Originally posted on MSPA by XX.

Originally posted on MSPA by Agent1022.

The room was such that if a skilled surveyor had wandered about the manor with a tape measure and a set of blueprints, they might have noticed a slight discrepancy in the walls of several rooms: say, about fifteen meters square. The first Lord Shrewdish had not been a subtle man.

In the center of the room stood an ancestral Lady Shrewdish. Or, more accurately, the top half of some long-dead Lady Shrewdish, molded into an ancient marble pedestal. A locket on a silver chain graced her neck, glittering on grey in the reflected light from-

-a dozen ghostly figures, and as the eyes adjusted to their presence, a hundred, hundreds, flowing and floating in and out of the walls. All circling the pedestal, like a dance or a spell or-

“Or a shield.” Sam turned to the pearlescent forms crowding the corridor behind them. “You’re protecting it, aren’t you?”

The stricken wails came from every direction.

“It is a curse!”
”We serve it like we served no master in our lifetimes!
”It gathers us!”
“Binds us!”
“Tortures us!”
“It has its grip on our chains, and we cannot pass on!”
“Forever twilight death...”

Chad took it all in. He had been right; seeing the spectacle was a different thing altogether. “What are you doing? What do you want?” Without hesitation, he flung out his left arm, aiming his gauntlet at the locket.

Instantly a mottled, mangled screech tore through the space in between it and him, and a crack of black lightning twisted through the air and shoved his arm aside. It was not so much a physical force as a shimmering field between the gauntlet and the locket, ensuring no matter nor energy could pass along the line connecting the two.

“It knows your intent!”
“No violence, no violence...”

Sam ignored her companion’s attempts at discharging energy at the diamond, and stepped forward into the shield of ghosts. They washed over her like so much memory and unlived life; it reminded her of the uncomfortable strangeness that came with hand-me-downs and third-hand sweaters smelling of cats, their owners’ selves and identities all mixed into an unidentifiable slurry that was hell on her ability.

Then as she reached the center layer of the circling ghosts, she felt, against all probability, resistance from the ethereal shapes. There was no change in the texture of the air, or feeling of pushing through cotton or fog - instead, her forward momentum was just subtracted from her, like walking on an invisible treadmill.

Chad looked up from his gauntlet at a change in the ghosts’ natterings. They were breaking the spherical formation, pressing in around Sam. Just as he expected. A cruel smile played about his features and settled in his eyes, which turned to the pedestal in the center of the room.

The babble of those dead surrounded her - no, the dead surrounded her, their ghostly voices undermining her thoughts. “No! No!”

“You have a talent!”
“Our clothing remains!”
“A part of us may live again!”

She clutched at her own no Sir Gregory’s no hers she clutched at them felt small tears like pain among the voices so many voices Sir Gregory’s and her own and then the hateful one from her memories Sam’s memories the real ones no no they make no sense they are absurd they no no no no

The lab coat towered above her, with the scientist inside peering down. That was what Sam remembered; it had always been down, down, looking down “You can’t skip your tests kid” crying young so young tried to play it but they had no empathy “put them on kid” no no no no no “put them on, you little shit” no no no don’t want to feel self dropping away more tears knees kneeling, cowering, curled up “do the test and put them on or we’ll have to use” voice cruel a little amused so hateful so much hate “punitive measures” no no reach for them reach reach crawl crawl

fifty thousand volts

Chad stepped past the ghosts and crossed the threshold without incident, casting an indifferent glance towards the sobbing Sam embedded in clamoring ectoplasm. The locket sat beautiful on its chain on the pedestal like a envied prize - time seemed to slow and stutter as he came close - he reached out and took it into his right hand, the engravings on the silverwork seemingly gleaming from within. And with a swift motion that nonetheless took an eternity, he flipped it open.

The diamond, embedded within, blazed with light.

It was an unearthly light, playing across the walls of the room, shining and glittering on the silver filigree of the jewel’s housing. It shone right through the ghosts, through the souls of everyone dead, alive, and present; it shone almost through the walls themselves. It shone into every corner and crevice, flowed around obstacles like honey, banishing shadow.

But all that shadow had to go somewhere.

Chad felt something fly inside of him, a shining feeling poured into his being, so that he felt, surely, that he must be glowing like the diamond itself. Time itself slowed into one long drawn-out moment of clarity, dark secrets whispered into his mind- “Oh. Ohhh. Of course.”

<font color="#93001C">Sam found herself freed as the light swept over her; the ghosts peeling away from their crowded huddle. Pearlescent forms fled, trailing gasps of fear and panic-

“It’s all so clear now. Sam. It’s so clear.”

She’d seen that look before. The researchers got it plastered across their faces when they were walking around with news or a discovery they wanted to share.

Sometimes they wanted to demonstrate. It was always easier to comply.

Sir Gregory’s memories had seen it too. It was also the slightly-mad look of her father, the night before he had closed his tampered ledgers and shot himself in the face.

It was odd. The memories were coming easier now, much easier for some reason.

“No wonder there was so much time energy coming off of it. It’s time, Sam.”

She couldn’t resist. “Time for what?”

“It’s time, Sam. The diamond is...a crystal...” Chad’s voice slurred, as if the air was - no, the air was thickening, filling with energy - “It’s a chunk of crystallized time. It has no past, it has no future. It’s a piece of the constant against which time is measured! That’s why there are all these ghosts, Sam! They should never have existed, but the diamond maintains them! It holds an imprint of their its facets...”

This must be what it’s like, in the middle of a lightning bolt, was one thought Sam remembered never having thought before in her life yet it was there the clock that makes time: light, - sees none of it itself. They weren’t Sir Gregory’s memories. They didn’t even seem like human memories. They were sharp, concise, crystalline. The thoughts of the diamond if the diamond could think. “Chad! What’s happ e n i n g

His voice was strangled, forced, superseded with something else entirely, dropping in and out of volume as the room’s potential climbed to its peak. “I - I don’t know - I’m thinking things - I think - I think it’s thinking - through me -”

A subtle change, but one that harmonized with the strange memories in Sam’s mind. “Consciousness is not a process. It is a time-dependent entity requiring judicious application of causality.”

The spectre of Endal Shrewdish sighed and closed his eyes. “Here we go again.” He placed a translucent hand on the table, which shook under his nonexistent touch - and then vibrated violently, along with the rest of the manor.

<font color="#582C1E">”Whoa!” Jamie jumped as a low rumble rattled the ancient halls, nearly knocking the kid detective off her feet. “That - that must have been thunder somewhere...” she muttered, not believing a word.

Endal stood. “I’d get out if I were you. Maybe you’ll remember if you’re far enough away. And you can get someone to destroy that damned gem.”

On a visceral level, Jamie knew that this had never been the everyday adventure she’d been expecting. All she had to do was accept the impossible.

“Sticking around?” The ghost began to traipse towards the dining room doors, stepping through the table on the way. “Your prerogative, I suppose.”

After all, the impossible happened every day.


The be-all and end-all of the Shrewdishes stopped, first and last spectral memory of a once-, and now never-great family paused in mid-step. And waited.

For the first time, Jamie saw him as he was. Not through the cynical detective eye of one looking for flaws and illusions, but as a broken, despairing man, shoulders burdened with infinite deaths and neverborns. As a sinner atoning for his crime. As the scientist who looked into a temporal blast of destruction and said:

“Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

An ill wind was blowing, blowing all through the house; the winds of change fierce and erosive, blowing away history and filling in something unrecognizable in its wake. There was no source. There was no wind. The moldy curtains did not move, yet when the moment had passed, they hung differently. “What’s happening, Endal?”

“I-I’m not sure! I never figured this out!” The ghost blurred around the edges as time tried to reconfigure itself. “But I think the diamond doesn’t know how to handle consciousness! It’s not a- a thing that has a position in spacetime, so it always - always aims to eliminate whatever consciousness it comes into contac͘´Ô◊Δ his voice broke apart, the phonemes scattered across yet another timeline ceasing to exist-

Jamie clutched at her head as bit by bit little memories burned away, of things that had never been, snippets of details that had changed, patterns in the dust of the manor, footprints that now took different paths, and she clutched at them, scraps of paper floating in the wind, </font>

Don’t shoot until you see the whites of their eyes! Chad’s eyes rose, pupil-less: “Time cannot be applied to causality-unbound entities...”

There was a palpable snap, that of an atomic whip, as the room popped back into thirty seconds ago.

- time seemed to slow and stutter as he came close - he reached out and took it into his right hand, the engravings on the silverwork seemingly gleaming from within. And with a swift motion that nonetheless took an eternity, he

Traveling up time’s arrow, atoms found their spaces occupied, and disagreed as to who should take residence. Unable to come to a resolution, they decided to go their separate ways.

was in the center of a massive explosion, that blew apart the little diamond-vault, spraying the manor in radiation, killing everyone in it, the diamond’s unsubtle assassination of those it saw could travel through time-


Chad drew on the energy, taking it into his gauntlet, ‘I don’t die! Not today!’ was his wordless scream, as he takes them back, further, still clutching the diamond.

Sam could feel her timeline unraveling as they hurtled ahead of a future the diamond was trying to undo; the universe rolling back like surf on the sands of time...

"Yea, it's a bit complex, but we'll get it and you'll be able to slip out and grab this."

Chad showed Chad a very peculiar gem, one that glowed with energy.

"Oh so that's the power source you-”

“Sorry to interrupt.” Chad cut in, leaping back into time and space between Chad and Chad, and plucking the diamond from Chad’s hands.

“Oh holy fuckballs.” Chad made a grab for the diamond in Chad’s hand, only to be blocked by the diamond in Chad’s other hand - all the while with Chad staring at the two other Chads.

Sam lay on the ancient floor on hands and knees, trying to make sense of the Chadastrophe unfolding before her. Chad Prime - the Chad she had arrived here with to this dusty treasure vault, stood between Chad Alpha - the previous owner of the diamond, and Chad Beta, the bewildered onlooker. Beta looked most like how Chad had seemed when Sam had first seen him, in the Haruspex’s marble tomb. Alpha seemed like Chad when she’d first met him. And Prime...Prime was counting?

“! Don’t come any closer!” Chad brandished the two diamonds at the ghost girl that rose hissing from the floorboards. “That’s right. The diamond binds you, and it won’t let you near it. It’s mine now, you hear me? Both of them!” He brandished the two gems, one in each hand. “So that means you’re all mine now.”

A strange vibration was coming up through her hands, a sawtooth shudder in the old wood that suggested it was trying very hard not to turn into sawdust. But then Alpha made a grab for the diamond, and the thought was driven from her mind as Chad Prime blew him apart.

“What’s the phrase? ‘There can be only one!’”

Chad did not smile as chunks of charred Chad fell among little piles of golden coins. He did not laugh maniacally, or madly, or abortively. Perhaps if he had, Sam would have screamed, or panicked, or scrabbled ineffectually at the walls for a nonexistent escape.

Instead, Chad stepped forward - sidestepping the remainder of Chad, and faced the remaining Chad. “This is how the timeline’s going to go, Chad...”

Retroactive continuity flooded across the manor, a wave of superlative editation - oozing into cracks in the already malleable timeline, it grew and forced them ever wider, paradoxes spewing from the abyssal chasms of the neverwere...

A lie, muttered the manor, everything that has ever happened in this manor has never been, and has all been a lie.

History books in and about the area were known to burst into flame for no reason. At least, no remembered reason; in actual fact it was because the effort of changing themselves to fit the new timeline took its toll on mere ink and paper.

In the newly paradoxical aspect of the aspect’s paradox anew, Varljiv knew this. Oh, how he knew this. The knowledge was a stabbing dagger in his mind, bridging every thought he tried to think. It didn’t help that his mind was suddenly reticient about existing; he had to think about thinking if <font color="#FFFFFF">.................................................. ...........
stop having the faculty altogether. Schrödinger would have been proud at the ripples of existence that fluttered across his serpentine body, scales and flesh presumably vanishing into nonexistence with nonobservance. It was probably a good thing he was in a mirror maze.</font>

Sam watched as the oak floorboards splintered under her fingers, underneath them not the twilight darkness of the rooms below but the bland grey glow that only ambiguity and potential could emanate. The Diamond Time was grinding in on them, stripping away their existences, because of course they had died in that explosion in the future, how could they have come back to the past?

“You are going to be me.” Chad watched Chad, waiting for his reaction.

Chad blinked. “What?”

“This conversation still happened. Everything has still happened, except now you have these.” Chad brandished the diamonds. “Or you will. Because you’re going to escape now, and find her,” he indicated Sam in the corner, “and do everything I did, and we’re going to close this time loop.” Greyness began to seep through the walls of the treasure chamber, leaving behind it undisturbed dust and untouched jewels.

It was true to the very essence of Chad that he stood there and thought about it, even as oblivion curled around his boots. “That’s a nice idea, Chad. But how about this: what if I just take those diamonds now and-”

It was also true to the essence of Chad that Chad took the opportunity to blast Chad into the past, completing the time loop and confounding the paradox even further. The diamond’s timeline twisted and writhed, trying to accommodate the history of the time loop it had just overwritten-

If truth had been torturous, this was something else altogether. Knowing a lie meant being certain about the truth, and the manor’s timeline was stitched, crimped and mangled into such a mess that nothing was certain anymore. There couldn’t be truth or lies when history could -- and did -- change with the drop of a hat, reversing the two or making both statements lies or, horror of horrors, both of them the truth... Varljiv shuddered, an impressive undertaking of stretching and unfolding along his lengthy body.

It was too much. There was no truth, there were no lies. There was only the abyss of uncertainty that lay splayed before him, sucking at his mind, peeling bits and pieces of it away. He was so impossibly far away from what he knew, from the peaceful glow of the Creator, the rage-red energy of the Adversary, both now but a memory he wasn’t even sure of anymore.


Great muscles uncoiled, launching the serpent into ambiguity. He could be anywhere, it could be anywhen, and so he was in any place and any time - omnipresent.

And what Varljiv wanted to do was collapse the wavefunction of the world, and where and when he wanted to be was where and when uncertainty could die. Death was definitively certain.

Navigating the tangled timelines of Shrewdish Manor was, Sam decided, like having infinitely recursive meta-déjà vu: having the feeling of having the feeling of having the feeling of having the feeling of … having had the same feeling again. Squared. With the Ackermann function taken, with itself as both variables. Twice.

Chad was staring at the single diamond in his gauntleted hand. Sam was staring at Chad. And it certainly felt like the diamond was staring at the both of them. They floated in the remains of a dead timeline, where Chad had broken into the diamond room and stolen it before Chad had even gotten there. The ghosts had fled. It didn’t seem like Chad was ever going to make it to where they were.

An arrow still smoldered where it had pierced Chad’s heart, Sam, shot, lying by him, Blackwell burning by the doorway, equally dead.

Sam felt like this had happened before.

“Of course this would happen. There’s no use stealing all the diamonds in all the timelines. There’s only one diamond. There’s only one of them, sticking out into all the paradoxes.”

Chad cupped the accursed gem in his hands. It was cut beautifully into its ellipsoid shape, nestled in its locket home, yet it teased him for its immutable singularity.

Swooping around the vast veins of existence that the universe oozed through was Varljiv, Aspect of Lies, now observer of the paradox that embroiled Shrewdish Manor.

A glint, below, caught the Aspect’s noncorporeal eye. The diamond. The bringer of paradox. A moment, extended forever, a present without end.

Endal clamped the diamond in place, between the sights of the two ion cannons that dominated the laboratory and ten kilometers beyond (eight of which were not exactly Shrewdish land). One was a fairly ordinary proton accelerator. The other was a tachyon mass-driver, and launched before it was fired.

He had constructed an elegant theory: inherent order always sought to propagate itself over chaos, but could only do so in cases where sufficient energy was available. Sufficient energy to catalyze such a reaction, however, was astronomically high. Higher, in fact: not even stellar fusion could generate the orders of magnitude he needed.

So he turned to a combination of two factors: the generation of energy by the annihilation of past and future, and the exceptional crystalline purity of the Shrewdish Diamond. Crystals
were order, he reasoned. The collision of tardyon and tachyon would create a perceived stream of particles traveling from one cannon to another, from past to future, with an energy discharge in between, centered inside the diamond’s carbon lattice. In that way, as the theory went, energy could be converted into mass could be converted into order - against chaos!

That was not how it went.

Instead, Endal found himself before his dead grandfather - and found his universe wiped away, replaced with nothing but a set of inconsistent memories in a ghostly, neverborn mind.


Because a universe without Endal’s meddling was much more orderly.

Order, against chaos. Timelessness: the perfect order. So the moment of Endal’s unleashing the Shrewdish Diamond: maintained forever, to maintain the Diamond’s existence.

So it was there that Varljiv dived, deep down, amidst roiling columns of gedankenexperiment into the real - or as real as insanity could be called - and on impulse, opened his mouth and swallowed the diamond whole.

Every diamond whole. In every timeline. In every timeline there existed a Varljiv, with every diamond inside him.

Bound together with the wavefunction that was Varljiv, timelines began to collapse in on themselves, their consistencies vanishing with the introduction of the greatest lie there ever had been: That they had existed at all, or could have, with a great big serpent there interfering with the paradox.

Deep inside the serpent, a crack appeared in the crystal...

Chad Prime stared at the Aspect that stood before them. In one moment there had been the diamond. His diamond, in his hand, his power to command, its attempts to murder him notwithstanding. Then there had been...this. Things were getting complicated, but more importantly, they were moving out of his control.

Chad Beta stared at the Aspect that stood before them. In one moment there had been the diamond. His diamond, so close and within reach. He’d left the girl shot and bleeding in the trap chamber, because fuck that future Chad was why, and he’d forced his way through the ghosts, and he had reached out for the diamond on its marble bust, just so. Then there had been...this. Things were getting complicated, but more importantly, they were moving out of his control.

As the introduction of a Varljiv bound the two timelines together, there ceased to be multiple Chads, in the same way there had only ever been one Sam, here, now and forever. The timelines, among others, twisted and weaved among one another, binding to common events; one of which was cladomorph, douchebag and aspect standing in a dining room that had once been a Shrewdish laboratory, with a ghost and a detective to bear witness to the suddenly coherent world.

Chad was less than pleased by this turn of events, and barely noticed Sam being hit in the face with a timeline.

Sam clutched at the fluttering wisp as it snaked by her head, a mote of light drawn out into a line of events culminating in the death of yet another Shrewdish-

But no: this one was more familiar. It was a much more mundane death, one not particularly paradoxical, but nonetheless caused by the diamond, and by the death of the Shrewdish clan.

Sir Gregory Sarfassian came alone, and died.
Sir Gregory Sarfassian swallowed her pride, explored in a group, but wandered off on her own. And died.
Sir Gregory Sarfassian swallowed her pride, explored in a group, but never found the treasure.
Sir Gregory Sarfassian never came to the Shrewdish Manor, for the Shrewdishes were still alive and somewhat opposed to the idea of treasure hunters believing they were dead for some reason.
Sir Gregory Sarfassian never came to the Shrewdish Manor, for the Shrewdishes were definitely alive and living people’s treasure was not up for grabs.
Sir Gregory Sarfassian never came to the Shrewdish Manor, since the last one spent all the treasure on scientfic equipment and laboratory works, and was close to auctioning off the estate to fund more research.
Sir Gregory Sarfassian never came to the Shrewdish Manor, because those timelines in which she had were imploding, disappearing into that of which had never been...

And that’s how Sam found herself naked.

This was embarrassing.

Originally posted on MSPA by Solaris.

After his (or rather his future self's) Plan A had spectacularly failed, Chad immediately got to work on Plan B. As time fucked around a little, readjusting itself to accommodate whatever reality it wanted, and as he lost the damn diamond to the fucking snake that had come out of almost no where, Plan B went through a few variations, but they stayed along the same line of thought.

But now, Chad was on Plan C. The plan did not deviate from the previous iteration due to how the streamlined timelines affected him so much as because of how they affected the other person that Chad had now regretfully chosen as a partner.

If I leave him here like that he's not only going to die, he's going to die stupid. If it was any other time, I'd love to let that happen, but between his curious, suicidal ass and the snake, I'd rather he be the one to stick around. In the previous iterations of the plan, Chad was just going to tell Sam to run and assume that would be enough, the fact that he was now naked would likely lead to a number of uncomfortable, silly, awkward, or stupid situations that Chad refused to be a part of.

With a sigh, Chad knocked the naked Sam out, to save on the large number of excuses and explanations he would have to do otherwise, and lifted her over his right shoulder, in the designated unconscious dame position.

As Varljiv was still adjusting to his new position, Chad lifted his left arm up, summoned a column of fire around the flickering snake, and absorbed some of the energy still in the air. With the diamond, the snake officially passed the "too dangerous to live" threshold, and after making sure that his dame that was a dude was safe and preferably closer to his original packaging, Chad would have to come back for some snake stomping.

But for now, he had to take things one step at a time.

Using the absorbed energy, Chad slowed time down to a crawl. Alright, first things first, making him fucking decent. Chad and the unconscious Sam sped through the manor in search of the clothing of latter, wherever or whenever it was...

<font color="#582C1E">Meanwhile, Jamie Knight was dealing with her own problems. For one thing, she was a bit confused on what had just happened, she was talking to someone right? Someone who was or wasn't a ghost and now was gone? Even for the teen sleuth this was a bit confusing. It didn't help that regardless of why she was in the room, how long she would be was not fully dependent on her.

"I've finally got ya, bitch."

The young detective had gotten out of many pickles, but she feared that she wouldn't get out of this one so easily. Still, the skeptic solver of mysteries kept her composure as best she could against the barrel of Bo Blackwell's gun.

"Ya know, I made a deal with someone, who put it in my head that I'd need him to take you out, looks like he was dead wrong huh?"

As Bo ranted on Jamie looked around the room, trying to find something, anything that could get her out of this, but there were no conveniently placed suspended things or an incendiary, or anything else that she could use to make a sweet, sweet escape. She began to shake a little, slowly fearing the inevitable.

"Keep yer hands up! Now... where wuz I?" The gang leader rubbed his chin with his free hand before shrugging, "Eh, it don't matter, fer you it'll all be the same. I'm gunna kill you here and now, then I'll kill that Apollo freak, and then I'll take all of this joints treasure for my own self. I gotta thank ya fer that last one!" The thug licked his lips at his vengeance so close at hand, "So," he savored the word, "Any last words?"

Jamie only closed her eyes, bit her lip, and closed her hands tightly, her nails digging into her skin. She was shaking, but she did not cry or say a word.

As Bo readied the trigger, he felt something akin to a warm wind, coming from behind. He ignored it and aimed at the young Ms. Knight. Then there was a bang.

Although, to be honest, it was more like a crash. The door behind Bo burst open, and he was suddenly knocked aside and knocked out, his gun falling to the floor harmlessly. Jamie looked down and opened one of her eyes, then, when she didn't see blood, opened the other and made sure she was in one piece. After the teen sleuth confirmed her continued life, she looked up to see a young man wearing sunglasses, with red hair and an odd glove carrying a naked woman over his shoulder.

Oh, so that's where he got off to. Chad kicked the unconscious body of Blackwell, Whole lotta good you did me, and then dropped Sam on to the floor. He turned to the flustered Knight and handed her a bundle of clothes.

"Dress them, tie him up, stay here."

Confident that the oh-so-smart Jamie Knight (what other girl would be stupid enough to wander these halls) was capable of listening to basic human speech, Chad left the two alone, now on the hunt for his more difficult problem. Setting the building on fire, as satisfying as that would be after all this shit, isn't likely to kill the snake as-it-is-now before one of the other idiots. If I just leave him alone he'll probably kill one of them, and I'll have to deal with him <i>longer. So that means that of course, I have to stomp him out personally.</i>

As Chad weaved through the Shrewdish Manor, on the hunt for Varljiv, he sighed. Joy.</font>
Originally posted on MSPA by Solaris.

<font color="#000099">Like virtually everyone else in the manor that wasn't unconscious or vaguely responsible for the whole thing, Grotto was a little disoriented by the results of Varjiv's devouring of the Shrewdish Diamond. He wasn't really sure where he was, nor was either of the two humans he had ended up hanging out with. The shadowy snake weighed his options before opting to step away from them, sure there was a chance that they could be of help, but the other serpent, what was his name, was a lot more interesting, and he was skeptical that either Carlie or Hector was really planning on helping him, assuming they were capable of it in the first place.

If Grotto had the time in the next few moments to think clearly, he would have regretted this action. Instead, upon leaving the mirror room in search of Varjiv and wandering for a bit, he caught the sight of some red-haired douche wearing sunglasses indoors. Under the impression that he had not been seen by the young man, the shape-shifter contorted himself to flatly hide against the wall, at least until he passed by. As he came closer, Grotto couldn't help but notice his odd, silver gauntlet.

The serpent got a much closer look at it when it reached for the wall and grabbed at him.

Now, to be perfectly honest, Chad wasn't sure what he was holding in his hand, but if he did know, he probably wouldn't care. Though Grotto was very different from Varjiv, Chad rationalized that as the diamond was proven to do what could be summarized as weird shit and as the creature had just shape-shifted, it was plausible for it to be the same snake as the one that had swallowed his prize. As Chad was less than happy with how things had turned out, he found that he didn’t want to just go and kill the snake with the diamond, he wanted to have some fun.

And fun for Chad usually ended in someone getting hurt.

As he was forced back into his more slithery form from the pressure and heat being applied to his neckish area, Grotto tried to keep his best pokerface, even against the wide, creepy, perfect smile that Chad was showing. He's... he's enjoying this???

Chad was. And Chad would.


Meanwhile, closer to the time douche's actual target, though she didn't know it, was the woman without a name. As progress with Jamie had been slow and somewhat irritating, the nameless one wandered around, trying to find someone else who could help her gain riches. She wasn't really having the best luck yet, but there was treasure somewhere and help or no help, she was going to find it.

However, unfortunately for Nameless, Grotto would not be the only one to run into someone who was less than pleasant. As she wandered a bit lower into the mansion, into a dark tunnel, she was startled to see two glowing eyes before her... followed by a glowing body.

"I am Varjiv, Aspect of Lies." The serpent paused for a moment, "And now, perhaps more. State your name, knave, before I decide to destroy you." Varjiv felt good. In fact, he felt really good. After the Shrewdish Diamond had stabilized somewhat, gotten accustomed to his system, it did... nothing. At least nothing that Varjiv could tell other than his slight abundance of energy. He hadn't gained any new powers, he hadn't gotten the ability to see into time, and in all honesty he couldn't just destroy someone any more or less than he could before. But has he was a giant glowing snake, he doubted that the stupid looking girl in front of him would be able to figure it out.

Nameless was a bit scared, given that whatever the thing before her was, she was certain it wasn't friendly, but even so, she managed a scribbly 'cant talk' and showed it to the Aspect of Lies.

Over his glow and the small light of the tunnel, Varjiv read the message despite the terrible handwriting, "True. However, I care not, answer me, state your name."

Once again, she scribbled a response, this time 'dont have 1'.


Varjiv gave a squint at the woman before him, lowering the light in the room, and causing Nameless to nervously walk backwards. The aspect gave an annoyed hiss before continuing, "I tire of reading your terrible handwriting, give me one good reason why I shouldn't kill you, knave."

At first, Nameless reached for her notepad once more, hoping that she could decently write something that would appease the creature, but as she moved backwards, she bumped into something. In the darkness, she wasn't sure what it was but she could have sworn that just for a moment, she heard a <font color="Olive">whisper.</font>

"Well?" Varjiv uncoiled himself, now towering over Nameless, who fell to the floor in response.

Do it.

Nameless wasn't sure what it was, but her time with the floor of the tunnel gave her a better look at whatever she had bumped into, and it gave her an idea. Not wishing to be unmade or whatever it was that giant glowing snakes did to people; the nameless woman grabbed the urn that had somehow made its way into the tunnel and whacked Varjiv in the head with it.

Knowing that it probably wouldn't do much more than make it angry, she ran away with the urn in hand, back from where she came, with a recovering, angry aspect behind her.

She continued to run, ignoring any further whispers or yells by whatever was doing the whispering or yelling, all the way to a scene that was possibly odder than hers.

Chad was in the middle of slamming Grotto on to the floor when he noticed the running girl coming toward him. He calmly moved aside, making sure to step on the snake as she dashed right by him, as if she was ignoring him. Chad didn't really like it when people did that, so he grabbed her by her robe, causing her to trip and fall. The urn in her hands slowly rolled out of view.

"And why are you in a hurry, miss?"

This time, Nameless didn't have to write anything, simply pointing at the direction she had come from and showing Chad the angry Aspect of Lies coming closer.

"Ah. I was looking for him." As Varjiv charged forward, Chad thought about his situation. The snake he was beating up was not the snake that had eaten the diamond. As he simply wanted to let out some anger and wasn't planning on killing it, he didn't care about this revelation. The woman that was running away was likely another contestant, which meant that if he wanted to go all out, he would either have to kill her and both snakes quickly or somehow stop her from being able to see him do anything. He thought about knocking her out as he did Sam, but just telling her to run probably would work, as that was probably what she was going to do anyway.

As Chad let go of the girl, told her to run away, and then pointed his gauntlet at the charging forward Varjiv, he had a a sudden ominous feeling, as if he forgot something.

And he had, though if it would matter was yet to be seen.

Varjiv, expecting to mow down the scrawny red-head, was surprised to collide against Chad's gauntlet as if it were a wall, and a very hot one at that.

He coiled backwards and stared directly at where Chad's eyes would be if he wasn't wearing sunglasses. "Foolish knave, are you unaware of who you face? I am Varjiv, Aspect of Lies. Tell me the name of my next victim."

Chad smiled and tauntingly said "I don't give names to dead people." He then leaped off from Grotto's body, covered his hands on fire, and swung at Varjiv.

The Aspect of Lies avoided the blow, though he still felt the heat, and bared his fangs, hissing at Chad. "You scum! You will not leave here alive!"

Chad chortled at Varjiv's words then looked down and covered his face in his hands. "Really? You... you really think that don't you?" His words were covered with chuckles.

Varjiv was unsure of how to react to the action, What is he doing? He's... laughing at me? For what? Is he trying to make me lower my defenses? The Aspect of Lies scowled at the young man, and decided to take advantage of the laughing Chad, "Cease your laughter!"

Still laughing, Chad leaped over the charging snake and sent flame down the snake's back. After landing, his laughter started to settle, but there were still remnants in his words. "Oh my god, you really do think that you can. Ha ha ha ha ha. I'm sorry, you can't win."

Rather than his usual 'true' or 'false' (for the record, false then true), Varjiv made an unnatural noise before glowing brighter than before. He felt it, finally, the energy of time fully flowing through him. He turned back to Chad, poised to strike once more.
At the same time, Grotto, not fully recovered from his beat down, but still in one piece, and flattened himself down and began to inch toward Chad, hoping to grab his assailant by the legs.

"Aww." Noting that his two competitors were getting somewhat serious, Chad frowned and then shrugged. "Well boys, looks like playtime is over."

Before Varjiv could fully use the time powers that his pain had awakened, and before Grotto could make his move, Chad waved his left hand and sent a large column of bright fire at the two serpentine creatures.

As the two were treated to unbearable temperatures, burnt down from their skin all the way down to their bones, into small, almost invisible dust, the final word said in the room was a single, defeated, "True."</font>
Originally posted on MSPA by XX.

“What do you think, Stephan?”

“How crass, Mademoiselle. How… eh. What to expect from petite bourgeoisie?”

She smiled and batted her eyes at the bird nestled on her sleeve. “Would you prefer a change of scenery, my sweet?”


Her eyes bored into the iridescent back of the bird as it idly examined the orb floating above the Haruspex’s lap, watching a victorious Chad perform some vulgar dance moves atop the atomized corpses of the two serpents. A slight smile slid onto her face. “Somewhere more familiar?”

“Do you what you will, Mademoiselle.”

She bent her lips to the bird’s head and softly ruffled its crest with her breath. “Il Maledicta?”

The hummingbird blurred for an instant and then was suddenly facing her, silvery beak biting into her cheek. “Mademoiselle-!”

<font color="#919968">The Haruspex giggled girlishly and tossed the bird into the air. Its wings shimmered into motion and it began to angrily dart back and forth before her, sprinkles of white powder falling from its wig.
“Il Maledicta,” it bemoaned. “You go too far, Mademoiselle, too far. I know what you seek there. You cannot-“

A spidery hand shot out and snatched the hummingbird from the air, trapping it in a cage of bones. “Don’t tell me what I can’t do, Stephan,” she hissed, and clenched her fist. The sound of tiny bones cracking echoed across the atrium. “The theater is such a lovely place to spend an afternoon. Costumes and stage powder and lights!” She leaned back and sighed. “I always used to wish I’d gone into a thespian life, you know. A silly girlhood dream of mine.” She giggled again and pouted her lips at a mirror that vanished as soon as she looked away. “Oh, I was such a child back then.”

She flicked her fingers and a mass of feathers and blood condensed back into a greenish hummingbird, now flying with a slight tilt. A deep crack bisected one of its diamond eyes. “The theater, Stephan. And a very special guest.”

“Imago’s debt to me is paid.” The bird came to an unsteady landing on the Haruspex’s shoulder, eyes scattering miniature rainbows across her neck.

“But I own you, Stephan, and your debts, and I say that it isn’t.” She wiped her fingers clean on the arm of her throne. “He’s stolen from us. That must be accounted for.”

“Mademoiselle, I mean no offense,” the hummingbird said carefully, “But the Court is not agreeable to outside interference. To send your guests to one of its members…”

“Fie on your Court. A bunch of doddering old fools and bitches in wigs! Don’t you worry your precious head, Stephan. They won’t miss another figurehead.”

The bird said nothing, only shaking its head sadly as its broken eye rattled in its socket. “As you wish, Mademoiselle.”

At the touch of the Haruspex’s fingers the orb on her lap flared into a brilliant gold and filled the atrium with a burning, blinding light that washed all the color from the mirrored walls and pierced through their bodies into the marble floors. As it drained, six figures staggered into view and froze before they could take a full step, hanging in awkward positions as the Haruspex cleared her throat pointlessly.

“Only six left?” she said, regarding the ragtag crew before her. “Disappointing. We’ll pick up another. I have a very special treat planned for you all, now, and won’t it just be the most delightful experience you’ll ever have!” She gestured obliquely; the orb sailed into the air, pulsed, and swelled to encompass the whole of the atrium ceiling. Within its fog there emerged the image of an ancient and impossibly decadent theater, evidently left in ill repair for at least at century or more and top-heavy with gold statuettes and trite murals of dancing Muses. As the orb’s focus tightened it became apparent that the faint points of light some of the contestants had mistaken for reflections were in fact windows crudely hacked out of the theater’s walls, clustered by the hundreds across the gargantuan structure’s surface.

“Il Maledicta,” the Haruspex said. “Once the most beautiful and expensive theater in the seven worlds, now only a depressing wreck of its former self. Such a shame no one has told the actors! All of the playbooks are, sadly, mere forgeries, but I am sure nevertheless that you’ll find it a thoroughly interesting evening. And, one more thing…”


“Hush, Stephan. Somewhere in Il Maledicta is a man, well, a sort of man by the name of Imago Dei.” The orb’s fogs devoured the theater and peeled away from a new image, oddly faded and pale: a very tall and almost dangerously thin man dressed in slightly tattered French court clothing, an extravagant powdered wig affixed to his head. His face was chalk-white and bore no features but for a single black dot in its middle and a wide, self-satisfied smile. His image wavered and he seemed about to turn towards the contestants before he disappeared abruptly, belatedly followed by a wave of fog. The orb shivered and resumed its normal size, coming down to rest just behind the Haruspex’s head.

“Imago is a very old friend of Stephan’s, you know,” she said loftily. “Which is why you must find him, and kill him, and take what he owes us. Someone in Il Maledicta must know where he is. After all, he’s a rather curious fellow. But you’ve all got ample time to discover that, don’t you? Now off with you! And try not to be so overzealous this time.”

With a loud thunderclap the contestants disappeared, leaving the Haruspex and the bird alone in the atrium. She laughed and stroked its feathery back, ignoring the creature’s words.
“A member of the Court,” it was saying. “They will all die. That theater will burn. A member of the Court.”

“I should have made you a songbird, Stephan,” she giggled, “You do like to go on and on.” </font>


Originally posted on MSPA by Agent1022.

Mortimer John Brown was stuck in a time loop. He found himself repeating a day, again and again. On the whole, he accepted it, but one thing annoyed him to no end - dinnertime. It was not the lack of variety in his infinite meals, but rather in the entire procedure of being given food by his servants. The same procedure, every Brown himself put it:

"Every evening I step in there, and I get re-served."
Originally posted on MSPA by Agent1022.

Sam was still naked.

No, no. There was his coat. It was draped over him like a blanket as he lay there - where? A black expanse, interspersed with seams, screws, not inconsiderable dust...

Slowly, he rose to hands and knees. A theatrette loomed away around him. He felt, for some reason, very small. The black walls seemed so far away. Hands, scrabbling, clutched for the coat, wrapping it around him, a tenuous link to his reality, the last piece of his identity. Yes. Definitively the last piece. He unclenched his hand and stared at the scrap of corduroy there, felt again the timeless screech as it was torn away with the Haruspex’s new interference. His coat was all he had. He put that in the center of his mind.

His thoughts came in broken, hazardous blocks. cleaved from a consciousness glacial. He drew the coat around him. He realized it was cold, there in the black room with the black curtains. It was not a living cold.

The theatrette was one of those rooms, born of theater, that the audience never saw. In the minds of those naive to theater, actors rehearsed onstage, in front of ten thousand empty seats - but the truth was here: up until the last months before production, actors turned a small, black-painted room into every setting and every scene. With each practiced line, they nurtured a performance into existence. Theatrettes were the forgotten nurseries of the play.

Just as Sam drew a shaking hand to herself now, and with a few startled grabs realized that she was still female. But no longer the lean, tan figure of Sir Gregory. This frame was frail. Unused. Or - the thought hit her with the force of a freight train - used

“Mish - Mish, what the fuck?”

“I got these out of Ash’s gym locker. You know - Ash, we have Civics with her, the one with those amazing red eyes-”

“She’s a shifter, Mish, they can look like anything they want. And I’m not wearing her underwear, so you can just stuff these into whatever masturbation stash you’re using today.”

“Don’t talk about her like that!”

“Fuck! Fuck, Mish, what - what the hell is wrong with you? Did someone slip you something, you fucking moron?”

“You don’t understand, Sam! She’d never give me the time of day! I-I just want to hear her say that she loves me...”

“And you want me to, what, to fucking be her? You are a sick, sick son of a bitch - I’m leaving. We’re through, Mish. And I’m taking these - with me, and I’m taking them back to their rightful- what are you- get out of my way, Mish-”

“You’re not leaving until you put them on, and Ashley Hayden tells me she loves me.”

“Mish. Stop kidding around. Unlock the fucking door. We’re done.”

“No, we’re not! And you’re not leaving!”


“Now put fucking put them on! ...Good. Good girl.”

“F-fuck you, Mish. Fuck you so-*ick!* <font color="#FF0000">Fuck!

“Ohh. You sound like her.”

“Back off, y-you fucking perv!”

“Look at me - look at me!”

“Get your fucking hands off of me! Let go! Let-gahhhh!”

“Your eyes, Ashley. You have the most beautiful eyes.”

“I’m not-! Mish! N-no!”

“They’re like little rubies.”


“Ashley...I love you, Ashley. I’ve always loved you.”

“Please, please Mish, please no...

“I’ve wanted you to see me for so long, Ashley.”

“No, Mish no, stop, please stop-”

“I’ve wanted to have you. Since the moment I met you.”

“Stop! Please don’t, Mish! Mish! Stop! Stop!

She drew the coat in tighter around her. It muffled the memory, made it farther away, made it not hers anymore. It made it so she could care about the world again.

For an eternity she lay on her side and stared at a little crater in the dust. A tear glistened in the hollow center, gleamed in the warm orange light of the oil-lamps above her. Somewhere nearby, someone was playing a piano. And singing, in a pleasant tenor.

“Passo dopo passo, abbiamo resistere alle tempeste della vita;
la nostra forza ci sostiene e ci porta domani...”

The doors of the theatrette were open. Light streamed into the black. Slowly, she rose, gathering the too-large coat around her; step after step, she strode towards the song.

“Non importa il nostro male, se ne vanno con il sorgere del sole -”

The music stopped. There was the sound of a slamming piano lid, some eloquent cursing, and a brief, gaunt silhouette swept by the rectangle of the doorway. She must have called out. The figure turned. It was coming, it was coming, it was coming; she ran. But there was nowhere to go. The beginnings of a scream forced its way up her throat-

The figure was a few steps away when it stopped, hands raised in a clear sign of neutrality. The tenor voice, tinged with the hint of issued once more from the folds of its hood and cloak. “Ma belle, mia cara! That will not save you.”

“W-what?! What?!” Her eyes darted between looking about for a weapon, anything, and trying to look into the darkness under the hood.

The owner of the voice suddenly seemed to realize this, and pushed back the hood to reveal a young Mediterranean face framed in curly brown hair. “No, no, not like that, bambina. Here we are in the opera, see? A scream is not out of place.”

This was not comforting. He seemed to sense this. “My name is Lorenzo Gagliardi.” He waited. She stared. ”What is yours?”

She drew herself together ever tighter, gaze travelling over the black, hooded cloak.

“Ah. Ah, well, I see you wonder about the cloak? I always wear this when I am rehearsing. Rehearsing the aria I will sing to Angela, my love. It would not feel right if I did not wear the cloak she gave me on our first meeting, so long ago, in a trench in sweet Napoli.”

He stopped, and shrugged off the cloak to reveal a tatty soldier’s uniform underneath. She relaxed - an infinitesimal amount, but definitively there for his careful gaze. A relieved smile leapt across his face, brightening up his features so that they seemed to light the room far better than the oil lamps.

“You cannot stay here forever, mia cara.” Delicately, he bundled up the cloak and cradled it in his arms, then gave her another appraising look. “You are in bad shape, I can see - not on the outside, bambina, but on the inside you are very hurt. I have seen it many times on the battlefield: many, many amicos calling for padre, madre, la divinita in the trenches, and they come out still calling in their heads.” He put a hand out slowly, letting it hang in the space between them. “Always calling, always remembering gunfire and bad food and the illness. But then you take away the guns, and you give them good food and wine, and let them have medicine, and they stop hearing the bullets and stop feeling like small children in a grown-up world.”

She stared at the hand a while. She did not take it. But something in his earnestness struck him, and she realized he could not possibly be over nineteen. Nineteen and a soldier. Small children in a grown-up world, indeed.

She heard her voice say, stronger than she had intended: “Lead the way. And you go first.”

There came that smile again, filling that face with delight. “Ah! Mia gattina, you can speak! Very well!” They stepped from the darkness of the theatrette into the warm, bronzed wood of the hallway, and in a moment it seemed as if some oppressive burden in that space had been lifted from her. She tried to remember what she’d been thinking about, but the memory slid between the slipping gears of her mind and into that space where they all seemed to be remnants of a million half-worn identities, mixing into an unguentary blob of strange, nonsensical memories. She drew the coat tighter around herself. There were torn stitches in the sleeves where she’d been gripping them.

“You must meet my family! We have lived here for many years, the Gagliardis; we, as Italians, are known for our hospitality! And perhaps you can tell us your story? We are very good at stories...”</font>
Originally posted on MSPA by Pharmacy.

<font color="#008000">The bowels of the theater were full of hustle and bustle, acculumating after centuries of theatrics and meta-fictional confusion. Honeyed light glittered through the crudely-cute windows and the place certainly had a homey-ness to it that could be sufficiently described as "archaic." However, Hector paid no heed to his surroundings. After all, he was trying to remember.

The fairly recent past was a blur that rivaled the most incomprehensible smears of ink and graphite. To be honest, what was he doing? What was Hector doing now? There had been something about turning up in some poor excuse of a mansion. Something about mysteries and deals with a peculiarly shady fellow - some snake but hard to tell, what with the mansion light. And the rest of his recollections trailed away like a paper boat in the river – not because he had forgotten them, but because he was struck with another, more urgent recollection: he had practically done jack for the last few hours. Days. Whatever.

The librarian felt slightly foolish: he had all this time in the world but had taken no effort to do significant action. How embarrassing!

Hector stared at a particularly grandiose shelf that reeked of perfumes and Baroque. It was neatly organized. The semi-shattered glass on the shelves shielded wolf skulls, deer legs, ribs of some hapless human being, and other such calcified materials; furs, skins, and other cured epidermis of various fauna - from the lustrous chinchilla to the most ratty calfskin; at the sinister corners, there was errant taxidermy - animals living their immortal lives in artificial positions - premature offspring floating in their formaldehyde beds. The shelf was full of dead things. Dead dead things. If Hector was not careful in the grand scheme of things, he'd be like one of them too.

He really needed to get his act together.

"I supposed you are a little lost, good sir," spoke a nearby voice.

"GAH." The bibliomancer snapped his head around so quickly that his neck cracked a little. However, there were no bystanders. There was only the voice. The mystery voice. The mystery voice that had some sort of vague European accent to it. Hector suspected it was British. Or Snide.

"Over here."

A bird waltzed from the back of a particularly desiccated ocelot frozen in mid-pounce. It was a drab olive, a diminutive size, and fairly dusty from the close proximity of the long-dead animals. A couple of orange bands shined distractingly around the bird's ankles. It seemed to be a fairly normal parrot of some sort and species.

It tilted its head at Hector.

"A parrot," Hector just said. True, it was an obvious statement but he really had nothing particularly witty to say.

"Nestor Notabilis," the parrot pulled a wing out in a flash of orange and did what could be constrained as an avian equivalent of a gentlemanly half-bow. It was hard to tell because parrot legs are usually very short and he was a fairly normal parrot. "At your service."

"Uh, yeah. Nice meeting you then." And the sorcerer book-keeper did what normal people do when they see talking parrots who randomly appear out of nowhere and claim to be in their servitude: leave and go on his merry way. It was a good decision on his part.

"No wait wait wait. Don't leave." Unfortunately, the parrot followed after. There was a flurry of wings intermixed with the rabble of the crowd. Hector felt a noticeable weight pressing down his nape along with a feeling of uncertainty creeping up his spine. Hector could not shake this feeling off. There was something weird about this persistent bird. "You are missing a perfect opportunity."

"Like what?"

"For starters, you are missing out on a perfectly handsome bird like me," Nestor puffed up smugly and started to groom at his standing feathers with his feet.

"Uh okay."

"Ladies are fond of handsome men and exotic pets," The parrot examined his feet and flicked away a clod of tiger fur. "But you see. I am exotically handsome. So I get the best of both worlds."

"Sure...I guess."

"Anyway, Secondly...," There was a bit of silence as "Nestor" shimmied around Hector and tested at his clothes - nibbling and tugging at places, claws firmly gripping at lapels and bare skin. After a bit of errant beak-poking and prodding, the parrot settled his body close to Hector's face but settled his beak even closer to Hector's ear.

"I know some secrets."

Hector's interests were piqued to alertness. "Really?"

"Secrets," Nestor fluttered to Hector's other shoulder. "The cream of the crop - all pertaining to the tried and true brand of secrets. You want it. We got it. By we, I mean namely me, but you already know that." He sighed a parroty sigh. "It's so hard to be clever sometimes."

Hector nodded slightly.

"Of course, I can't just tell you on the spot. It simply ruins the concept of secrecy. But I'll let you have a nibble. A little peck of a spoiler," the parrot stared to no one in particular. "Most of these secrets are pointing to a particular man."

"Imago Dei!"

Nestor simply nodded.

"Well then," Hector clapped his hands together in approval. "I guess we would be together for a bit. You, me and the secrets. So tell me everything you know."

"Excellent." Nestor spoke through the small crack of beak. "Now, then. I unfortunately do not remember the majority - I just collect things. I don't delve them to memory. After all, I am a parrot but still, one point of interest is an old most-ancient library. It seen better days but it's merely just a brisk pace ahead. If you keep your feet together you might get there in two, maybe one minutes..."</font>
Originally posted on MSPA by Solaris.

To a man without without class or culture or any desire to ~ponder~, the wrecked Il Maledicta was absolute garbage. From the spotty lighting to the ruined architecture to the extremely unkempt, well, everything (all of course, with the exception of the the main stage of the theater), the place looked like a wreck, and a good deal of the people did as well.

To Chad however, this place was fascinating. Though the odds of him saying so were on par with him telling anyone the truth about his past, Chad genuinely thought that the theater, the people, and their society were interesting. It was a place where your social status seemed to be more or less decided on how good of a thespian you are, with the basic human needs of food, cleanliness, and such all put on the back-burner.

The area that Chad had appeared in had to be, if not one of, the worst slum of Il Maledicta. Unlike other areas, which had a sense of order and community, this shithole ran on what the residents pitifully called acting.

"Oh stranger dressed in clothes so bad, I-er challenge you to out-act me if you can!"

Chad was not impressed with anything he saw. For one thing, the stage was built shoddily, he was surprised that the man could stand on the thing without it falling apart. For another, the man was in a worse shape than the stage. Badly dressed? Compared to him? The idea would be insulting if it wasn't so ridiculous. Lastly, his acting could have been better.

Still, Chad supposed that he could spare a few moments to completely destroy the idiot that had thought it was a good idea to challenge him. With a chuckle, Chad stepped on to the stage and gracefully bowed, "If it is a challenge you want, it will be a challenge you will get."

"You seem so calm for a man soon to be defeated, er-,"

"Defeated?" Chad interrupted, raising his hands in the air, "I would laugh at the idea, but that gives it too much credit."

The man tried to start his a response, but after a stutter, Chad decided that this was getting boring, "Now, tell me, was there a point to this? You called it a competition of acting, but you don't know the first thing. You had no inflection, no action, only words and st-stutters." The foolish opponent was now standing on the edge of the stage, a bit panicked, as Chad moved closer. "Perhaps one day you won't be an affront to the stage, but for now just stay away."

Chad pushed the poor excuse for an actor off of the stage and then leaped off himself, strolling out of the slums without incident, into the light of the rest of the theater. Chad walked through the halls, admiring the small vignettes of the Maledicta life, and wondering about the events of the past, and is that a bird?

<font color="#cc3300">Said bird, a parrot, made a set of annoying noises as it approached Chad, deciding to clamp its feet on to Chad's shoulder. To continue the humiliation chain, the parrot pecked at his head, getting as far as grabbing at the frame of his sunglasses before squawking in pain.

Chad did not like it when things, especially dirty animals touched his stuff. Here was a bird not only touching him with its feet, but pecking at him and trying to take his sunglasses. In all honesty, he felt more insulted than angry, and starting with grabbing the bird by the neck, he was planning on paying the feeling back.

This is why it was lucky for Nestor that Hector caught up to the scene, "Woah, woah, hold up there!"

Noting that someone "of note" had appeared on the scene, Chad reluctantly released his grip from the bird, which flew back around Hector. "Hello there, is this bird yours? You should probably keep a better eye on him, he almost stole from me."

"Well I'm afraid that he isn't exactly mine, we've just, uh, come to an agreement."

Chad suspiciously raised an eyebrow in suspicion. "Really now? With a bird?"

"Nestor is no bird, he is a handsome parrot, and he would like to be addressed as such, plebeian."

Oh my god the fucking thing talks.
Putting on his best shit eating grin, Chad took a deep breath, "I apologize Nestor, I acted hastily."

Hector wrapped an arm around Chad, who was doing his best to restrain himself. "Perfect! Now, I think that we haven't been formally introduced have we, I'm Hector!"

Still doing his best not to kill a lot of things, especially that bird, Chad calmly responded, "Chad," stepped away from Hector's friendly gesture, and laid out his ungloved hand.

Hector shook it, and then turned to Nestor, "Now, where did you say the library was?"


Yes, a library, it is a room that has books and information, for reading. Do you know what those things are, or do I have to explain further?

"I get what you mean..."

As the parrot led the way, Chad continued with his breathing, doing his best to keep his mind away from the annoying as hell bird. Come on Chad, you are in it for the long con, you can handle a smart talking bird.

Nestor laughed as he led the way, swerving close to Chad's ear on his loudest 'HA'.

Fuck me.</font>
Originally posted on MSPA by Lankie.

Just as she thought things were beginning to make a wisp of sense, Carlie was once again deeply confused about everything. It felt like mere seconds ago to her, when she was being introduced to another god damn giant snake and things were getting a little to Freudian for her liking. That was of course until the space-time shit hit the paradox timeline-devouring fan. Carlie barely had the vocabulary to properly articulate those last moments in the Shrewdish Manor; she would simply have to settle with “Shit went weird”.

Of course, indescribable temporal phenomena is one thing, what was surrounding Carlie right now was something much more odd, at least to her limited know-how. Dozens of strange individuals buzzed around her, walking to and through in rather exaggerated manners. Their faces were ashen from a hundred layers of stage make-up, save for the occasional crack around the mouth and eyes. The clothes ranged from elegant to downright ridiculous, though all of them shared the same time-worn, ragged look, as if they hadn’t been changed for decades. A few mirrored the same bemused look that Carlie wore on her own face, it never struck in her head that she was probably the odd one out.

Carlie picked herself up from the floor and spat out the excess taste of perished timeline from her mouth. “Well this is mighty...schizophrenic.” She scanned the bizarre mixture of beautiful architecture and jury-rigged living space with worry. “As if I needed any more proof I’m going crazy.” Carlie awkwardly integrated herself into the bustling crowds and picked a random direction to walk in. Make shift stalls formed streets in large dome roofed room Carlie found herself in. Actors and stagehands manned the poorly built structures; selling food, clothes and other assorted knick-knacks. A certain disdain was painted on the faces of merchants and customers; as if recognising the biological need to eat and live was ‘out of character’.

Carlie didn’t like it at all. The whole situation felt completely alien to her. The way the conversations between people seemed scripted, the ludicrously over-the-top personalities that everyone had, everything was fake and she couldn’t help but feel very uncomfortable about it.

And then, as if on cue, something very real happened.

“Confounds! Everyone, make haste! The Phantom Killer! He has struck once more!” The current of the crowd immediately rushed into one direction, Carlie couldn’t help but be swept with it, lest she be trampled into Il Maledicta’s fine wooden floors. Everyone diverged into a single point, crowding round one unfortunate individual. Colourful voices filled the stifled air.

“What monster could possibly do this?! And on such hollowed grounds.”

“They say he isn’t even human Have the Angels forsaken us?”

“Good riddance! This fraud claimed to be The Saviour! That is MY role to play!”

“Lies and slander! I am The Saviour! It says so in the script!”

“I hold the true pages! And it says I am The Saviour!”

Carlie made small hops to see over the crowd of rambling performers. What little glimpses of the scene she saw were gruesome to say the least. A man, lying in a useless heap, the entirety of his front body had been decimated, as if he’d been pushed face first into a gigantic industrial sander. What was left was barely recognisable as a person; a vaguely human shaped bloody pulp. Carlie gulped loudly. Shit. Did that...Imago guy do this? Or maybe one of the mobsters...Or one of the snakes? She thought to herself, totally unaware that the latter two were long gone.

What truly worried her however was the tingling feeling she had in her fingertips. Tiny sparks of energy danced across her palms. Carlie nervously stepped back in fear that it would set off her power. She weighed up the options in her head. Doing this resurrection song and dance in front of so many people was asking for trouble, and the last human she brought back to life tried to smash her in the face with a bat. The decision seemed obvious.

And yet, there was little part of Carlie that was morbidly curious about the whole thing. She didn’t know where her power came from. Hell, she didn’t know how to control or if it was actually real. Either way, Carlie knew deep down that she wouldn’t learn anything if she just ignored it. Her subconscious had just delivered a corpse to her on a silver platter. She’d be damned if she wasted an opportunity to find out what the hell was wrong with her now.

“Fuck it. You only live once.” Carlie murmured to herself; the irony of her words completely going over her own head. The bedraggled girl pushed her way to the front, her hands glowing brighter and brighter as she got closer. Right as she got over the poor cadaver, the light got to work on repairing him with frightening efficiency. Carlie couldn’t help but feel queasy as she witnessed the flesh peel itself back on to the man. After a fantastic lightshow the man bolted up to a vast crowd of speechless actors.

“Z-zounds! I Return to the world of the living! Th-this young lady is a miracle worker!” The swarm of well dressed spectators burst into wild cheers. Carlie couldn’t help but blush a little as she scratched the back of her head. “Alright you probably have a lot of questions. Honestly though I’m not su-“

“We are in the company of a Full Stop Angel!” The crowd’s jubilation intensified at the name drop of the legendary script. Carlie could only utter a confused “What?”

“She will divine the true pages! She can identify The Chosen Ones! This is glorious! We must Feast!”

The sounds of applause and screams of happiness were almost deafening. Carlie’s voice was drowned out by the hysteric horde. “W-wait, what? I think you have the wrong perso-“

But it was far too late. Carlie was lifted up and carried away by the ecstatic crowds like a champion. She couldn’t help but think she had made a horrible mistake.

Originally posted on MSPA by Sanzh.

Il Maledicta was built to house thousands of occupants in its main theater alone; many more past that clamored into its side chambers and backstages, dreaming of a day when their talents would earn them the privilege of sitting in sight of the main stage. While the vast aisles of ornate chairs had been stripped away as the legendary opera house transitioned into a settlement for the anarchic, bohemian society it housed, some of the hierarchy once provided still existed. Along the lower levels-- the audience partitions once intended for the poor and aspiring bourgeois-- resided the stalls and shacks for what constituted a lower class. Higher balconies, themselves leviathan slabs of marble and carpeting, housed the more promising thespians, those who had proved themselves as being worthy of Il Maledicta's grandeur. For a small elite, the palatial box seats acted as their estates-- clinging desperately to the unfinished walls of the opera house, fed by a network of scaffolding and basket elevators after stairwells had either remained incomplete or collapsed under the strain.

The most prestigious of the box seats sat to the side of the stage, so far above the parterre that its inhabitants were insignificant dots. A palace unto itself, the seat comprised a perch above the stage and back rooms intended to provide comforts away from the rabble below. It had never been fully completed-- few of the lavish decorations intended for it were present. Whatever scaffolds had once led to it had long since been peeled off their supporting wall, cannibalized by the performers below to serve other purposes. If a set of stairs led that far up, it was lost underneath the theater's labyrinthine design and the centuries of decay. Where monarchs and dignitaries once sat remained an inaccessible roost, a curious mystery.

Imago Dei resided within, silently looking down upon the spectacle below. His quiet vigilance was broken by a few creaking, stumbling steps behind him and the stretch of fine silk fabric as someone moved.

"You need not bother with that." He scolded.

His manservant stopped before he could continue his gesture, the hovering sigil of light he had traced against the dusty air quickly fading as he did. He bowed his head deferentially, his hands folding together in a hasty expression of penance.

"I cut out your tongue for a reason. Servants are to be seen, not heard, Avox. And using that gift of yours is a voice you are not permitted." Imago said, shifting his attention away from the theater below and towards his attendant. His face remained an enigmatic mask-- his mouth was a still, self-assured smile even as he spoke. Avox was one of the few affectations the Court did not permit, a rare delight he was forced to save for when pressing matters did not require his attendance. As unbecoming of a habit as it was, Imago experienced a private joy from the occasional reprieve from Court affairs.

Imago's countenance, his vulturous posture-- all these went unseen by Avox, but the servant did not need his long-lost vision to quiver with palpable dread. The time before Imago blinded him-- a punishment for the servant's myriad offenses-- did not go unforgotten, and his voice carried a disquieting menace that made up for whatever was lost by his blindness.

"I already know of the matter you intend to bring to my attention-- our visitors, and the game they are pawns in." Imago continued. "Come." He hastily added, his spindling frame already taking a few predatory steps away from balcony and into the cluttered space of his cloister. The manservant quickly followed behind, not eager to experience the repercussions for a failure to appropriately serve.

The remaining rooms were filled with an eclectic collection of items-- at one point they had remained stacked along the walls, but with years of acquisitions they had encroached onto the meager floorspace. Nearly all of them were worthless by the standards of anyone besides Imago himself. Mediocre paintings stretched across deteriorated canvas, chunks of broken statuary, the half-rotten proscribed works of now-dead iconoclasts-- these items were only a small selection of his accumulated wealth. Separate from the ostentatiousness were three beings, the jewels of Imago's collection. They remained still, paralyzed in the postures they had when he had abducted them; they were living statues, frozen in a perpetual stasis for Imago's own amusement.

"It is below a king to respond to pawns, Avox. And we both know I am far above a king, do we not?" Imago taunted, putting a sardonic twist on his question. Avox shuddered slightly, recalling his time prior to his service and the mistakes he had made.

"But that does not mean I am above using pawns of my own."

Imago approached one of the paralyzed figures-- a woman, wrapped in several layers of a well-worn robe and a hooded cloak. Her face was contorted into a serene half-smile-- an uncannily frozen expression where she was forced into a statuesque stillness, where not even the slightest twitch was possible. It was only with the barest confidence that an observer could say she was alive-- all of the motion and vivacity that someone living would express was gone.

"It will be a shame to part with her-- but, as much as I prize her position in my collection, I do think that her performance will be, mm, worthwhile." Imago said. The living statue did not respond in return; any cognizance of his words was wholly invisible. Imago Dei turned to look at her directly. Her eyes remained an unfocused, vacant stare-- unable to adjust to express the terror she would be experiencing, were she conscious or not securely locked in her immobilized state.

"You are to find these visitors, these pawns. You are to sow discord among them-- kill them, drive them irrevocably insane, use whatever methods you deem necessary. I care not whether you live or die, but know this, Lavi Lannon."

For all of a fraction of a second, an infinitesimal sliver of barely-perceptible time, Lavi had some awareness of her surroundings. Even as her ears felt deaf to Imago's words, the warnings he gave were burnt into her memory, the premonitions and commands a vague echo of a half-formed thought.

"Know that I can promise you a fate that will make death seem merciful should you fail."

As Imago finished, Avox felt a familiar pulse and rush happening near him. He did not need his eyesight to know that Imago had teleported his guest down into the theater below.


Lavi's senses refocused-- she was awake, but felt as though as she had lapsed into unconsciousness and had only now reawakened. She stumbled forward, almost losing her balance adjusting to the sudden change in environment. As she regained her footing, she examined-- first herself, checking that she still had her belongings, that she had not changed. Then she looked around-- trying to pierce together where she was, hoping something would elucidate how she had gotten here. Memories drifted in as Lavi attempted to recollect what had happened, but nothing seemed clear-- her last thoughts were far from here, and nothing readily came to mind; she recalled no journey, no passage of time that served as an explanation.

A vague thought-- half-formed, unfamiliar, but wholly malevolent-- crossed her mind. Lavi shuddered, quickly dismissing the notion.

The room Lavi was in was unfamiliar-- dust covered in the walls and floor in thick layers, swirling with even the lightest motion. Rows of moth-eaten, deteriorated costumes hung off racks or collected in strewn-about piles; dim lights flickered from cracks in the door and ceiling. Lavi knew that where she was inhabited, at least-- the ceiling creaked and strained with occasional movement from the floor above, with each step being accompanied by a few flecks of grime drifting down. Lavi extended a hand, holding it above a patch of flaky silt. She had little understanding of her current state-- she wanted to confirm her talent had not somehow been taken from her during her period of fugue.

Blue-tinted flickers of light coruscated around her hand, dimly illuminating the room. With a twitch of her hand, the sparks discharged, hurtling towards the ground with a jolt of light. The cloud of dust coalesced in response, going from a flat pile to a billowing cloud, to finally a crude approximation of a short humanoid figure-- still hazy and immaterial, its form unbounded and vapor-like, but still animate. The newly-created dust golem waited expectantly, anticipating some form of instruction.

"Is someone there?" A voice called out, responding to the flash of light.

Lavi immediately dismissed the golem, its animating energy invisibly dispersing and the dust comprising its form collapsing and settling to the floor. Until she was certain as to where she was and the company she was with, her gift would be something best kept secret.

Lorenzo opened the door with the slightest hint of apprehension. "Hello?" He said.

"O-oh! Uh, hello." Lavi reluctantly stammered in response, her brogue coming off somewhat stronger than she had anticipated. Under any other circumstance she would have approached the conversation with more confidence, but she still had yet to acclimate and adjust. She swiftly appraised the stranger, noting the tattered uniform-- and the woman behind him, frail and quiet.

Sam was making her own assessment as she silently watched-- something drew her mind to to make precise observations, to note a myriad selection of details. This woman was out of place, that was for certain-- the soft accent stressing her words made that much readily apparent. There were a host of other facets she was inexplicably drawn towards, like how for a split-second she saw a root-like structure underneath the hems of her robe. Sam's voice came close to rising in accusation, of indicting her of being out-of-character, but a vague memory pressed itself into her mind just enough to stop her from issuing such an unspeakable insult.

The woman was looking back now, Sam realized. She averted her gaze, shying away and hoping she would go unnoticed for now.

"You seem very lost, bambina. It is quite rare to find others in these corridors." The soldier-- or actor who had deluded himself into thinking he was a soldier-- said.

"I am, yes. Do you, um, mind telling me just where I am?" Lavi replied.

Lorenzo's face shifted to incredulous disbelief immediately. "Mia cara, you do not know you are in Il Maledicta? Truly, you must be lost. Please, come with me-- I must offer my hospitality, show you where you are-- it would be rude for a Gagliardi to offer anything less!" He exclaimed, his voice a bombastic tenor.

As much as Lavi wanted to go off by herself, she was still bewildered and lost-- having a temporary guide would not hurt. "Alright, I'll do so." She said, hoping her trepidation was not readily apparent. She stepped out of the room into the still-dim hallway, and began to follow the two as they made their way through the corridors.

And as they walked, she focused on the woman accompanying the soldier-- and for all of a tiny slice of time, that loathsome thought once again crossed her mind.

Originally posted on MSPA by Agent1022.

Laughter and hubbub floated from a golden glow between two close-set walls. The little corridor necessitated they squeeze through in single file. As they edged between the wood, trying to avoid splinters, Sam realized the strange woman was uncomfortably close behind her, and fought the urge to turn in confrontation. She wasn’t the type to...well, that sort of thing only ended well in stories, she told herself.

<div style="margin-left:40px">If this were play'd upon a stage now, I could condemn it as an</div><div style="margin-left:40px">improbable fiction.</div>
Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene IV
They stood on a little mezzazine, one of many built into the walls of a gargantuan hall or cavern, in which myriad houses and buildings were placed in a haphazard polar grid. In the very center of it all, far away, there stood a cobblestoned courtyard lit by torches, braziers, and a merrily-burning bonfire in the center, constructed from the half-melted skeleton of a fallen chandelier and countless sacrificed candles. On the opposite side of the cavern to them lay brightly-lit structures, taller than the rest and somehow more cosmopolitan. Somewhere, there was the inexplicable sound of running water and the ocean.

The crowd below them fluttered in the streets between aedicula-studded stone edifices and strangely prefabricated-looking brick brownstones, an improbably varied cross-section of Italia across time and possibility - Renaissance artists clad in silk mingled with grubby soldiers from the Second World War, businessmen from all eras commiserating from one Armani suit to another Gucci briefcase, even one or two toga-clad Romans strutted their way through the crowds with olive laurels on their heads. It was a splendid reenactment of Italy Through The Ages, but it still struck the two visitors as being subtly wrong - too many caricatures of reality to fully fool the eye.

<font color="#150030">Lorenzo indicated it all with a majestic sweep of a tattered sleeve, narrowly missing a flaming torch. “The Gagliardi dynasty, mia bambinas. We have lived here...a very long time.” His timbre and posture changed at this, slipping into the strange reverie of one reading from an imaginary script. “So long we have forgotten how we once came to be.”

There came that odd moment where everyone waited for the others to speak. A bubble of silence rode in on the wake of his words, before popping on the shore of self-consciousness. “Mi- mi scusi. I - I thought...” Deliberately, the soldier took a deep breath, meeting both their gazes with confusion-filled eyes. “You...really are strangers, aren’t you.”

<font color="#722600">“W-well, yes. Why did you think we weren’t?”

“I thought...perhaps the - the macchinista di scena...”

Sam furrowed her brow a moment. “The machinists...of scenes?” she hazarded.

Lorenzo nodded. “More later, mia bambinas. First there’s someone you need to see.”


Merda! Fanculo chi dice il contrario, perché tutto questo è andato a completare e merda assoluta! Can no one remember where they put the early scripts?”

Il Duce Francisco Gagliardi, of the Gagliardi Family, Francisco to his compares, ‘that testa di cazzo of a caporegime’ to everyone else, clamped a sputtering cigar back between his jaws and frowned at the underlings sorting through towering stacks of yellowed paper. Before him, the scripts shuffled and flew as the clerks doubled their pace amidst the snowy drifts of the Full-Stop Angels, searching for any sign that would explain the strange newcomers that Lorenzo Fettucibaci had been seen bringing in.

“What if we don’t find them in the scripts, Francisco?” Antonio Patricio Majeur Antoine Gagliardi, the caporegime’s consigliere, right-hand man, bodyguard, occasional impromptu hitman when the situation arose: a beefy man, and intensely loyal - as the script said he should be. “Not even the earliest ones we can find?”

Francisco considered this unthinkable possibility for a moment. “Well...well, mio amico, we’ll just have to bring them in...”


The streets of the town sprawl tangled and turned with a surveyor’s eye for strange geography; in some places the ground was not so much packed dirt and rock as it was canal, the houses raised on stilts above the silt. The three of them ascended a wooden bridge onto a dock set above the turgid waters below, Lorenzo picking up a lantern and indicating a printed metal sign:

Venezia.” Lavi’s little brogue fought with the free-flowing Italian syllables, coming out as a heavily-accented intermingling of the two. “Avvertenza! Acqua prega di utili...utilizzare...

“Si prega di utilizzare passerella,” the soldier volunteered. “Venice is a water city. We get about by bridge, by gondola, by gangway.”

“I’ve never seen such script before.” Slowly, she looked around, taking in the abrupt delineation between the Gothic river properties and the Baroque houses inland. “This city is called...Venice? In the land of Il Maledicta?”

A chuckle. “Past the lagoon, closer to the center is Napoli - Naples - and beyond that, Chicago.”

“Ch-Chicago?! But that doesn’t make any sense!”

Lorenzo’s free hand reached out to steady Sam’s flailing limbs; she recoiled, bumping into Lavi, who in turn flinched, and a few dust bunnies in the corners of the dock reflexively twitched, unnoticed. On a windowsill above them, a potted petunia wilted slightly.

The young soldier coughed. “Scusa mi. I should have known better.” A deep breath, and he regained composure, turning to the robed adventurer: “Il Maledicta is not a land, mia bambina, nor is it a country-”

“It’s a theater.” The vague memory flowered; dull, dampened by the collective recollections that swarmed inside her crowded mind, but there nonetheless - the edges were smudged and faded but she remembered looking up as the skeletal woman sat on her throne and said, <font color="#919968">“Somewhere in Il Maledicta is a man,” “well, a sort of man,” Sam mused aloud, trying to remember, “by the name of-”

Lavi didn’t know why she reached for her fellow stranger then, and put a shushing finger to that babbling, meandering mouth, but a horrid-tasting thought had flickered across her mind in a roaring instant, a foreign instinct, and her hand had moved on its own. She’d had to stop the other from coming up as well.</font>

On the rooftop of a house before them, a uniformed man caught the strange company’s eye and shouted. “Lorenzo! Lorenzo Fettucibaci Gagliardi, come up here!”

“Papa!” the young soldier called back with some relief, backing away from the others, peering into the semi-darkness above the dock. “Papa, you’re here!”

A rope ladder unfurled itself from the roof, and an even tattier uniform came into the light of a torch held high at its top, by a man who could only have been Lorenzo’s father. “I got your message, il mio sedano. Come on.”

“I-I’m sorry, I...I don’t know what came over me-” still hesitating, the adventurer drew back her hand, tucking it back into her robe’s cavernous sleeves. “It was - it was what you said.”

Sam shook her head. “Forget it. I don’t even remember.”

While Lorenzo scrambled up to the roof easily, traversing a rope ladder proved slightly more difficult for the two women, one of which was almost naked and the other almost overclothed in ragged robe. As they clambered carefully over the last rung, the paternal Gagliardi stepped closer into the lantern’s light, illuminating the network of small scars that divided one cheek into a tic-tac-toe grid. “We must hurry,” he addressed them, “The borgata already know you are here.”

Lorenzo piped up, “Venice is connected to the Public Library. This is Family turf; not like Chicago, but the capodecina keeps a close eye on things. So, sta ‘zitto, both of you. Or silenzio, is maybe better.” True to his word, he stopped talking as they began making their way from roof to roof, jostling one another on narrow bridges strung over quietly burbling canals. As the left the artificial bonfire glow of Naples behind, the darkness around them took on a thicker composition, velveteen and oppressive.

She lay in the dark, then, every night after that, remembering. Remembering. No matter how many others’ lives she drew from every day, from shirt to skirt to suit to tie to hat to dress to jeans to vest to shoes to socks to boots to heels to gloves to coats; the memory would not drown amidst all the rest she took into herself. And they knew, she was so sure they knew, and they did nothing, and she had to go, she had to leave them and she had to forget and she had to become - someone else - someone who hadn’t - hadn’t -

<font color="#722600">“You’re crying.” Lavi held up the lantern, the light glimmering off the silent tracks running down her partner’s cheeks. She didn’t know when she’d started to think of her that way, but they’d come all this way together. In a way, they had shared vulnerabilities, in more ways than one. Both could see there was something odd, different, wrong with the other - a tenuous bond, but there.

“S-so what?” Oh, fuck these tears, she was. Boys don’t cry. But she wasn’t that Sam anymore, was she? Could she ever go back to that strange half-life, balancing a stolen identity between her name and her memories mixed with countless others? “L-Lavi...” What was she now? A wreck - “I don’t-”

“Shh.” It struck her that she was shushing her again. “Take my hand.” But this time, under her own volition. The outstretched hand she offered was nothing but her own. “We’ll cross this one together.”

The waters below had never seemed so unmovingly treacherous, like a beast in wait, and Sam was thankful for Lavi’s supporting hands on her waist as they crossed the narrow gangplank above - right up until the moment she slipped on a wet patch, twisted and fell-

“I’ve got you!” Lavi almost shouted, but caught herself in time, letting loose possibly the loudest stage whisper in existence. But her arms were around Sam, and that was the important thing, and-

And she was facing her, crimson eyes to gray, and gratitude and relief and perhaps something else pushed her forward right there on the narrow plank, and they nearly both fell off.</font>

“Ah, amore,” father whispered to son. Blushing the same shade as Sam’s irises, the two extricated themselves from one another, stepping down to the flat, wide roof of an oddly baroque palazzo.

“This is the Ca’ Rezzonico - we will meet our gondolier here.” Lorenzo explained.

“Once we are on the canals past here, it will become molto difficile for the borgata to chase us.” Detecting their confusion, the elder Gagliardi concentrated for a moment. “Mi scusi. It will be...troublesome, difficult? For us to be caught.”

“Why are you helping us?”

“Ah...we are the Fettucibaci branch of the Gagliardis, and we are no friends of the borgata.” Carefully, reverentially, he pulled a folded, yellowed booklet from the inside of his coat and opened it up. “THE CAST SUMMARY,” he read, somehow pronouncing the capital letters without raising his voice, “Alfonso and Lorenzo Fettucibaci Gagliardi are two of the counter-revolutionaries from the war in Naples, belonging to the anti-Mafia Fettucibaci merchant branch of the Gagliardi family. They operate a railroad of smuggled goods and refugees, supplying the three-way conflict in the heart of Naples from their home Venice.”

Sam spoke up as Lavi stared at the little booklet in confusion. “So you’re taking us to...a library?”

“Not a library, mia cara, the Public Library. Between all of us of Il Maledicta, we keep many of the scripts and sides there.” Lorenzo leaned in conspiratorially. “Among other things.”

“No, Lorenzo, not all the scripts.” Alfonso leaned in as well, holding the lantern above their heads to create a little alcove of light. “Some of us - not just the borgata, but others, not even of the Gagliardis that live elsewhere, hoard the scripts for themselves. Trying to find the one true Full-Stop Angels.” He shook the lantern slightly, sending shadows flickering across the palazzo roof, and his face grew set into an angry frown. “They say these secret-keepers, they...sequester bits of the Library for their own, or build little biblioteca privata in their own little worlds.”

“Papa says it’s not right.” Lorenzo added. “That if they really wanted to find the one true script of them all, they’d bring theirs to the library and let others see them too.”

“Of course!” Alfonso accompanied the interjection by heaving a gob of spit into the canal.

Followed by a splash and a muffled curse, and the sound of someone shaking tobacco-stained phlegmy material out of his hat.

“That’ll be our gondolier then, won’t it?” Sam observed cheerfully.

The gondola bumped against the dockside as the four of them scrambled down, Alfonso looking innocent all the way. In one end, the gondolier considered the salvageability of the hat, before tossing it into the canal and turning to face the present company.

“All right, Alfonso Fettucibaci,” Antonio said, “let’s go.”</font></font>
Originally posted on MSPA by Pharmacy.

Chad figured they were reaching to the deeper parts of Il Maledicta because everything there was positively ugly.

Apparently, they were reaching the bowels of the ruins because everything was getting larger and proportionally quieter. Claustrophobic alleyways gave way to nigh-abandoned hallways, their skeletons constantly hinting of Maledicta's former glory. Statues of mourning angels in various stages of crumbling. Stubborn ribbons of wallpaper clinging at the corners. Rain-rotted ceilings filled with flaking depictions of scenes from the play - or would have been if it were not for all that obtrusive wildlife in place. Chad kicked a frayed-edged pamphlet and watched it skid into a crack of a wall. Everything in this ruins was disgusting. He could go all day about how disgusting it was.

Too bad there was a parrot nestled between the lapels.

"I don't exactly understand why of all the body parts I have," Chad hissed, obviously trying his best not to rip the parrot from his suit and bite off its head like some sort of demented rock-star (with perfectly white teeth, of course). "You had to choose the most awkward place."

"My wings were sore," the parrot named Nestor Notabilis let out a content pattering of chirps, nestling deeper into pocket between Chad's expensive cotton shirt and even more expensive cashmere suit. The parrot's comfort level rose proportionally to the young man's chagrin.

"Well, you still have your feet." Chad fired back to this opponent.

"Well, my feet were sore too," Nestor replied.

It did not take a genius (genius) like Chad to realize Nestor was lying out completely, considering flying tend to use the forelimbs of the bird rather than the hindlimbs. If you wanted to be more specific, it was the keel (the sternum of the avian anatomy for you ingrates) that was a natural hook for the bundle of flight muscles that made flying possible for a bird. For course, Chad would never, ever, ever correct Nestor. He did not quite deserve such a worthy charity from Chad Chaswell Charles.

"But most of all," Nestor sighed as though he remembered a great loss from generations back - sad but not exactly distraught over the "tragedy" that had occurred. "My heart broke. I had to rest, my dear Chad. I needed a little tenderness within my life. I needed you."

But you just flew and asked for directions, Chad screamed in inside his head. You fucking lazy parrot.

"Also where you get that suit?" Nestor cocked an inquisitive head at Chad's chin, his parroty eyes drooping in laziness but shining in cheekiness. "I love it."

You fucking lazy greedy parrot. Chad screamed even more. In his thoughts, of course. Otherwise it would be embarrassing.

"I like you," the parrot playfully did a flip in the suit-shirt pocket and nibbled at the lapels drooping over his head. Then, he spread his pinecone-spade feathers, transforming into a misshapen sphere of fluffy irritation and comfort. "I think we are going to make a good team."

Being a time traveller that traversed various portions of space and time, Chad had the experience of sampling all sorts of exotic cuisines. Some were comparably mundane when placed side-by-side by meals from his native timeline. Some were incredibly novel, turning otherwise prosaic ingredients in unusually appetizing directions. Some others were so mind-blowing that it literally exploded the heads of the consumer. Of course, such an embarrassing fate never befelled Chad because well, he's Chad. At this point and time, Chad was wondering what roasted parrot tasted like.

"Uh, Chad?"

Chad glared at Hector so venomously the poor man nearly jumped out of his skin. To be honest, Chad had almost nearly forgotten about the book-fellow. If each member of the trio ("trio" as Chad was not exactly a fan being in a group with two complete strangers let along a parrot) were characters in some sort of novel-like collaborative endeavor, Hector was sort of the minor character. As in, he was just there for some enigmatic reason which was forgotten to the author of the book. Of course, it was obvious that Chad was the main character. Because reasons.

"Oh, uh. Haha. Don't mind me," It took Hector about ten seconds to back away and chuckle nervously. "I was just wondering if you were just about to, you know--" Hector made an motion with hands that implied shoving a parrot-sized object into his mouth before realizing he completely sucked at charades and gave up. "--Nevermind."


"Yeah. Uh-huh, that was what I was thinking." The bibliomancer adjusted his tie more than it was mortally necessary. It was pretty clear Hector was attempting to brush off the conversation. "Anyway, uh. what I was saying was that...we are here."

With a melodramatically sweep of his arms, Hector pointed to the majesty that was the mostly-intact library. It was a magnificent piece of work forged from the finest of alabasters, the strongest of metaphysical metals, and the most delicate of jewelry. (Just enough. Otherwise, it would look completely tacky.) Two sphinxes flanged at the columns, snarling in heraldic ritual. Their pinions heavy with the ripe fruit of a single fat gem. Wreathing the heads of these mythological hybrids were angels, laden with wing and fork-tails of bejewelled birds. In one hand carried a harp. In the other carried a plaque carved to look like a grandiose banner. On the banner, the words "AVE IMPERATOR" was engraved with expert hands and flawless kerning. Strangely, each face of these creatures, sphinx and angel, were the same - a sort of indescribable wad of plasticine with singular smug eye and an equally smug smile. It looked rather familiar.

"Well, someone likes himself a bit too much," Chad said.

Hector and Nestor stared at Chad for a few seconds before disregarding what he had just said.

"Anyway, I suppose we have important things to do," Nestor dropped down and flew down to the bottom of the suit (much to the wearer's irritation). Nestor wobbled to a comfortable height and turned back. "Allow me to introduce you to 'AVE IMPERATOR' Library. Home of the most complete collection of 'In The Company of Full-Stop Angels.'"


"Uh, Nestor sir." Hector raised a finger. "I thought you said this library has the most complete collection of 'In The Company of Full-Stop Angels.'"

"Well, I meant to say it had the most complete collection of variations," Nestor made bobbing gesture with his head as though he was trying to find the words appropriate for the sentence. "Of the play. I never said it was the real deal."

Hector sighed, the resulting echo truly showing how vacuous the library truly was. Apparently, it was larger on the inside than the outside as there were columns upon columns of shelves. All full of plays that were for some reason, arranged into the Dewey Decimal System. Each shelf embellished with a title pertaining to what most of the plays consists of. The titles were written in a strange language that seemed foreign but in fact, was quite understandable. "Main Character Dies," "Main Character Lives," "Everything Explodes" - the titles were so direct that Hector wondered if the unnamed lord of this delirict library was being particularly spiteful to the readers.

"Why do they have the same titles," a particularly irrate Chad interrupted the silence with two pamphlets in each hand. Each playbook was all in all completely the same to the down of the font they used - or would be if it were not for the fact that the labels on the bottom that dryly explained the contents. Chad's right had "Metafictional Plots." Chad's left had "Gratituous Homosexuality." "If the contents were completely different."

Hector stared at Chad's left. Then, the bibliomancer stared at the playbook in his own hand - the label in which claimed "Romantic Fantasy Comedy Plus Dragons" before sheepishly pocketing his version into his pants knowing that he was bit too embroiled in the story. "Ah, Chad. Because...fanfiction?"

Chad glowered. He knew. Oh, he knew.

"Ah ha ha, but you see," Hector continued as he was totally not smuggling "In The Company of Full-Stop Angels": "Everyone Is A Dinosaur" edition into his shirt. "This play probably was enviously beloved and as such, people had made copies upon copies in sort of a subconscious worship to this magnus opus. After all, imitation is the most sincere of flattery."

If Chad blinked, no one knew because of his sunglasses. A tangible awkwardness filled the library until Chad saw fit to interrupt it with a frivolous toss of his playbooks. "So, bird brain." Chad smiled warmly but his emphasis was more malignant than benevolent. "Why did you bring us here."

"AVE IMPERATOR was the first library of Ile Madedicta" a man's voice reflected aganist the ancient corridors as Nestor bobbed into the view of Hector of Chad. In the parrot's gnarled claws, there was a small and heavy object. "Before the theater fell into the abyss of decadence, there was a thing called regulation. You see, forgeries were a thing since the initiation of the Angels." Nestor blinked smugly before turning to the mage-librarian. "Hector, if you be so kind..."

A small object fell into Hector's hand. It was an important-looking seal of some sort, used to mark documents for some unknown purpose lost long ago. The stamp was an intricate but macabre design - two crowned hummingbirds spearing each other with their beaks. The bibliomancer could not help but marvel at the master craftsmanship of such an object. It was beautiful. Simply beautiful.

"That is the official seal - the proof that whatever play worthy enough to get such an brand is a bona-fide authentic Full-Stop Angel." Nestor settled down on Hector's shoulder and peered down as though he never seen such a seal before. "No one had seen it for centuries - perhaps eons if I may had to be flagrantly exaggerating - especially since all the authentic copies were systemically destroyed long before the theater fell. Well, most of them, at least."

Nestor glanced up at Chad. "Don't ask how I got it - it's a bit complicated."

Chad simply frowned and crossed his arms. Whether he was incensed that he was deprived of the opportunity to hold the official seal or not - no one knows. "Well then, why did you bring us here?"

Nestor scratched at his feathers with a zygodactyl claw as though he was completely ignoring him. Then, he opened his beak. "Well, first of all. AVE IMPERATOR" the capital letters were very important "is a library no one had visited in years and no one is going to bother to visit. Second of all, this secluded library is a perfect hiding place. A perfect place to commit...a confidence trick."

"A trick?" Hector was very confused.

But Chad knew. He knew so well that his lips curled at their corners into a smile - and it was not the pretty kind. No, it was not. It was the type of smiles to decorate the chins of serial killers and never-do-wells. It showed part of his gums but every single one of his teeth. All shining, scintillating with ill-intentions and self-serving bravado. Chad knew what Nestor was going to imply.

"We are going to forge a play, are we?"

"Yes," Nestor gravely nodded. "Yes we are."
Originally posted on MSPA by Lankie.

Somewhere in the vast labyrinth of Il Maledicta, a large elliptical room bustled and hummed with uncharacteristically genuine enthusiasm. The space was dominated by a huge dining table stretching to each end of the room. Plates and plinths were haphazardly scattered across the aged table cloth, all overflowing with various exotic foods from across the globe. Elegant chairs of mismatching styles were littered around the table, though they could barely be seen from the massive crowds that had crammed themselves into the dining area. Balconies overlooking the room too were filled to the brim with excited onlookers, all vying for a good angle to look down on such a momentous moment. A chimera of a chandelier hung precariously over hectic room, filling the space with a warm glow.

The centrepiece of all this anticipation was sitting right at the end of the table, on the most extravagant chair that the various actors and stage hands could find. If you would have asked Carlie Levenson what she would have been doing in the next five minutes, she would have probably not answered with being celebrated as some kind of borderline deity. Carlie looked down the table and the vast range of meals laid out across it. Her stomach growled loudly as the fatigue from the last round began to set in. She refrained from taking a bite; she didn’t want to look like she was into this whole debacle.

A man, who Carlie recognised as the guy she brought back from the dead what seemed like a minute ago, clambered a top of the table and shushed the crowds. “Noble citizens of Il Maledicta! Today we celebrate the long awaited return of the Full Stop Angels!” The room exploded with merriment and cheers, Carlie shouted out a “I think there been a mistake here” but her complaints were completely drowned out by the jubilant crowds. The man continued as the voices died down “Finally, after so many years, we can find an authentic copy of the true script! Bring forth the pages!”

On cue, the doors swung open and the swarm parted, revealing a line of well dressed gentlemen carrying gargantuan stacks of yellowed paper. Carlie looked on with a complete disbelief “Oh you have got to be fucking joking.” They were not, as pile after heap after mound of paper was delivered To Carlie’s end of the table “How am I meant to look through all this!? What am I even looking for!?” Nobody answered her, they were all too busy rejoicing and eating to pay any attention. Carlie buried her face into her hands; she just wanted to escape this awful fever dream, go home, go to bed and sleep forever. She took one more glance across the room in a fraught attempt to find help. Her eyes finally homed in on one person who
didn’t quite blend in with the crowds.

Nameless had been keeping a low profile up until this point. Of course she got the occasional odd look from the diverse thespians of Il Maledicta but they were hardly a threat. She had followed a raving crowd into a large dining room and found herself in the possession of a rather gratuitous amount of free food and drink. All in all things were going pretty great for Nameless. That was, until a certain annoying blonde girl managed to pick her out of the horde of people.

Carlie vaguely recognised her from the beginning of this ridiculous nightmare she was a part of, which meant she wasn’t a crazy actor currently deifying her right now. She flailed her arms in Nameless’ direction, “Hey! Help me!” She mouthed, in a bid to avoid the attention of anyone else. Nameless shot a confused look back to Carlie. “Get me out of this!” She said, once again in complete silence. Nameless looked on apathetically at the panicking girl, what was in it for her? Carlie picked up on the message quickly and upped her voice to a stage whisper. “Oh come on! We’re in the same boat here! Put yourself in my shoes!” Of course, Nameless was incapable of empathy and as such she struggled to ‘put herself in her shoes’; however she did recognise the advantages of teaming up with someone, even if that someone was a staggeringly incompetent girl with seemingly no skills whatsoever. Nameless glanced around the room and signalled Carlie to wait as she dashed off into the crowds.

“No, no, no, no, no wait, don’t go!” Carlie waved her arms around in a desperate attempt to keep her around but it was far too late. Her attention turned to the mountain of aged scripts that sat beside her. She picked one up at random labelled ‘In the company of Full Stop Angels: SUPERFLUOUS SHARK ATTACKS’ and sighed heavily. “This is impossible. How the hell am I supposed to sort through all this?” She threw the screenplay to floor and somewhere amidst the celebrating crowds a stagehand bursts into tears. “Christ would I do anything to get out of this.”

As if on cue, an aged lady, makeup streaming down her face, burst through doors in hysterics. “Everyone! The Phantom Killer has been sighted! Everybody run!” The festivity of the crowds stopped almost instantaneously, only to be quickly replaced with panic and screams. The speed of which the room’s mood turned was uncanny, as well dressed ladies and gentlemen frantically streamed out of the crammed dining room, clambering over chairs, tables and people alike. Carlie simply sat where she was; not quite comprehending what was going on. A silence settled over the hall as the last few stragglers scattered away, until with a small bang, a flash of green and red light and a theatrical flourish, a cloaked figure appeared on the head of the table.

Carlie was stunned; she simply stared at the cloaked man in disbelief. Aside from his midnight black cloak the only other discernible feature was an ornately carved white mask with an exaggerated frown cut into it. It rung a bell but Carlie wasn’t exactly thinking clear enough to place it. His gaze was fixated on her, and it was somewhat disquieting.

“Ah, I see. How disappointing.” The figure spoke with a clear and measured tone, with just the faintest edge of menace. He paced slowly down the table towards Carlie, the sound of his steps the only noise in the suddenly too silent room. “I heard tell of a Full Stop Angel emerging from the markets, but really I should have known better. Such a terrible shame though, I have a number of clients who would have paid very well for an opportunity to own a Real Live Angel.” Each capital letter was carefully pronounced. “Instead I find… you.” He snorted derisively. “Golden hair and drab otherworldly clothes; is this really what those plebeians believe to be an Angel?” He shook his head and finally came to a stop, casting a sickly pale shade over Carlie’s face. She wanted to scream and run away but her own dread ensured she would remain locked in place. “But this trip needn’t be a total waste. Whilst you may lack the power or the beauty to appeal to my clients,” Carlie had to catch herself from snapping back, mainly because she didn’t want to end up dead at the hands of some masked psycho “all I require is that you bleed.” Though his mask hid his face, the tone of his voice perfectly communicated the twisted grin that hid behind it. “You’ll bleed for me won’t you my ‘angel’?”

Carlie swallowed involuntarily. The other girl was nowhere to be seen; she was on her own and short on options. She couldn’t fight this guy off and she was sure if she got up to run he’d be on her in a second. She had to convince him that she had value, that he couldn’t, or shouldn’t, just kill her. She managed to squeak out a few words. “I can bring people back to life?”

For an infinitesimally small moment the figure was a little perplexed at such an answer. “Impossible… just the desperate ramblings of a desperate girl.” He scoffed after a moment’s consideration. His cloak opened revealing a too slender frame and a blood splattered dagger. “Really I’m doing you a favour here. If Mister Dei had deigned to seek you out personally then death would be a mercy. Now hold still g-”

The masked man’s monologue was cut brutally short with a cacophony of metal and glass smashing into his face. Carlie bolted up from her chair, launching a storm of withered paper all around her. “JESUS FUCK AAAH!” She breathed heavily, relieved to be finally out of such a tense situation. She snapped her head up to the balconies, spying a girl with no name holding the worn ropes that once suspended a dilapidated chandelier in the air. “You could of done that a lot sooner don’t you think!” Nameless shrugged nonchalantly and began climbing down the balcony. Carlie looked back to the twisted cadaver of the masked man, shattered under a lattice of bronze and silver. “That was a close one.” She says, though his reference to ‘Mister Dei’ seems to ring in her ears.

Nameless landed on the floor with a heavy thud, she scruitinized the remnant of the masked man, before scribbling something down in her notebook. ‘u fink a mask wud sewt me?’

Carlie rolled her eyes and shrugged. “I don’t care.” She paced away, rubbing her eyes heavily in annoyance. “So great. The guy we’re supposed to trying to kill is the guy that creepy psycho killers think they are sparing you from. Death would be a mercy. That’s just brilliant. Fantastic. Here’s me thinking it was going to dangerous.” She meandered back to the table, eyeing up some of the food that survived the dismantlement of the party. “I hope that Imago himself is just as easy to off as this guy.”

Nameless did not share Carlie’s optimism, responding with a rather blunt ‘i dout it’ from her notepad.

“Well gee. You sure fill me to the brim with confidence.” Carlie muttered between mouthfuls of food. “So what is your deal anyway? You ever going to talk? Or do I have to keep up with this ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ shtick you got going on. Nameless rolled her eyes. This was probably going to become A Thing. Before she could begin to introduce herself however, she found herself distracted by a certain glow.

“What? What are you looki-” Light burst out of Carlie’s palms, almost scaring her to death. “Oh Shitting, FUCKING, HOW DID I FORGET THIS!?” The radiant glow danced towards the masked man’s body as Nameless tugged on Carlie’s clothes in an attempt to get some form of explanation. “I mean, fuck, it’s not like I just did this ten BASTARDING minutes ago! Y’know this make a VERY good case for my insanity theory right!?” Nameless started dragging Carlie by the sleeve towards the door until eventually they were out of the room.

The masked man rose from the broken chandelier with bones snapping into place and light spiralling around him. He snatched his bloody mask up from the floor and slotted it over his rebuilt face. “Well then.” He said, with a brush down of his sable cloak. “Perhaps you are more interesting than you first appear.”

Originally posted on MSPA by Sanzh.

"How did you know my name?"

A flood of vague memories washed over Sam with Lavi's question, unmistakably foreign and alien but still somehow hers-- of walking barefoot in snow, of curling beside a fire in the cracked-open husk of an abandoned stronghold, of fey woodlands and premonitions and animating magics. Even for the brief moment of contact she had with Lavi's robes, a riotous anarchy of recollections had swum into Sam's mind. The coarse folds of fabric, the dried crumbs of dirt, the stitches holding her adventuring ensemble together, they held memories that Sam fought to repress and push away and exile. Those same memories had given her companion a name, however-- Lavi Lannon.

She turned, looking at the robed woman opposite her. She said nothing, offering nothing but an apathetic, detached silence. Her earlier moment of gregariousness was gone as quiet panic gripped her-- fear that she had exposed herself, let her emotions open new vulnerabilities towards someone she only barely knew. Her light-hearted affection was replaced with cold, forced stoicism-- a half-hearted attempt at hiding my wounds, Sam thought to herself.

Lavi's expression shifted, her head tilting to one side as she thoughtfully pressed a finger against her cheek. She spoke, a faint hint of inquisitive curiosity tainting her broguish accent. "A couple of minutes ago-- you said my name, but I don't recall mentioning it. I was just curious how you kn--"

"It's-- it's nothing, okay." Sam snapped back in response. An eerie calm came with Sam's response. The riotous voice of Venice's population, its troubadours and actors and their ilk, was only a muffled whisper in the city's thin web of canals. The occasional splash of the gondolier's oar, the hushed Italian phrases passed between father and son-- everything else was distant and barely perceptible.

Lavi raised an eyebrow, uncertain and quizzical. "That doesn't explai--"

"Then I don't know. It just happened, now leave me alone about it." With the almost-naked woman's frigid response, the conversation ended as abruptly as it had started.

One of the Italians chuckled and opened his mouth to say something lewd and chauvinistic, but was quickly silenced by another.

Lavi turned away from the woman and the small cadre of revolutionaries, watching the sewer-water of the canals stir in the boat's wake. She began to collect her thoughts; her mind had been racing and only now was there time to think-- about her surroundings, her companions, about the countless other half-formed musings roiling in her head. Everything felt so alien, so unfamiliar and almost imperceptibly hostile-- she had no experience with a city of this size, with its numerous edifices and inhabitants. The faux-cosmopolitan atmosphere cultivated by Venezia felt odd to a woman who had only seen villages and rugged frontier castles. Lavi looked up, towards the roof of the cavern the city was nestled in. Faint pinpoints of light danced along the stalactites and in between the rotting foundations of the theater above them; whether they were reflections of the city below or were seeping in from cracks in the opera house above, Lavi was uncertain. She immediately felt a strong longing for an open sky above her head-- the flickering lanterns and thin haze of smoke were a poor substitute for stars and clouds.

The robed woman shifted uncomfortably. The thoughts of violence that washed over her, the earlier moment of licentious promiscuity-- she didn't know what had come over her since she had awakened, but she felt powerless over herself. She tried to put her mind to ease, thinking about how in time she would discover how she arrived here and how to return home, but that brought no respite. Her thoughts no longer felt like they were hers-- that there was some pervasive mental influence clouding her judgment.

"Antonio. This is the wrong canal, what are you doing?" An Italian-- the older one, the soldier's father-- sharply asked.

Lavi's hand uncontrollably twitched.

Next to her, Sam tensed-- she instinctively knew that something was wrong. Fingers grasped around the frayed edges of her too-large coat, bringing it tighter around her-- entwined in its textile weave were memories of the countless others who had seen a scene all too similar play out.


"I am sorry, Alfonso." Antonio finally said as he stood up. Light from the torches and lanterns briefly glinted off metal as he drew a revolver-- his finger squeezed against the trigger, hammer struck against firing pin, and with a crack of sound, Alfonso was shot. It all happened slowly, stretched nearly to the breaking point of realism; the wounded father's pained breaths were over-exaggerated, the seconds-delayed blood staining his clothes was far more than any man could have.

"Papa!" Lorenzo screamed, shifting toward to hold his dying father. "Papa, no, no, you can't die here."

"Figlio, I am--" Alfonso coughed, choking as he tried to breathe. "--I am dying. C-come closer, child. Let me see you one last time." His death throes were over-exaggerated and unreal-- it was an act, a farce, but one that the actors of Il Maledicta had fanatically accepted. Alfonso's feigned death carried as much weight and solemnity as a real one, even if he would be breathing and walking on the catwalks of Venezia hours later.

"L-Lorenzo, promise me this before I die."

"Si, papa, anything." Lorenzo was quick to reply.

"Promise me that--" His soliloquy was interrupted again, as in between wheezing breaths he surreptitiously broke another packet of fake blood. "--t-that you'll live to see the dream I didn't. An Italia free from war and strife and the petty games of the borgata dogs. Can you promise me this, Lorenzo?"

"Si, papa, I will." He said, and watched as his father died.

Sam stared blankly as the scene ended, briefly glimpsing to her side to gauge her companion, then to the now-expired revolutionary. The fabric wrapped around her wanted her to forget that his chest still heaved and nigh-imperceptibly rose with each breath, but its influence was weak enough to keep her mind intact and to see the death as a histrionic performance. She glanced to the walkways lining the canal-- a mixture of suited hitmen, ostentatious medieval mercenaries, and Roman legionnaires now populated either side, emerging from the woodwork of the crowded city.

"You are lucky, Lorenzo. You get to live-- our interest is only in the girls, the lovely bambinas accompanying you. And, I ah, need you to send a message to your counter-revolutionary friends-- that the borgata is not be interfered with, or this--"

Antonio interrupted himself with a gesture to the passionate soldier's father, fake blood still pooling in the gondola.

"--will be the result. Now, do I need to make this, how do you say, antipatico?"

"No." Sam replied, her voice barely raised above a soft whisper.

"We'll come quietly."


"She is a beautiful city, is she not?" Francisco asked, looking out onto the sprawling architectural mess of a city below.

Lavi fidgeted uneasily in response. She instinctively knew she was out of place compared to the court of this man-- Francisco, she reminded herself, recalling his introduction from a short period earlier. She was a foreigner in his palatial mansion, enveloped by flamboyant patricians and ostentatious dignitaries and the jauntily-suited hitmen Francisco referred to as his family.

Even as he made overtures of hospitality, proffering his kindness with amicable offerings, she couldn't help but notice how deliberately off-balance he had placed her. She was used to the company of nature and fellow adventurers, not the mannerisms and habits common to intricate schemers like Francisco. At best she had entreated with minor frontier lords, rulers of border principalities who were only marginally better-off than their subjects-- but never anyone with the power or opulence that was now commanded in front of her. She folded her arms together, bringing them around her body-- she felt rough bark underneath the coarse fabric, and silently wondered if any of those around her had noticed her transfiguration.

"As beautiful as she is, this city is full of dangers, especially for bambinas as beautiful and, shall I say, delicate as yourselves." The mafioso continued, not bothering to wait for a response that was not forthcoming. A hint of a vulgar tone tainted his speech.

A furtive glimpse danced over Sam, hoping for some reassurance-- yet the woman Lavi had met only moments earlier remained inscrutable, her face emotionlessly gazing forward.

"I brought you here so you could be protected by my family, mi cosca. We are a sort of protectors of Venezia, and exchange for a small favor we would, ah, offer you our services, yes?" Francisco said, turning his back to the haphazard expanse of stone edifices and its web of interwoven canals. He looked at the two women brought before him-- his face composed and benign, but failing to veil the menace intertwined in his diction.

"I think we--"

Lavi paused her retort, trying to gauge her companion's reaction-- whether she intended to stand up to him, or if she would remain silent and impassive. A quick glimpse confirmed her suspicion, as Sam stood there, her face devoid of any reaction to Francisco's extortion. Lavi hesitatingly cleared her throat.

"--we were doing fine without your 'protection', thanks." She finally managed to shoot back.

"Oh, scusa mi for not knowing. Tell me, did those Fettucibaci bastardi tell you what happens to the refugees they smuggle? It is not a pretty fate, especially for attractive girls such as yourselves." Francisco hissed in response.

Lavi gritted her teeth, trying to push away the horrid-tasting thought now racing through her mind; the same loathsome, foreign notions that had continually and assailed and roiled through her mind were now doing so once more-- and this time she didn't have the luxury of isolation to keep them at bay. "You're lying." She finally managed to choke out, her words thickly accented under a stressful brogue.

"What's the favor you want from us." Sam finally said, her voice barely raised above a dour whisper.

Francisco turned his attention towards the almost-naked woman, ignoring the irate adventurer in favor of her new show of interest. "Ah, she speaks! My family, we wish to put on an opera performance, you see-- In Compagnia Degli Angeli in Pausa, the unperformed epic." He said, nudging himself suggestively close to Sam.

Sam looked up, a glimmer of recognition crossing her face as she tried to remember.

"She is familiar, yes?" The suited racketeer rhetorically asked, moving almost-intimately closer to her as he continued-- attempting to ensnare her attention as he spoke. "An operatic tale of life and death, good and evil, of friendship and betrayal? Well, there are two roles we need filled, and the two of you are perhaps the only ones in Il Maledicta who can play the role of the Ange--"

"Shut up." Lavi said, her brogue almost completely suppressed.

Something in Francisco's speech had been enough-- the loathsome thoughts she had been fighting to contain had overwhelmed her in a single, roaring instant. The mental influence crudely inserted into her mind burned through her, its parasitic thoughts exerting themselves, ensnaring her psyche as they took control. Her voice and her actions were no longer her own; they were more confident, more aggressive and rapacious and cruel. Whatever worry she had was eradicated as her mind was overcome. She stood up straighter, no longer concerned about her disguise or trying to hide her transformation or obscuring her powers-- that would have to wait until there wasn't a pathetic, sniveling insect of a man in front of her.

Francisco turned, livid at the interruption and the flagrant impudence of this woman. "What is--"

A flick of her wrist, a twinkle of blue light coruscating across the room-- and Francisco stopped moving, his body paralyzed by Lavi's animating magics that now bound and worked upon his skeleton. Muscles still twitched, his chest still heaved with delirious, panic-stricken breaths, his eyes flitted in their sockets with a new-found primal fear for whatever was yet to come-- but he could not move, could not escape. The helpless mafioso tried to bark out an order, a sound, anything-- but his jaw remained fixed, immovable to the strain and tension of his muscles.

"You don't seem to understand your position, do you." Lavi sadistically taunted, stepping forward to regard her immobile prize. The rest of his court did nothing to stop her, whether out of fear or out of captivation with the unfolding drama-- a play more real than anything they had experienced before. "You're nothing more than a servant. A slave, a pawn pretending to be a king, impotent outside of your own shrinking realm." She continued, idly twisting her hand-- watching as the suited thug squirmed and contorted as he captively walked, unable to control his motions.

Francisco could only feel searing pain as he moved against his will-- ligaments tugged against muscle and tissue, working in reverse as Lavi's magic made a perverse mockery of biology.

A cruel smirk etched across Lavi's face as she continued. "A petty thug, living through his delusions-- a pathetic insect, king of his anthill and nothing more. Tell me, insect, do you wish to see just how insignificant you really ar--"

"Lavi!" Sam finally shouted.

The robed women froze. In an instant the mental influence subsided, leaving her paralysed and in shock at what she had done. Her magic weakened, leaving the broken body of Francisco to collapse onto the floor-- still barely alive after the ordeal.

"Guardie! Seize her, take her away, the rest of you-- uscire!" Antonio yelled, taking control of the situation immediately. A handful of guards unhesitatingly grabbed Lavi-- she did nothing to resist as they dragged her away. Francisco's court dispersed just as quickly, its dignitaries and criminals leaving as the drama they had watched ended. Save for the consigliere, his crime lord, and Sam, the palatial quarters were empty and silent.

"S-she-- she should be killed." Francisco finally sputtered, his breath hoarse from the experience and wet with the blood of wounds torn under the torture.

"And tell me, where will we find another?" Antonio responded, kneeling down to examine his employer's injuries-- as a loyal servant would do. " Allow me to handle this, Francisco." The crime boss paused, locked in thought-- and finally nodded in acknowledgment, too weak to respond in words.

Sam took a hesitant, faltering half-step forward, her soft foot pattering against the floor.

Antonio looked up towards Sam, examining her attentively before he spoke. "Go. Bring your fidanzata to heel. I think it is clear what will happen if she does not behave, yes?"

Without a word, Sam left-- heading into the criminal's mansion to find her companion.


Lavi looked at the pile of ragged robes-- there was no point to wearing them anymore. They weren't an adequate disguise, and the heavy fabric would weigh her down. She felt exposed without it, even with what she had on underneath-- tunic and trousers and fur waistcoat-- being more than enough. She was without the layers of fabric to better obscure her transfiguration, but she was left with no choice.

She had to escape. She had to find out what had happened to her-- what was possessing her, what had controlled her and malevolently twisted her mind. She had to escape from this prison, from the mansion it was a part of-- her answers were in the theater above. They had to be, she thought.

She extended a hand towards the barred door, blue-tinted bark nearly visible as it crawled up her arm. The door opened, its crude lock bent to the animating magics, and in abrupt flash Lavi had escaped.


"What will happen to them?"

Francisco looked at his consigliere, raising an eyebrow at the question. The crime lord sat in a spacious chair, half-convalescent but recovering from the torture of earlier. He was still weak, only barely capable of standing on his own, still wounded on more levels than his pride-- but his clandestine instincts and subconscious lechery had already returned to him. They were alone now-- Sam was gone, as were the assortment of other figures and players in Venice's acted-out, over-dramatic politics.

"The girls-- they're something special in this play, isn't there." Antonio added-- a foreign, inquisitive tone marked his speech.

Francisco chuckled, leafing through the script in his hands-- a faded and smeared seal almost perceptible against the cover as he skipped through countless yellowing and crinkled pages.

"In the final act, they will die, Antonio. It is the dramatic flourish that has kept the Angeli from being performed-- something we will right, mi amico. When that act is performed, we will be masters of this theater. We will have put on a performance-- no, the performance-- that no one has ever done." He finally said.

Originally posted on MSPA by Lankie.

Originally posted on MSPA by Ixcalibur.

Nameless and Carlie fled into the backstage, down a narrow and dimly lit corridor. They were too preoccupied to note how bare and plain it was in comparison to the ostentatious decoration that adorned most of Il Maledicta. Occasional wall sconces lit their way down the well-worn hallway, illuminating numerous doors with long faded names. As they ran Carlie was glancing over her shoulder and muttering in between breaths, cursing both her powers and this absurd situation. Nameless was quickly running out of breath; previous to this battle she had not exercised or even left her booth for a long time. As the effort started to burn her lungs she grabbed Carlie by the sleeve and pulled her through the nearest door, into a room empty of people but filled with clothing.

There were rows of racks of fantastic costumes towards the back of the room. Amongst the selection there were elegant gowns in a rainbow of colours, stylish waistcoats, leather jackets, decorated surcoats and ornate suits of armour in shining silver or cruel black, drab jumpsuits and stylised uniforms of policemen, soldiers, nurses and maids and so on and so forth. There were heavy fur costumes with sewn on claws and antlers, designed to give the look of some kind of monster foreign to both Nameless and Carlie and more, too much to mention and still there was more; boxes of props littered the floor. They were filled with fake crowns with numerous glittering gems of different colours, staffs and sceptres, canes, helms and shields and swords, pistols fashioned from clockwork or from more modern materials. On the right hand wall there was a short row of tables each sporting a large semicircular mirror, framed with plastic flowers or faintly glittering lights. The tables were covered with pots of powders all coloured slightly differently from one another, vials of sweet smelling perfumes, brushes like paintbrushes but thinner and more delicate, and other brushes; hairbrushes and combs. On the nearest table a lit candelabrum flickered to itself, with a packet of matches beside it.

For a moment, while Carlie and Nameless caught their breath, they stood in a stunned silence, gazing around the room at the innumerable costumes. Even if this wasn’t your thing it was difficult not to be impressed by the extraordinary collection and the sheer scale of it. Carlie might have wondered what this room said about her psyche but she was past the point where it seemed useful to question the how or the why of this bizarre hallucination. As it was she was more concerned with getting away from that psycho in the mask. She figured that this place was likely a dead end, and was turning to head back out when she was stopped short by the sight of Nameless casually slipping out of her robe.

“What are you doing?” Carlie demanded, immediately averting her eyes from Nameless’ candlelit nudity. “Remember the psycho with the mask? He’s probably coming after me so we don’t have time for whatever the shit this is.” It took her a moment to notice Nameless’ pale reflection in the row of mirrors and then she jammed her eyes shut. “Seriously if this is some repressed sexuality thing then I’m not interested and this is hardly the time.” There was no response for half a minute or so until Carlie felt a tug upon her sleeve and then a book pressed into her hands and it was only then she remembered Nameless’ unwillingness to speak. “Are you still doing that? Okay fine.” She reluctantly opened her eyes and looked down at the note.

‘u need nu cloves’

Carlie glanced over at Nameless who was still nude and trying on a fistful of golden necklaces. “Oh right obviously. This is clearly the perfect time for a makeover!” She snapped. “What a fantastic idea! I’m sure that the masked psychopath is just going to stand and wait while we pick out clothes and braid each others hair.” Nameless glanced momentarily back towards Carlie and then back to the box of costume jewellery she was investigating, absently she clicked her fingers and beckoned Carlie over. Carlie sighed and brought her the notebook. “Seriously can you not just talk to me? It would save so much time.” Nameless took the book and after a moment handed it back.

‘i cant talk’ and written below it ‘u stik out’

“Is there a point to this?” Carlie asked. “I mean I know I keep going on about this psycho mask guy and everything, but seriously lets not be still here when he gets here. I mean hanging around talking about fashion is just about the dumbest fucking thing we could be doing right now!”

For the slightest moment Nameless almost kind of regretted selling her voice. It was the first time she’d ever felt that way as before the battle she had seldom had need for conversation. Days and weeks and sometimes months had passed without ever needing more than the price list she’d wrote out. Things were more interesting now she guessed, but at the same time they had been substantially less profitable, which now she thought about it was something she wanted to talk to this woman about, but one conversation at a time. ‘syco spot u easy bcos’ and here she drew an arrow back to ‘u stik out’ Understanding dawned.

“Oh a disguise.” Carlie replied. “Why the hell didn’t you say that in the first place?” She looked down at herself and reluctantly had to agree. Amongst the myriad of different styles she’d seen the people of Il Maledicta wearing she hadn’t seen anyone wearing anything even close to this. “Yeah I guess you have a point. I’ll try to find something to blend in.” She started towards the racks of clothes when Nameless gripped her by her sleeve and yanked her back. “What is it now?”

‘too much ?’ Carlie looked at Nameless. She looked almost as though she’d decided to try to wear every item in the costume jewellery box at once; a number of necklaces hung around her neck, clattering and clanging into one another with her every movement, she wore a golden ring on every finger, a matching pair of bracelets and anklets hung loose from her stick like limbs, and finally a delicate silver-effect tiara. But despite the copious amounts of fake jewellery the most noticeable thing about Nameless was how painfully thin she was. She had no curves; her body was like a bag of bones balanced upon a pair of twigs. Her ribs showed through her chest making her look malnourished. The overall impression was of vulnerability; she looked as though the slightest tumble could break her.

“You’ve absolutely no modesty have you?” Carlie asked.

‘yes $1000 if u want it ?’ Nameless grinned.

Carlie frowned and reread the note, attempting to parse the sentence into something that actually made sense and after a moment gave up. Ever mindful of the potential threat of death by murderous mask wearing psychopath Carlie opted to not try to press Nameless for an explanation and instead headed to the racks of clothing to look for a disguise.

Nameless did the same, though really it wasn’t a disguise as the masked man had never seen her. It hadn’t been vital that she change her clothes so much as it was potentially opportunistic. Before she’d met up with Carlie she’d observed the people of this place, acting out the parts that they had been assigned and she figured that there was almost certainly money to be made here if she could find the right angle, and the right character to become. She’d found it rather surprising, and fortuitous, when her collar had informed her that none of these items were owned; all of them ripe for the taking if she wanted them. As such it was something of a shame that nothing was really valuable; everything was just a cheap imitation of the thing it purported to be.

As she looked through a rack of elegant dresses she contemplated assuming the role of a wealthy aristocrat; certainly the shimmer and the sparkle of the dresses made this option appealing. However when she ran her hand along the fabric she found it rough and uncomfortable and she decided against such a role. The illusion of wealth was not the actuality of wealth and she couldn’t see a clear path from one to the other. Nonetheless she claimed the dresses as her own and sold them for the measly few dollars that they were worth. They disappeared one by one, seemingly into nothingness, but in fact off through the multiverse and into Raxucorp’s Acquisition Department back in her home world.

Carlie was nowhere near as picky. She wasn’t an exhibitionist and had no intention of stripping down to her smallclothes just to find a disguise. As such she opted to wear the first thing she found that she could wear over her clothes; a full length hunter green greatcoat with a scarf and an almost matching trilby hat to take the attention away from her messy blonde hair. She walked along the aisles to where she found Nameless still nude and scrutinizing a semi-transparent frilly white dress with attached feathered wings and a plastic halo suspended by a wire. She turned to Carlie and cocked her head questioningly as if to say ‘what do you think?’

“I'd say that’s probably a bad idea.” Carlie replied. “Look… um… what was your name again?”

The conversation came to a halt for a moment while Nameless retrieved her notebook and scribbled down: ‘dont hav 1’

“Okay, yeah, sure. You don’t have a name, whatever.” Carlie was tiring of Nameless’ evasiveness and of her attitude in general. If it wasn’t for the fact that she’d saved her life earlier, she’d probably have left her to fend for herself. “Look, you’re probably sick of hearing this by now, I’m getting sick of saying it, but hurry the fuck up and lets get out of here before that psycho masked man finds us.”

‘i didnt c him folow us he dusnt no we r here unles he heres u shouting’ Nameless wrote, after a moment she continued to write. ‘mite not b folowing us ?’

“Might-” Carlie started and then stopped herself and lowered her voice. “might not be following us? Why on earth would he not be following us?”

‘just didnt seem the tipe hes 2 showy cant see him chasing peepl’

Carlie was a little relieved, though skeptical, while simultaneously a little irritated that Nameless hadn't thought of mentioning this earlier, but whether she was right or wrong she wasn't going to risk her life on a hunch. "Maybe, but hurry up and put some clothes on anyway."

Nameless leafed through the uniforms of various service professions but rejected them because in order to earn any money with them she’d have to seek employment and then presumably do the job long enough to pick up a paycheck. If the last round of this battle was anything to go by someone would be dead long before that became possible. Though she kept hold of a couple of the uniforms on the basis that they might prove useful for other purposes; she shoved them into a faux-leather satchel taken from the props bins, into which she had already stashed her robe.

Carlie was waiting at the doorway, tentatively peering out into the corridor beyond every couple of minutes. Eventually Nameless emerged from the racks, clothed in a sleeveless top and ankle-length flowing skirt, both in a distinct midnight blue. Under her arm she carried a bundle of bunched up semi-transparent fabric, also midnight blue. “Finally.” Carlie said, “You look… whatever… lets just get out of here.” Nameless held up one finger towards Carlie as she walked over to the makeup tables. “Oh god, you have got to be kidding me!” Carlie said, with a resigned sigh.

Nameless’ world had never developed a thriving cosmetics industry and so much on the packed table was alien to her. After some trial and error and some reluctant assistance from Carlie she finally achieved the look she was after; dark violet eyeliner and a matching shade of lipstick. When she was done she retrieved the bundle of fabric, a semi-transparent midnight blue veil, and draped it over herself. She was going for an exotic look, and while she wasn’t quite there she gave a reasonable approximation of exotic, which was all that was necessary in Il Maledicta anyway. ‘how do i luk ?’ she wrote it on the mirror with the lipstick.

“Hot.” Carlie said. “Or whatever it is you are going for, I don’t even know. Please tell me you’re done now?”

‘allmost’ Nameless grabbed another satchel from the boxes and quickly began to fill it with items from the makeup tables; creams, lotions, perfumes and powders, after a certain point she stopped being selective and tipped as much into the bag as it could hold.

“I’m not helping you put all that on.” Carlie said, “You want to look like a clown you can do that on your own time.”

Nameless retrieved her other satchel and from within it her notebook, in which she wrote ‘murchandice’ Carlie seemed nonplussed until she added ‘o k lets go’ and finally they went.

In the corridor Nameless insisted they double back upon themselves, reasoning that it would be the last place the masked man would be looking for them. In the time in which they had been gone, the empty great hall had filled once again, though not to the extent it had been before. The remains of the chandelier had been dragged away and the feasting table set back up how it had been. A rudimentary and rickety scaffolding had been partially set up off to one side, and a number of people dressed as some approximation of construction workers were standing around it arguing with one another. The peril of the masked man’s attack seemed to be largely forgotten; people were eating, drinking and being merry without a care in the world. Despite Nameless’ insistence that he wouldn’t be here, Carlie couldn’t help but glance anxiously around, looking for any sign of that black cloak, though none was to be found.

They passed straight through the great hall and eventually came to where Carlie had first arrived in Il Maledicta; the market district. The only sign of the man who had been murdered and then unmurdered again was a chalk outline, drawn after the fact and with a great deal of uncertainty; both about the build of the man and the position he had died in and seemingly about the shape of human beings in general. The first empty stall that they passed Nameless claimed for her own. Paying no heed to Carlie’s further complaints she quickly covered the stall with cosmetics, taking care to place those with the brightest colours or most interesting looking bottles near the front to draw attention. On the siding of the stall she wrote ‘toniks and tinchures’ and ‘remedys from a faraway land’ in the fanciest script she could manage.

Carlie rolled her eyes. “Oh yeah, I see. I’m really glad we’re hanging around here, risking our lives, so we can try to sell makeup and pretend its some mystical ointment from a mystical land.” She said with mock enthusiasm. “I mean I know that it’s clearly makeup and that some of the stuff clearly has the label still on, but man this just feels like such a good productive use of our time here, right?” she sighed. “Seriously, who is going to buy this crap?”


“Uh huh.” Carlie replied. “And when it doesn’t cure what ails them?”

‘it wil’

“That’d be a neat trick, care to tell me how you intend to make that happen?”

‘they r acters theyr ilneses r acting they buy my cures and act like they r cured’

To her chagrin Carlie couldn’t really find a fault with that logic, and shortly Nameless was proved to be correct. Customers went away satisfied; their imaginary maladies cured by her imaginary remedies. A small pile of wooden coins was slowly beginning to mount up while Nameless’ collar was busily trying to work out an exchange rate for this new currency. Business was even brisker after Nameless hired a street urchin (or a kid acting the part of a street urchin) as a barker after Carlie refused to do so.

“Great so you’ve earned a pile of wooden coins.” Carlie said. “So what, they’re not real currency, they’re not worth anything.”

‘do u hav paper mone in ur world ?’

Carlie replied that she did, but that that was different.

‘how ?’ Nameless asked. ‘mone is pretend here but if every1 pretends that makes it real mone’

Carlie was silent for a minute or two, while Nameless attended to a couple of customers. When she finally looked back over Carlie opted to change the subject. “What are we even doing here anyway? What’s the point? Shouldn’t we be going after that guy, Imago?”

‘y ?’

“Why?” Carlie parroted back as if shocked at the question. “No actually I shouldn’t be surprised, I don’t know why I expected you might have paid the least bit of attention to that creepy death woman who told us that that is what we should be doing.” Nameless responded by underlining her previous ‘y ?’ and Carlie snapped back, “Well how else am I going to snap out of this and get back to reality?” She paused. “Look I’m not standing around dissecting my motives with a figment of my imagination, this is unbelievably stupid. I’m out of here.” Nameless grabbed her by the sleeve once again and pulled her back. “What is it? You don’t need me. I’m completely irrelevant to your plan to set up a shop and settle down in this place or whatever the hell you’re up to!”

Nameless scribbled up a sign saying ‘bak in 5 minits’ and put it up before turning her attention to Carlie. ‘how wil u kil imago’

“I don’t know!” Carlie replied. “But how do you propose to kill him? How does this achieve anything?”

‘i cant im not a fiter and i dont think u r ither’ Nameless wrote, ‘masked man said he had “clients” and “hed be paid wel 4 an angel” ?’

Carlie was momentarily speechless. “You think he’s a mercenary? Are you saying you want to hire the psycho who tried to kill me?”

‘no’ Nameless wrote. ‘i dont care about imago’

“Then what do you care about?” Carlie asked.

Nameless shrugged. ‘$’ she wrote, ‘speaking of wich u o me 4 ur resq’

“Pardon?” Carlie frowned.

‘gess im like mersenary il do whatever u want 4 $’ and underlined ‘u o me 4 ur resq’ for emphasis.

“Give me a minute.” Carlie said thoughtfully.

In the meantime Nameless reopened the shop and served the waiting customers, before shutting it down for good. During her conversation with Carlie her collar had worked out an exchange rate and it had become apparent that running a stall simply wasn’t worth the hassle. She paid the urchin for his trouble, gathered up her unsold wares, cashed in her almost worthless wooden coins and returned to Carlie.

“Okay.” She said. “But you’ll listen to me and actually do what I say.” Nameless nodded in response. “And we’re going to need some plan to take down Imago; preferably one that doesn’t suck.”
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chad ost by seedy

also reserveaverve
Hector gasped, "We're going to forge a play?"

Chad almost sighed. Not because he thought that Hector didn't understand the concept of forgery, or because he felt that Hector's surprise was unreasonable. He almost sighed because he knew that he was about to enter one of those sequences, with one of those people. The sort of people Hector just are, the kind who understand what you said but upon getting confused just repeat your statement as a question as if that helps or gives anyone any idea where to start.

Luckily for Hector though, Chad did know where to start.

"Yes my friend, we are going to perform the greatest forgery in all of history, one of a play so great, so magnificent that it has never been performed."

"In The Company of Full-Stop Angels," Nestor added. "Although, it has been performed, just not to completion."

"As I was saying. We are going to make a forgery of that play. Yes."

Hector nodded, but then added, "Okay but, how are we going to forge it without knowing anything about it?"

This time Chad's teeth clenched, and he held back a twitch before calmly responding to Hector's question, "Hector, my dear Hector. Look around you. Don't know anything about it? We are about to know more about the play than anyone alive."

"But these copies are all fakes, they are all different from each other, events and character arcs and deaths are inconsistent across the board!"

"Ah, yes, it is true, they are all derivatives, illicit versions of Full-Stop Angels, but Hector, they were all copied from something."

Chad gave off a smile at the last word, raising his arms to the majesty of the library, and hoping that Hector would get the picture.

"What are you getting at?"

Before Chad could express his displeasure, Nestor interrupted. "Let us take a fairy tale, that of Little Red Riding Hood."

Nestor, who was previously flying around the library perched himself on Chad's head.

"Ahem, once upon a time, there was a little girl. While she had a perfectly serviceable name, everyone decided to instead call her by what she wore, most notably of which was a Red Hood. She had other things on, like stockings, and a nice dress, but the hood was the important part."

Both Nestor and Chad took a look at Hector, to see if he was closer to Getting It yet.

"One day, Red Hood was asked by her mother to deliver some delicious apples to her grandmother, who lived in the dark forest. Her mother also warned to avoid straying from the path, for any reason, and to go as quickly as possible. Eager to please her mother and grandmother, Red Hood quickly made her way through the forest, going to her grandmothers house. Red Hood, being a perceptive girl, noted upon nearing the house, that not everything was as it should have been. Before reaching the door, she went back into the woods to get the attention of a woodsman."

It should be noted that once more, Nestor and Chad looked to see how far along Hector's thought process was here.

"Red Hood and the woodsman approached Red Hood's grandmothers house, opened the door, and saw the house in shambles. Red Hood's suspicions were further vindicated when, instead of her beloved grandmother sleeping on her bed, there was a wolf. The woodsman worked quickly, killing the wolf with his axe. The next day they mourned the loss of Red Hood's grandmother, but gave Red Hood encouragement for her perception."

After realizing that the story was over, Hector spoke up, "But you got the story all wrong!"

Chad finally sighed, "Did Nestor get it all wrong? We were promised a story of a little girl with a red hood and that's what we got. There was a wolf, a woodsman, an eaten grandmother, a trip to the woods, and the wolf died. This sounds to me, like Little Red Riding Hood, and I'm sure many others would agree too."

Finally, Hector was catching on, "So... we are going to make the forged Full-Stop Angels... by seeing what things are the same across the different versions of the plays here?"

"Every idea starts somewhere, if you look hard enough, you can see the thread the entire way back."

"So all we need to do is figure out the key moments of the play, what is important, what makes a play In The Company of Full-Stop Angels."

Chad gave off a smile, the gears in his head were going and and had already been going, "As well as, what important things can, luckily help us with our goals. Let's get reading boys."

After nodding, the trio dispersed around the Library, each with a different version of the play in tow.


The beginning to In The Company of Full-Stop Angels is possibly the most humble and down to earth part of the entire thing. It is for that reason, that it has never been performed, at least not consciously.

"What can I do, what can I do?"

It began with one to a few people, trailing around, deep in thought and fear. In this case, it was a poor girl, dressed as an angel.

She was plagued with worry, finding it hard to breathe and wishing that she could be anything else... but she couldn't and she knew that.

She knew that unless there was a miracle, she would die.

Which meant that now, something nearby knew something very similar to that.

As the girl who was an angel tried to calm herself down, unknowingly mirroring the start of Full-Stop Angels, she took a step back, and noticed that there was an urn that she had never seen before.

She could not look away. Nor could she stop herself from picking the urn up.

A miracle? No, what you want, is a Wish.

Downtrodden and in despair. That is how Full-Stop Angels begins. Someone, someones, or somethings are in need of a miracle. And then, and angel delivers. And then another. And then another. And then maybe another, but it is definitely at least three because any less wouldn't be company.

People become confused, paranoid, excited, a full range of emotions and actions follows the appearance of the angels.

And then the angels start getting lynched.

In their paranoia and due to blindly following their emotions, whatever larger group is in power enacts a law.

An angel unable to perform a miracle dies.

So, for what will soon be the second time in Il Maledicta History, an angel will live. But for how long, will remain to be seen.


After discarding his copy of In The Company of Full-Stop Angels In Sutustetki, Chad felt that he was finished with his research.

"Alright then, for me at least, step one is finished."

"Step one? Oooohh, you've got a secret plan!" Nestor once again fluttered down onto Chad's shoulder, "Tell Nestor your plan, please?"

Hector, buried under a hundred different copies of the play, stirred from his accidental book fort, "Plan?"

"Yes, a plan. If you recall Hector, our captor gave us a mission, did she not?"

"Uh, yea killing that Imagnus guy?"

"Imago Dei, yes. A being likely to have as much power as the two who have placed us into this situation."

"Oh uh... really?" Hector silently sank back down into his book fort. "So this plan is related to that?"

Chad nodded, "Imago Dei may be a being of incredible power, but I suspect that if we play our cards right, we can take him down."

"Ooh, and what cards are those? You? You and the book man? You, the book man, and a parrot?"

"No my dear Nestor," Chad raised his finger and waggled it, "I'm playing with a far more full deck, and soon, it'll be a full house." Chad placed his gauntlet onto one of the library's tables, giving off another smug smirk.

Nestor squacked a gasp, "You can't mean..." The parrots eyes shined.

"Mmmm, they say that theatre is a magic all on its own. If that's true, then Il Maledicta, a theater so great that it consumes the very lives of the actors inside should have tremendous power." Chad was almost glowing, though only Nestor noticed it.

"So how are we going to eh, bring the house down on Imangus?"

Chad pointed to Hectors pocket. "With that."

Hector reached in and felt the seal. It wasn't golden, but it sure felt as if he was in the possession of pure gold. "So wait, the forged version is going to be set... here? With us as characters?"

"But before we can have you craft it, we need some materials, and some information."

"What do you mean?"

"Il Maledicta is all about appearances, the seal is only a piece of the puzzle."

"And the reading we did was only the second."

Hector's gears were finally catching up to his companions, "So the plan is that we split up, find out what's happening in the theater now, gather some nice looking materials, and then I turn them into the one and only copy of Full-Stop Angels?"

"And then, with us as the heralds of the truth, we will rally together the people, their thoughts and beliefs, and I will strike Imago Dei down."

By now, Nestor was absolutely ecstatic.


Once more, Chad was wandering the halls of Il Maledicta, alone, gloriously alone. Now that the trio had split off, he could sigh in joyous relief. He was free, it was a temporary freedom, but a freedom nonetheless.

Then, as if to say, 'not yet kid,' Chad heard singing.

"An angel has arrrriiiived!"

"Ah. The musical. Of course."

In The Company of Full-Stop Angels: The Musical, was luckily one of the plays that Chad had read, and actually gotten deep into the history of. The first main song of the play, An Angel's Arrival, sets off the main plot, announcing many of the themes and events that would come later, and also being sung at one of the non-angel main characters, an outsider who inquires about the angels and eventually kills one, regretfully. Chad supposed that he would have to feign that regret later.

He knew that it wouldn't be very difficult.

"Stranger, stranger, have you not heard? An angel, an angel, have you heaaaard?"

Chad smiled. It was time to make a debut.

"An angel? An angel? How could it be? An angel, an angel? Where can I see?"

"Here she has arriiiived! How lucky, are we! An angel from the skyyyyy! How prideful are we!"

"Or so you say, or so you say, that an angel has arrived today. But have you seen, have you seen, a miracle performed by she?"

"The miracle? The miracle! Of the angel, angel! How glorious it waaas, the angel, the angel, hath blessed uuuuuuuuus!"

"Take me, show me, I will follow you to the way! To the angel!"

"THE ANGEL! We shall go that waaaaaay."

As the song continued and as Chad explored the various themes of the off-brand version of Full-Stop angels, he began to take note of the events so far. The first angel had already appeared, and if her miracle was true, then it had to be Carlie. At least two angels needed to arrive before the rest of the plot could be set in motion, if one didn't appear by itself by the time he reunited with Hector, he'd have to engineer one himself.

Then, all that would be left, would be the third angel, or rather, the last. The one whose miracles would be shunned and instill the fear and emotion required for the people to turn to a lynch.

An angel may have arrived, but the devil already had plans to take it down.
Sam's first thought was, Why am I doing this?

Her second thought was, Because I want to make sure she's safe.

She sidestepped a sleeping drunk laying on the cobblestones, and stepped up onto a rickety bridge spanning the small canal.

Her third thought was, That's bullshit.

Her fourth thought was, Forsooth! Such a glow dawns on the inner east, the cities of fortune, the riches of splendor! What better days are these to love and live, my friends?

Ripping off the jaunty hat on her head, she glared at it as she cradled it in her hands. Antonio, his impassive face showing no blush, had tossed it and a variety of clothes at her in a cramped dressing-room before stepping out, closing the door behind him. It was a loud hat, in many ways: raw and fine identity wavered about it, a cotton-wool feeling that tingled her fingertips and whispered strange, meaningless verse directly into her nerves...

She'd picked it because of Antonio; he was following her, she was sure of it. Her old identity - Sam Wün, espionage agent, escape from reality - was slowly fading, but her instincts were still keen. A shadow here, a rustle there; the clues were nearly invisible amidst the general background noise of a dozing Venice. Amidst the amalgamation of murmuring night markets, the not-too-distant rumble of the battlefields by Naples, music-hall strains from the glitz, glamorous Chicago, the deafening sound of someone working hard not to be heard

But did she really want to hide again? (A hardened part of her screamed ‘yes!’, but it didn’t seem so loud now as it had been.) Did she really want to duck back into someone else’s life - when - when the lost landscape of the life she had had once, and could have had, was unfurling again, with its memories and its horror

She would have jammed the hat on her head right then and there, gripped her tatty coat about her, anything to escape the memory that curled tendrils around barricades she’d so foolishly knocked down. She’d been cocky. Arrogant.

That was the only thing she remembered of him as she sat there in the long-emptied church. His unbelievable arrogance, his confidence. She’d liked him for that. And because she’d liked him for his confidence, she let him into hers, and...

The casket was under the ground by now. She could forget. She could forget what he’d done.

The funeral of Mishkalov Vladimirovich Zakharov had been impressive; the good embroidered fabrics and tassels laid on the altar, glints of light from his medals splayed across the prefabricated concrete walls, and laid on a stand in the center of the casket lid, a glittering diamond sparkling in the leftover light from the candlelight vigil. The preacher had spoken on Mishkalov, the War Hero, Mishkalov, the Loyal Soldier, Mishkalov, the Martyr for Freedom. He didn’t say anything about Mishkalov the Rapist.

The pew in front of her dripped tears into a puddle on the floor. They’d all assumed she was too struck by grief to continue to the burial. The casket was just symbolic, of course. The diamond, created from the carbon-based remains of Mish’s earthly body, would be taken to join a dozen others in the Corps’ Hall of Fame. In wartime, heroes are plentiful, martyrs even more so. So; he was dead. She clutched at a fold of her dress. He was dead and she was alive. Whether she had survived - another story. She was wearing the dress she had been wearing that night. Underneath that, the underwear that was not hers. She blinked red-irised eyes.

She had thought that she would feel different. But the world kept turning. Each day a change of clothes away from the last. She cocooned herself in them, in the faint whispers each identity she took left behind in her mind. He was dead and she was alive. She didn’t want to be.


A bangled, withered hand protruded from within a fortress of gems and shining bells: “Fortunes? Fortunes read, signor?”, wrinkled lips, false teeth called out. Then a splash of muttering: “And ‘push off, old crone’ to you too, and may your hair fall out into your fettucine, you faccia de merda.”

Brown, sparkling eyes, deep-set, tracked a figure carefully skirting the marketplace edge; footsteps growing closer - a figure clearly not wanting to be seen, and the eyes knew why.

No longer running, Lavi sidled from flickering shadow to shadow - every so often the glare from the marketplace outlining her form for a moment. She sensed that her tail was gone, or lost, or left behind in the maze of alleys and canals, yet she endeavored to remain hidden: the blue-gray tint of her skin would betray her transformation to any onlooker. Yet in a way she was beyond caring, really, her furtiveness more a force of habit than actual caution.

Still, she jumped when the old gypsy laid a wrinkled hand on her arm - in one motion she pulled it free and took a step, preparing to run. Only in a fit of pique did she look back - to see the gypsy smiling disarmingly, and for some reason that brought her short.

Esquille,” the gypsy said, raising a palm peppered with bits of bark, “Splinters.” Her smile grew wider, showing yellowed teeth, yet it was not unkind. “Come into my pavilion, bambina.”

A miasma of perfumery and sparkle: that would have been Lavi’s description of the tent’s interior had her eyes not been shut and her sense of smell completely shut down. It was a very mystical atmosphere, the gypsy would have said, but that would have been completely unnecessary.

The fortuneteller, whose name was Jofranka, had had tea ready. “I mean no harm, bambina, but these old eyes, they are very keen.’

Hesitantly, Lavi found her voice. ” so?”

“I see, ma cher, that you have had a curse laid on you.” She indicated the tinge and texture to the adventurer’s arm. “And it is the custom of my people, to-”

“To remove them? To strip them of such ‘curses’?” Lavi fairly barked, her tone suddenly harsh as the foreign anger abruptly returned in a hot flash - but fading as quickly as it had come. “I...I am sorry.”

Jofranka raised a hand, palm away: the universal sign for ‘Don’t worry about it.’ “The others in these three cities are not like I. They do not see like I.” She made a pass in the air, and pointed at her eyes. “These eyes are not of Gagliardi blood.” Pause. Sip of tea. “Mama was of the People, but she ran off - ran! From the Romany! - with a strange, enigmatic man, with strange clothes and strange talk: a man du français; who spoke often of the ‘dans les coulisses’ - behind the scenes. Forbidden talk - but, apparently, not for him. He called himself one of the machiniste...’

A sudden fragment of memory: “The macchinista di scena...someone mentioned them to us. The machinists of scenes, he said.”

The fortuneteller nodded. “They are perhaps a legend, perhaps not; Papa was étrange, but then again he was an étranger among us, and after Mama died he left us once more. They walk among us yet are unseen, they move the world on its axes and change the very lights in the sky.”

A long, deep sigh.

“C’est la vie...c’est Lavi.”

She ignored the look on the druid’s face, and spoke to the perfumed air. “Still, if you will not accept help from me, I would advise, perhaps, that you seek them out. The machiniste. Mon dieu, I make it sound so simple.” Another sigh. “The truth is, ma cherie, you do not find them. I am sure they will find you.”


Normally being a dark silhouette by an alley mouth was a career with generally terminal prospects, but Antonio’s outline was instantly recognizable and hence exempt from such commoner’s rules. In one hand he held a rolled-up bundle of cloth. In the other he carried a tommygun.

Sam stared at him, the hat clutched between whitened knuckles, halfway to her head; eyes bright and wide in fear and desperation, she fought to move and found her muscles unresponsive-

“Here.” The bundle sailed through the air, knocking the hat neatly out of Sam’s hands. “Your compatriota’s. She left it behind.”

Slowly, Sam unfolded the whispering cloth until it became Lavi Lannon’s robe, with all its distinctive weft and warp and frayed edges. Not understanding, her eyes met the bodyguard’s; red meeting brown.

Ragazza benedetta.” The gun barrel twitched downwards as Antonio spoke. “I put my faith in you now. This is not a small thing.” He paused, searching for the words. “I, Antonio. Antonio, Patricio, Majeur, Antoine, Gagliardi,” he intoned, stressing the names, “Like others before me, do pledge my aid.” Carefully, he dropped to one knee before her, and recited:

“Through fire and flame, the wound and the shot,
the angel-sweet harmonies have not been forgot;
Second in name and second in plot...”

It was a strange sight to see; Antonio, a large man, dressed in rich finery, kneeling before the strange red-eyed girl with the too-large coat and the tatty orange hat. It was a sight none in Il Maledicta would see personally, yet in mere minutes all would know it had happened.

The followers of the second angel had pledged their allegiance.


Nestor was ecstatic. He remained ecstatic as he winged his way out into the musty corridors, an equally musty scroll of parchment clasped in his talons.

It was primarily from watching the plan he had fomented slide into place like a well-oiled key; primarily from seeing the librarian bewildered and lost amidst the engulfing drifts of paper; and most primarily the look Chad wore when speaking of the forgery they were about to undertake. Leadership is so easy to take, especially over those who think themselves the leader, and Nestor had a firm grip on Chad’s figurative shoulder (Birds have a different idea about dominance positions.)

Secondarily, Hector had suggested they split up. Of his own accord! Nestor smiled, as much as a bird could do. He hadn’t even had to hint it to the librarian - that would have put himself forward - but hapless, helpless Hector had decided it all on his own! It was moments like these that made life worth living, the avian chessmaster reflected.

Of course, there was the obvious drawback that Chad was now running loose without a guide, in both senses. Still, he thought darkly to himself, Chad getting lost in the labyrinth of Il Maledicta was nothing compared to the havoc he could wreak if not checked by a more - ahem - experienced voice. But there was nothing to be done; if he had protested Hector’s proposal he would have had no reason to be rid of the useless librarian, and he would not be free to enact whatever steps he chose to take now.

Which led to the parchment he held, and the murmurs that he followed. Here and there he would perch on some low-hanging beam and listen to conversation below, before taking flight again down another, somewhat dingier, corridor.

“Downstairs!” “Downstairs?” “Yes, and in the Libraries too!” “Which one? We must hurry-”
“An angel?” “Two!” “Already? But, but it isn’t time!” “It’s time somewhere-”
“Ha! Told you - your copy isn’t worth the paper it’s written on!” “Shut up! Which way do we go?” “I heard down in the cavern-” “Ugh, with the damn Italians?” “I know you hoped they wouldn’t turn out legit, but-”
“I heard the First has already disappeared somewhere!” “Oh?” “And the Second is on the move!” “Places! Places! Crap-”


Coughing a little, Antonio stood. “Do not misunderstand me, angelica ragazza. I will not be following your every step - I cannot - my presence is dictated elsewhere.” He brushed dust from his knee, almost absentmindedly, and turned an about-face in the narrow alley. “But I will be there when you need it. As will my brothers in arms.”

“Wait!” The bodyguard made a half-turn of his head. Cocked an ear. Waited as Sam realized she had nothing to say. “What about Francisco?” she volunteered, desperately.

“Francisco?” Antonio’s voice grew grim, and a something flashed in the eye that Sam could see. “That useless testa di cazzo? That succhiatore that thinks nothing of the angeli? He thinks of them - you! - as a toy, a bargaining chip in among the borgata; playing mafioso in the rich rooms of his little palace! Filthy!” He spat against the wall, back still turned, and watched it slide down between two cobblestones. “In due time I will face him, and he will face me. And then he will follow,” he indicated the wet track of spittle, “like that.”

For a moment, Sam turned her attention to the wall, trying to decipher what the bodyguard meant. When she looked up again, Antonio had gone.

And then a bird landed on her head.


The library was dusty and forgotten; yet its floor had been littered with yellowing sheets when Hector had first arrived; as if in some age past the pages had been ransacked by marauders, collectors or truth-seekers in the pursuit of their respective goals. Standing out amidst the litter now were fresh, white pieces of paper - fresh, in the most literal sense, in that they until recently had been a pile of wood pulp in Hector’s hand.

“All right.” The librarian concentrated, and disorganized wet cellulose wove itself into another crisp sheet. A little squeeze of Gary the Squid, and words began to appear, in careful handwriting, at the top of the page:


From categorizing and producing a rough census of library materials, a particular organizational system appears to be predominant among them. Books, scrolls and other media following this organizational system have the following legend, in this format, prominently printed in some area:


Where Xs denote varying alphanumeric codes which I hypothesize are categorical in nature. By examining the pieces in question it is possible to draw some early conclusions as to their meaning:


The first set varies somewhat between scripts, but it appears that those prefaced with a G center around an extended Italian dynasty by the name of Gagliardi, whereas scripts bearing other prefaces make only marginal involvements with said characters. The letter is followed by numerals, which appear to serve to identify the plot.


Results were inconclusive regarding the second set, as the majority of scripts use the code ‘III’. Most exceptions to this rule were damaged or had sections missing....


Laboriously, by the flickering safety lamps that served for light in the library, Hector wrote. Every so often he would pick up a book or page by the pile next to him, and cross-reference. Less often, he would take a pocketknife from its secret cache in his peg leg, and whittle down wood shavings from a broken chair leg, adding them to a little bowl of water, and craft a new page from the fresh wood pulp.


…the last section is the most varied code of all, ranging from ‘NR’ to ‘AE’ and ‘SQR’, but a large fraction seem to be dominated by ‘NHE’. A common thread remains elusive.

Carefully, Hector put down the paper. All around him, the library murmured. The faint sounds of rats scratching in the walls, pages rustling, the miniscule noises of dust settling into grooves and gaps in the ground - they were more oppressive than any silence could be. They said: We will be here long after the last human dies. We will never change, never die, until the books themselves rot away and the rats starve to death, and even then dust on unbroken dust will coat every unloved surface. For from dust you were formed and to dust you will return, but dust itself does not die.

He looked down at the paper to find that he had scrawled thoughts on dust onto his organization chart. Sighing, he wished he had a clock; then perhaps the indeterminate passage of time would be quantized, sliced into manageable bits - but his wish went unanswered.

He’d been excited to suddenly be part of an adventure. Then he’d been bewildered, terrified, surrounded by things he couldn’t understand, almost dying - but now that he was back in a role that was, for all intents and purposes, the same one he had left behind in the mundane world, he chafed against the ordinariness of it all. Only the prospect of perhaps fulfilling the goal the strange woman had given them - destroying this Imago Dei - gave him any hope to move forward.

Still, he wouldn’t be himself if he couldn’t do the job in front of him, he mused, as he lifted yet another heavy tome from its dusty place.


Okay, went Sam’s thoughts, which were behaving a little better now, There’s a bird on my head. Now what?

It was followed up by, I’m an angel now? As if!

And then, How about what Antonio said? What did he mean, ‘follow like that?’

She must have said that last one out loud, because a sarcastic voice replied from directly above her head: “He means a firing squad, bambina, as they say. You know. Against the wall and all that.”

For a long moment there was silence. Then, an even longer silence, shattered eventually by the fluttering of wings, and the sudden appearance of a large olive bird perched on a railing opposite the alley. Suddenly, the issue of the bird on her head no longer weighed on Sam’s mind.

Nestor Notabilis,” the parrot - it had to be a parrot, or some other kind of talking bird, Sam decided, or else she’d go insane - said, flashing the orange underside of a wing, “Interlocuter, messenger, wanderer - and now, guide to the Second Angel. How are you, young miss?”


“Pardon me! Where are my manners?” Nestor interrupted, without irony. “This is for you.” With a flourish and a flap, the parrot deposited the parchment scroll on a nearby crate. “You’ll have to come and get it, I’m afraid. This is rather important.” He gave the girl an appraising look, and continued, “Besides - besides, besides! You could stand to take some sunshine, it seems.” And here, if he had been human, he would have flashed a brilliant, toothy smile.

Sam didn’t trust it, or ‘Nestor Notabilis’, but she stepped out of the alley anyway; it was either that or set up shop there (which, to be completely fair, a perfectly legitimate business strategy among the Gagliardis). As she drew closer to the parrot, however, she saw him edge imperceptibly away, as if suppressing a basic avian urge to fly away. A heartening thought - for once, she considered, while her hands picked up the scroll and broke the seal. Then she read the lines - one typeset, one handwritten - on the parchment, and all other thoughts were driven from her mind:

REFERENCE: Second Angel (side), The. Version XXVII, Edition 2.28a [G13.III.S.NM.O.NHE]

“The Second Angel arises. And she shall be called the Changeling, for in her escape she will become like us; she will have been walking among us all along.”
It had been hours-- or it felt like it had been, the passage of time was indiscernible within Il Maledicta's labyrinth of once-glamorous, now-faded galleries-- since Lavi had met with the gypsy, and her words still haunted her. The fortuneteller had explained nothing, only made the theater seem more foreign; after her circuitous rambling, Lavi had only more unanswered questions that went ignored. In between scatterbrained attempts at piecing together what she knew, she would take another step-- forward and upwards, her bare feet caked in dust from the creaking staircase she now climbed. She could only wander aimlessly, hoping that something would arise and decipher Il Maledicta's incalculable enigmas.

Lavi stopped, now at the top of the staircase. The strange cities of Venice and Chicago and Naples, cities utterly alien to her, lay down at the bottom of the countless spiraling steps that she had finally ascended. They were behind her, and their world no longer mattered, she tried to tell herself. The fortuneteller's appraisal of her as having a curse crossed her mind once more, a parting memory of that world, and the druid felt a recalcitrant flush of anger-- how dare she judge her as cursed, calling her talent at an art they'd never so much as dream of an unspeakable anathema.

Her arms folded together, clutching herself as she shuddered-- unsure of whether that malevolent thought was her own. Lavi turned away, desperate to forget what transpired beneath the theater's collapsing foundations.

A new environment greeted her when left the stairwell-- or Lavi assumed as much. The anarchic sprawl of market stalls and haphazard, jury-rigged edifices was nearly indistinguishable from the subterranean warrens down below, at least to eyes trained on forests and wilderness. It was hard to apply the same skills; to transition from the quiet of pristine snow and trees to the riot of color and Il Maledicta's wandering troupes of ashen-faced actors was difficult. She was disoriented, her steps were almost too-light in an attempt to mask the dazed confusion-- and, on some basic level, the fear: she would be seen amongst the teeming crowds. Hiding would be impossible.

She carefully sidled forward, like an injured deer amongst wolves.


For a brief moment, someone noticed the druid slip inside of the marketplace-- and just as quickly, they were distracted again.

Carlie hadn't stopped talking about how to kill Imago. There was still some windfall that could be extracted from Carlie, Nameless was certain, but her enthusiasm-- if it could be called that-- for the scheme to kill Imago was nonexistent; she only barely managed to feign a polite interest. There was no financial incentive in the plan, and while her sense of cutthroat opportunism saw opportunity enough to profit, it would be difficult with Carlie's line of thought. As the girl continued to speak, Nameless took another bite of a peach she had acquired with her stack of wooden coins, with only a thinly-remembered modicum of decency keeping the fruit from dribbling down her chin. Her eye was caught by the drab attire of someone moving through the crowd, a stark contrast to the vibrant colors of the actors-- someone who wouldn't likely be a native to the theater. She realized this was the same person she'd seen enter moments earlier.

Nameless silently excused herself, mentally tucking away her own designs on Carlie as she began to shadow the new arrival.

Lavi didn't notice her tail-- she was lost in thought, trying to piece together what she should search for. No revelation gripped her, no certainty as to where to go. She only had the same solitude and confusion that she had carried with her from the catacombs below-- the druid was hoping for an answer when she wasn't sure what question she would ask. She nervously tugged on her sleeves as she walked, pulling them further over her arms.

"May I 'elp you, mademoiselle?"

A bitter taste of iron seeped into her mouth as she reflexively bit down on her tongue. Root-tendril feet took a half-step back, eyes looked up to see who addressed her-- an ostentatious figure, draped in tattered, moth-eaten finery and masked in peeling layers of dried makeup. A clothier, she presumed, judging from the stall he occupied: bolts of thick, colorful fabric were draped off of its wooden framework, and an assortment of tailored articles were strewn about. She immediately disliked him, and it almost frightened to know that she couldn't pinpoint why. She scanned his wares, waiting patiently to see what he wanted, her normal vivacity carefully suppressed.

The tailor took her silence as a show of interest, and immediately spoke again. "Ah, ze mademoiselle likes what she sees, oui? She could use something better zan ze filthy rags sh--"

"I'm-- I'm not interested, thank you." Lavi's reply was half-hearted and detached; she was distracted by her search for something unknown.

An overexaggerated gasp of shock was his reply. "Mon dieu!" He exclaimed. "She wishes to remain in her disgusting tatters? Non, c'est impossible, it is--"

Crowds of painted-faced figures were gathering, attracted to the tension of a disagreement and patiently coiled for an explosion of drama. Lavi was aware of them, their attention beating down from all sides-- she started to walk, desperate to escape the tailor and his gathered mob.

An errant hand interrupted her-- outstretched fingers grasped and tugged, snagging against her sleeve and inarticulately pulling back to reveal carefully hidden bark-skin. Ash-coated faces gaped and silently gasped as the tailor pulled her arm upward, exposing it to the newly-gathered audience.

"--it is out of character. Zis chérie ange was trying to 'ide from us." The tailor finally finished, placing a disquieted, accusatory emphasis on his ultimatum.

Hidden amongst the crowd, Nameless watched the scene play out, intrigued by the new revelation but not displaying the same melodramatic shock the collected troupe openly revealed. She wasn't sure just what to make of her, but she was a curiosity and had rapidly attracted a crowd-- and novelty always sold well, she knew. Her diminutive stature helped her sneak forward, moving unnoticed amid the painted-faced throng-- until she stopped, her eye caught by a forgotten poster plastered on one of the market's walls.

A foreign rush of anger surged over Lavi; for a moment, she wanted nothing more than to slake an alien bloodlust, to punish the tailor for his impertinence. Her free hand reached back, hidden underneath her sleeve so that none of the gathered thespians could see the pale twinkle of blue light coruscating over her fingertips. She could make him beg for her forgiveness. It would be easy to break him, to torture him--

--No, Lavi thought, her own mind reasserting itself over the malignant influence's reverie. The memories of exacting excruciating pain on Francisco were indelibly burnt into her mind-- she had no desire to go through that again, to go through hurting someone and being used against her will. She'd need to use her gift to escape, she knew, but not in the way that loathsome presence wanted her to.

Lavi allowed herself a small, vivacious smile.

The tailor looked at her, no longer addressing the eager troupe and instead returning to pressuring her and trying to ignore the new liveliness crossing her formerly listless, fearful face. "Now, mon chérie ange, what will your miracle b--"

Lavi's unbound hand dug deep into the piled cloth and fabric, the flickering glow suppressed, even though in an instant her slight attempt at subterfuge would not matter. The textiles rippled, quivering slightly-- and then burst forth, an immense homunculus of fabric springing into being. Scarves were knotted and twisted against each other, tugging other pieces of the ragged construct as unfurled bolts of cloth billowed like the folds of an immense cloak. The entire figure loomed over the crowd-- somehow barely managing to not fall apart-- and protectively drooped over the druid, shielding her.

A once-intimidating crowd turning to fear, a tailor's grip loosening as he retreated, an intimidating aegis of eaten-away silk and fabric-- Nameless noticed these details, but was distractedly interested by the druid. She quickly folded the poster she had been reading, stowing it within the pages of her notebook before anyone else had time enough to look upon it. In the half-second her attention was away, the girl had escaped, now running down one of the broken marketplace's narrow passages. Nameless mutely followed, ignoring the now-collapsing golem or the actors, who had forgotten the girl and devolved into a shouting-match over how important their character was; whatever unity they had when presented with the foreigner was gone. Her own mind was on that foreigner-- she was important, and Nameless had every intention of manipulating a profit out of her situation.

Without her attention, the golem had fallen apart, the magic holding it together collapsing with no force to supervise it-- but Lavi didn't care; it had served its purpose in helping her escape. She ran, not bothering to look back and see if she was being tailed.

Her root-tendril feet finally stopped, settling against the wooden floorboards. She was in another one of the marketplace's promenades, now, still lost within Il Maledicta's labyrinth but away from immediate danger. Passing performers still looked at her and regarded her with a cold, mocking derision, but did not immediately see her as a possession to be coveted-- the way the tailor and his mob had. They didn't worry her-- she was more concerned by the procession that now gathered around her, the one that seemed to be completely ignored by the distant actors.

A troop of black-clothed figures had quietly emerged, seemingly from the bazaar's woodwork, and silently taken positions around her. Their assortment of masks-- from faceless facades of porcelain to funerary-like veils to dark, shadowed hoods-- obscured their faces entirely, and Lavi took a half-step back towards the passageway she had emerged from, as if to flee. At their center, however, emerged one man. He was different, dressed in tattered regalia, his eyes tightly bound by a silk blindfold. He limped towards her, each step he made seemed pained and precarious-- despite the clear signs of youth. The man staggered forward for a few more steps, finally stopping. He extended a hand, reaching until he felt the druid's arm-- she did nothing to resist-- and stopping only when he felt the odd, bark-skin texture. His bare feet weakly paced backwards as he withdrew his grip.

A thin, forlorn smile crossed Avox's face. His hands delicately danced against the dusty air, tracing out glowing sigils of light against a surface of nothing.

i have been looking for you lavi lannon

He was a broken man, Lavi suddenly realized.


"Is there a reason they don't talk?"

Avox tilted his head in the direction of Lavi's voice, his face changing to a quizzical expression-- or the best approximation that he could underneath the crinkled layers of his blindfold. They had stopped walking now, and the servant could only guess at their new location from the fleeting bursts of sound. A saw moving against wood, the strain and tension of distant ropes and pulleys, the scuffing of shoes and the groan of something being dragged-- they were backstage, in the apocryphal realm the actors of Il Maledicta ignored.

"They haven't spoken. Not when you found me, not when we were walking. Not even while they work." The druid continued, when it seemed no response would come from her guide-- Avox, she reminded herself, recalling his introduction during their brief journey.

they are stagehands they are not meant to be heard

Lavi sighed tetchily, crossing her arms as she read Avox's floating symbols. Between her last group of companions, the criminal aristocrat she had been forcibly brought before, the nonsense-babbling fortuneteller, and now her latest guide, she had yet to meet anyone who would provide explanations that weren't meaningless non-answers. Her brow furrowed-- a somewhat meaningless gesture, she realized, taking in his blindfold once more. She let her eyes wander, her vision dancing over her surroundings as she wondered how to proceed.

"Is there anything you can tell me, or is it all just cryptic riddles like everyone else?"

The servant shuffled a half-step back, his head hung downward in mute apology. A new set of luminescent signs were etched against the air.

i can tell you that we are both the unwilling servants of a malignant demon

Another foreign rush of anger assaulted Lavi, the alien thirst returning as she studied his words. Her feet stumbled, her hand reached out as though to strangle, her mind swam until she forced herself to focus. The feeling quickly subsided, but it was clear that her blind companion had somehow noticed-- his stance was different as he inscribed another line of bright glyphs, the last set having dimmed to nothing but immaterial cinders.

his name is imago dei
he doesn't live so much as exist and exists only to experience
pleasure and pain are the same to him

Forgotten years of torture and pain resurfaced, and the knowledge that she would suffer as he had. Avox stopped, feeling unsteady on his feet-- he couldn't continue, couldn't bear to let her know the suffering that would be inflicted on her. He heard a few footsteps, the rustling of heavy furs and worn fabric, and felt a warm, comforting grip clasp around one of his hands. He had to continue, he realized-- she had to know.

he can only feel through others and he has
he has chosen you
i am sorry i am so sorry

The druid loosened her hold on Avox, her hand retreating back as she let his words roll around her mind.

he made
he made me forget my name my true name not avox
i cannot imagine what he will do to you i am so sorry

What he said seemed impossible-- that she was the thrall of some unheard-of demon, that it had chosen her, that some terrible fate would befall her. A thin film of dust rose from the floor as she nervously paced for a few steps. What Avox had explained was impossible, Lavi knew-- but the sincerity, the melancholy present made it just as impossible to doubt his conviction, that he believed what he had told her. He had been the only one to give her an answer, she thought. Her hand fidgeted uncomfortably, blue sparks of light momentarily flickering over her fingertips, as she wrestled with the notion that he was right.

"Why hasn't he done something to stop us, then? It isn't like he can't have heard us." She asked.

because he does not care
what are men and kings to a god
we are nothing but playthings to satisfy his hedonism

Avox shifted uncomfortably-- he felt one of his arms reaching behind him, independent of his own impulses, and the servant shuddered. A dagger that definitely had not existed dropped into his fingers, its blade pressing into his skin, the point of pain tracing upward as his hand moved of its own accord. Blood slowly dripped down the servant's back. An abrupt realization crossed his mind-- that he had upset his master. Avox immediately flailed his free hand, hastily rushing through the motions and tracing a new set of sigils; he needed to tell her everything now, he needed more time, it wasn't supposed to happen like this--

--Lavi rushed forward, a half-second too late to stop the blind servant. His arm jerkily swung forward-- in an instant, the dagger was puncturing his neck, and a moment later his vise-like hand had forcibly torn the point outward in a wide, exaggerated slice. Blood ran down his clothing along the wound, and he collapsed, his face frozen in one final look of pleading desperation. He offered no screams of agony, no last words, only the same silence he had when living. Avox was dead.

She had seen others die-- from exposure, from famine, from disease and plague, but never like this. Lavi shivered, feeling a sudden rush of cold as she stared at his corpse, her mind locked and fixated on the horror. Blood pooled, stained Avox's silk clothing, collected and dripped through the floor. His life had been taken-- by him, she realized. Maybe the demon had not come down and performed the act, but it was him nonetheless, toying with the two of them as puppets to satiate his rapacious whims. Her eyes briefly glanced over the room-- no one had reacted, and when her vision had returned Avox's corpse was gone, disappeared into ethereal nothingness.

Lavi shivered again, frightened at the prospect of that same power being wielded over her-- the power to take a life, even her own. Imago's invisible presence hung heavily over her, like a suspended sword. Her tormentor had a name, now.

Her feet began to move-- whether on her accord or not, she was uncertain, her only thoughts were on how she needed to escape, to get away from this painful eternity and his silent, torturous mocking and the foreign thoughts of anger and lust that bubbled and rose in her mind. She needed to stop him, but her broken resolve couldn't stomach the thought. She ran.

And as she left, Nameless mutely followed.
Carlie didn't know where nameless went, but she had noticed and she did suddenly feel a bit more vulnerable. Which was fair enough, considering that in Il Maledicta being alone meant that you were a prime target for someone else's thoughts on how the scene should proceed, whether it be talk to me for a few hours on the wonderful applications of corn or allow me to murder you to advance my character arc. Luckily for Carlie though, she was an angel, the First Angel, according to some, and that meant that on the most part, people were afraid of her and content with using her as a centerpiece.

After realizing that no one was going to approach her, Carlie's feelings of fear were flipped and an indignant Carlie started to walk around and try to get someone to notice her so that she could hypothetically do something to Eemagee.

Unfortunately for her, this worked.

Chad was quite glad to get out of the musical section, as he wasn't sure for how much longer his voice could stand up to the varied voice range of the Quarterless Quartet, and the path to the angel was surprisingly slow. He would have thought that people would be more interested in seeing The First Angel, the Full Stop that bookends the periods before and after in person, but at the same time, it made sense.

Il Maledicta had been without angels for generations, while everyone had tried to make the show go on, become an angel, rise above the fold, become The Star, it had to have always resulted in failure. All of the generations, all of the families, all of the talent and words and variations, and In The Company of Full-Stop Angels was still in act one. Chad supposed that he would have to make sure to move the play forward, whether the people of Il Maledicta liked it or not.

While the time traveler-slash-drama buff mused to himself, a soon to be bit part made his move.

"Oi, Stranger, ye wish to see the Full Stop Angel?"

Chad did not stop walking as he looked at the actor with a bored look and replied, "Of course."

"With what power do you have fellowship?"

"I am but a Stranger from a far land, my allegiances are with powers above you."

"Ah, if so, then a test of skill you must pass in order to see the Angel?"

"By the authority of whom?"

"The Chosen One!"

Chad rolled his eyes. In early versions of the play the Chosen One was a nobody who happened to see the angel first and died from shock, their death being the first of the many tragedies that eventually led to the Stranger tragically murdering one of the angels and putting a metaphorical end to the area's prosperity. However, after a few years, the role of the Chosen One was changed to someone blessed by the angels, to attempt to lighten the play up. From what Chad had gleaned, this had gone over poorly, but it didn't surprise him that there were still some hold outs.

"I see. Show me to him."

And so Chad The Stranger was indeed shown to The First Chosen One Of The (First) Full Stop Angel, a man who was nicely dressed and had the faintest hints of a weird mustache growing.

"So, some foreign prince weeshes to zee The Angel?

"I am but a humble Stranger, here on behalf of my people."

"Well zen, if you weesh to pass, you will have to solve The Riddle."

Chad hated riddles. As the man and his accent continued to defy all rules of speech, Chad looked around. It was him, the Chosen One, and the other guy. No one else was currently around in any significant sense and going by his logic he figured that at least one of them was supposed to be dead anyway.

"So, vat iz your answer, Stranger?"

Chad raised his gloved arm, looking away from the Chosen One and the other guy. He smiled, and said, "Death."

And then there was a moment of silence. And then Chad passed through.

As he went farther, he thought he could hear faint, panicked words talking about some Phantom Killer, Chad sighed at the idea of having to deal with that violence loving distraction, added in to pander to the peasants who couldn't handle the play's complex themes and symbols.

Chad made his way forward, waded through the crowds, and made it to the center where surprisingly, he found a woman with messy blonde hair in jeans and a t-shirt.

"You??? You're the angel?"

"Well, yes, finally, I am Indeed The Angel, howhat are you wearing?"

"I could ask you the same thing!"

"Uh, I'm not the one with the messed up sense of color theory here."

"That's not the point, I-" Chad stopped his tirade, noticing that other people were taking notice. "We need to go." Chad grabbed Carlie by the arm and dragged her away into a nook. This was not well received by the crowd, who upon noticing that their Angel had gone away, moved after them. Still ignoring Carlie's protests, the two moved around the wall, with Carlie yelling frantically as Chad tapped the walls with his metal gloved hand.


The wall opened, and Carlie and Chad walked through, leaving a chunk of Maledictians without their angel.


Now that they were out of dodge, Chad had tuned back in to Carlie's words, although it was not without regret. As the girl went on and on about a bunch of boring things, Chad blurted out what he would hope would shut her the fuck up, "I'm going to kill Imago."

Carlie then shut the fuck up.

With the girl quiet Chad started to think about how to proceed from there. "Alright, I need you to tell me what happened to you and how you got to be the Angel and anything else that might be important, if we want to kill Imago we need to be careful and we need to pull this off as perfectly as possible so don't skim on the details."

Carlie nodded and then began her spiel on events so far. Said spiel also doubled as a criticism on the state of Il Maledicta, much to Chad's disgust. Carlie spared nothing and no one, calling the outfits stupid and ugly, commenting on how no one seemed to know how to decorate or renovate, musing that all of the broken bits of the playhouse were probably safety hazards, and over all just rolling her eyes at everyone's attempts to be dramatic or shocking. Overall, Carlie found the idea that a bunch of people just decided to hole up in some decrepit playhouse for the rest of their lives to be a bit much.

Chad finally lost it at that one.


"It's fucking magic!"

Chad gasped and stared as if Carlie had murdered his first child. "Magic? You think that all this," Chad raised his arms in an exaggerated manner, "Is just the work of fucking magic?"

"Yeah! Some fucking mind control shit!"

"Some... fucking mind control shit." Chad spat out the words, giving them as little legitimacy as possible.

"Well duh, what do you think happened?"

"I think, my dear Carlie, that we are in the middle of something that can only come from the human mind. These are not people under a spell, or curse, if they were, we would fall under it as well! No no, this is something deeper, something primal, this is what happens when the human obsession takes hold." Chad was pointing and moving, as if that added to his argument, "Il Maledicta as we know it is the work of generations after generations of people following their passion, the stage, a chance to star in the greatest play that will ever be written, and to have your legacy spread across the world! They are not locked in by magic or something so blasé, they are locked in by their own minds, by the minds of their ancestors, Il Maledicta is only a prison if you look at it from the outside! Each crack in the wall, every corpse on the floor, it is all the result of a spectacular exhibition of the human minds ability to so majestically defend the choices we come to regret, far after we can take them back." Chad looked like he was on the verge of tears, "It's so beautiful."

Carlie was almost beginning to wonder if Chad's sunglasses made him blind, "It's shit. It is literally, all shit."

"YOU JUST DON'T UNDERSTAND THE BEAUTY BEHIND THE FILTHY OUTER LAYER!" Chad took a deep breath, "Of course, a peasant like you couldn't understand the metaphors that this playhouse holds."

Carlie almost let out a sarcastic, 'Like what', but was afraid that Chad would have an actual answer for her. Instead, she decided to try change the subject, "What about Imago?"

"Well, obviously Imago represents-"

"No, I mean what about killing him?"

"Oh. Yeah, that... I guess we should go back to the library, Hector and Nestor should be finished by now."

Before Carlie could protest or ask more questions, the two most self-centered people in the entire playhouse noticed that the entire time that they were talking, there was a girl carrying an urn just standing there, trying to take up as little space as possible.

Chad stared at the urn, and in a way, the urn stared back.

Chad took a look at her and simply said, "You are coming with us."

She nodded, and something else in the room smiled a smile with many teeth.

Stealth wasn't exactly Nameless' strong suit, but luckily for her the foreigner was too rattled to really be on the lookout for anyone tailing her. They moved through corridors shared only with the black clothed figures who hurried back and forth with no regard for either Nameless or her mark. She took another glance at the poster she'd pulled from the wall, as if this would aid in her comprehension. Nameless couldn't understand the gratuitous Italian that covered the poster, but she knew a wanted poster when she saw one. She wondered, not for the first time, whether the florins the poster (presumably) promised were the same wooden currency that she had earlier deemed worthless. She wondered, once again not for the first time, whether she might have been better off sticking with Carlie; if this foreigner was not a foreigner and just someone acting the part then she would have thrown away a promising lead for a bad one.

These worries were slightly allayed by the altercation the foreigner had with the blindfolded man. Nameless had been keeping her distance; a little too far to be able to read his side of the conversation, but it seemed pretty important. Afterward, when the foreigner had hurried on, Nameless had paused for a moment and surveyed the place where the body had been. The only evidence of the blindfolded man's existence was a small patch of still wet blood, which according to her collar was real (and worth $7). It seemed to be proof that this was no mere act, or that if it was then it was one both parties were extremely dedicated to. But whatever the circumstance proved to be she wasn't going to make any money just skulking after her.

Lavi wasn't looking or thinking about where she was going. She was just moving, attempting to put as much distance between her and what had just happened as possible, as if that would make a difference. She found herself, without even thinking, entering a disused lounge. The room was wallpapered a sort of alarming dark asparagus green. There were a number of seats arranged in a rough semicircle around a low table covered with expensive looking silver cloches and a bottle of champagne in an empty bucket. Everything was covered with dust as though this room hadn't been disturbed for years. Lavi wasn't interested; she glanced around the room looking to see if there was another way out and then seeing that there wasn't she turned to head back out the way she'd came in, only to find the door blocked by a woman in a midnight blue dress and veil. She was wearing a bandage over one eye, a modest (by il maledictian standards) amount of makeup and was rummaging through a leatherish satchel that looked a little out of place compared to the rest of her outfit.

Lavi really wasn't in the right frame of mind to be dealing with people at the moment. She would have preferred not to engage her in conversation (from the way she was dressed Lavi half-suspected she might have been here to tell her fortune again), but after an awkward moment it became clear that she wasn't going to just step aside. "Excuse me." Lavi said, and promptly the woman pulled a notepad and pen from her satchel. "Oh." Lavi said as she started to write something. "Oh I see."

Nameless paused. She was sure that in circumstances which weren't explicitly transactional people liked pleasantries; small talk, introductions etc. They helped people feel at ease and then they'd happily buy whatever it was you had to sell them (probably). The problem of course with introductions was that they were hard to do when you didn't have a name, so she opted to cut to the chase. When she flipped the notebook around for Lavi to see it read:

[strk]'helo im[/strk]

i hav an ofer 2 mayk u'

From the moment Nameless had started scribbling away it had seemed obvious to Lavi what was going on here; she was being mocked. The lack of a voice, the bandage covering her eye, the badly written communication; the parallels to Avox were obvious. She concluded that it was unlikely to be coincidental, the far more reasonable explanation was that she was a puppet of Imago intended as a cruel mockery of the man whose death had affected her so. She felt that unfamiliar (yet all too familiar at the same time) anger rising within her once again, and this time standing right in front of her was someone who deserved it; an agent of the demon who had inflicted it upon her. Though she doubted her ability to hurt Imago himself she could at the very least make his mockery of Avox suffer on his behalf. The urge was so compelling that it almost felt like her own will.

'wats rong?' Nameless had written after a long moment with no response.

Lavi clenched her fists and managed to wrest back control of her mind. "Go away." She spat. "Tell Imago that I won't give him the pleasure." She went to push her way past Nameless and get out of there before she lost control of herself again.

It had been a long time, Nameless thought, that a potential sale had gone so badly wrong. She grabbed hold of the arm of Lavi's robe and tried to hold her back. Strength wasn't exactly Nameless' strong suit either and she suspected Lavi stopped not because she had to but because she didn't particularly want to drag a stranger around.

"Let go of me." Lavi said plainly, though she could probably have guessed that she wouldn't. "What do you want?" she added after a moment.

Nameless struggled as she attempted to write and hold the notebook with the same hand, dropped the notebook and then in a moment of panic she scrawled a message on the sickly green wallpaper. 'dont no imago'

"Yeah, well you would say that." Lavi replied.

She took a shot: 'heer 2 kil' she wrote and then drew a little arrow to where she had written imago last time. Even if she wasn't particularly interested in carrying out the task, technically it was true.

Lavi studied her for a moment and considered that if she really was here to mock her pain then shouldn't she be doing that in a manner more pointed than simply existing. Lavi guessed she should at least give her a chance to explain herself. "Alright. Who are you?"

"You can let go now by the way." She added, as Nameless went to further deface the wall.

'i dont hav a naym' she wrote after she'd retrieved her notebook. Nameless hesitated, yes she was being truthful but she doubted it was making her look any more trustworthy. 'i sold it' she added unprompted.

"You sold your name?" Lavi thought again of Avox. "Why not just pick a new one?"

'alredy tryed it. tryed caling myself' Nameless paused thoughtfully. She couldn't actually remember what name she'd tried to make stick. 'not importent dusnt werk. sold not just naym but consept of naym'

"How is that possible?" Lavi asked.

'with this' Nameless tugged at the neck of her dress, exposing her golden collar beneath. Lavi watched for a moment as pale green symbols danced across its surface. 'mind if i sit down'

"No, go ahead." Lavi said absently. Nameless vigorously swept aside the coating of dust on the nearest seat before dropping down into it. The chair wasn't particularly comfortable, but it was nice to have a sit down after spending however long it had been on her feet, running this way and that. She'd not been this active for years. She resisted the urge to put her feet up.

"So does your collar just work on names or what?" Lavi asked. Nameless reached over to the next seat and wiped the dust away. "No thanks I'm okay standing." Lavi pre-empted her.

Nameless shrugged. 'i can sel nething i own' she wrote, 'sold my vois my i my hiyt my hair culer all sorts' After she passed the notebook to Lavi, Nameless leaned forward and lifted the nearest cloche to reveal a sprawling forest of mould; the food it once was all but unrecognisable under the rot. Nameless casually lowered the cloche. She didn't feel quite so peckish any more. She looked back to Lavi who looked a little shaken.

"That's some piece of witchcraft you have there." Lavi replied, almost a little warily. Her gaze had lingered on Nameless' collar for longer than she'd intended. She tried to marshal her thoughts and realized that they'd got a little off-topic. "Okay so name or no, what do you want from me?" She passed Nameless back her notebook but she was rummaging in her satchel again. She pulled out folded and slightly torn sheet of paper and passed it over. With a little trepidation Lavi unfolded it; she couldn't understand it but she recognised the format. It was a wanted poster and in the centre there was an impressively well drawn likeness of her. "Oh, here to collect a bounty then?" Lavi was beginning to get a sense of what kind of a person Nameless was.

Nameless shook her head. 'xchang rayt is orful' she explained. 'heers my ofer we trayd notority so ne1 luking 4 u luks 4 me insted'

"You can do that?" Lavi asked but a moment later she remembered her collar and wasn't so surprised any more.

'yeh i can trayd nething i own' Nameless wrote. 'nething u liyk abowt me u can hav or nething u want 2 get rid of i can tayk 4 a prise'
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As Chad and his company made their way back to the library, their way impeded by losers and thugs, but repelled by his princely presence, the time traveler mused some more on the wicked theater they were in.

What he had said to Carlie was what he believed to be the truth, Il Maledicta was not the work of dark magic or otherworldly intervention, but only the result of humanity's inherent predisposition to chaos. He didn't understand how Carlie could delude herself against the truth, but he supposed that she also thought of this battle as something that could only happen through divine or devilish intervention, an idea Chad scoffed at. It didn't matter if these beings were gods or how they came to be, because the point was that they had power. An immense power, one capable of taking people from their own universe into another for whatever petty tasks they had in mind. If he had that kind of power he wouldn't be lying around moving pawns on a board, but no, he was going off track...

Chad stared back at the native carrying a familiar urn and started judging. She wasn't enthused, and it wasn't because he was bringing her with him against her will, she was, for some absurd reason, against Il Maledicta! How absurd. So if there were people like her around, how did the place work?

As they reached the library, Chad wondered how he would get the answers he wanted. It wouldn't be enough to ask, he doubted that even the last enthused citizen of the theater would dare speak of any of the more out of character aspects of the place, but he was certain that she could be swayed, one way or another...

Hector was already back and Nestor was perching, looking immensely satisfied with whatever he had been doing.

"Hey Chad! Did you get everythi- Oh wow, who are they?"

"This is Carlie and this is a local, we can deal with pleasantries later, did everyone get what we needed?"

Hector nodded and Nestor swooped down towards a pile of valuable objects. As Chad began to walk towards it, Carlie grew tired of co-operating and asked, "Alright so what’s the deal then?"

Chad stopped and half-turned, staring at Carlie through his sunglasses, obviously disappointing, "Carlie, I've already told you, but I suppose that we can't all be blessed with a stable memory."

While he transformed into full theatrics mode, under the black lens, Chad's eyes went to the local, who seemed uncomfortable, but uninterested, something Chad hoped to change.

"Now my dear, what you see before you is the means to Il Maledicta's end, and how we will fulfill our assassination contract. What may seem to be a pile of trinkets, paper, and garbage, will, with a Bibliomancer's touch, become the one and only true copy of In The Company of Full-Stop Angels. With it, the play that's been on everyone's mind, that's warped their views on life and entrapped them, will come to a close, for the first time in history."

As Chad's show ended, Nestor cackled, Hector's gasped in awe, Carlie grimaced but decided that she wanted Chad to shut up more than she wanted to argue with him, and lastly, the local girl made just the reaction Chad wanted, one of shock, with a hint of fear.

As he was already in the moment, Chad beckoned Hector to come to him, "Alright Hector, I'm asking a lot from you, but I believe in you, we're only going to get one shot at making the play and it might take a bit out of you. Are you prepared?"

Hector clenched his fist, shook it a little, and then nodded, staring into Chad's sunglasses and saying with the utmost sincerity, "I believe in us, Chad. We can do this, together." He held out his hand for Chad to hold, as he placed his other hand on the materials that would soon become the most vital script.

Hector and Chad began to focus, the two of them pooling their energies together on the now glowing materials, Carlie and the girl looked in awe and wonder as ink, paper, and gold started to float in the air, spun around, and began to slowly mix together... words from Chad and Hector's minds, carrying everything they learned and gathered from the various scripts in the library, along with a few original additions and some thematic necessities from Chad. As the script was forming, Chad opened his other, gloved hand, and added something else to the equation.

To risk understating his joy and amusement, Nestor was having a fun time watching Chad attempt to turn the wicked playhouse into his plaything, there was just no one quite as interesting, especially not in this group. The bird looked down on the other three humans standing around, none of them truly catching his eye, except for, something about the girl with the urn. Nestor felt looked at, but there was nothing looking at him.

Focusing back at the event occurring in the middle of the library, Nestor saw Chad slip in the seal into the equation, something that he did not anticipate! The bird squawked and smiled, this was sure to be something interesting.

Chad of course didn't toss in the seal for nothing, if his thoughts about the majority of Il Maledicta were true, then for those whose hearts believed in their place and ability to lead this play to a conclusion wouldn't just be swayed by an item that, in their eyes, didn't truly exist, it would take a bit more... and if the seal was the true artifact of the ancient beings who built this place, then whatever essence of them was in it, would soon go into this script.

The deed was done. The script holding what seemed to be the one and true In The Company of Full-Stop Angels almost shone, brought to life by a biblomancers power and a time travels ambition. Carlie couldn't help but feel awestruck by the creation, unfortunately feeding into Chad's smugness. He reached for the tome and smirked, "With this, the odds are in our favor, Imago will soon die at the hands of this theaters power... but first... there's the matter of you..." Chad looked at the local girl, who had been petrified at the magic that had occurred before her eyes, if she was supposed to play an angel, then it was obvious that Chad's role was that of a devil.

"Now my dear, I already know that your enthusiasm for this... performance isn't very high, so I'll share a secret. As you may have gathered, we aren't from here, and our goals are different from those of, possibly everyone you've ever met. I doubt that you want a role in this play, but unfortunately we still have a few acts to go. Now, you can either help our plan go through and tell me what secrets this theater hides, or you can go back to where you came from and lose out on this chance to help end it all."

She silently stood for a moment, weighing her options and wondering if this was true, if this was worth it... Could this be too good to be true? They did magic, actual magic not that faked shit, but at the same time the promises that the man kept saying seemed absurd, and impossible.

There are a lot of impossible things, but this is not one of them.

She took a few more deep breaths before nodding. "Alright... I'll help you."


Chad entered The Den, one of the largest hidden portions of Il Maledicta. According to Zia, the local girl who had now joined him, it was also of the oldest. People in Il Maledicta were not quick to lose hope, after all you don't seal yourself in a theater under the impression that everything's going to be over in a few weeks, but apparently some people began to worry. Back, way back at the start, when the eternal rehearsals were still referred to as such, a few of the more knowledgeable, powerful, and cynical members of the community feared the possibility of dissent, of even a fraction of the people in the theater wanting to leave before the job was done.

They decided to take preventative measures, getting herbalists and the like to create something to help keep the people stabilized. Over time, the drugs were refined and eventually perfected, their usage becoming a known secret of sorts, as well as a threat to any dissenters. If you didn't need to have the drug used on you, then for all intents and purposes, you didn't know it existed.

Chad chuckled at the concept, glad to have another card to play if Carlie tried to argue against his view on the human condition.

"I can't believe this."

"Please Carlie, I think that you should just give in, it is just as Zia said, they did this to themselves. Now, for business."

"I still don't see why I couldn't stay with Hector and the bird..."

"We all have our roles to play, and I, the wonderful Prince, must enter with the angels at tow, to ensure that everyone plays their role... Now..."

Chad weaved through various suspicious looking eyes as he made his way to the center, with Carlie and Zia sharing very little of his confidence. The time traveler once again played thespian, "Members of the Hidden Den, if I may break character for a moment, I have something to show you."

Chad produced the script, still lovely, still new, but still holding the sanctity that everyone would expect it to. The various den members recognized it instantly for what it was, and flocked to Chad's side. Various murmurs and whispers and exclamations were made, but it was obvious that Chad had done enough.

Carlie could not believe what she was seeing! She didn't know what it was about the situation, but seeing Chad smugly claim victory just made her feel... wrong. Despite that feeling, there wasn't a lot she could do! She was trapped in more ways than one, and had only now realized that this was Chad's plan all along. If she didn't play along, she'd be drugged, and she didn't think they'd use the fun kind.

As he was winning the crowd over, Chad looked out in the corner of his eye and spotted someone who... who seemed familiar, but who he had never seen before... "You."

The girl stopped in her tracks, surprised at being noticed despite not quite fitting the Il Maledicta aesthetic. She was wearing a heavy cloak, much too practical for any playhouse resident, not to say that her odd, barkish skin helped her blend in. It was honestly a bit amazing that she had made it this far, given that in a world where everyone tries to stick out like a sore thumb, anything else is a bit noticeable. Chad was not only unimpressed her overall garb, stance, and appearance, but also felt as if he should pity her, as if she was a poor innocent creature. Lavi on the other hand, took one look at Chad and felt an inordinate amount of contempt for someone she'd never seen before now.

"Stay there," Chad made motions towards the various den members, "I will take care of this one, follow the plan as I have instructed, we will start the true production of In The Company of Full-Stop Angels immediately."

They did as they were told, dispersing along and out of the den, with copies Chad had prepared for them, off to ensure that the play would begin and continue as he wanted. Carlie and Zia were also dragged off, to be dressed as the angels they were to play.

"So, did Imago send you?"

Lavi's face contorted into disgust at the mention of Imago's name, allowing Chad to waste no time in follow ups, "I see, well, whatever your relation to him is, it doesn't matter anymore I'd say."

"What are you planning," Lavi said with increasing amounts of disdain.

"Nothing really, just... a simple three act play."

"How did you and your group get here, what do you hope to achieve with all of this?"

As Lavi blabbed on and on, Chad began to prepare one of the syringes, "What are you doing? Put that down!" Lavi, who was unrestrained, slapped the syringe out of Chad's gloved hand, her own hand recoiling at the unexpectedly hot metal.

Lavi took a few steps back, wondering if running was an option, as Chad picked up the syringe and wordlessly turned to her, still smirking, his eyes hidden by tinted glass but no less transmitting a feeling of disgust. She was against a wall, with nothing her powers could affect. She should have ran.

Chad grabbed Lavi by the neck with his gloved hand, and calmly asked, "Pardon me? What did you say there? Were you giving me an order? Hah."

Lavi answered by spitting in Chad's face.

Chad dropped her to the floor, his smirk now gone. Lavi attempted to kick him, but as her leg moved towards him, he moved out of the way instantly. She got up, and tried to run, but before she knew it, Chad was grabbing at both of her hands.

"How pitiful. Didn't anyone teach you how to take care of yourself, these hands look awful."

Lavi didn't know what was worse, that Chad had effortlessly subdued her, or that for some reason he felt the need to just insult her hands.

"Don't they have lotion where you come from?"

"What is wrong with you? This... this is absurd. Why are you focusing on my hands?"

"Oh, to distract you from the fact that I've already given you... your lines, so to speak."

"Whatever dosgh... wha--.."

Lavi looked around, and saw the syringe empty, and had only now noticed that other than the pain on her wrists, there was the pain of a prick on her side. When did he get the chance to do that? Why was speaking suddenly so... difficult.

Chad let go, no longer worried, about any outbursts, "Seeing that you aren't from here, you may be wondering what that drug does... You see, with this simple substance, any problematic citizens of Il Maledicta would see things in a new light, in a few minutes, the world will seem a bit... different to you, you won't see this disgusting and downtrodden playhouse, but instead the small town that it is supposed to emulate, the words that will come out of your mouth will no longer belong to you, but to the script and to the theater itself. I'll see you on stage..."
"I am at a loss, chéri. Have we grown so far apart?”

Avox shivered and caught his breath.

"It was a bold move to ask your belle bichette to kill me, but so, so impersonal," Imago sighed. He drifted in. “I thought you truly loved me.”

Avox listened as the monstrosity came closer, a soft, terrible sound of sliding silk. Cold fingers lifted his chin and brushed over his lips. The ragged wound across his throat whistled as his breath escaped through it. "Did you think she could save you? Why must the young have such follies? All you want is a pretty face, and that dear boy wants a happy ending for his little opera. What a pity I didn’t give you to him instead."

Avox felt himself being lifted into the air like a limp doll. Wild, panicked thoughts ran through his mind and he tried to struggle, to raise his arms, but they only twitched. He fell into a soft, rotting chair, gasping as his head fell forward and his wound’s edges pressed together. His blindfold loosened and slipped into his lap as a cold hand brushed his cheek.

"You’ve hurt me, Avox. But I forgive you," Imago said.

Avox shuddered and willed his body to move as the hand approached his eyes, screaming silently, mouthing the words no no no no over and over again-- and then he could see, as burning light filled his skull. He was seeing and couldn't stop. Imago’s mask-like face was inches from his, its calm smile blankly mocking him-- and then he saw the theatre, its stage illuminated for the first time in centuries as crowds gathered for a performance, possibly the first ever in Il Maledicta's existence. He saw Lavi for the first time, ragged and beautiful-- it had to be her, he somehow knew-- trapped behind the curtain and rehearsing lines and soliloquies that weren't her own.

"I'm afraid I can't attend to you any longer, chéri. I could never resist an opening night. Behave yourself, my darling. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts."

Avox saw a theatre that was going to burn.


Carlie tossed her script aside, taking another break from the joke of a rehearsal. A confused mix of antiquated English and off-key singing floated in from further backstage and out of the connected side stages. On the other side of the theatre's curtain, Chad was halfway through Act One and either seducing the Princess of Trinacria or singing a musical number about himself. It was difficult to tell the two apart, and a half-hearted attempt at leafing through her notes left her as clueless as she'd been an hour ago.

"This is horseshit," Carlie said bitterly to no one.

"And thou who foremost art, wouldst thou call upon meadow-columbines and fennel-fields? Speak, for rosemary wither'd all and remembrance came."

Carlie stared at the angel now next to her, not even sure where to begin. She grabbed her copy of the script, flipped to a page she had dog-eared earlier, and scanned for something in incomprehensible Shakespearean. "Yeah, uh," she started, pausing, "I have literally no idea what any of that was."

The angel's eyes slid hazily around. She didn't offer any response.

"Okay, screw this." Carlie said, oblivious to the angel's consternation. She slammed the script shut and flung the textbook-sized volume to the floor. Breaking script was probably a massive social blunder, but she was past caring about Il Maledicta's inane social conventions. "Can you just like, talk normally for a bit? I am really tired of all this--" She waved her hand, gesturing at the backstage area. "--all of this, okay?"

The angel took a shaky step back. She opened her mouth hesitantly, as though trying to speak, but nothing came out except panicky gasps. Her eyes widened and she looked desperately at Carlie.

"Um, okay. Let's start with the basics," Carlie said, folding her arms and tapping one finger repeatedly against her sleeve. "Do you have... a name?"

The angel looked down nervously. "I-I a-am but the third of three, a humble messenger-"

Carlie interrupted with a groan, tired of listening to enough butchered Shakespearean to give her flashbacks to high school. It was obvious that there was something-- something weirdabout the angel, considering Chad had somehow singled her out of a huge crowd. Carlie had no idea what, though, considering the angel looked just like she did, uncomfortable white robes and fake feathered wings and all.

She was about to give up entirely when the angel whimpered and raised her gown, exposing a reddened pinprick on her ribs.

"Holy shit," Carlie finally said. She started towards the angel, then paused. She wasn’t a stranger to drugs, but she’d avoided anything that came out of a needle. Carlie glanced around, suddenly wary of Chad’s return. She wanted to believe that his talk of impossible mind-control drugs was just made up to intimidate her, but here she was, talking to someone who proved his threat.

"He-- he fucking drugged you. Holy shit."

The angel nodded, blinking back tears.

"Christ, okay. But you can still understand me?"

She nodded again, more hesitantly this time as she wiped her eyes on her oversized sleeve.

"Right, okay. Okay. Calm down, Carlie." Carlie said, ignoring the confused look the angel gave her as paced across the battered floor. She hoped that she came off as being in control, but was painfully aware of how panicked she was. "Okay, we need to get out of here-- stop it,” Carlie began, interrupted as the angel shot a look at her. "Look, I know that you’ve got whatever’s going on, and that you probably can't, like, actually escape. But we’re getting out of here. That douchebag is insane."

The angel moaned. "Doth the holy attendant descend, her curled locks lour'd, her hair about her ears?" She recited, trying to push as much frustration as she could into the forced language. "Doth she taste the mandragora, so that she may live sweet dreams and savor merry delusions?"

"Yeah, uh, I'm just going to assume that means you're upset." Carlie replied. She folded her arms. This wasn’t getting her any further than playing along. At some point they'd be called on-stage and she'd have to improvise and then everything would fall to pieces.

Fake feathers rustled as the angel moved. She bent over to pick up Carlie's script, almost toppling a nearby collection of props in the process with her wing. "Would you fear not to call upon calamity, woe, the sorrow of men," She said, unceremoniously dropping the open tome into Carlie's hands. "Would you let catastrophe raze this consecrated soil?"

Carlie raised an eyebrow. "You think that will help us?"

The angel shrugged. Her wings shed ancient chicken feathers onto the floor.

"Yeah, okay, fair enough," Carlie said, flipping through the pages. The dialogue was as dense as before, but there might be something in the stage directions. There might be something that could work as a distraction-- she'd run and drag the other angel along with, then find somewhere to hide until everything calmed down. Carlie licked her thumb as she skimmed Act One, then Act Two, and with growing desperation Act Three. Something caught her eye and she paused, inspecting the tortuous prose more carefully.

The script landed with a heavy thud as Carlie lost her grip.

"He's going to kill us in the third act," she finally said.

On cue, an actor in a stablehand's costume came backstage from the other side of the curtain. He blinked, frowned, then cleared his throat as he addressed the two. "You're, um, you're both wanted on stage."


The room Sam was in bore the marks of decades of conspiracy. There were battered tables and upholstery from its time as a speakeasy, and baroque ornamentation from when it had served as some nobleman's parlor. Sam could smell the sickly-sweet aroma from when it had been an opium den, and more faintly the scent of loveless sex and cheap cigarettes from when it was the back room of a seedy brothel. While an argument unfolded amongst the gathered followers of the Second Angel, she leaned against a wall and idly listened.

"The play has already started.”

Sam recognized the hushed voice as one of the Italians-- Antonio, who had been the first pledge his allegiance. He continued to speak, and she inattentively listened, picking up bits and pieces that slipped through her conflicting thoughts. She was trying to reconcile the opera now performing, that she now had followers and was considered an angel, and at the back of her mind the thought that there somewhere in the theatre Imago Dei was waiting.

"Of course we have to do something," Antonio said, responding to some comment Sam didn't hear. "But what?"

While the conspirators argued, Sam thought about Lavi, feeling the weight of the folded robe held underneath her arm. Her one-time companion was just as trapped as she was-- she was also an Angel, as appointed by the masses of Il Maledicta. Sam's thumb brushed against the wool's frayed, dirty edges, feeling the memories buried between the woven fibers. Recollections of bitter winter came to her mind, which unexpectedly gave way to the warmth of their momentary embrace, their lips briefly touching as Lavi leaned in--

"No, we can't just interrupt the opera. That grandissima testa di cazzo--" Antonio punctuated the insult by spitting on the floor, "--has an entire armata behind him, and we have what? A dozen among us? We would not even make it to the stage."

--and just as quickly Sam was brought out of her reverie, that fleeting instant of comfort lost.

"Ah, my apologies, angelica ragazza." The bodyguard had noticed her half-stumble. "I should have known better than to use such strong language."

"It's-- it's fine. I'm fine," Sam replied, thinking over how to respond to someone who just stopped short of worshiping the ground she walked on. "Just pretend I'm not here. Keep talking."

"If that is your wish, angelica benedetta," Antonio said.

Sam continued on, plucking at the robe. The soft cadence of the Italians’ muttering soon faded into the background of Il Maledicta’s constant noise: distant hammering, the rattle and creak of ancient wood, bit players going over their paltry lines. She was getting too used to this place. Even its coat of choking dust was starting to look familiar. A flicker of-- not color, but its absence, stark in the painted falseness of Il Maledicta-- at the edge of her vision caught her eye. She turned just as a hidden door whispered shut in the wall.

"What is that?" Sam demanded. The Italians turned, instantly silenced by her voice.

"What was what, angelica?" Antonio ventured.

She pointed to where the door had opened. Only the faintest lines in the dust were visible. “You all saw that.”

A few of the conspirators exchanged glances. "...Saw what, belle ragazza?"

Their faces were blank. The instincts the Entente had drilled into her-- the memories of counter-espionage training, of cold nights in a spartan bunk, of how to kill undetected-- were coming back from the buried-away recesses of her mind. Sam had practiced with the best liars, and these actors were some of the worst. "Cut the shit," she snapped, startling them. She banged her fist on the wall, dislodging a plume of dust. "The door."

Antonio swept her aside, trading worried glances with his co-conspirators. “Angelica, please. We can’t… speak of these things. The macchinista di scena--"

Sam shoved him away, prompting a theatrical gasp. She strode to the door and wedged her fingers in the crack, ignoring the filth packing underneath her fingernails as she flung it open.

A pale face, made even whiter by a cowl of black fabric, stared back at her from a dimly-lit tunnel. For a moment the shapeshifter and the figure were frozen before Sam lashed out and grabbed them by the wrist, her combat training kicking in as the figure struggled to escape.

"Angelica!" Antonio cried, a note of panic she’d never heard before coloring his voice. His unease only strengthened her resolve and she pulled the cowled-- man? woman? Sam couldn’t tell, their body was thin and starved-- into the lamplight. They flinched as though the dim lamps were burning them and wordlessly scrambled for the open door, now painfully visible and out of place.

"I’m sick of this," Sam snapped, twisting the figure’s wrist nearly to its breaking point. They let out a squeak and struggled as Sam pulled them into a combat hold, slamming them against the wall in a cloud of dust and flaking wallpaper. Antonio and his comrades were speechless, some checking their pockets nervously for a script to guide them through this terrible faux pas. Sam plied the pressure, digging her knee into a soft spot-- enhanced interrogation techniques, the Entente had called it, a necessary skill for all espionage operatives. She grimaced and buried those memories.

"I need straight answers. What the hell are you?"

"A-a-a stagehand!" Her victim rasped, voice hoarse from years of disuse. "Please! I have work to--"

"Work? You’ve got work? Let me guess, you have to go pull a curtain somewhere?"

"Angelica, please!" Antonio desperately interrupted.

"Wood," the stagehand whispered miserably, now only struggling feebly. “For the fire.”

Sam's grip loosened and they dove for the sudden opening under her arm. Her training kicked in and without thinking she hauled them back by the collar, unsettling the stagehand’s cowl as blond, ash-stained hair poured out of their hood. "Fire?" Sam prompted.

Tears shone in the stagehand’s eyes. "The final act! The pyre they're burned at! The angels, the real angels!"

"E 'impossibile! That's not how it happens in the play, the real play--"

"There is no real play! There never was!"

The conspirators turned to one another, breaking the awkward, untheatrical silence with hushed whispers.

"Don't you get it? It doesn't matter which performance is real. All that matters is that it's performed," the stagehand continued.

Sam's grip eased as they broke into thick sobs-- they immediately took the opportunity to dart away, slamming the hidden door closed behind them. She turned, surveying the stunned conspirators. "I need you to tell me,” she said slowly and quietly, her unease returning as the rush of adrenaline passed, "What you're going to do to stop this."


The main stage of Il Maledicta was the size of several mansions strung together, a convoluted mass of balconies and sub-platforms stacked like drunken plates, decades of repairs giving them slants and partitions that made the stage appear from the front like a madman’s dollhouse. The bastardized construction had had to be hastily excavated from the markets and brothels that had grown up around it, trinkets and lace-things still draped across obscure corners. Bats flitted through the highest reaches of the stage’s minarets, between flickering lamps that cast half the stage into blinding light and the other into murky shadow as actors darted and clambered from platform to platform.

The Third Angel-- my name is Lavi Lannon, she thought, desperately trying to resist the seeping identity being forced into her-- saw the ramshackle construction for what it truly was-- a palatial estate richer than anything she could dream of, a place where dignitaries and emissaries met and changed history, a place where a choir of angels graced the world below with their miracles. Her vision became cloudy when she tried to look outside of the stage, but the she knew she was being watched. She could feel their eyes weighing down on her.

This was where she was going to die, and there was nothing she could do to stop it.

"Psst," one of the other actors said, cutting through the tense silence. "Your line?"

The First Angel looked down at the wrinkled piece of paper pasted to the hollow tome clamped in her hands. She licked her lips. "Um. By my faith, fair maid! Dost--" she squinted at the paper. "Dost thou forsaketh thine gold-damask'd heart, when villains try thine devoted virtue? Will thou permit, uh…"

A sweaty smudge had erased most of the next line.

"Will, um. Will thou permit them to, uh, take… away… all your stuff? Like… that you need?"

The plastered smiles of the actors’ faces were growing more strained by the second. Sweat left dark tracks through their ashen makeup as they tried to cover for the First Angel's repeated blunders, hastily skipping through the scene. For a moment, it seemed that the play would fall apart right then.

"Peace, gathered folk, for thine fire-new stamp of honor is scarce current. Let thine irons cool, and thine mettle be tempered," the Prince interrupted, striding out from the thick darkness of the stage's shadow. In an instant, the performance was back on track.

"Truly, come hither has the pearl that pleased man's eye, the base fruit of his burning lust," he added, maliciously smiling at his captive angel as he moved to the center of the stage.

The Third Angel wished she could scowl-- or do anything besides play her part and forcefully recite her lines. "Truly, 'tis thus," she said, her tone far more benign than she wanted.

"O, what fortune we are bless'd with, to be graced by this heavenly choir," the Prince said. "Such holy attendants, mark'd by wings of feathered glory, have descended down to grace us, for not but thine own majesty to prove." With a flourish, he gestured to the First Angel, prompting a flurry of motion as actors repositioned around her.

A limp woman's corpse waited at the base of the pedestal the First Angel stood upon. The First Angel could tell she had died recently. The wound on her breast was still fresh, and blood seeped through her dress. Had he done this? she thought, looking at the smiling, contented Prince. He must have.

"For not but thine own majesty to prove," he repeated. An array of spotlights focused on the First Angel, casting deep, dramatic shadows that flickered with every anxious twitch.

The First Angel swallowed noisily as a second passed, and then another. Slowly she raised her hands and willed the dead woman back to life.

A fly landed on the corpse’s lip, and then took off. Nothing happened.

"Shit, shit, shit," she said under her breath, striking a more dramatic pose. She squeezed her eyes shut and waved her hands again.

The fly landed on the Angel's forehead. She almost vomited.

“For not but thine own majesty to prove!" The Prince repeated, more loudly. The audience were leaning forward in their seats eagerly, those furthest back standing on each others’ shoulders and hanging from fixtures. The First Angel felt their gaze crawling over her like an ocean of ants, painfully aware of the corpse’s stubborn lifelessness.

Trembling, the Third Angel raised her arms. Sparks of ethereal light, almost invisible under the glare of the spotlight, danced at her fingertips.


High, high above the stage in his palatial seat, Imago Dei watched the play with detached interest. A chipped and filthy wineglass spun slowly between his pale fingers as he reclined in the rotten skeleton of a dead king’s throne. His other hand traced slow circles on the balcony lip.

"Marvelous,” he said softly. "A feast, after all these years of waiting."

Distant screams filtered through the dust-clogged air. Imago examined his glass.

"Perhaps I shall reward them," he mused, his mask-like face smiling blankly. "I hadn’t expected such a dedicated performance. Truly a delight."

The mask’s single eye gazed sightlessly out over the audience to the mere smudge of light that marked the stage. Tiny figures danced back and forth like fleas over a flame.

"Don’t disappoint me now, my darlings."