to cut down and suddenly something slams into her back and knocks her off her feet and they’re pinning her down, scratching and clawing, and

She’s going to die here–

A clap of thunder splits the air, shaking the floor with its power; the rumbling roar of some ancient beast reawakened from slumber. The demonspawn flinch as one, and she seizes the opening to wrench an arm free. Her moonbeam flickers to and fro as she begins to carve her way out of the pile, but the pressure lessens abruptly and she heaves herself to her feet to see the monstrosities rush back toward the head of the train. They’re regrouping.

Something’s spooked the demon, and it probably isn’t her. What manner of being, she thinks, could provoke such a reaction?

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Once I was sure that Haruka had safely reached our basement and locked the door, I got back to the Honda Civic and clicked my tongue at the sight. A swarm of netherworld insect had somehow attached themselves around the frame of my car, their tiny proboscis reaming nonstop at the steel body panels, mandibles clicking in disappointment at the apparent lack of organic components. One of the fleshsuckers perked up and sauntered lazily toward my direction, its eyes glowing orange even against the late afternoon overcast. I recognized the minor Thrall I have befriended all those years ago, Guk.

 

“Ygnaaih thflthkh’ngha t’bhnk Dagon…” the syllables he uttered poured thickly like tar and thunderously like the discharge of a cannon into my ears. 

 

Reflexively, I clutched my head and winced. “Grah’n…n’grkdl’lh kadishtu.”

 

“Aye, boss,” Guk nodded brightly and instead projected his thoughts into mind as per my plea, “haven’t seen you around Pandemonium for a while.” 

 

“Can’t imagine why,” I answered using the same method. “Last I heard there’s a call for Oblivion with my name in the chorus circulating all the way down to Second Circle.”

 

“Well, that’s a little crazier than your usual antics,” Guk mused. “I approve. So what happened?”

 

I kept a blank face. “I chose being a human once again.”

 

“What?” Guk squeaked, his wings faltering for a good second. “That doesn’t make any sense! You have been part of the Cult far longer than any of us here, boss! Why did you leave now?”

 

So I told him.

 

“Wait, wait, wait,” Guk said. “Let me get this straight. You have a wife now?”

 

“Yes, but that’s not-”

 

“Cool, how hot is she? Can I see her? Which base have you both gotten to?” he asked enthusiastically.

 

I frowned. “Let’s get back to our conversation. This isn’t about my wife.”

 

He rolled his compound eyes along with his head. “Seems to me everything that has and will happen to you is because of your wife. Our own people notwithstanding, the Crusaders aren’t going to be cool with you hooking up with one of their own. Remember Innsmouth?”

 

I found myself smiling. “The world is a different and brighter place now, my friend. The Crusaders, the Inquisitors, the Salem Witch-hunters, they are all but forgotten by history. It’s the Paladins and the Hunters who are in charge, and frankly they aren’t such a bad bunch.”

 

“And how did you figure that one out?” he asked quietly.

 

“Because I am here. Because when everything came crashing down, it was not the pity of my liege, but the mercy of my once sworn enemy which allowed me to survive outside the reason of time,” I answered, spreading my arms in demonstration. “In any case, I’m afraid I must ask that we continue this conversation at some other time, there’s a manifestation inside the city, and I want to stop it. Since we happened to meet, perchance do you know about any other Thrall who has gone out of Pandemonium for a feast tonight? Someone that masquerades itself as a train and…hmm…smells of sulfur and offal.”

 

“Thralls other than my swarm?” Guk pulsed questioningly, his neck elongating to look at the city. “Well, since you aren’t running errands for you-know-who anymore, it’s open season on humans for almost everyone.” His eyes flicked in every direction, “can’t tell you more than that, sorry.”

 

“Hey,” I pulsed back a thought. “What’s with the shifty looks?”

 

“What shifty looks?”

 

“You know I can tell you are not telling me everything, right?”

 

“Don’t know what you are talking about.”

 

“Guk.”

 

Guk’s mandibles drooped. “Do I have to?”

 

“Hey,” I flicked him lightly with my fingers. “Centuries of standing up for each other, and this is how you treat your old friend?”

 

“Ugh, no offense but…,” his mandibles drooped a little. “You do realize if either your Patron or Mother Hydra found out that I have had this conversation with you, I’m dead as a door nail right? We are not… batting for the same side any longer.”

 

Ah, moment of dawning comprehension. I lifted my palm, gathering magical essence until the tip of my fingers grew lambent. “Suppose that I exchange this information for a few motes of magic that could keep your swarm in this world past midnight, would it be well worth the minuscule risk? I heard the garbage plant on the outskirt of the city is full of succulent rodents this time of the year, but it will take a while to get there. ”

 

Guk gulped, and then he really gulped. For an eldritch abomination, it was far too easy to play this little glutton like a fiddle.

 

 

I caught up to the train perhaps a minute or so later.

 

The pocket watch in my hand hummed its steady rhythm, folding space and time to keep up with the Thrall’s pace. In this form, de Marigny’s Clock was incapable of performing more impressive feats of distortion such as allowing me to directly enter the creature’s interior. Living flesh was always a pain for magic to go through, though I suppose that turned out to be the best. Otherwise pyromancers wouldn’t have bothered with fireballs and instead conjured a pyre from within their opponent’s body.

 

The Thrall felt my approach. It hissed a warning. That this was its territory, these were its preys, and I was to back down.

 

I lifted up my other hand, which was holding the Heart. I summoned my sorcerous will, murmured a chant, and readied a door-unlocking spell.

 

Only that I turned it all the way to eleven.

 

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"

 

Silvery mist filed the surrounding as a prodigious tentacle rushed out of my chest cavity and lunged for the door located at the back of the train. It was slate gray on top, shading to a fleshy pink beneath, with rows and rows of suckers on the underside. All moving and writhing like hundred of small puckering mouths.

 

It slapped against the metal frame and slipped around its surface, working its way deeper in by melting through everything. Blood, as red as the crimson tide that heralds the Deep Ones’ hunt, began to seep out of the wounds that had been carved into the Thrall.

 

I gave the clock in my hand a slight squeeze, and in exchange it vanished, freeing my hand for what was to come. I reached for Haruka’s holy blade at my side, unsheathing Excalibur from its scabbard. It radiance seared through my palm, burning my entire right hand with its righteous inferno.

 

“For crying out loud, I’m doing your owner a favor here,” I muttered to no one in particular before stepping on the train, and pushing my way through the wall of exterior wall of partially digested meat. 

 

And bumped right into another paladin of the church, apparently fighting a Wraith that looked like a mass-grave on wheels. Both of them looked at me. 

 

“Hi, I know this is a lot to take in but I am actually on your side,” I said lamely to the paladin. “Here, got this holy blade to prove my words.”

 

In retrospect, perhaps a smarter man than I would have withdrawn the Old God’s tentacle still extending itself from his chest before doing so. And perhaps, he would have remembered that Excalibur was, officially speaking, categorized as stolen and possibly corrupted by a Demon.

 

 

 

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