Mors Semper Vincit
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━ Prologue ━


Creation. The first breath marks the spring of Life, for the foetus which lies encumbered and bound by the amnion may yet be given over to the Veil. An umbilical noose lay as a portent of its death and the wail of the mother answered much, setting to rest the last embers of the man's suspicion. He felt the flitting, half-born soul of the infant pause before the aeon encrusted threshold. He glanced at the card he held in his gloved right hand.

No. 27, Sovereign Pavilion, Palmer's walk. Your move - L

The man tilted his head almost imperceptibly before the wind was knocked out of him by a sudden blow to his silent heart. The ostensibly stillborn babe had uttered a drawn out ululation, animal in its intensity, much unlike unused vocal cords. Every atom in the man's being rattled, each attuned to a single rhythm which rose to a crescendo- Impossible. The man frowned, glancing warily at the two-paneled double doors. He let the card fall and with hardly a creak, the nondescript man in black was gone. He would confront his counterpart for it was evident that much was afoot, unbeknown to him, having had dropped out of his customary strolls through the boulevards and thoroughfares of Humanity. She had pulled powerful threads tonight and he feared the far reaching consequences.

The miasma he had felt emanating from beyond that door was that of a soul which had not known the kiss of death- unmarred and whole. An abnormality. The ecstatic family of three found the embossed card stock on their doorstep the following morning. It depicted a leering skeleton astride a frightened mare, sword aloft, banner streaming - the 13th Major Arcana, for the man was none other than Death.

━ I ━

The boughs and bushes of Palmer's Square quivered as a crisp august wind snaked through. Mothers wheeled their children about the winding pathways, a gaggle of sophomores got together on the evenly cut lawn and golden agers perched on the teal benches which dotted the well loved landscape. This homely and wholesome tableau was uninterrupted save by a large corporate building to the east, an assemblage of glass and metal with the word ESSE splayed out on one side in elaborate typeset.

'Everything', a smooth feminine voice intoned through a haze of blue cigarette smoke, 'Everything comes with strings attached and all things eventually resolve into that mystical and awe-inspiring process that is life. Life itself is shadowed by the Grim Reaper.' The twenty other men and women, attired in suits of varying color, smirked, some glancing at their neighbors with a self-satisfied air. 'But even the subtlest and most potent of caveats come with caveats. Death is no exception.' The woman in white walked over to the wall encompassing window, the steady click of her white stilettoes echoing across the chamber and looked down at the miniscule figures cavorting in the square below. The men had begun to clap, a steady pulsing rhythm brimming with banal vitality. Her lips curled into a ghastly rictus, if only they knew, she thought, if only they knew what I intend to do.

The man swept through the narrow cul-de-sac with hardly a pause, imparting to his gait a snake-like quality. His mind was bent with overwhelming intent upon a certain infernal bootlegger, who was holed up in a bar on this very street, or so he assumed. He had been at it for over an hour now and the sun was reddening as it slunk toward the horizon, far west.

At last. He slid to a halt before a dingy establishment on the right and peered in through the grimy window. He could make out the eleven odd patrons huddled about one of the tables upon which stood two stained beer mugs. Two men, one thin and gangly and the other stout and balding stood apart from the rest. They seemed to be pirouetting while the others cheered them on. The man grimaced as the thinner patron spit into one of the mugs, to the indignation of the other. He watched grimly as dollar bills swapped hands. It was quite evident that the loser was new to the rather hackneyed swindle. Bar bets. Old habits sure do die hard. He pushed open the tack studded door and walked in.

The bar was narrow, musty and dimly lit by half a dozen fluorescent lamps. It reeked of stale alcohol and moldy cheese, the latter emanating from a large wedge of gorgonzola affixed to the farther wall. Wards. Effective, albeit crude. All debauchery had ceased as the patrons caught sight of the gaunt, shadowy man on the doorstep. In walked Death and out walked Life, vitality fleeing from all save one. The man walked past the glassy eyed clientele and proffered a card to the thin, gangly man with the sharp cheekbones. The man shivered, unable to resist, and took it. A demonic figure with the head of a ram glared at him, an inverted pentacle burnt into its forehead, crouching on a pedestal with bat wings aloft. Flanking him, chained to the pedestal were a man and a woman, unclothed, the chains bound loosely about their necks. Humanity was never bound utterly to Evil, they could leave if they willed. 'The fifteenth Major Arcana', he muttered, 'I am the man you seek, or rather, the demon.'

The man in black nodded. 'You wish to know if she has tampered with the cycle', the demon ventured. The man nodded again and held out a thick gold coin, embossed with a skull. 'The wealth of the grave', the demon sputtered, greed etched into his sharp lineaments. 'Surely you wouldn't part with all of the Worm's coin at a whim even if it is, indeed, rightfully yours. Your desperation aside, perhaps there are overtones which even I have not heard?' The man smiled, a fleeting twitch of the lips, which conveyed both depth and superficial amusement. He held out two fingers, pointing to the mugs on the table. 'Ah, a bet. Same old, same old, eh?'

You do as I do, action for action, and if you fail, you part with whatever knowledge you might possess which interests me. If, after a period of no less than 5 minutes, I do not force you to yield, I pay you, in full. The customary rules bind us and there will be no sorcery, infernal or otherwise. We play by wit alone. The voice seemed to echo from the mouths of those present in the bar, save the man and the demon. 'Of course, my lord', the demon replied, partly in mockery and partly in justifiable fear. There were no secrets beyond the Veil. Charinos would have preferred if the rumors of his infernal liquor smuggling racket remained rumors. He walked over to the the refectory table and produced a bottle from under it. Stygian Moonshine, 1089 , the peeling gold letters read. The demon proceeded to a tip a generous measure of the dull, greyish liquid into each mug. 'Shall we get cracking then?', he asked. The man nodded and walked over to the table and set a tarot deck next to the glasses.

With one seamless motion he drew a two of wands from the deck. Fitting. Never would I have considered a descent so steep. Charinos did the same, snagging a ten of wands instead. Burden. As I thought, he has information he would never have given ear to had he known the implications. The man proceeded to execute an astonishing array of sleight of hand maneuvers and his feet tapped to the rhythm of the Danse Macabre. The demon did the same, albeit with the clumsy air of one who has dropped out of practice. Not a single soul, be he fair, fiend or human, having danced it, would ever forget the Danse Macabre. The man lunged mid step and took a swig of one of the mugs, wiping the residue off his pallid lips on the back of his gloved hand. An exaggerated gulping followed. Charinos smiled, a knowing smirk, and did the same, as he had done a multitude of times before. The feigned swallow was not meant to provoke a consumption. It merely serves to lower the heaviest of guards. The man spit into the mug, a trailing arc of liquid silver splashed into its confines and Charinos did the same. He let out a joyful cry and held out his hand, eager for his payment. I pity you. The man held out a finger.
'Oh, blast the time limit', the demon said, 'You yourself know I have won. You assumed the Danse Macabre would throw me off balance, didn't you? Well, I have been doing this since before Babylon fell and that ain't an anachronism. Its a hyperbole, got that?'
The man smiled, and held out the finger.
'What…oh no, I was to imitate you without a pause…', Charinos seemed to deflate, 'I…I was too eager, wasn't I?' He held out his own finger pitifully and stared at it. I will not consider this incident , the rigid patrons intoned. The demon's eyes lit up with infernal fire. 'Hell yeah', he said, 'Wait…isn't there no mercy in death?' The man turned to the mugs and spit into his once more. 'Of course', the demon sighed, 'you sure were after a masterful sink. I yield. You can have what you're after.'

Charinos walked over to the unmarked wall by the washrooms, and inscribed, in fiery script, an inverted pentacle on the wall. A tremor ran through the bar and the wall twisted inward, revealing a dark passageway choked by smoke. The smell of brimstone, a sharp sting to the sinuses, wafted in. 'As you might have inferred, I do nip into Hell every so often. I fancy myself an information broker. There's a not-so-large cavern 'bout 20 miles below the slums of Pandemonium.' The man raised an eyebrow. 'Of course there are slums, it wouldn't be much of an infernal capital without 'em. The freed damned lodge down there and their smell, the very pungent nature of which, masks my presence.' The man shrugged and followed the demon into the tunnel, unperturbed by the stifling vapors. The demon's facade burned away and an emaciated humanoid with sores all over, attired in black robes which might just have been hairy wings, walked ahead.

'Come in Mr. Verdonich'. The white double doors parted and a middle-aged man of unremarkable physiognomy entered. The only discernable portions of his physique, at first glance, were his unusually bushy eyebrows and his startlingly blue irises. 'Your reputation precedes you', the woman behind the oval table said. She had looked up at him briefly, before returning to the perusal of the many papers before her. 'You wished to meet me. Why?', he asked, his tone redolent of suppressed impatience. 'I', the woman said, 'have a proposition. Have a seat.' Verdonich walked over to the table and settled down in one of the two hard-back chairs by the table. The Director of ESSE's office was evocative of precision and minuteness, and the man in the crumpled business suit felt much out of place. He simply stuck out like a sore thumb. Why the Director, Miss Lanchester, had asked for him, a practicing psychoanalyst and founder of the Dalewroth Corrective Facility, he did not know. In the garish light emanating from the window behind the Director, Verdonich could just about make out what looked like a report on a certain serum:


Internal Report

Aim: Resurrection.
Serum efficacy: 86%
Intended efficacy: 99%
Known side-effects: Inability to produce unaffected gametes, single-minded intent(parallel processing limited)
Potentially beneficial: Accelerated cell growth in the first quarter.

He leaned forward, intrigued, but Lanchester slid a blank piece of paper over it. 'Tch tch. Curiosity killed the cat, Mr. Verdonich. Death does not forgive meddlers. Especially if the cat in question were to dabble in unlawful necromancy.' Verdonich twisted uncomfortably and scarcely had he begun to apologize than the woman cut him off with a smile-'Worry not, for I am neither Death nor his accomplice. I detest his presence as much as you do.'
'Ah, but death is a necessary evil, director', Verdonich said, 'Overpopulation and famine would result from a loosening of its grip.'
Lanchester's smile dimmed to marked coldness. 'The reason I asked for you, Mr. Verdonich, is because I am interested in one of your most recent acquisitions…', she said.
'…patients', Verdonich interjected.
'Of course. Now, the patient in question…'.
'You called me here regarding Castigne, didn't you? What with him being on experimental medication from ESSE.'
'I, for one, will not let you turn him into one of your so-called studies. The boy has undergone significant self-dissolution which we fear may have resulted from an alteration of brain chemistry. Perhaps as a result of your avant-garde drugs, Miss Lanchester?'
'You do not intend to cooperate then?'
'Very well then, have it your way.' Lanchester drew a syringe from out under the table. A dark red, gelatinous liquid with an oddly prismatic quality to it swirled within.
'Wha…what?', Verdonich sputtered. A knife flashed centimeters away from his neck. Beads of sweat wormed their way down his forehead as he fumbled for something, anything, to defend himself.
'I may breathe life into Man, but I will not hesitate to take it, come what may', she said and with a lithe twist, cut Verdonich from ear to ear.

Hell is akin to a vast cavern, much removed from Earth, well-nigh blanketed by a lake of fire which springs from a supervolcano to the west. It lies engirdled by the roiling primordial chaos which spans all of creation. A barren ovoid with an iron core of suffering. Motes of rock and metal float amidst choking clouds of sulfur, suspended from the roof by iron chains drawn out by nameless limbs. Demonic warlords infest some, but Satan holds sway over the rest. Vast aberrant machinations litter these buoyant hunks, their sole purpose being the torture of human souls. Demons feed on pain, and corrupt souls elicit the sweetest melodies. Satan is bound by treaty to Death, he would refrain from aiding Life send souls back into the Mortal World such that they may give into corruption and Death would divert a batch of the choicest from his dominion to Hell. Demons make for fine connoisseurs of torture. The magnum opus of Hell's many creations however is the capital city of Pandemonium which perches atop a sheer outcrop in the midst of the flaming sea, a shining citadel of iron and gold, untarnished and whole. It is here that Satan holds court and conspires against Humanity. A myriad of treacherous tunnels and shallow caverns dot the walls, the roof and the bed of Hell. Some are empty, some hold demons and others, the darker ones which fade into the limbo between worlds, even the demons shun.

After a walk through winding passageways of interminable length, the demon and the man arrived at a dismal cavern, its ceiling lost to shadow. A not-quite-grey tinge had suffused everything within, and the man felt a slow unease creep into his psyche. 'The white noise from yonder carries with it knowledge both old and new, secrets both remembered and forgotten', the demon intoned, raising a six-fingered hand toward the shadowy greyness. Reams of ostensibly blank vellum and papyrus littered the clefts in the walls and Charinos walked to the nearest and sifting through the reams, picked out a batch which resolved into contemporary newspaper cuttings and letters. 'Here', the demon said placing the bundle on a borad-headed stalagmite, 'I wish I had never listened.' The man nodded and walked over to the table-like protrusion and looked over the cuttings in the flickering light of the colorless gas lamps which hung from the walls.



by Anton Watts

The discovery of multiple Homo Erectus(Proto-Human, c. 40,000 BCE) bodies in downtown Manhattan pose troubling questions regarding our current understanding of human evolution…

Devolution? Where is the rest of it?
'These don't really exist per se, they would have if something hadn't prevented their creation.'


by Daniel Steward

…troubling psychological trauma. Coupled with an extreme form of OCD and significant lack of pain tolerance has deemed…extreme multiple
personality disorder. Multiple genetic malformities detected…acute thanatophobia.

Genetic tampering?


Internal Report

Subject-7A does not conform to any known sub-type of multiple personality disorder which adds credence to the accumulation of multiple selves, each trying to assert itself.

A pallor not unlike the indistinct monochrome which hung from the roof had seeped into the man's face. Retrogression, the walls rumbled, a spontaneous combustion of past selves as one hurtles backward in time to before a sense of self existed. A tremendous backwash of chaos energy ensues. The boy, Castigne, an amalgamation of selves in a single soul. The consequences- I could kill him a thousand times over, and he'd keep coming back, a different self each time. The strain should have annihilated him. How…ah, I see now, the chaos energy preserves his original self, but 'tis shattered beyond repair.The man grimaced. The boy is a liability. I must put him down, lest my counterpart perfect her sordid manipulation. A burnished 27 swam before his eyes. Perhaps she has. The Dalewroth Corrective Facility, where is it? Charinos whimpered and pointed upward. Of course it intersects Hell. The nearest source of chaos energy. I wonder if the price she paid was worth it. Where? The demon seemed to shrink and his wings shifted to the small of his back which, as the man knew very well, bore a brand in the likeness of a crown. An ancient punishment for defectors in…Satan's court. How exceedingly unfortunate.

'On Earth, it is said that all roads lead to Rome. Likewise in Hell, all roads, passageways, tunnels, crevices and canoes eventually lead to Pandemonium. I will not accompany you however, I promised you information and nothing more.' The man nodded, gazed furtively at the nothingness above and walked back the way he had come.

'Castigne was not so much a failure as a start', a familiar female voice purred in Verdonich's ear. 'I grant you nigh immortality and you will kill him. You alone. With this.' She held out a polished double-edged knife with a handle of polished mahogany, a blood red ruby in its pommel. 'I will.' The man in the bloodied suit stumbled to his feet, the wound in his neck stitching itself shut. A syringe lay a few feet away, its tip dripping red. 'I will', he sputtered reaching for the knife as the woman in white smiled.

The man walked, and darkness followed. The subterranean passageways of Hell wind and tumble in ways more numerous than there are spires of brimstone amidst the undulating fires. The lack of aim bothered the man, but walk aimlessly he did, giving in to the topology of Hell. At length, after miles of monotonous trekking through blank grey-black passageways, a subtle music began to sound from some far off source. I have arrived. The tunnel had widened considerably and its roof bore circular holes at regular intervals. The man clambered into one of them and after much uncomfortable squirming emerged in the midst of a throng of demons. The startled demons, each about twice as tall as a human and not unlike them, stumbled backward, reeling from the man's despondent aura. The man walked calmly past them, pausing briefly to gaze at the trombonists perched on the balusters of the walkways flanking the path upon which he know stood. The pathway was akin to a river of gold, its sheen and sparkle just about right to conjure up an impression of majesty unaccompanied by the gaudy after-taste which often follows. A fitting testament to the skill of the architects who had built Pandemonium. The spires of Satan's palace rose in the distance, enshrouded by thick and heavy smoke. Spindles of gold, seemingly walkways, congregated at the base of the structure, which lay miles above the rest of Pandemonium, held aloft by chaos energy.

The demons gave the man a wide berth, both unable and unwilling to halt his progress. The ones that tried fell back at once after they got close enough to look into the greyness of his eyes. With clouds of sulfur above him and the fires below him, the man walked on, toward the castellated structure in the distance. The Devil's Arch, a massive archway of iron and gold in the likeness of two massive arms, fingers interlocking at its zenith, loomed before him. Satan had no need for doors or fortifications of any kind, his mere presence served to turn away the foolhardy and none could enter lest they willingly gave up their volition. The man had no need for such formalities. He merely walked through.

The vestibule was vast, unlit and ended in shadow. Demons crouched on the rafters, violins nestled under their bearded chins. The notes they coaxed out of their instruments was as far removed from music as the ocean from the raindrop. In the sheer beauty of its essence, poison lurked and the man gave no ear to The Musica Diabolica, past the recurrent tritones. Murals adorned the walls, depicting a vast golden Dragon, snout aflame, wings aloft. The mural on the left pictured it atop a mound of skulls and the one on the right had the Dragon lounging on a bed of gold. The man walked into the passageway at the far end, gazing briefly at the involute tracery on the walls. A blast of light momentarily blinded him as he walked into the court of the Dragon.

It was like unto an amphitheater, yet unlike any amphitheater the man had ever seen. Massive, flaming scones hung from the vaulted ceiling which bore a frightening resemblance to the rib cage of some gargantuan beast. It was all gold, glistering, fiery and terrible; the embodiment of vanity, greed and excess. Terrible sculptures depicting a human figure with horns curling inward and vast leathery bat wings rose at regular intervals round the massive oval structure. An intricate cornice, cast in the likeness of a serpent snaked along and thickets of spears festooned upon which hung a myriad of skulls. Tiers of adamant, crawling with hordes of humanoid shapes descended into the roiling chaos below, out of which rose a single spire, upon which was impaled Satan, the Great Deceiver, The Dragon and The Beast. 'Death!', the figure boomed, 'What tidings bringest thou to the heart of mine own domain?'

The man was silent, unable to comprehend the spectacle unfolding before him. Satan was an imposing man with high cheekbones and a mop of coal black hair shot with silver atop a lofty forehead, a rock jutting through his bloody abdomen. His supernal grandeur, cloaked in an aura of suffering, bore vestiges of the time before his fall, of untold majesty and fathomless splendor. His cruel lineaments spoke of timeless perfection and hidden excess. And yet, it was but a part of a greater whole. The shadows seemed to lengthen behind him, carrying with them an impression of a vast draconic monstrosity curled about the spire. They flickered and coalesced into the likeness of a ram-headed beast with a crown of thorns on one horn, crouching atop the sheer rock with its scaly talons. He was all this, and so much more.

'Speak, O Death! What portents dost thou bring? They seem to flock unto you like flies unto rotting flesh. Tell me, dost thou like our music?' The assembled demons spat and jeered at the lone man on the precipice, some clutching at their violins with lustful pride.
Nay, the walls rumbled, there is only silence in death.
The jeering was abruptly cut off and Satan leaned forward and grudging respect suffused his countenance.
This hall reeks of death, of old death. Whatever didst thou build thy fortress atop, Lord Satan?
Satan's mouth twisted into a wry grin. ' 'Twas here before our Fall. Gestating. A grotesque, half-formed hulk of unfinished creation. Atop the broken form of that creature did I rear Pandemonium. Its bones vault my ceil. Its flesh girdles my hall. The waters run red with its blood. Defenseless it was when I smote it, and defenseless was I when cast into the Fire. The spire broke mine body, but not before I took from that nameless thing its True Name!'
The man stumbled backward, his face a mask of shock.
'Thou art welcome here no more, O Death! Thy antithesis hast offered unto me deliverance from this damned pit. All it cost me was Chaos and a single, most potent NAME' , Satan boomed and heaved his broken form off the spire and tumbled into the ochre chaos below.

The man stumbled backward as the throng of demons leaned forward in shock, deep and profound. A rumbling, as of reverberating laughter, shook the cavernous space as the fiery vortex parted and a massive, clawed hand reared out of the pit. It was piebald, its fingers akin to serpents and the palm, a large lidless eye. Demons and damned alike keened and the man trembled. Fear gave way to desperation and desperation to determination.

The man's facade burnt away and Death took his place
I do not merely end life, I end existence
A leering skeleton swaddled in black, scythe aloft, crow wings outspread
When the sixth trumpet sounds, the four angels bound to the Euphrates will ride out. I loom over them, ever so near and yet so far
His power crumbled to nothing
The potency of my power is such that it weakens itself
And flared like a dying star
I alight on the pinions of age
Leaving nothingness in its wake
De mortuis nil nisi bonum1

The scythe clove through the Beast, severing his nigh immortal soul from his body. The leaden left hand bound it to the spire with chains of Night. The corvidian figure slipped through the cracks betwixt Dalewroth and Hell, sealing them behind it.

━ Interlude ━

There is a monochrome photograph shielded from the elements by a sheet of glass, girdled by a frame of gold. It hung on the over-mantle of a Georgian mansion nestled amongst the rolling hills of the east. It was the first shot ever taken perhaps. It depicted a prepossessing woman in her twenties, who exuded charm and vigor. She was attired in a white evening dress, complete with puffed sleeves and involute tracery by the hem. A man, likewise in his twenties, stood beside her, arm in arm. He was arrayed in a black tailcoat with prominent buttons. A distinct scar ran down his right cheek.

The woman bore a startling resemblance to Miss Lanchester and the man to Mr. Worstern, her second-in-command.

A painting hung by the window in the study. The canvas bore a charming woman in her twenties arrayed in what seemed to be an Elizabethan ensemble. A freckled youth in an embroidered doublet, with a distinct scar down the right side of his face stands beside her. Anachronism casts a shadow over the image, which seems to darken the longer one who has seen the framed picture in the parlor stares at it and dawning realization brings with it a sudden twilight.

━ II ━

As sensation flooded in, excruciating pain followed. A life-long propensity toward impassiveness had dulled the man's reactions to sudden bursts of all consuming emotion. Nonetheless, he grimaced, wiping a bead of blood off the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand and watched it sink into the velvety blackness of his glove. He had walked into a hallway, the walls a swirling canvas of orange and purple, dimly lit by batches of fluorescent tube lights. The linoleum floor glimmered with patches of red. Blood, the man reflected, his blood, a slow steady stream of it dripping from his wrists. Wincing slightly, the man walked toward the door at the end of the hallway. To any predator, the warm scent of prey brings with it an invigoration of spirit unlike any other. His pace quickened, and foreboding clawed at his psyche as he made for the door. A brazen knob glimmered to his right, darkening steadily with the impression of a distorted hand which grew larger, swallowing the burnished glare. All awareness of the narrow hallway left the man as overwhelming need consumed him. A shallow click, followed by a creak and the door swung inward into inky blackness.

Verdonich slammed the black door of the sleek Mercedes and watched as it sped off into the distance, fishtailing up the entry ramp and into a sea of blinking lights. He sighed, groaned, topped it off with a drawn out huff, and turned toward the brightly lit signboard atop a C-shaped brownstone complex, which proclaimed 'DALEWROTH CORRECTIVE FACILITY'. Verdonich walked across the turf and pushed through the revolving door into the lobby, smiling at the blonde receptionist on his way in. Being the founder, metal detectors were an unnecessary formality, and besides, the knife lay cold against his breast.

The darkness within the ward swirled with the miasma of a thousand rotten souls and the man recoiled, almost involuntarily, as he walked in. On a bed set against the farther wall lay a teenage boy of average appearance, utterly normal to every eye save the man's. The grisly shadow of fear perched atop the boy's chest, smothering him as he felt the presence he had been made to thwart. The man snaked over to the crumpled form, lit by feeble rays, swaddled in a thin, cotton comforter and drew forth from the Outer Night his scythe, such that he may sever the boy's wretched soul and usher it into his dominion.

The man struck, the vaporous form of a silvery crescent rushing through the air in a deadly arc, bringing with it pain and silence. You die by the hand of Death Himself. Such honor I have bestowed to none amongst the mass of humanity. The boy's scream was swallowed by a suffocating silence that seemed to emanate from the man himself. The scythe slowed as it met shadowy resistance and the wielder pushed, with all his remaining energy, against the millions of selves, all dead save one, that lay encumbered within the boy's soul. The selves pushed back and with a sigh, the man yielded as he felt something curl within the mass that was not wholly human. It was the sheer presence he had felt only twice before, at a false stillbirth of cataclysmic proportions and within the Court of the Dragon.

Having given in to the recoil, the man was flung against the door frame with a sickening thud, his scythe returning to shadow. The man lay defeated and through searing pain and smarting limbs drew from his collar with his teeth a single card. He spat it out and a man with a sly look about him dominated his vision. He seemed to have picked up three of the five swords that lay on the grass. Behind him walked two men, shoulders slouched, the overwhelming weight of defeat and humiliation in their gait. Defeat. Yet, not by Man.

Verdonich traversed the narrow hallway of purples and oranges, a potent psychedelic amalgamation which served to set greater confusion upon the minds of his patients such that he may convince them to let go of their attachments. The sight of a figure in a black suit stretched across the doorway at an unnatural angle startled him, but he gave the body no more than a cursory glance as he stepped over it. It was evident from the sickly puddle of blood that the the man would not survive for any longer than a few minutes, come what may.

The boy was awake when Verdonich walked in. The boy's eyes followed him as he walked over to the bed. He drew the double-edged knife from inside the white shirt his mistress had given him and pressed it against the boy's neck, right at his jugular. The boy whimpered as Verdonich proceeded to cut, shallow at first, piercing ever deeper. A steady torrent of dark red blood issued from under the knife, as if it were a ravenous vampire, coaxing out every last sanguine drop of vitality from its victim. A blade forged by Life, which reeked of Death.

The boy trashed against Verdonich's iron grip, but the knife fed fat his assailant on his vitality and with weakening vigor came a sudden burst of courage. The boy called out to his greatest fear, the icy embrace of Thanatos, a plea for deliverance from the abomination he was being siphoned into. Verdonich cut through relentlessly with a shocking lack of effort. The very importunate nature of the boy's pleas roused the man from his stupor. He picked up the five of swords which had lain by his head not a second ago and rent it in two. Scarcely had the twin fragments fallen than the man staggered over to Verdonich and heaved him off the boy with surprising strength. Verdonich slipped, having stepped in a puddle of the man's blood, and collapsed, the knife burying itself in his gut. With a guttural howl of rage, he drew a revolver and shot a round toward the back of the man's head. His aim was off however, and having rejected Providence utterly, the bullet merely grazed the man's cheek and ricocheted off the false ceiling and into the boy's heart.

The man dropped to the ground almost instantaneously, his reflexes kicking in, but Verdonich had since ceased to be a menace. He would be dealt with, in the Outer Dark. The man clambered to his feet and walked over to the figure on the dark red mattress. The boy, Castigne, was still breathing, despite the extremity of the effort it took him. It is a marvel how the body clings to life, even when all hope is lost. Why struggle when you can give in to death?The blade that had pierced him was of no ordinary composition, the man reflected. He could not see it, merely fleeting glimpses of its after image. 'Th-Thank you', the boy gurgled, rattling the man.Ah. He walked over to the boy and gently shut his eyelids with his fingers. The man felt a single, emaciated remnant of a soul exit and something else flutter past him, a hive with an unmarred core.

Death does not abandon his servitors, those that willingly submit, having had enough of the uncertainty of life. Souls that wish for a void of emotion, for a brief rest betwixt lifetimes.

'It is done', Lanchester muttered as she felt a vastness brush past her and into the sleeping infant by the window. The moon shone through the frosted glass and she watched as the inherent childish peacefulness of its face resolved into one of mask like impassiveness. She walked out of the modest bedroom and into a rather lavish parlor. A man wearing a white fedora sat by the coffee table.

'The scales have tipped to our favor, madame', he remarked. A scar ran down his right cheek.
'Not yet, the baby has to take to it first. Names coalesce with difficulty, even if they were, once, part of the same entity. They are anchors of individual identity after all. Lanchester, for instance, would interact quite poorly with Life. The former evokes feelings of 'fear' and 'distress' with fanatic worship at its core. The latter, however, carries with it longing, desire, dream and vitality. The only common ground for both is the color white, which serves as a beginning more than anything else.'

The woman walked over to Worstern and plucked the fedora off his head, revealing a pallid pate lacking even a single hair. The man narrowed his non-existent eyebrows, but his lips curled into an amused smile.
'Ah, the day we met', he whispered, 'all those years ago. I saw you by the marble fountain through the spray. You looked simply radiant and alive. The bright sunlight brought the silver out of your hair and that pale skirt embroidered with white roses … We've tried, time and again, to capture that beauty, but it seems we'll never succeed.'
'You still had your hair back then.'
'Well … yes, but that's hardly …'
'The first time your current self walked the world of the living. A cut above the half-life you now lead.'
'Aye, but it is preferable to death. Oh, how I feared the reaper. I had the good fortune, all thanks to you m'lady, to be born two hundred years after the Black Death. A grisly time. My so-called 'occult' experiments had made me a societal outcast and I fled to England, where I met you.'
'The homunculus, your first triumph. I wonder if it still lives.'
'All thanks to you, of course.'
'And in turn, it brought the solution closer to fruition.'
'My first emergence, my great-grand nephew I presume, was agonizing. The limbo I had lurked in had evidently dulled my senses. I shudder in remembrance.'
'Your great-grand nephew was a handsome lad, a pity you had to take over from him. And yes, the limbo, a compromise. The domain of Death is no different, void of all life and emotion- an eternal night of certainty girdled by the riverine aspect of the Serpent. Life might hold great suffering for some. They might wish for death, the very impersonal nature of which thwarts their desires. They crave the indifferent aspect of it, but it is so potent that it resolves into something exceedingly intimate. Death knows you, is you, at the very instant of your release and since it is, you suffer a thousand fold, for knowing thyself is the greatest of all burdens. Every shame, every guilt laid bare before your bosom. It would drive you insane, thus the reason why memory is cleansed in time for your eventual birth. It is a mercy I have shown Humanity. The life you live on this verdant sphere is one of rich uncertainty, of un-mystifying your state of being in such a manner that prevents utter understanding. Humanity believes they know themselves-this I have shown you-, yet they know themselves only as well as they would know their intimates. They merely assemble a flawed model of their selves from varying sources which they then proceed to interpret.'

'Come', Life concluded, 'for Death is here.'

The man stood alone, beneath the groping black branches of the oak across No. 27, in wait. The gnarled oak was a twisted and skeletal figure, its roots a testament to time, of the slow grinding and churning which had reduced the hardest of rocks to dust. Its black boughs reach out over the street like a grasping hand, holding all the quarter under its sway. Not a single squirrel dared reside in its cavernous hollows and not a chirp resounded from its bare black branches.

He watched as a tall, almost androgynous woman in a dazzling white pantsuit exited the colonial house across the street. She carried herself with a dramatic confidence, almost in pantomime. In her right hand she held a pistol.

The man drew a revolver from the inside of his coat. He'd had it made a long time ago, from the scraps of a twisted blade. It had not yet been used.

The lone street lamp cast a wavering yellow glow over the spectacle, imparting to the scene an insubstantial air. The confrontation ran far deeper than was open to the scrutiny of matter.

Being antipodes of one another, both cast about them an aura of the absence of the other and as they met, neither held sway.

A shadow momentarily darkened the open dormer window, passing swiftly out of sight. The man took no notice of this. He had eyes for the woman alone.

'Death', Life purred, flashing at him a dazzling smile.
Life, Death whispered and his voice was the creaking of aged limbs, the blackness of his eyes as inscrutable as always.
'You wish to know how I brought about your downfall, don't you?'
You presume much. I have not so much fallen as stumbled over the insubstantial.

The moon had risen from behind the gaunt figure of Death, who stood unmoving, silhouetted against its pallid glow.

'Ah, and tell you I will. You see, ever since the dawn of consciousness, of the ability to distinguish one instant from the other, there has risen the shadow of impermanence. If there are no living beings, there is no end to what is, for there is an absence of what was and what will be.'
You sought an era before the dawn of life.
'Indeed. And I found it in Hell. It is incomprehensible to you and I. 'tis akin to a phoenix, which riseth again from the ashes of death. Satan smote it in its death throes, for he was afraid of it and could not slay it, instead taking from it its true name, which embodies its desirable properties.'
He paid dearly. Even know he suffers.
'Ah, he bad-mouthed your precious dead, didn't he? Anyway, the entity itself matters little. Its name is what matters.'
Dearly bought, was it not?
'The price I paid was worth it. He demanded liberty of me and in return I acquired something well-nigh alive, which had not known the Sickle of Death.'
The child. It walked not into my domain, forcing my hand. I held back at once, for had it come unto the Outer Dark, it would have proved to vast to contain, let alone walk the nine thousand steps to the gilded gates of rebirth.
'He was not the only one. I distilled the name, split its essence in three. One was the chalice, if you will, another, the mead of life, and the third, the medium of transfer, the cupbearer. The residue I put to good use- I had, for the past five hundred years, been working on a serum of sorts, which would enable one to cheat Death. They would, down the line, manifest in one of their descendants, taking full control and rewriting bits of their genome to match their own. The soul, meanwhile, was condemned to a short stint in a limbo before their descendant's soul was killed. Thanks to the name, I can avoid unnecessary deaths. The serum now brings one back, in one's own body, provided rigor mortis hasn't set in.'

Life's expression had contorted to one of quiet amusement and she stood framed by the portico, a soft yellow glow about her supple form.

'The chalice I gave to the child. Verdonich, of Dalewroth, was my chosen cupbearer. The mead, I gave to young Castigne.'
Death inhaled sharply, his grey irises retreating further into the shadow. The child is too weak to contain within itself raw power. Unless…
'Yes, yes indeed.'
How? You are the womb of all life, there is no room for another, however insignificant.
'The advances in science are to blame. IVF is a wonderful tool I have honed to perfection. I did not bear the child. Mankind draws ever further from your grasp, Grim Reaper.'

Death remained as impassive as ever.

'The mead brought forth all past selves young Castigne's soul had ever lived, and in doing so, drew forth chaos energy from a multitude. The weight of its burden shattered his mind beyond repair. As his soul was cut free, with a knife wrought from the remnants of the name, held by one who carried part of the name, the mead, carrying with it the nigh endless selves Castigne had ever lived rushed into the child. A final sacrifice to you, to end you and all your manifestations. The selves have lost all meaning now, they are but an impenetrable shield.'
Infants lack selves. The child is … as impressionable as it is un-killable. It is the name alone that lies within it.
'Indeed. This affair could've been a little less messy had it not been for those meddling fools ranting on about human rights. ESSE seeks to end suffering by ending death. Why falter in the face of the greater good? As a consequence I had to concede to admitting Castigne.'
Even know there is death, on this very street. A woman wails as her father wastes away, unconscious of all but himself. A coroner kneels over a bloody figure beneath an elm tree. An undertaker mutters to himself as he embalms the lifeless body of a murder victim. Humanity atrophies, starved by the very hand that feeds it.

'The child is a beacon of hope against your dismal power. The deaths you speak of are meaningless for the moment you are expunged, there will be life without end, and of expansion to the heavens. Birth alone, until all your dominion is emptied. Pray tell me, how vast is the Outer Night?'
I do not know, for it is without end, yet bound by the sheer walls of creation. But what of those who wish to die? What of those whose very existence is torment? And what of the consequences of the drying up of resources, and of accommodation?
'You are bound by your limited imagination. You cannot let go of your place in the cosmos, can you? The lack of death would mean an endless lifetime given over to research, to methods and systems capable of eradicating malformities and illnesses, of expanding out into the blank vastness. And why should one assume that all need food and sustenance when there is no death?'
And how will you go about orchestrating my destruction?

Life hopped off the marble stair and onto the flagstones with a sharp click. A hand stealthily pushed against the dormer window, sliding it over to one side. Death took no notice, for Life had switched off the safety and rolled up her sleeve.

'The outcome matters not, for as the child lives, you will fall.'

A shot rang out, stark against the silence of the small hours. Death slid away, seemingly melting into the shadows as the shot sunk into the rotting wood of the aged oak.

Life strikes first, Death whispered and his voice was one with the lonely night breeze.

A second shot ran out, differing in intensity, and a blur of white greeted it. It ricocheted off one of the pillars, gouging a chunk of marble off of it. 'Too slow, old man', she drawled winking at the tattered figure by the oak. A shadow of frustration darkened Death's sharp countenance. As he stepped out of the shadow and into the light, determined to end the cycle of hit and miss with a head on coupe de grace, he was greeted by a sharp sting in his calf. He stumbled, and a card fluttered out of his cuff and into the scarlet pool over which he now knelt. He looked up with difficulty, disoriented, and his hooded eyes fell upon the muzzle peeking out of the dormer. His eyes drifted downward to the pair of white stilettoes before him and to the stained cardstock. A man lay against a tree trunk, its branches spiraling off into the void below as it hung upside down. Its roots ran deep, lost to view. Miniscule gold calligraphy read N∀W pƎפN∀H ƎH┴ and it was then that Death beheld the thin gold thread which bound the man to the trunk, a halo of auburn hair around his head. The Hanged Man, upside down.

The cards of Providence whispered and Death harkened. He let go of his responsibility, giving in to the eddies of fate which had necessitated his being and which would bring his purpose to fruition. And as Death let go, with a dizzying sense of vertigo, his perception swung sideward. He looked to the stars and faltered. The revolver lay beside him, the blood sinking into its elaborate grooves and as Death keeled over to one side, determined to give the cards their due, a sliver of moonlight glinted off of it, momentarily blinding the man at the dormer. A shot rang out and Life collapsed.

'No, m'lady', Worstern gibbered as Death staggered to his feet. Revolver in hand, he walked over to Life, who lay in a heap, tendrils of red rapidly spreading from below her sternum. He looked to the man at the dormer, who seemed to be twitching and aging rapidly, clumps of hair withering and skin crumbling away to dust.

Our confrontation was sooner this time around. You have done me injury, nothing grievous of course, but well-nigh unexpected. Your predecessors would be proud.

The woman trembled and looked up at the man in black and his sharp, mask like features. 'Wh-what do you mean?'
I believed in the cyclicity of time, but no matter. The dance of Life and Death is eternal. It is both the cause and effect of time. The lack of either would have disastrous consequences. I am content, you however, are irrefutably implacable.
'I-I…no, you damned…the child is my flesh and blood…born to oppose you…it fears you and cannot be influenced. It acts on instinct alone for it has no sense of self, and its primary emotion is hatred, hatred of you.'
I cannot kill the child, but perhaps, apropos of the fact that it is indeed an empty shell…it could be you. I do not hunger for carnage without end. I act to bring the cycle full circle, to prevent an explosion of either of our domains. I do not wish to cease, to end, to have the cycle interrupted.
'Ironic, Death does not want to die.'
Perhaps, said the man and his voice was the gentle rustling of the turf. All impassiveness had fled and a soft smile remained. Come, and you will see.
'Hell, you expect me to give in just because you made this personal', the woman muttered and swept her pistol up at the man.

The man frowned, a disapproving hint to it with overtones which spoke of quiet amusement. Like I have said before, mors semper vincit.
'..sed vita adhuc procedit2', Life interjected with a rattling laugh.
A gun discharged and there was silence.
Drops of vivid red hung, trailing from below, intermeshed into an elaborate explosion. A fractal of infinite beauty and despair. A portent of change. The first drops of red on a blank canvas.

The man fingered his jaw in silence. The Black Death had been a grim consequence of his depraved maintenance of order. What brutality had he unleashed on humanity this time?

━ Epilogue ━

The still black waters of the Under River parted with hardly a ripple as the gondola cut through. The gondolier was a tall, gaunt figure who perched atop the stern, lit dimly by a lantern at his feet. His oar did not seem to interrupt the oily sheen of the waters, yet the gondola swept onward, thither the silent halls by the headwaters. A woman with a soft phosphorescence about her sat at the far end. She seemed to meld into the mists which hung unyielding over the waters and her face spoke of quiet resignation. The mists hung low and dense, much closer to being grey-black fog, but it was a gentle mist nonetheless, for the fogs of the Outer Night hang low above the silent halls and not even the Master might peer through that smoky veneer.

A splash echoed to the right, startling the pale woman. She shivered and made to move closer to the light by the stern but as she neared she saw what lay under the gondolier's hood and recoiled, clutching at her heart. A morbid laughter issued from the gondolier. 'Harken not to the denizens of the Under River, for they are hungry and their maws are many. But harken now to Death, and look to the mirrored waters of the deep.'

The woman leaned over the edge precariously, as if being driven by a rather forceful puppeteer, and the waters churned and frothed before her, revealing-

A cheerful girl sat upon a large black branch, her legs dangling, her face scrunched up into a smile. She seemed to be laughing at a figure down below, seemingly taunting them. Bits of green had begun to shoot up at the ends of the bare branches and birds thrilled past her flyaway hair. The figure below, attired in a black t-shirt and tattered black jeans had clambered over beside the girl, his face startlingly impassive, despite the warmth …

A tear had snaked down the woman's cheek and as it fell into the oily blackness, the mirror like vision ceased.

'I', the gondolier rasped, 'believed time to be a flat circle. An endless repetition of past events with a change of cast and setting. When the cycle began, with your first death, I do not know, or rather, have chosen to forget. It dragged on, and on, with me killing you over and over, with a rock, a club, a knife and a gun, unleashing upon humanity untold suffering before balance was restored. Genocide after genocide, extinction after extinction, massacre after massacre I have witnessed, necessary evils all. I seeded your essence, lest the cycle be broken and time itself come to an end. I left your predecessors to their devices, knowing full well that they would grow to confront me and that I would put them down, no matter the cost, so that the cycle may begin anew. It is in life's very nature to thrive, to spread beyond its bounds, as it is in death's to be sated. I confess I was fearful of … ending and in my haste, I failed to perceive the greater whole.'

The gondola swept onward, thither the halls of repose, by the carcass of the Worm.

'As I looked to fate's message, The Hanged Man inverted, I realized that I had been looking at it the wrong way. What was a circle, from ahead, resolved into a helix from one side. Events need not repeat themselves. Perhaps the helix ends, perhaps it is infinite, but this iteration will, for the odds are against me, be different. The child, your successor who is both a name and an individual, having been seeded with your essence of course, cannot die. She will merely continue. This time I shall try , with all my un-beating heart, to prevent conflict and give your successor a chance at redemption. A new age of acceptance, of exalting one's mortality, for what is Death but a new beginning.'

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