[Q] Week 999: Truman

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Kishyotai's Ghost

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I don’t know what they told you – and to be honest, I don’t care. I always thought I was holding our little world together by my fingertips.

And I was right. I just had no idea what it would cost us.

Forget what they told you. This is my story. This is our story.


[ TRUMAN ]
“Haben Sie das alles verstanden, Hr. Erdeschalk?“
“Do you understand, Mr. Erdeschalk?”

The Staatsanwalt levelled his gaze on Sebastian Erdeschalk, clearly trying to intimidate. It is, of course, the temptation of all great offices – to make words greater than they would be from another, implying greater consequences (or even the existence of consequences). Sometimes the implied threat was hollow, sometimes not.

Ich verstehe.” Sebastian affirmed, nodding his head. The prosecutor regarded Sebastian for a moment, as if waiting for the young man to crack under the pressure, and then stood up. Sebastian did as well, and then the five others in the room did so as well. The two principles shook each other’s hand respectfully and then turned to their individual teams before Sebastian and his two companions shuffled out of the room in a polite silence.

“You navigated that well.” One of his companions said in an easy British accent, and while he didn’t whisper it was clear that he didn’t want to be heard.

“Not here. Not now” the other said, surveying who else was in the hallway. Stefan held out an arm to subtly urge the pair to his right, “The press could be here. There are a few outside as well.”

“My apologies.” Reginald James Darby said, coughing lightly, as the three continued through the thin hallway. The German government, like all governments, had gorgeous architecture and fantastic, welcoming spaces – but never when one was to meet prosecutors. Thin hallways, off-colored lights, and tight meeting rooms all helped them keep corporate raiders and two-bit criminals on edge by keeping them uncomfortable.

Reginald’s portly frame didn’t make it any easier. The fifty-and-so year old lawyer adjusted his double-breasted jacket and tucked his spectacles inside the custom pocket he had installed before re-fluffing the pocket square in his breast pocket. A bit shorter than Sebastian – up to his chin, roughly – the Englishman checked his pocket watch before holding the whole group up for a moment.

“Not yet.” Reginald said, holding up a hand, “A few more moments.”

The group remained silent. Stefan, though he was trying his best to appear relaxed, was clearly not. Sebastian seemed fatalistic at this point, somewhat detached from the world around him. But this moment of forced stillness gave him the opportunity to reflect on Reginald – the man’s curious nature, how they had met, and how fortunate the unfortunate sometimes is.

Reginald James Darby was a lawyer without parallel, yet retained the humblest personality imaginable. He had learned this at the poker table, where everything one did transmitted information…best, then, to do as little as possible to avoid mistakes. His (former) firm had worked well with large multinational companies that felt no reputation was the best reputation, he avoided showmanship, and he understood the intricate and indirect relationship between the various chess games of life.

Reginald hadn’t come to Sebastian. Sebastian had found the Englishman in the middle of a “train accident”. He was a fledgling, weak, underdeveloped Quincy…but he was a Quincy. The death of his life partner had exacerbated his survival instinct enough to bring the weak flicker of his powers to life, exposing him to danger. Sebastian had been in the right place at the right time.

“Now - bitte.” Reginald said with nigh-perfect pronunciation, striding forward and holding the front door open for Sebastian. Sebastian nodded, took a deep breath, and then stepped outside.

He was greeted by the clicks of digital cameras capturing his likeness at incredible intervals, but was comforted by how quiet the noises were – it had been much more pronounced in the beginning. Sebastian strode forward, Reginald at his side, Stefan following right behind.

“Good morning. I’ve just left the Staatsanwalt’s office and will not be charged. As I have previously said, this investigation has proven my innocence.” Sebastian said calmly – it was clearly rehearsed.

“What about other affairs at Rothskinder?” one of the reporters pressed – Sebastian knew him, he was from the Financial Times.

“The Bundesrepublik Deutschland has the right to investigate any wrongdoings they believe has probable cause.” Sebastian nodded, “As they should. Our international banking system is predicated upon the people trusting our institutions, and the government represents the people. This is why Rothskinder has instituted a culture of compliance. The Attorney General did not mention any other active investigations or inform me of any other interviews.”

As if he would. Sebastian reflected to himself.

“What will happen with Robert Hammond?” This question was from the Wall Street Journal, and Sebastian artificially reflected for a few moments before easing into a carefully-formulated answer.

“I don’t know – that is for the Staatsanwalt to decide. Robert is a generous man who has always been kind to me. I believe what he’s done in the recent past doesn’t fully reflect the man that he is, and while I wish him the best, no one is above the law. I hope that he and his family will be able to move through this challenging time.”

“That’s it everyone, thank you. Mr. Erdeschalk will have no further comments.” Reginald stepped in, as practiced, and politely himself in front of Sebastian. Stefan tugged Sebastian’s jacket lightly and guided him to an understated yet longer-than-normal black sedan. Stefan opened the door and then closed it immediately after Sebastian took his seat, ensuring that there were no last-minute photographs snuck in.

A few moments of audible chaos later – Reginald opened and closed his own door as Stefan rounded the front of the sedan and situated himself in the driver’s seat. Both Reginald and Sebastian’s phones were out before the engine purred to life, though for different purposes.

“Yes – it’s me.” Sebastian said in a measured voice to the professionally-yet-stiffly-polite communications employee whom he had called.

“Sebastian.” It was as if the carrier of this withered voice was observing, instead of greeting, the young man. Sebastian knew the voice well, though he rarely heard it.
Herr Rothskinder.” Sebastian greeted the bank’s patriarch with a stiff response, “It is done.”

“Indeed. So much unnecessary effort simply due a misunderstanding.” Sebastian could picture Hans Rothskinder shaking his head lightly – his last white hairs slicked backwards, his weathered face frowning in a measured bit of emotional expression, his still-bright eyes burning with that famous intensity, “Are you able to return to work again?”

“Indeed.”

“Excellent. Come to Munich– we can have breakfast together tomorrow. Stay at the Kempinski…I have a friend there.”

“Understood – I look forward to it.” Sebastian confirmed, and then there was an unceremonious click before the phone connection was severed. Bloomberg had written about that once, how the eldest statesman of German banking used a flip phone…it was indeed the luxury of the super-rich to use outdated technology to their benefit. The article hadn’t written about, however, how many aides also had similar phones so the Rothskinder patriarch could contact persons that he perhaps shouldn’t be seen reaching out to…

Sebastian breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and then another one. It was only now that he realized how under attack his body felt, how tense his muscular frame had been, how tight his breathing had become…how much he was hardened his presence…

“And?” Reginald asked.

“Munich tomorrow, and then we are done with this.” Sebastian said, knowing how foolish that sentiment was, “I need a few moments to relax.”

“Try these out – I just bought them.” Reginald rummaged through his bag and pulled out a pair of large over-the-ear headphones, “Noise cancelling. Top shelf.”

Sebastian didn’t think for another moment and embraced the silence. A few deep breaths later, and the young(-ish) man was aware of his body. Of his breathing, of his muscles, of his spiritual-

!!!
Sebastian’s eyes snapped open and he looked out the rear window of the car, eyes scanning Frankfurt’s sparse skyline. “Shinigami…”

“In daylight?” Reginald asked, clearly skeptical.

“It’s always nighttime if you think you can’t be seen.” Sebastian chided Reginald.

“Ah yes, my apologies.”

“Is something the matter, sir?” Stefan asked from the front. Sebastian chided himself…Stefan could have only seen it from is facial expression.

“…no. Let’s continue.” Sebastian responded after a moment’s pause. Though they had known each other their whole life, Stefan still didn’t know. And if it was up to Sebastian, he never would.

“As you wish, sir.” The driver, however, clearly shifted into a more aggressive driving style. He may not know what worried Sebastian, but had clearly associated physical distance with a type of safety. Sebastian kept looking out the back window for a few more moments before looking forward again.

“We’re lucky.” Sebastian sighed, absent-mindedly flipping a switch on his armrest. A soft hum was heard as a pane of glass erected itself between the backseats and driver’s area, and a final clunk that signified some type of locking device, “If we had been in Tokyo, they might have noticed us.”

“I didn’t feel anything.” Reginald sighed, “Still.”

“You’re still untrained.” Sebastian said, half-explaining to and half-comforting the man, “It will come in time, if you remain vigilant.

“It was partially my fault. It is a natural human reflex to tense up when under stress…and for those like us, that associates itself with an expressed presence.”

The two Quincies sat in silence for a moment. Reginald was indeed untrained – Sebastian had stumbled upon the young Englishman in Tokyo years ago, by accident, at a conference. He was weak and insignificant but he was drunk and that had complicated matters. Though Reginald was a crumb as far as spiritual beings went, even Hollows get hungry sometimes…and Sebastian had made the mistake of not hiding well enough. Thus the Englishman had seen a flash of the tranquil blue-purple of Gottverlobten, and Sebastian had been forced to introduce him to the world of annihilation.

Reginald was one of the many Quincies that had no wish for their powers, had no dream for their powers, could not truly comprehend their powers, and no need for their powers. Afraid of this change and what it brings, many cursed through the night and ignored their gift, hoping these particular spiritual muscles would atrophy. Or even worse, they stumbled through the world never understanding that unhappy accidents were indeed monsters. In order to control their powers, they needed to expand their powers – and that meant confronting the reality that they were indeed different, that they were gifted, and that they were in danger every moment of their lives. This burden was sought out by very few, accepted by even fewer, and embraced by only the select.

Even Sebastian himself, the German reflected, hadn’t fully embraced it.

It seemed foolish that the Patriarch of the Erdeschalk Quincy family wouldn’t embrace his powers…but he would have to embrace not only his powers. Sebastian’s powers came connected with obligations, with forced priorities, with hard decisions, with-

Bzzt. Bzzt. Sebastian’s phone vibrated in his pocket, and he pulled it out.

It came with compromises.

“Erdeschalk.” Sebastian stated, his customary greeting for incoming calls.

“Hello, Sebastian. It’s me.” A level, female voice responded, “Annika.”

“Hello Annika.” Reginald’s glance flicked over to Sebastian before he tried to disguise it as him itching a weird part of his neck. This disguise was…not effective.

“Is there anything that I need to know?” the phone asked directly.

It irritated Sebastian. She irritated Sebastian. Not even a measure of faked concern, not even a question on how the discussion with the government went. The government! Sebastian had sat down with someone whose job was to find crime and to punish those responsible, and all Annika could ask was-

“Sebastian?” Annika repeated, also clearly at the limits of her patience, “Can you hear me? Is there anything I need to know?”

“No. It is done.” Sebastian responded tersely, clearly trying to end the conversation as fast as possible.

“Understood. Have a safe trip home.” And that was it. The line beeped twice before the phone fell dormant.

“…f*ck.” Sebastian said two moments later. He looked at his phone for another moment before sending her a quick text message: In MUC tonight.

Reginald clearly wanted to say something but just as clearly didn’t think it was appropriate to do so. For a lawyer, it was quite easy to unsettle the Englishman…outside of work. Reginald belonged to that class of persons for whom work and outside-of-work had two different persons, of which the work persona was significantly stronger and more capable.

Okay.
Sebastian exhaled a sigh of relief-

Why didn’t you tell me?

We talked about this.

The sigh of relief had clearly come just a moment too soon.

The subsequent messages brought Sebastian just before the point of spontaneous combustion. The Quincy Patriarch flexed his entire body in an effort to physically trap his flaring anger, clenching his jaw and hands. All he wanted to do was stop the car and throw this phone and that damned woman beyond the stratosphere. He could picture it in his head – with a single mental command he could release Irische Fesseln, throw the phone into the air and shoot the contraption and its tie to Annika until there wasn’t a single particle remaining. How on Earth could she think this is the correct response at a time like this? How could-

“Sebastian.” Reginald said lowly, “…please…”

And suddenly the Patriarch was in the real world again.

“Sorry.” Sebastian attempted to force himself to relax, which was by its nature not fully effective.

“You okay?” Reginald asked, now visibly nervous and looking outside.

“Yes. I apologize.” He repeated. A few measured but mentally laborious breaths, “I need something to busy myself. What is on the agenda?”

“A significant amount.” Reginald’s gaze was still caught outside, flicking from shadow to shadow and rooftop to rooftop.

“It’s fine, Reginald.” Sebastian said, “I’m back. I’ll notice them first, anyway.”

The portly man nodded, “…alright. Alright, Sebastian. What do you want to start with?”

“Walk me through what happens next. With the Staatsanwalt.”

“Are you worried about Robert?” Reginald’s tone made it clear he had, unconsciously, become his greater self, his lawyer-self.

“Not that.” Sebastian said, shaking his head.

“Excuse me, sir.” Stefan’s voice called over a speaker, “To the manor?”

“To Munich. We’ll need a hotel – the Kempinski. Thank you Stefan.” Sebastian said, pushing a button to activate the microphone. A moment of pause before turning to Reginald, “Not Robert. With me. With us.”

“Ah, yes. Well, there are a few scenarios…” Reginald pulled out some papers, and the rest of the ride began.

It took four and a half hours on the A3 for the trio to travel from the Staatsanwaltschaft Frankfurt to Munich, and another twenty to navigate to the front of the Kempinski. They had filled the time with business – there was much to be done. It never ended.

“Anything else?” Sebastian asked Reginald, the second half of the sentence clearly implied: that we can’t discuss in public.

“No. I think that’s everything.” Reginald nodded. Sebastian flipped the switch to lower the physical barrier. Stefan had already stepped out of the car and asked the employees to wait a moment, clearly waiting for that signal that the confidential meeting was at an end.

Doors were opened by uniformed bellhops and very pleasant/expensive courtesies were exchanged. The hotel was not known for being affordable, but it was known for who else often stayed here…and that those guests often brought private protection. A valet had asked Stefan for the keys and followed him after not quite understanding why Stefan has politely refusing to let someone else drive the car.

“I have a breakfast meeting tomorrow.” Sebastian informed the other two as the three (plus the annoyed-yet-trying-to-be-professional valet), “Stefan, I’d like to be leaving the hotel around quarter of eleven. Reginald, we will book flights after I’ve had breakfast…so feel free to sleep in a little bit.”

“Excellent. Time for a proper sleep.” Reginald sighed with some relief.

“Don’t forget to pay your tab this time.” Sebastian struck a surprisingly good “father voice” for someone who had no children, “See you both tomorrow.”

And the three split – Reginald, bags in hand, to the bar while Stefan and the valet went outside so they could continue their negotiations, and Sebastian went straight to the check-in desk.

“Checking in – Sebastian Erdeschalk.” He said, striding up to the check-in desk. The young man behind the desk gave a polite nod and started working his keyboard before frowning and taking a moment…

“I’m sorry, sir. I don’t have a reservation for you.” He said slowly, not quite sure how that could happen.

“May I speak to your manager?” Sebastian asked. He was used to this now.

“Sir?”

“You didn’t do anything wrong.” Sebastian smiled, “Please. I think this will be the fastest way to resolve this.”

“I…yes, of course. One moment please.”

He had dark brown eyes, Sebastian perceived suddenly, and a strong jaw. The way he walked implied that he was sore from working out the day before, and while his suit didn’t fit (no uniform did) it belied a strong frame underneath the overly-proper dress. And in a moment, Sebastian saw the uniform covered in blood.

“May I help you?” a woman in her mid-thirties with long brown hair in a very professional braid interrupted Sebastian’s hallucination.

“Yes. I believe someone called ahead for me, but there is no reservation in the system.”

“Of course.” The woman was clearly trying very hard to be polite, “Although if someone called ahead, it should be in the system.”

“I understand.” Sebastian remained relaxed through the exchange, now quite comfortable with a routine that seemed outlandish to others, “Can you please see if a Mr. Müller called?”

“I…I can check.” The woman said, frowning, “But that is a very common name.”

“I know.” Sebastian said, “Please.”

The young woman was gone for a few moments before a third person came back – this one an older man with shock-white hair and an easy smile. It was clear to see that Sebastian had found the right person.

“Mr. Müller.” The man said, “I apologize for the mix-up. Your associate called a few moments ago and I hadn’t had the chance to tell my staff.

“Welcome to the Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski. Please, come with me. Your elevator is in the back.“

This was more like it. Throughout this entire process, Sebastian had been shuffled into back doors and up freight elevators, driven into service entrances and exited via the back out doors clearly marked STAFF ONLY. It is the nature of one who is being investigated to avoid attention in any of its various forms.

They rode up a spacious elevator clearly made to hold up to four cleaning carts and multiple more staff, though in silence. The hotel manager – Sebastian assumed confidently – knew better than to ask. They remained in the elevator quite a while, though, until it finally came to a stop.

“Sir.” The door was opened automatically, and Sebastian strode forward into a hallway with only a few doors. As he was guided to his room, the young man was shocked to find he was in one of the penthouse suites.

“Compliments of our mutual associate.” The manager said, once he had closed the door, “This is how he rewards loyalty.”

And what a reward it was – a gorgeous room with multiple champagne bottles on ice. Summer was starting in Bavaria and it was a sight to behold. The sun remained high until after nine p.m. and everyone was enjoying the last drops of red hue in the sky before the sunset started. Sebastian’s view of the Museum Fünf Kontinente and the Maximillianeum took the young German’s breath away.

“I see.” Sebastian turned, “And you are…not the hotel manager, I suppose.”

The Quincy Patriarch’s hunting instincts kicked in. The man’s suit was similar but it was not the same. The cut was different, implying a greater level of comfort. And it was not so rigid…clearly the cotton was from another source. The man was well-kept in a way that implied a lifetime of such work, not just a job in the hotel industry. But above all, glaring bright, were those eyes.

“I am Mr. Müller, just as you are Mr. Müller.” The man said, taking two champagne flutes out of a cupboard and opening one of the champagne bottles in a single, practiced motion, “I trust your trip from Frankfurt was uneventful?”

“Our mutual associate frowns upon this type of talk.” Sebastian cautioned.

“Indeed. Especially since you were followed by the police.” The elder man handed Sebastian a half-full flute. The liquid inside, so outrageously expensive for fermented grape juice, spoke of a promise. A promise of darkness, of action, of never being still. A promise of separation – as some bubbles rose to the top, so did the majority of the liquid simply fall into the darkness forever unseen. Sebastian regarded the glass for a moment.

Dom Perignon?” he asked blindly, not looking at the bottle. The police tail didn’t bother him…he had assumed he had been followed for the past three years straight. That was part of the reason he had had to disappear from Japan.

“Please, sir. Don’t be gauche.” The elder man laughed, “You are in a new world now. We do not share our secrets with many. If you read about a new trendy wine, it is because our circle has stopped enjoying it. Or perhaps because we bought half the company.”

The two clinked glasses, maintaining a mutually predatory glance. Sebastian didn’t regard the champagne bottle, feeling his body return once more to a state of aggression and defense.

“I have met many young men in this way – a few when I myself was young, and even more as I am now. I have seen far fewer a second time.” The elder man cautioned, “If you do not go to breakfast tomorrow, he will be disappointed, but he will understand.”

“I am not here to hesitate.” Sebastian pressed back.

“Considering the situation is not hesitation, young Mr. Müller.” An audible chuckle, “Then…let us be decisive.

“Let us shape the future. May it endure as we wish.”

A second clink, a small sip of champagne. Sebastian, his predatory nature alive in this moment of perceived danger, felt every nuance of the liquid. How the bubbles rose only to explode, how the liquid was unstable by nature, how it remained under pressure simply to be enjoyed for a single moment.

“May it endure as we wish.” Sebastian said, taking a second sip.

Alles, für die Familie.
 
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Kishyotai's Ghost

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“Mr. Müller, your meeting partner is here.” The voice said as he picked up the phone. It was a new voice – and a practiced one at that.

Sebastian stood in what should have been a prototypical movie scene – but the circumstances of his life demanded that the broad window he stood in front of had the summer curtains drawn so no one could see him from outside.

“Thank you, I will be down in ten minutes.” He responded after sipping his coffee. Sleep came easy but sustained sleep didn’t – the young heir had been awake for two hours now and, after giving up on finding repose, had punished his body in the too-fancy hotel gym.

“Your guest says to take your time, and suggested that you meet him at 9:30. One of our staff will bring you to the private dining room, if that is acceptable.”

“Of course. Thank you.” Who would say no?

It was a morning now. Sebastian set the wireless phone back in its cradle and pulled the curtains back so he could look over the city. Munich was famous for the Oktoberfest but it was undeniably beautiful, especially the old city. Its image as a bastion for the stereotypical German wasn’t very well-earned, but it wasn’t entirely off the mark. The accent was difficult for those not accustomed to it – even Germans – and in order to be fashionable one had to wear the traditional Tracht clothing or have at least three brand name logos visible.

This was the type of town that got Quincies killed, the Patriarch reflected for a moment. And it was the type of town that kept the newly-rich poor by convincing them they had to look rich to be rich, the banker reflected.
Sebastian looked at his watch – one he had bought in Frankfurt all those years ago, bought to keep pace with the boys from Munich – and saw that “take your time” wasn’t what it appeared to be. Over the next twelve minutes Sebastian put his public face on. He took a few last moments to adjust his tie before combing his hair backwards, slanting backwards and slightly to the side-

Tnk tnk “Sir, it’s the hotel staff.”

“…” there was a long pause before Sebastian responded, “yes, one moment please.”

Sebastian exhaled softly, forcing his predator instinct into submission. A few moments of deep breathing and his heart rate normalized, and then the young man was out the door.

There were moments, odd moments here and there, when the Patriarch returned. When Sebastian was under threat, when he felt stressed, when anxiety was high. Sebastian was a trained Quincy, though not a highly-trained one, and his body’s response to danger was singular - to annihilate. Sebastian was almost always able to keep control…though there had been a few accidents. Car crashes that couldn’t be explained, gas explosions in that were still being investigated…all of them unintentional, all of them accidents. Luckily, none of them were fatal.

There were other moments, even throughout this entire ordeal, when the immortal complicated everything. Simply because he was under investigation didn’t mean that the Hollows didn’t hunger. Simply because he was constantly being followed didn’t mean that the restless souls of the world didn’t exist. And so the young Patriarch, unable to help, unable to assist, unable to be benevolent, had learned how to turn the other way. For fear of more attention, Sebastian had shut himself off from the screams of the world. And in those moments of crisis, when an unexplainable car crash happened, Sebastian had sought cover and dispatched his foe with overwhelming force.

Speed and stealth and anonymity had been required. Precision had not.

Sebastian revisited the destruction in his mind as he followed a young porter down the halls, up an elevator, and down in the basement. So caught in thought, he bumped into the porter as the young man had opened a door for him.

“Watch where you’re walking, Sebastian.” An old voice called – and the Patriarch was back. It was no Hollow, it was no Shinigami, but it the physiological response was immediate. Time slowed down as Sebastian’s hunting instincts kicked in-

Older Caucasian, mid-70’s
Unarmed
Difficulty standing
Being helped up by younger man, mid-30’s
African heritage
Definitely armed
-and it was a few moments before Sebastian could breathe regularly and respond not as a Quincy, but as a young man would.

“Mr. Rothskinder.” Sebastian said after a moment, extending is hand. The older man looked quizzically at Sebastian, who shrugged, “I assume that both of us had had enough of Mr. Müller.”

“Indeed.” The man responded gruffly, taking Sebastian’s hand and returning the professional courtesy of a handshake. Surprisingly strong for a man of his age.

Sven Rothskinder was perhaps the definition of the “stoic old white male CEO”. With a strong jaw and a stronger nose, the old man had seen and survived more economic upheaval than the world would have ever wanted…and all in the same outdated double-breasted suit. The leader of the reticent Rothskinder banking clan, one where familial ties had defied human nature and allowed for continuous and rapid wealth accumulation over generations. They were the unspoken specter of the financial world, the profile no one wanted to write, the portrait no one wanted to paint – half out of ignorance, and half out of fear. No one could imagine how the family remained so close and so closed – even speaking an old language all their own based on a dialect of French that originated in a Jewish neighborhood all those hundred years ago. And no one knew just how powerful or rich they were, nor did they know how they maintained that wealth.

Well, almost no one. Sebastian had seen a flash, had seen up the skirt. That moment, and a single decision he had made, was what had set him on this course over the past four years. A single phone call had set this all into motion…and had earned him this meeting.

“Please, sit.” Sven said, gesturing. Sebastian sat down and used the motion as a pretense to look around. They were in an expansive and unrecognizable room, one where curtains had been set up around the perimeter so that the original walls could not be seen. In the middle of this room was the round, two-person table where Sebastian was now taking his place. The two chairs facing each other had a high back and a sizable cushion, both wrapped in a type of white fabric. The table setting was comprehensive but unremarkable – no labels, no stamps, no distinguishing marks. And between them was a normal German breakfast spread: cheeses, fruits, small brötchen, butter packets…but none of them were wrapped.

“Anonymous.” Sebastian couldn’t stop himself from remarking. Sven didn’t react, though Sebastian was sure the man heard him, so the Patriarch took a small sip from a relatively plain water glass.

“It’s been a long time since our phone call.” Sven remarked. There was a long pause as Sebastian regarded the older man and then his eyes flickered to the assistant. The old man laughed, “You can trust my-“
“You told me to trust no one.” Sebastian cut in forcefully.

Sven regarded Sebastian for a moment, “You’ll be disappointed if you want him to leave.”

“Mr. Rothskinder…when we last talked, you and I talked about hunting.” Sebastian reminded him, “One of the things I’ve noticed about animals who regularly hunt…they know when they are the less dangerous animal in the room.”

“…indeed.” Sven raised his chin slightly, as if trying to theatrically look down his nose at Sebastian. The two kept eye contact for an unsettling amount of time before the elder spoke once more, “…leave us.”

The assistant paused for a moment before nodding and wordlessly leaving. The door was closed loudly – obviously done on purpose – and Sebastian waited a few more moments before speaking. Sven rummaged below the table and pulled out a metal box and slid it towards Sebastian, and the younger man put his cellphone into the box immediately.

“Thank you for doing that.” Sebastian said, “While I understand it may not be customary-”

Sven silenced his employee with an absent-minded wave of his hand, “How do you know I wasn’t testing you by having him here?”

Sebastian started to speak but stopped himself – mouth hanging slightly open, the Patriarch was caught speechless. It had indeed never occurred to him. And as the game theory problem evolved in his head, he closed his mouth and leaned back…after all, the test might not be over.

“Indeed.” Sebastian responded ambiguously.

“My sources in the German Prosecutor’s Office have told me that the case against you has indeed been concluded. They were not able to build enough evidence to support the fraud case, not even with the help of the Americans.”

“Americans?” Sebastian interjected, “…the SEC?”

“Your lack of business in the United States left them powerless to help.” Sven continued as if Sebastian had never spoken, “After all, your transactions and purview had always been outside of the United States.”

“Luckily I never took the offer in New York.” Sebastian joked, unable to help himself. He immediately regretted it as Sven threw him a dark look.

“Sebastian. I am here to discuss business.”

“…I apologize.” Sebastian nodded.

“The evidence against you remains, however, in their possession. And since they never went to trial, they can use it at a later date. I am unaware of exactly what information they have on you.” Sven said, “…is there anything I need to know?”

“No.” Sebastian said, “There were no records on my computer. There was…only one conversation had.”

And that conversation was with you. The statement was unspoken yet communicated. Neither of them trusted each other to say it out loud, so old and young regarded each other for a moment.

“…indeed.” Sven said, adjusting himself in the seat, “…so, Sebastian, what drives you?”

Sebastian tilted his head quizzically, and Sven continued: “You’re a young man with a lot of drive and talent, and people like that don’t typically come from rich families. The Erdeschalks are not known to many, but I also come from an old family and we have not forgotten who has shaped Europe’s history.”

“…then you know what happened to my family.” Sebastian responded.

“A terrible tragedy. Ebola, was it?”

“I’m not sure.” Sebastian responded, “But now I am trying to put together the pieces of a broken family. And in this world, that means you need to make up ground: schools, tutors, job interviews, opportunities, connections. And all of that costs money.”

“Connections?” Sven repeated, “You want to claw your way back into high society with bribes?”

“Of course not.” Sebastian responded, clearly suppressing irritation, “Knowledge is free…to a certain point. In business school I paid for an extensive network of rich people that I can call…such costs are required simply to sustain one’s means in the world. Growing one’s means requires even more commitment, financially and otherwise.”

Sven regarded the young man for a moment before nodding, “So. Tell me.”

This was the promised moment.

When this had all started, there was a moment, when Sebastian had needed to make a decision. Would he cooperate with the German authorities (among others) that were investigating Rothskinder, or would he persevere through it all for this one moment. There had been a single promise: resist, persevere, fight back, and if you emerge victorious, then you shall be given a genie in a bottle. Fight the thankless battle and lift not a hand to defend his mentor, but the banner they both stood for. To betray through inaction, to speak silence, to stay the hand, to resist common decency. All for this moment.

“I want Asia, starting with Japan.” Sebastian stated slowly, consciously suppressing his heart rate and breathing deeply. The Patriarch’s hunting instincts flexed in him, adrenaline coursing through his veins.

“…I cannot make you a king.” Sven responded slowly, “…yet perhaps I can give you the kingdom. Why Asia?”

“My family lives there.” Sebastian responded flatly.

“Indeed.” Sven responded, his eyes glimmering for a moment, “If I did this, you would be responsible for one of our largest growth markets. All of those nice letters with vast promises that you and Robert wrote at that time…you would need to execute. And then you would need to continue to write those letters, promise me more things, and then fulfill those promises.”

“I would need to pay tithe.” Sebastian remarked.

“You are asking me to put one of our most critical markets in the hands of a young man not older than thirty seven.” Sven remarked, “I read those reports, Sebastian. I know what that country can mean for my company. For my family. And I will expect it from you.

“Every managing director pays tithes.” Sven said, and Sebsatian’s heart leapt at the mention of the title, “You would need to make magic. Repeatedly.”

Sebastian paused for a moment, “…what have others asked for?”

“Does that really matter to you?” Sven asked skeptically.

“No. It doesn’t.” Sebastian responded.

“What drives us is often what holds us back, young man.” Sven remarked suddenly. Even old men couldn’t help themselves sometimes.

“Are you saying you know my weakness?” Sebastian leaned forward – and this earned only a laugh from his elder.

“You know…I had never imagined you’d be like this.” Another chuckle, “It is refreshing to meet someone so singularly-minded as I was at your age.

“Most young people today care nothing for achievement. Your generation feeds off the lies of the rest of your generation as you constantly try to achieve incredibly hollow things – social media influence, clicks on a meaningless button based on a platform, spending hours thinking about the right caption of another picture of a sunset. Another artisanal cocktail.

“If anything, my generation failed you by failing the generation between us. Your fathers, your mothers. We were too kind to them and now you’re all lost.” Sven exhaled.

“Is that why you chose me?” Sebastian asked, knowing very well how risky his next words were going to be, “Because of your children?”

Sven’s body visibly tightened and he leaned forward ever so slightly.

“…it’s a topic I don’t care to talk about with others.” Sven remarked.

“You said earlier that what drives us is often what holds us back.” Sebastian recalled, “I wonder if, for you, it is the other way around. Are you being driven by what is holding you back?”

The two men sat in silence, each firmly burrowed into their statements, and appraised each other. Sven would obviously lose if it came to blows, but the man’s strength was not physical – it was connections, it was wealth, it was the means to do whatever he wanted to whomever he wanted, and the insight to know exactly how to do it with maximum effect. Sebastian’s strength was invisible to Sven, even as the reishi thickened in the room, just as Sven’s strength was intangible in nature.

“You are a spoiled brat who wants to become ultra-rich so he can provide for the rag-tag group of orphans he now calls a family.” Sven said suddenly, “And I’m a ragged old man trying to amass the last bit of wealth he can, keep it away from his idiotic children, and find a way to ensure his grandchildren do not disappoint the generations that came before me.”

“Both of us are doing what we think is best for our family, flawed though they may be.” Sebastian remarked.
Alles, für die Familie.” Sven repeated, “You said that once to Robert, and he told me. Perhaps that was when I knew you might have potential.”

Robert… Sebastian felt a pang of guilt as his previous mentor’s name was mentioned, “Potential?”

“Most people are either worthless or unpredictable.” Sven took another drink of water, “You can’t be unpredictable because what drives you is something I can easily understand. And you aren’t worthless based on that single fact.

“Michael Crowley will get a promotion and return to Europe. You will become Managing Director of our Japanese branch and, if you keep your promises to me, Asia will be yours. But if you fail to give me this wealth that you know I crave, I will toss you out unceremoniously. And then both you and your family will disappear from the world.”

Sven stood up, and Sebastian followed suit, before shaking hands at the side of the table – though Sven kept the grip as he continued to speak.

“I will tell you what I tell every Managing Director.” Eye contact was held as well, “You can either cheat, you can be first, or you can be smarter – or you will be out.”

“I understand.” Sebastian responded.

“I doubt that.” Sven released Sebastian’s hand before appraising him once more, “I sense something in you, Sebastian. A reluctant killer.”

“…I imagine you were never reluctant?” Sebastian asked after a considered pause.

“No.” Sven said, knowing it was a joke but responding honestly, “I knew what I wanted. I did what had to be done.

“I hope you know what you want, young man. Everyone thinks they do. Very few are right.”

And with that, Sven turned on his heel and walked towards the door.

“The…food?” Sebastian asked.

“Perhaps I was testing you.” Sven responded before knocking twice on an unseen door. The curtain fluttered as air pushed into the room by the ventilation system, “Quick – what do you smell, young hunter?”

A deep sniff of the air, and the Patriarch awoke from his slumber.

“…blood?”

“Indeed.” Sven said, “Someone cut themselves in the kitchen.”

The old man laughed, “Amateurs.”

And then he was gone. Sebastian sat in the awkwardness and sur-reality of the moment – a normal human being, smelling blood so quickly and with such a remark afterwards – and it engulfed him. This freak of nature, smarter and crueler than all others he had faced, was Sebastian’s new partner in crime. Or betrayer in crime? Whatever. They had tied their fates to each other – Sebastian had taken this devil’s promise that Sven had offered him, and Sven had pledged to exploit Sebastian’s wanton need for resources and power – and it was clear who had won.

The feeling didn’t last long. Sebastian quickly realized that with this exchange, his scenarios were no longer needed. Constrained though it was, there was elation as a uncertainty gave way to certainty for the first time in a long time. There were no longer possible outcomes and there were no longer moments of pause. For many long years he had waited and schemed, plotted and abstained, maneuvered and positioned, and in this single moment there was only the path before him.

Sebastian picked up the small metallic box and attempted to open it before realizing the box had locked itself. Tempting though it was to use his extraplanar might, Sven’s words rang in his head: perhaps I was testing you.
Were there cameras here? Were there others watching, or listening, at a remote location? Rolling through the various possible scenarios, the blonde closed his eyes before exhaling. Sebastian grabbed a napkin and wrapped it around the box, leaving through the door by which he had entered the room. The porter was gone, but Sebastian remembered the way despite his distraction at that time.

As he rode the elevator back up to his room, the young man’s mind drifted into the Patriarch. The immediate threat was gone. Now was the time to act – while the world stood still for but a moment.

Sebastian forced the lockbox open in his room and wiped it of his fingerprints with the napkin. Unlocking his phone, the Patriarch considered his options for a few moments.

Bin heute daheim. Lassen wir uns reden.

His gaze lingered on the message, and he let his euphoria engulf him.

Bis gleich, Schatz.
 
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Bis gleich, Schatz.
See you soon, dear.


She couldn’t get it out of her head, preposterous though it was.

There was paperwork to complete and family members to coordinate, of course, but greater challenges approached. Her eyes lingered on the landscape yonder, observing and absorbing nothing of its ancient and tremendous beauty. She was preoccupied, for sure, yet with the smallest of things.

The devil, Annika had often been told by her grandfather, was in the details. It was, indeed, his last statement to her.

Annika Blaustahl stood above six feet tall, and while she was only an inch or two shorter than Sebastian her superior postured yielded no ground to him. Though she was still, there seemed to be a great restlessness to her. It clearly cost her energy to exist as she did, in some “other” form, though she gave no indication of how she was crafted at her onset. With her hands behind her back, her gaze was cast forward through the bedroom’s northern-facing window. Here, she would see the car approach.

Here, she would see her duty approach.

Frau Blaustahl.” Two raps at the door and a servant called her name, “Did you want to shower?”

“Shower?” She asked, considering herself for a moment – it had been a long workout, but she wasn’t unkempt per se – before she called the servant in, “Enter.

“When is the Patriarch to arrive?” Annika asked.

“Sebastian?” the young man asked, blinking a few times. “I…I don’t know.”

“You are to always know.” Annika scolded the boy curtly, turning to face him in full. She was not a small woman – broad, defined shoulders poked out of her sleeveless riding top, and her pants flexed under the strain of her body. The natural restlessness of the woman flickered into reality somehow, as if to make the young boy uneasy on purpose, “And he is not to be called Sebastian. He is the Patriarch.”

“Yes. My apologies, Frau Blaustahl.” The boy bowed his head slightly.

“I will shower afterwards, before dinner.” She said, turning back towards the window and reaching out with her spiritual senses, “The Patriarch will be here momentarily.”

Annika imagined the boy scampering out, not even bothering to look at him and confirm the imagined scene. She bristled slightly at the prior exchange, caught in nostalgia.

She had too, once, been so flippant. And not just once.

Annika Blaustahl took a deep breath and exhaled dramatically. She closed her eyes for a few moments, finding her inner center relatively quickly. It was, after all, her tried and true method – it was a trained reflex to any surge of adrenaline, to remove herself for but a brief moment before stepping back into herself. She was anxious, she noted dispassionately. Another deep breath in, the deep breath out, and she raised a shaking hand to inspect it.

“Shaking” was relative. Annika Blaustahl was the type of woman who had stared down every competitor before her and had never lost the blinking contest – and she had used those nerves to become the type of Quincy that walked right up to a Hollow before finishing it with a point-blank arrow at close range. So when Annika’s hand moved at all, she considered it “shaking”.

!!!
There was an unfamiliarity to it. Something unfamiliar was there – an unwelcome flavor. Annika’s anxiousness disappeared as she evaluated it. Hollow? No. Shinigami? No. Quincy? Likely. The unfamiliar nature was quashed as Annika gathered reishi together and saw the familiar color. Any pulses of energy or signs of an attack? …no. Similar position to Sebastian? Almost exactly.

“A guest.” Annika remarked to no one in particular.

Annika moved for what felt like the first time in years, though it had been no more than minutes. Her movements were tight and controlled, as if she had consciously optimized the way every muscle functioned within and contributed to her stride. And to an extent, that was exactly what had happened. As one watched Annika Blaustahl move, even in such normal ways, one saw the great conflict between her propensity to action and the way in such action was honed. Every movement, every shift of her weight, every breath, pushed her forward – not with efficiency, but with power.

She was a brute, someone had once remarked, and Annika only laughed. The medal had, after all, been hanging from Annika’s neck.

Frau Blaustahl!” a woman called after her, and Annika stopped. Silvia Gonzalez, a young Spanish woman in her early twenties with gleaming green eyes and black hair that flipped at her shoulders, approached with a fast walk. Annika had forgotten how they had originally met, but fate had brought them together once more at Sebastian’s doorstep – and now Silvia was Annika’s aide-de-camp. Together, the two women managed everything that didn’t involve artifacts or money. Together, they kept the house standing.

“The Patriarch will be arriving shortly.” Annika finished her aide’s sentence for her, “And he has a guest?”

“Indeed.” The woman nodded, a type of respectful half-bow, “Reginald Darby.”

“Mister.” Annika corrected her aide, “Mister Reginald Darby.”

“My apologies, Frau Blaustahl.” The woman nodded again.

“Then let us receive him as he is – an honored guest.” Annika remarked, pausing to think, “Let us not be decadent. Five courses. And please wake the Elders.”

“Yes, of course.” The woman nodded and turned on her heel to walk down the hall.

“…Silvia.” Annika called after a moment’s pause, “I believe the Patriarch will have good news. Please…let’s prepare something to toast to.”

“Wonderful. Of course.”

Annika watched the young Spaniard leave and moved forward once more, down the long hallway and the front door. As she exited, she was once more the grand approach; just like in the movies. Well, she had never been one for movies…but this was how she imagined every move told its viewers that the estate was grand.

She didn’t have to wait long - a minute or two at most. The driveway was smooth so there was no reason for Stefan to slow down. The car, a mean-looking German luxury sedan with an extended cab, pulled up and then turned around the stereotypically placed fountain slowly in that practiced, smooth manner. Annika smiled softly in preparation for what was to come.

The doors opened and Sebastian stepped out on the other side of the car. Annika held his gaze for a moment before regarding Reginald, whose shorter frame and older age made his exit take a few moments longer.

“Ah!” Reginald exclaimed, grinning in that calm way that only British people can. Annika’s smile broadened, though only slightly, “A new face.”

“Indeed, good sir.” Annika said, “Though I would greet the Patriarch first.”

Frau Blaustahl.” Sebastian said, rounding the car. Darby took a sidestep, clearly caught a bit off guard, “How are you?”

“Mein Herr. Wilkommen. Mir geht’s gut.” Annika responded in German, bowing her head slightly to Sebastian. Her head remained lowered for a few awkward seconds. Though she couldn’t see the two men, she knew exactly what their faces looked like. A moment later, she saw Sebastian’s hand – and kissed the ring on his pinkey finger. She then raised her head, “Ich hoffe, Sie hatten eine gute Reise gehabt. Es freut mich sehr, Ihnen wieder zu sehen.

“Ich Ihnen auch.
” Sebastian responded before gesturing to Reginald, “Annika Blaustahl, this is Reginald Darby. My lawyer, my confidant, and a member of my…extended family.”

“Ah, you are Ms. Blaustahl?” Reginald remarked, “A unique last name, to be sure.”

“Nothing to fear, Mr. Darby.” Annika responded coolly, “We were named for our eyes, not for anything sinister.”

“Sinister? My lady, I am a lawyer. It is all a matter of perspective.” The two shared a polite laugh.

“That Mr. Darby and I are meeting tells me much.” Annika observed, her heavy gaze falling to Sebastian.

“A cause for celebration, to be sure.” Reginald said, “A cause that I would rather discuss inside.

“It’s an old habit.” Reginald continued when Annika looked at him quizzically, “I don’t like discussing it in the open.”

“…Mister Darby.” Annika blinked, clearly irritated, “I can assure you that there is no one on the premises listening to us.”

“Annika. He’s not questioning that.” Sebastian placed a hand on Annika’s shoulder, clearly sensing the physical manifestation of how her temper had flared, “It’s not just people that can listen. We should trust Reginald.”
“…of course. How rude of me.” Annika nodded, “Please, let us go inside.”

The three entered, a tense silence acting as their fourth companion. They first went to a sitting and reception room near the front door, where Silvia greeted them at the door.

“My Lord Patriarch.” Silvia said with a bow, also waiting for Sebastian’s hand. Annika allowed herself to smile – it was a point of pride that the women and girls were so proper. Stiff though it may be, it was the way of this world. And for now, it was fine to keep it.

“Silvia, this is Mister Reginald Darby.” Annika introduced the two after Silvia had greeted Sebastian, “Mister Darby, this is Silvia Gonzalez. Silvia helps me with many things and is a treasured friend of mine.”

“It’s a pleasure, Mister Darby.”

“The pleasure is all mine, young lady.” Reginald smiled.

“Shall we?” Annika said, leading the two men into the room. They took seats and Silvia brought in drinks for them while silence reigned. A few minutes of small talk between Sebastian, Reginald, and Silvia passed before the young Spaniard left a small bell on the table and excused herself.

“Now.” Annika said, looking at Sebastian first but leaving her gaze on Reginald, “Our discussion earlier was interrupted.”

“Miss Blaustahl.” Reginald said after a moment, “…this is a topic that I am not allowed to discuss with you, to be frank.”

“…oh?” Annika asked.

“You…I mean, my understanding is that you and Sebastian are not married, correct?” Annika nodded as Reginald talked, “There is no spousal privilege, then, between you. The protections-”

“Reginald-” Sebastian started to speak, clearly sensing danger, but it was too late.

“Mister Darby.” The German asserted herself by saying his name as if the words were completed sentences, “What do you know of me?”

“Listen-” Sebastian interjected once more.

“…very little, I must admit.” Reginald pressed, “But I do know that you are not Sebastian’s wife.”

“Indeed, I am not the Patriarch’s wife.” Annika raised her chin slightly, the small hair on the back of her neck bristling, “But I am a Quincy, and I am the Quincy that killed-”

“Annika, stop.” Sebastian put up his hand, leaving silence, “…Reginald, please. Annika is not a danger under subpoena or otherwise.”

“…is there something I am missing?” The lawyer asked.

“Yes.” Sebastian exhaled, “You’re assuming that Annika could be physically brought to a courthouse to testify.”
The tense silence returned as Reginald regarded her.

“You’re assuming, Reginald.” Sebastian continued after a deep breath, “That Annika wouldn’t create her own means of exit, in ways that normal people cannot imagine and cannot defend against.”

“I see.” Reginald bowed his head, “I apologize, Miss Blaustahl. It is in my nature to be judicious about these types of things.”

“It is quite alright.” Annika responded, clearly calming down instantly, “I imagine such instincts are what helped you serve Sebastian so well.”

“Well then.” Reginald took a sip of his drink, clearly buying time to process a shred of what had just happened. Annika recognized it – a habit under stress, a “reset” button that every practitioner has in their arsenal. She felt at once an affection for him, the way one professional respects another, “Sebastian will not be charged with anything. But because they have not used the evidence, it means that they can try to charge him at a later date.
“Is that something they would do?”

“It’s hard to say. The relevant statutes of limitations are of course something to consider, but they still have time.”

“This case is on the front page of many of the papers, is it not? Don’t they need an arrest?”

“They have an arrest.” Sebastian said. Annika regarded him for a moment before he explained, “Robert.”

“Your friend?” Annika blinked – Sebastian physically winced.

“Yes.” Sebastian continued, and Annika noticed a shift in his demeanour and wording, “It was part of my deal with Sven. Leave Robert out to dry. I’m sure he knew that the prosecutor would go after Robert next.”

“If Mr. Hammond is arrested, it relieves the pressure on attaining the first arrest.” Reginald confirmed, “And if we are not charged immediately afterwards, it would be unusual for the prosecutor would dig the evidence back up to charge Sebastian at a later date.”

“…unless something else were to happen.” Annika remarked.

Reginald nodded gravely, “Indeed.”

“But wouldn’t Robert’s arrest damage the firm as much as yours?” Annika frowned.

“I imagine Sven has something. The story will go another way.” Sebastian shrugged.

“…and you trust him? You trust Sven Rothskinder?”

“I trust him to be himself.” Sebastian nodded, “He’ll do what he has to do. The fact that this is what he wanted, means that he has something planned. Otherwise he never would have never contacted me. He wants this to land on Robert.”

“I see.” Annika considered the conversation for a moment. Sebastian was clearly very trusting of Sven, in his own way. Trusting someone so driven to remain true to their motives…well, it was something Annika could sympathize with. And it was something Annika could understand, “Well, thank you for informing me.”

“Of course.” Sebastian nodded.

“I imagine you’re both tired. We will be having dinner in an hour or so. The Elders will join us then”

“Mmm.” Sebastian said, “I’ll show Reginald around the grounds.”

“Understood. I’ll clean myself up.” Annika stood, nodding her head to each of them, “My Lord Patriarch. Mister Darby.”

“Frau Blaustahl.” Sebastian returned the gesture and the two regarded each other for a long moment before she turned, left the room, and left the boys to be boys.
 
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They were sitting on a porch looking over the estate grounds. Dinner would be served soon and the two of them had each cleaned up a bit after Sebastian had given a short tour of the grounds.

Their conversation had avoided anything important after Annika left, but in this moment of serenity underneath the sunset, Reginald couldn’t help himself.

“Quite a woman.” Reginald said, clearly trying to be polite, “…still, I’m not sure it was wise.”

“…Annika’s the least of my problems.” Sebastian shook his head.

“Just because she’s a Quincy doesn’t mean she can’t be subdued.” Reginald said, “…right?”

“Of course.” Sebastian laughed at the naïve phrasing of the question. Reginald was a lawyer first and a Quincy second – his powers had manifested so late in life that the man’s training was limited to not hurting himself. He had only seen a Hollow once, and Sebastian had dispatched that creature effortlessly. The potential of even an average Quincy was beyond the Reginald’s understanding, and Sebastian often struggled to explain the aspects of a common Quincy’s reality to the Brit, “But you’re underestimating her.

“I’m not surprised you didn’t recognize her, but Annika was an Olympic champion. Decathlon.” Sebastian took a long sip, “You saw her body, right? Her family’s last name…it isn’t for their eyes. Well, maybe it is, but they’re famous for the color of their aura and for their willpower. The Blaustahl family is a family not many people know, and that’s because there were no survivors.”

“Still.” Reginald pressed, “Sebastian.”

“Listen.” Sebastian raised a hand, “Even if they could subdue her, even if they stopped her from blowing up every holding cell they put her in, even if they could drag her to the stand, even if they could make her talk, even if they could force her to speak the truth…she’d just end it there.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean she can’t talk if she’s dead.” Sebastian took another sip.

“Oh.” Reginald blinked. “That’s-”

“It’s incomprehensible, I know.” Sebastian shrugged, “But the things that scare people…they don’t scare her. She’s immovable. Trust me.”

He didn’t realize it, but his intonation was a mixture of awe and frustration. Reginald did, however. Yet despite every instinct he had, his training as a lawyer – to dig deeper and to verify and examine – prompted a final question: “…did she…did she really kill-”

“That” Sebastian cut Reginald off, “is something you and I shouldn’t talk about. Privilege or not, there are some things you just don’t want to know.”

“My apologies, Sebastia-er, Patriarch.”

“Please, call me Sebastian. Especially when it’s just the two of us.” The German said, “We’ve been through a lot, these past few years. I wouldn’t be here without you.”

“It was my pleasure, and it remains my privilege.” Reginald nodded, “You saved my life in London, and you protect me to this day.”

“It’s only going to get harder, Reginald.” Sebastian said after a moment, “…are you ready?”

“No one is ever ready, Sebastian.” Reginald shrugged, “Ut cunque placuerit Deo.”

“Howsoever it shall have pleased God.” Sebastian recited the translation of Reginald’s family motto, reflecting for a moment, “…what does it mean?”

“…I asked my father that same question. It was on his deathbed.” Reginald took another long pause, as if trying to better recall the story, “He and I were…well, we were not kindred spirits. For thirty seven years I thought that I didn’t need his guidance or opinion, and I just blurted it out.

“He looked at me and frowned his last great frown – and told me that I should figure it out for myself. And then he passed. Such was his way.”

It was a tough statement to respond to, but Sebastian understood the sentiment. He had had his own moments of trouble with his parents, but Sebastian had cherished them as they had cherished him in turn. One could have said that Sebastian had lived a charmed life, until the Schwarze Nacht stole that serenity from him.

The worst part hadn’t been the bloodstains, or the damage to the house, but the isolation – not only that his family was gone, but that everyone had thought it was a sickness. A madness. That some type of psychedelic bubonic plague had taken hold of the estate and physically decayed it, driving them all into the depths of insanity. That Sebastian, and Sebastian alone, had been burdened with the truth – that they had been murdered.

They had later understood that the town and servants and city had been brainwashed. That those without spiritual resistance had been conned into this implausible yet vivid vision of self-destruction. But those early weeks, those months of despair, were the greatest depression a one could imagine. Told that his family was dead. Told that his reality was a lie. And yet, amongst this, he was told that he was the lucky one.

He could have been spared this great struggle and given an endless peace.

Not that Sebastian was suicidal. Like almost all people, Sebastian to selfishly clung to life as he knew it. Even knowing that there was a world beyond, that life continued, the Quincy felt no respite. Indeed, Sebastian felt even greater terror when thinking of the afterlife. Everyone else thought that they went to heaven, or that nothing happened – but Sebastian knew. That there were monsters and heroes and villains, that the human experience continued for eternity, and that lies reigned ever more.

“Most parents only want the best for their children.” Sebastian responded, “Though many of them don’t know exactly how to make that happen.”

“Hmp. Being a father isn’t easy.” Reginald nodded.

“…do you miss your children?” Sebastian asked calmly, making sure to observe Reginald carefully.

“Not as much as I used to. It was harder. When I didn’t know what was going on.” Reginald shrugged, “The disasters, the unhappy accidents. I thought I was the walking epitome of bad luck.”

“The curse of knowledge. Knowing that those happenstances were actually Hollows made you ever more of a target.” Sebastian chuckled coldly before continuing, “Quincies are their own doom. As we become more powerful to protect ourselves, we attract greater foes. As our legend spreads, the challengers seek us out.

“…I’d like to say that it took me a while to get used to…but that would imply I’m used to it.”

Sebastian took a long sip of his drink. How things had changed. As a young man, he and Richard had enjoyed drinks together while pouring over reports. Through hundreds of pages of data, they’d find the truest version of the truth and predict the future. Creative brainstorming always required liquor, Richard had said, in order to free man from the shackles of doubt. They had had their fair share of bad ideas, but they had always had ideas.

Now, Sebastian drank ever so rarely. A run-in with a Hollow while walking home semi-drunk had taught him that. The small town of Landshut still bore the scars of his drunken aim. Now the Patriarch drank only when he could not be threatened. Though the estate was theoretically a place of safety for him – surrounded by Quincies young and old, all of them willing to defend him – he did not feel safe. It was not the predatory Elders, it was not any Hollow, it was not the eyes of the youth…

Annika.

She was a pain in the ass. And after everything that happened, she was about to become an even bigger part of his life.

In another world, perhaps they could have been acquaintances. Friendly, even. She was an Olympic athlete and he had vast respect for athletes. But when she had arrived, in a visit organized by Loreilei and Emmerich to shore up the political power of the Erdeschalk family, Sebastian had felt her immediate judgement of him.

She was a freak of nature that had applied herself fully and to her utmost. He was a young man who was blessed with money. She had scraped her way from a small industrial village into international renown. He was an investment banker who brainstormed over martinis. And in all of this, they were to marry. Two of the oldest German Quincy families in existence, a heritage that was distant to Sebastian and non-existent to Annika, joined to secure the future.

To secure good genes.

The idea of it was revolting. Sebastian had been in love. It had been puppy love, but it had been real in that moment. He had fallen head over heels for women, and not all of them had reciprocated. As everyone did, he learned the trials and joys of having a partner in life. And amongst all of this, that sacred bond, that chance to become something greater than two parts, was taken from him. He was to marry Annika Blaustahl, to ensure that his children retained their Quincy powers and had extra-broad shoulders.

They had stolen it from him. And he was told that he was the lucky one – to have been the Patriarch at such a trying time. To be the one to lead the family out of this black period of history. To have created a greater future for his family. To be creating, in effect, Quincy royalty.

“It’s over, huh?” Sebastian asked Reginald.

“…no.” Reginald said, “But it is no longer an acute threat.”

“…you know what this means for me, right?”

For a moment, his guard slipped. The mantle of it all weighed on him, and he was once more Sebastian Erdeschalk. A man in his mid-thirties, staring wide-eyed at what was about to happen. At the future he had wrought for himself. When all he had wanted to do was survive, he had stumbled into a fortress of tradition and witchcraft. And now he was reinforcing this life, this life he never wanted. This had been his path, and there was no way to reset it. Eve was in Japan. Annika was here. The Blaustahls had joined the family. He was no longer due to be charged. He had sold Richard out. The estate was to be sold shortly. He would wed Annika. They would have children. They would defend themselves. They would simply continue this…this thing.

“No, I don’t.” Reginald admitted in a moment of authenticity.

Nowhere in his future did Sebastian Erdeschalk see happiness.
 
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“It was exquisite.” Reginald remarked, dabbing the corner of his mouth with a napkin, “I’ve never had strudel of such caliber.”

They were seated at the long family table, all seated on one side. The room was fully lit though only the six of them sat there, taking up not a fifth of the entire table. Sebastian sat at the head, with Emmerich seated to his right and Annika to his left. Lorelei took her position next to Emmerich and sat opposite Reginald, with Silvia as the last

Sebastian had honestly expected more to attend dinner but had quickly surmised that they weren’t invited. There were other family members present on the grounds – Hans unfortunately not included among them – but someone had unilaterally decided to keep the dinner small. Sebastian didn’t mind…he was exhausted.

“A traditional dish.” Emmerich said, his lofty voice somehow emboldened by Reginald’s compliment, “The tartness of the apples must be matched to the flakiness of the dough.”

“Indeed.” Reginald was clearly adept at this type of small talk. It was what young men dreamed off – stuffy old men in stuffy suits sitting in stuffy leather chairs being served tea and biscuits – and there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Reginald had played this game of flattery before.

Although, one should say…Reginald’s frame made it clear that the interest wasn’t artificial.

“A combination of distinct elements – the apples, the flakiness, and the cream.” Reginald observed, “Truly spectacular. Elegance in simplicity.”

“I always felt that it was a perfect dish to test the mettle of a young pastry chef.” Emmerich nodded, “The selection of apples is not a trivial exercise, the proper dough requires an impressive amount of hand work, and the cream requires the most…I can’t find the word.”

“Panache?” Lorelei offered.

“Indeed. It is the most difficult to express. That is where one sees the vision of the pastry chef, if they have that indefinable spirit for food. The apples signify their ability to find high-quality natural ingredients that fit what they make in the kitchen. And the dough…the dough requires sweat and toil.”

“Mmmm.” Reginald responded, taking a small spoon full of cream from his plate to taste it on its own.
“Were you much of a baker, Emmerich?” Annika inquired, obviously being polite.

“No, but I lived in Paris for a time. Eventually one becomes a connoisseur when exposed to such delicacies.” Emmerich smiled, proud of himself.

“As much as I’d like to discuss the decline of France,” Whether it was the decades of partnership with Emmerich or that mercurial impatience that came with old age, it is not often we all come together. Let us discuss what we need to discuss.”

“Sebastian, I understand that it is done?” She turned to Sebastian with a look that made it clear she still saw him as a young boy. The look infuriated him in the past - she had never known him as a boy – but of late, he was no longer bothered by it.

“It is.” He confirmed, “Reginald will tell you what he can tell you. Beyond that, we can move forward. The sale of the estate can be effective and we can relocate the final members of the family to Tokyo.”

“I assume, Annika,” Lorelei’s eyes slowly pivoted to the young woman as she spoke, “that your family will be satisfied?”

“I propose that Sebastian invite my parents here, so he can share the good news himself.” Annika responded in a level voice. It was its own answer.

“Well then.” Lorelei’s gaze returned to Sebastian, “Now we must simply ensure that our family can thrive in this new environment.”

“I imagine, Sebastian,” Emmerich picked up his cue from Lorelei, having shed the guise of a man lost in his memories of Paris, “that you have addressed this already?”

“Indeed.” Sebastian responded. It seemed as if a comment would follow, but there was only stillness. The Elders regarded the Patriarch for a moment before they nodded in tacit submission.

The past years had been unkind to Lorelei and Emmerich. Their schemes and plots had only born a single fruit: Annika Blaustahl. And she was not their only scheme. Beyond that, they had been unable to push forward the resurgence of the Erdeschalks they had foreseen: Sebastian imagined they didn’t think fast enough for the modern world, and they didn’t move fast enough to train the younger family members. Their last great advantage was their combined repository of Quincy knowledge, and great though that advantage was, not a single trial of the past years had allowed them to brandish this knowledge in the family’s defense.
They suspected it, others knew it: Lorelei and Emmerih Erdeschalk were becoming obsolete.

“I can’t tell you much.” Reginald cautioned, “But what I can say is that we are out of immediate danger, and there is no additional exposure by moving forward with your plans for the family.”

“…well done, you two.” Obsolete or not, praise from the Elders was still rare. Emmerich pause for a moment and exhaled a surprisingly deep breath for a man of his age, “…then the trial is completed. The boon is ours.”

The group sat in silence for a moment, each for their own reasons. Lorelei and Emmerich treated themselves to a moment of reflection as their achievement became tangible, uniting the Erdeschalks and Blaustahls. Rita and Annika remained silent in deference, understanding the moment’s importance while acknowledging they had played but a small part. Reginald’s long legal career had taught him to enjoy success via silence, though he had only ever shared that with Sebastian. And Sebastian was silent as he recalibrated his world around the new problem: the present.

He had, for the past years, toiled to create this situation. Or something close to it. And now that the deed was done, he was trying to appraise the situation of surviving in this world he had created. The war was over. There was a new war – a silent war – and Sebastian was…

“Sebastian.” Annika’s voice anchored him to reality once more. She regarded him for a moment before clarifying her question, “Is there…anything else we need to know?”

Sebastian exhaled.

“No.” He said, “That is all.”

“Then we will take our leave.” Emmerich nodded, standing first and then offering a feeble arm to help Lorelei stand. Rita was able to stand and walk around the table before Lorelei was halfway up, helping her as any steadfast retainer would. The two Elders regarded Sebastian for a moment before Emmerich invoked that phrase for the first time, “Lord Patriarch.”

Sebastian nodded to them, and they departed. Reginald did similarly but a moment later, and Rita never came back after assisting Emmerich and Lorelei to their rooms. Annika regarded Sebastian, who regarded the bottom of his half-full glass.

The silence was as awkward as it was palpable and while the two persisted through its length, it was for different reasons. Annika’s stamina in all things was greater than Sebastian’s, so she simply bided her time. Sebastian, on the other hand, was dealing with the after-effects of his body. With his guests gone, with the Elders gone, with a temporary reprieve in this legal case, with this moment of calm, his body decided to rest – and so the blood left his head, his breath became heavy, and Sebastian noticed for the first time in years just how tired he was.

“Congratulations, Sebastian.” Annika said lowly, noting Sebastian’s physiological turmoil. Her tone could be different when they were alone. It was not soft, but it was not so formal. Such occasions were rare…but they did exist.

“Thank you, Annika.” He nodded.

“I would never say it in front of others, but my family will of course be satisfied. The agreement you made with my father will be honored.”

“The…agreement?” Sebastian repeated, wave after wave of fatigue getting the best of him, “You mean…you?”

“Yes.” Annika didn’t hesitate for a moment. It caught him by surprise, and Sebastian found himself taken aback by her…what was it? Honesty? No…it was pragmatism.

“…I’m sorry.” Sebastian said, “That was rude.”

“You know that doesn’t bother me.” Annika’s gaze remained on Sebastian, “I have accepted my role. I hope that, now, you will as well.”

She stood up and walked to a table on the side of the room, fetching a bottle of sparkling wine. She returned to the table and refreshed Sebastian’s glass, refreshed her own, and then sat down once more.

“…how do you do it?” he asked, regarding her for a moment, “Accept your role, that is.”

“By deciding to. Nothing more, nothing less.

“I will call my father tomorrow. He will be here within the week. We can formalize everything then.” Annika sipped her wine, “The wedding will have to be soon.”

“I know.” Sebastian nodded, “We need it for the visas.”

Sebastian felt the weight of her gaze on him and felt supremely uncomfortable.

“…are you prepared for this?” Annika asked, “To mean what you say at that altar?”

“You and your father are asking me to swear to God, something we all know doesn’t exist, that I will make our families important. That I will sacrifice my life and comfort for this cause.” Sebastian observed, “Simply because it is easy for you doesn’t mean it is easy for me.”

“I never said it was easy.” Annika brushed Sebastian’s melodrama aside, “It is simple, but not easy.”

“…our lives weren’t supposed to be like this, you know.” Sebastian observed, “Had they not slain our people.”

“But they did. So we need to move on.” Annika stiffened, “Your resolve…it was stronger, when we first met.”

“I’m just tired.” Sebastian waved a hand in what ended up being a pitiful gesture, “I’m sorry.”

“Stop apologizing.” Annika shook her head, “And act.”

“As in, do?” Sebastian raised an eyebrow, “Or as in, pretend?”

“I don’t think it matters right now.” Annika observed, tilting her head back slightly.

What pissed Sebastian off most about Annika, he was often reminded, was that she wasn’t always wrong. She was brutal and uncompromising – like any Olympic athlete who had spent a lifetime pushing themselves beyond limits other people set – but she was not always not wrong.

“Marriage is a proclamation, Sebastian. To the world, to yourself, and to each other. Most people proclaim their love – I am proclaiming my faith. Faith to my duty. I proclaim my faith to my duty so that the world will not threaten us. I proclaim to myself that I shall prepare myself for the execution of this duty – in body, in mind, and in spirit. And I shall proclaim to you that you that my duty shall take precedence over all, over my flaws...and over yours.

“If you don’t have the resolve for such a proclamation,” Annika said with a heavy tone, “then withdraw from the arrangement.”

“I can’t leave this.” Sebastian scoffed, and he theatrically gestured to the room with his hand, “This empire of mie.”

“Yes you can.” Annika parried the theatrics with honesty, “There will simply be consequences. You can’t go backwards, but you can leave.”

Sebastian took a deep breath, acknowledging the wisdom in her words. Even if he wasn’t ready to accept it.
“…how are we going to make this work, Annika?” he asked in a moment of intimacy, “Don’t you think we are incompatible?”

“There is no such thing.” Annika shook her head, “There is always a match between two things, given the right context. We simply need to define our own context, such that we are compatible.”

Sebastian regarded her for a moment and nodded.

“For all that you are, Annika,” sincerity shown in his eyes and he leaned forward, “You are impressive.”

“And for all that you are, Sebastian,” she returned, “You are a good man.”

“Good? It is not enough…being good.” Sebastian mused, a hollow chuckle slipping out.

“Then don’t be good.” Annika stood up. She walked slowly and took a place behind him, to his side, weaving her hand into Sebastian’s short hair, knowing his first reflex would be to pull away yet moving tenderly enough to convince him she was no threat, “What is…enough?”

“I need to be…” Sebastian’s mind flickered to Sven’s crooked smile, his appraisal, the smell of blood. He had to thrive with these people…he had to...

“I need to be dangerous.” he spoke it like an oath. Appropriately, Annika knelt next to him as he remained seated. He repeated the word and it held great power suddenly, “Dangerous.”

“Then gather your resolve, Lord Patriarch.” Annika whispered, slowly pulling Sebastian’s face to hers, “And become dangerous.”
 

Kishyotai's Ghost

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Annika.

We are not other people.

We did not find each other. We were brought together by necessity and for utility. I used to believe that this made us inferior. But they do not know what we know, they do not see what we see. I recognize that our union reflects this – it goes beyond what others require, it is what they cannot comprehend. It is defined by a unique context alien to even others who share our blood.

My father once told me that a man is measured by the greatness of his task. We are, then, to be amongst the greatest of our kind – for we are to create a new future. Our kind has been all but exterminated and we remain prey for beasts both primal and divine. Many of our remaining few are oblivious to the danger they pose, and the rest of us are too hidden to find each other. The direness of our situation cannot be overstated.

When I look at you, I see strength. Strength of mind, strength of body, strength of spirit. That your will cannot be neither bent nor even fully appraised, by anyone else. This strength shows itself in the stillness of your hand, the tempered patience you exhibit, and the enduring patience of your gaze. This strength shows itself in the blur of action, in the immediate impulse, in the momentous effort. This strength shows itself, most of all, in persevering.

You once told me that marriage is a proclamation: to the world, to myself, and to you. So…I proclaim.

I proclaim unto the world, today and forever more, that they are to bow. Not before us, but before our duty. That this duty, our great undertaking, shall be willed to life. That the world is to give us deference. The deed shall be done, as we wish it to be done, when we say it is to be done.

I proclaim unto the world: legacy is our mandate.

I proclaim unto myself, today and ever more, that I am to strive. That my weakness is to be acknowledged, understood, and addressed. That my eyes remain forward, my mind remain clear, my hands remain steady.
I proclaim unto myself: greatness is my task.

I proclaim unto you, today and forever more, that my resolve shall not waver. That I shall move past failure, that growth shall become a habit, that I shall not settle for the man I was yesterday. That I shall rise to the task, continually, fall though I may.

I proclaim unto you: perpetually shall I rise.

I swear this before God, before our families, before our retainers. This eternal vow, this solemn promise, shall be my formless oath. I take it free of conscience and without hesitation, as the Patriarch of this Erdeschalk family, and as a man.

Monks of destruction though we are called, let us create. Together.
 

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It never happens the way you imagine it. You toil and persevere and re-appraise and assess and strategize and brainstorm – and when the promotion finally comes, it never happens the way you imagine it. The meeting when it is announced is not when people find out, the announcement e-mail is never on time, there is never an applause-filled town hall. Those who stop by with congratulations are almost never simply congratulating. The great corporate theater continues into its next act with its small change in the cast, a slightly different voice with greater time on the stage.

“And so, while I’m thankful to have this promotion, I’m obviously sad to be leaving you all.’ Michael Crowley said to the assembled team. It was a nice mixture of Michael’s friends and those he had to invite. Michael was relatively well-liked; he was kind, he was gracious, and he was culturally sensitive. He was also not a bad leader, and those qualities were not common all in a single individual. So when he raised his glass, there was another round of applause, “…and of course, I wish Sebastian all the luck in the world!”

Another round of applause. Michael turned, shook Sebastian’s hand, and gestured to the young man for the crowd’s benefit. Sebastian nodded and smiled, realizing just how insane this looked: Sebastian was a man in his mid-thirties, and Michael was in his battle-hardened early fifties. Michael was a man a bit more in line with Japan’s average height, while Sebastian stood over six feet tall.

“Do you want to say anything?” Michael asked Sebastian without looking at him as the applause continued.
“Perhaps a word or two.” Sebastian said through a practiced smile. Michael raised a hand and took a step back, clearly preparing the stage.

“First, a fantastic danke schön to Michael for everything he’s done.” Sebastian said through the klk-klk-klk-klk-klk of a digital camera on full automatic. Corporate was apparently here. “I don’t want to delay any of you from the coffee and cake we have, but perhaps a word or two.

“I joined the Japanese branch when we first started it up, and Michael’s vision of incredible potential is one that I share. In one of the largest economies of the world, he and I both believe in the incredible potential of unlocking capital – both personal and private – and the ingenuity of the Japanese inventor. I saw that every day in my work as one of the Market Development team members.

“In order to see the benefit of such ingenuity, we need to remain leaders in good governance. Many of you may have questions regarding the recent investigation of Rothskinder in Germany. Let me all assure you these investigations against the bank are baseless – that we fully cooperating with the authorities and that the alleged misdeeds were the act of a single individual.” Sebastian paused, “I’ve spoken to Sven Rothskinder and he asked me to reinforce his message in the press last week: there is no place in Rothskinder for dirty business. We are a bank built by people, for people. If you ever have concerns, you may always reach out to me.

“But for now, let’s celebrate Michael Crowley and his fantastic leadership.” Sebastian raised a glass, “Cheers!”

The resulting shout echoed in the large conference room before the stillness was broken by the low rumblings of conversation. Sebastian and Michael were shuffled to a photo op with the local leadership team, and then one of simply the two of them shaking hands. The whirlwind continued for a moment before the two of them were ushered to the line for cake.

“Nice speech” Michael said graciously. They were on opposite sides of a table that had an assortment of cakes, pastries, and Japanese treats.

“Thank you.” Sebastian nodded. He simply assumed Michael was being polite, “Will you be staying long?”
Michael looked at him for a moment and then laughed, “Ah, no. I see this is your first time.”

Sebastian stopped moving and regarded Michael, who shrugged and continued, “Sven doesn’t give you much time to uproot. He once told me he doesn’t like having two people where one should be.

“I’ve introduced you to most of the important players over our past few weeks, so there’s no much more for me to do.” Michael poured himself a cup of coffee. He sniffed it once it was poured – the man, peaceful as he was, loved the smell of coffee the way alcoholics enjoy the fumes of a Manhattan – and took a small sip.
He was clearly observing Sebastian, theatric though it may have been.

Michael Crowley hadn’t built the branch here, but he had overseen its success. Robert and Sebastian had been part of a team that investigated new business streams and partnerships in key areas – these recommendations and reports had gone directly to Sven, who would then work with Michael’s team to analyze how it could work operationally. Sebastian and Robert had made a few deals with Michael’s teams, so the two knew each other.
Michael knew who Sebastian had been, and Michael knew that Sebastian’s recent promotion was a stretch assignment in every facet of the word. But Michael knew he was profiting from it – the pay raise was nice, he got to return home, and he wouldn’t have to work as hard.

“Anyway, I’m looking forward to going back to Europe.” Michael continued after his long pause, his caffeine theatrics now finished, “It’s impossible to find good marmalade here.”

“Maybe something to look into.” Sebastian mused wryly, earning a chortle.

“It’s not a bad idea.” Michael nodded, “Like I told you last week – if you keep a list of everything that bugs you in your daily life, you might come across a good idea or two.”

“I’m not so sure about that.” Sebastian chuckled, meaning more than he said, “But I’ll keep it in mind.”

“I’ll say my farewells.” Michael extended a hand, “Good luck, Sebastian.”

“Good luck, Michael.” Sebastian shook the man’s hand, knowing fully well it was the last time someone would talk to him without wanting something.
 

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“Ma’am?” Bryce Takeda asked gingerly, knowing he was stepping on thin ice. Her gaze flickered to him – he made a mental effort to stand as straight as possible – but quickly returned to the forms in front of her, her lips lightly pursed, “Stay for your next meeting?”

“Indeed. I trust you remember Sebastian Erdeschalk.” She nodded, flipping through various pages.

Eve was older now. The years were starting to show, though it somehow only added to her quiet beauty. Whereas before Eve was a tightly wound Swiss watch, she had matured in many ways. Business transactions gone right, business transactions gone wrong, and general life experience allowed her to relax a bit more. Or at least, it appeared so. She was, after all, the Survivor. Bloody Mary. The Walking Genocide. And no one in this world, no one without her gifts, had ever truly been able to appraise her.

“Of course.” Bryce answered cautiously. How could he forget? The younger brother of Eve, the one who sent her a letter, went missing the next day, and then turned up in Germany under investigation of violating international sanctions. And now, years later, they met once more?

Bryce Takeda had been Eves personal assistant for a long time, and unlike others, had left to a position of great influence within the company. His predecessors had all found good jobs with other companies, but Bryce’s loyalty – the same loyalty that had held him back from moving on for so long – had also given him the chance to remain at Eve’s side longer. He had seen more, heard more, learned more…and now he was useful in his own right. With this insight, he immediately understood the play: she didn’t want to be alone in a room with Sebastian.

It was a good play. He was a recent target of investigation, and one never knew if such people had flipped. With him in the room, it wouldn’t just be “he said, she said” – and that was worth its weight in platinum.

“May I ask what the meeting is about?” Bryce asked gingerly.

“He is taking over the Rothskinder office here. Recently appointed, now that the investigation on him has apparently concluded.” Eve put down the paper she had been looking at, “I trust you have something we could talk to him about?”

Who wouldn’t? Everybody needed money these days – especially those who had plans to make even more money.

“We could discuss a few infrastructure projects.” Bryce offered.

“Indeed. Perhaps the smart buildings-“ Eve stopped abruptly, “Let’s let him suggest it.”

Bryce nodded, saying nothing. Eve looked at the papers once more – Bryce hadn’t seen her like this in a long time – before laying them down one final time. The two of them sat in a great stillness for what seemed like hours, though it was thankfully only moments, before a subtle beep sounded from the desk. Eve simply pushed a small button on a subtle black console, signifying that she was ready for her next meeting.

Bryce took one look at Eve’s office, desperate to distract himself from the meeting he was about to join. It was glass all around, the top floor of yet another skyscraper in Tokyo. The furniture had recently been replaced, now a type of simple corporate. Chrome-like steel and fake black leather. Eve had a black desk in front of her with very little on it – a leather writing pad, two silver pens, and her executive laptop. She somehow retained perfect posture, looking at the small screen without narrowing her eyes in the slightest. Oh – and whatever papers she needed for the meeting. Bryce had always brought as few as possible, simply a more in-depth document to provide facts and figures. Others were not to clever.

A small knock at the door, and Eve responded immediately: “Yes.”

“Mr. Sebastian Erdeschalk, from Rothskinder.” Eve’s secretary declared the final attendee. He was a man of mid-fourties who spoke every language known to man and had a fantastic way to say “no” to invitations without being offensive.

Sebastian, Bryce saw immediately, was different.

He was his own man now, in a way. Though later, Bryce would reflect he seemed to have become his own man unwillingly. Before, he had been a young man. The difference was hard to explain – it was the first deep wrinkle, it was the tired smile, it was the lingering gaze.

Maybe you’re never old, until you regret not being young.

“Sebastian Er-” the German offered his hand to Bryce before blinking and apologizing, “My apologies, Bryce. I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Takeda-shuuchou has taken over our infrastructure division.” Eve said, using the informal honorific for a CEO.
“Congratulations.” Sebastian said, smiling an old man’s smile, “Well-earned.”

“You’d have to ask her.” Bryce parried the compliment and gestured to Eve.

Schwester.” Sebastian said, regarding her as she stood up.

Bryce wasn’t sure if the pause was awkward, or if he simply expected it to be awkward. The two regarded each other for a moment before Eve motioned for Sebastian to sit. The three of them took their seats and settled in.

“So – how can we help you?” Eve asked, smiling.

Bryce saw the German’s eyes flitter around the room for a quick moment.

“I’d ask you the same thing.” Sebastian responded slowly. Bryce imagined that Sebastian wanted to test the mood but was recognizing he wouldn’t have an opportunity to do so. “As I’m sure you know, I’ve taken over as CEO of our establishment here. I looked into what has been happening over the past few years and see that many of the projects that our firms had envisioned didn’t take off as hoped.”

“Indeed. We lost some key stakeholders along the way.” Eve responded neutrally.

“Well, Rothskinder is open for business.” Sebastian leaned back, “I have a mandate from Sven to get results. And I want to work together with your firm. I think we can accomplish a lot together.”

Eve had met Sven during Sebastian’s initial stay in Japan as part of an executive meet-and-greet, Bryce recalled suddenly as she asked, “How is Mr. Rothskinder doing?”
“He’s doing well.” Sebastian said, “And he has asked me to extend his personal greetings.”


“How kind.” Eve nodded to acknowledge the gesture, “What type of a partnership might you envision?”

“Well, since your newest CEO is here, why not in building infrastructure?” Sebastian maintained eye contact with Eve exclusively at this point.

“Pardon me for being so blunt, Sebastian, but you are a financial institution. How can you enter into a partnership with us beyond financing?”

Sebastian smiled tightly and leaned back in his chair. He seemed to relax given Eve’s blunt remark. Bryce knew the response, and he knew it could have a few emotional foundations. There was fear, there was revenge, and there was control. Somehow, Sebastian seemed to feel in control of the meeting.

“You’re currently involved in 4.3% of the building market in Japan on the turnkey side. I’d like to work with your company to increase that to 55% over a ten-year time.”

Bryce blinked a few times before responding, “…well, that’s an ambitious target.”

“I’ve recently learned that ambitious targets are the best targets, and the only good ones.” Sebastian responded quickly, keeping his gaze on Eve.

The blonde woman remained silent and the two Germans held eye contact for a while. An extended while.
“Bryce?” Eve raised an eyebrow and turned to him.

“…I don’t see how it’s possible.” He said, distilling a thousand thoughts into one sentence.

“Neither do I.” Eve’s gaze could feel brutal at times, and Bryce knew what Sebastian was seeing right now. Yet the German let this silence hold before learning forward ever so slightly – confusing body language for someone on his side of this conversation.

“Most of your no-bid decisions are based on the lack of interest corporate rental space. With Rothskinder, you’d have access to thousands of European firms that would be very interested in your buildings.” Sebastian said.
“And why would they suddenly be interested in us?” Bryce frowned.

“We can ensure they get good commercial terms on any investment decisions in their infrastructure. We would work with a smart infrastructure company to partner with your building materials division to put together the new lighthouse projects of how buildings should be made.” Sebastian raised a finger, “…and, we can help financially.”

Eve tilted her head back slightly before responding coldly, “And how are we sure none of these firms will be from Iran?”

Sebastian nodded solemnly, taking a deep breath, “I understand there has been bad press recently. But the actions of a single individual don’t reflect the actions of a greater group of people. There is no institutional problem at Rothskinder. No one else has been charged, including myself.”

“You can’t provide that something doesn’t exist, not in law enforcement.” Eve responded, clearly skeptical, “And a lack of charges is hardly an acquittal.”

“I cannot refute the situation of today.” Sebastian intoned, his voice emotionlessness suddenly matching Eve’s, “I can simply chart the path forward.”

Eve remained silent at this, as if it were an incantation. After a moment she turned to Bryce.

“Well, Shuuchou?”

“I’d need far more information before we make any moves: what will your firm provide, how will you help us drive market penetration, what types of agreements you’d create…” Bryce trailed off, letting the rest remain unspoken, I want you to prove all of this isn’t illegal.

“Of course.” Sebastian nodded, “I can send things over as early as tomorrow. When shall we meet again?”
“Send the materials first,” Eve said, standing, “and then we can meet afterwards. We will reach out to you.”
Bryce stood on reflex, knowing that the meeting was now over. Sebastian looked at the two of them and then slowly stood, fastening the jacket of his three-piece suit.

“…maybe dinner?” Sebastian tried a final overture.

“Another time, perhaps.”

“Understood.” Sebastian responded, the door to the office opening almost immediately afterward. Sebastian shook Bryce’s hand and gave a distant ‘until next time’ before exiting the office.

Bryce remained silent and remained standing, taking Eve’s cue. It lasted a few moment before she sat, and he did so as well. The silence stretched onwards still before she spoke.

“What do you think?”

For all his experience with Eve, the question stymied Bryce. In any other context, he’d know exactly what she was asking – about the business idea, about his body language, about his dress – but Bryce hadn’t been caught between the two siblings for many years now.

“It’s an ambitious goal.” Bryce remarked.

“…He’s different.” Eve remarked after a short pause. Her gaze was lingering where Sebastian had sat, as if she was still processing the whole meeting. Bryce knew, though, that she was already worlds away.

“He’s older.” Bryce said, meaning it philosophically. He was sure Eve understood.

“What would it be worth?” she asked, the gears slowly turning.

“A lot.”

“Is it worth listening to?”

“…not yet. I’m worried about the…unique dynamics at play in this type of market.”

“The Yakuza?” Eve asked bluntly. It was Bryce’s job to be diplomatic, not hers.

“It’s something we can’t ignore.”

“Alright. Let’s see what he sends over.” Eve nodded, “Thank you for staying, Bryce.”

“Of course.” Bryce stood up and bowed slightly, “Have a good day.”

She didn’t respond – but then again, she never did. Bryce walked outside into the reception area for Eve’s visitors, stopping by the desk of Eve’s secretary.

“Good meeting?” Callum Carpenter asked.

“Hard to say.” The two had their own language by now, so they didn’t need to say much. Bryce had spent almost every waking moment for years at Eve’s side, and he and Callum had always gotten along. Both of them were earnest and not too terribly ambitious, and both of them thought that being good employees meant making your boss’ life easier. Without any politics in the way, they had come to trust each other in a unique way.

“He left her something.” Callum pointed to a smartly wrapped package, with delicate white paper underneath a dark blue ribbon that wrapped around the package. Somehow it seemed seamlessly wrapped, as if it had been carved from granite.

“…why wouldn’t he want to bring it in?” Bryce blurted out.

“Said he didn’t bring a gift for you.” Callum responded, “Asked me to give it to her when she leaves.”

Didn’t expect to see you here. The young German’s words rang in Bryce’s head.

“…weird.” Bryce summarized, shrugging.

“Should I…lose it?” Callum asked with a raised eyebrow.

“No, nothing like that.” Bryce shook his head, “Just. Genuinely weird.”

“Mmm.” Callum returned his attention to the chaos in front of him, and Bryce shrugged.

Sometimes, life seems uneventful.
 

Kishyotai's Ghost

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“I want a briefing on that plan by the end of the day.” Sebastian pressed. He could feel the tension in his voice transferring to his hand, feel the perspiration on the cellphone, feel the well-worn edges. His gaze lay on the city but he barely noticed it, just as he barely noticed how fast they were driving on the highway.

“The team is having trouble connecting a few dots-”

“I’ve noticed. That’s why I’ve been waiting for this report for ten days.”

“Do you want to get it right, or not?”

“I want to get it done.” Sebastian emphasized, “I’m wondering if the team feels the same way.”

It was easy to forget that he was at war
“Well, sir, you’re asking for a lot of information that we simply don’t have-”

Sometimes, the world reminded him gently
“If we had the information, we’d be doing this already.” Sebastian interrupted, starting to become truly agitated, “That’s why it’s called a new-”

Sometimes, not so gently
First, Sebastian noticed the roller-coaster feeling he normally associated with turbulence on an airplane. He was, after all, a victim to his own experiences. It took him a half-moment to register the two smells that came next: blood and oil.

It didn’t take the Quincy long to register everything.

First – evaluate self

He didn’t have any time to check himself, and he was floating. So…next.

Second – secure immediate area

Again, floating. But he did need to make sure nothing hit him. He was being lifted upwards, so Sebastian threw his hands above his head to brace himself against the ceiling. Getting knocked unconscious was a death sentence for any Quincy.

Third – secure against second attack

The first attack was rarely the killer. Hollows were, per their nature, normally not courageous enough to go for the killing blow immediately. Humans and pluses were food, after all. It is a type of sport to them.

Sebastian clenched his left hand and felt the Sanrei glove start to materialize. It was too slow – he couldn’t see anything and would only have time for a single arrow. The car was tipping forward, so…

The roof of the car exploded outwards, shrapnel shredding any terrestrial threat in front of it. Cloaked to most observers was the ray of royal blue that immediately preceded the explosion. Sebastian waited the half-moment to complete the final step:

Finally – secure escape route

In the blink of an eye, Sebastian carried himself forward on a torrent of spiritual wind. From his new vantage point on top of a streetlight, Sebastian watched the real world cope with his powers – a torrent of wind followed him, carrying the car crash debris with him and hurling the car’s now-twisted chassis another hundred meters.
It was a sight to fill a human with awe. Or perhaps with terror. But Sebastian’s audience was not a human.

The Quincy’s hunter eyes surveyed his eight-legged prey. Less of a spider, and more of an extrapolated human with too many arms and no legs. Each limb had two opposable thumbs, each of which with a wicked curved claw. The other digits had straighter claws protruding from them, all of which could apparently retract at will to help with gripping irregular surfaces. The half-scarlet mask itself wasn’t remarkable, and there was a long scorpion-like tail made of twisting and shaking muscles that demanded attention. And finally, a sickly third eye halfway down the creature’s spine that oozed a black liquid.

“…taaaaasty…” it whispered, as if having discovered the name of the wind.

“Tasty, eh? An interesting name.” Sebastian quipped. He knew he was alone now. His driver was dead, impaled on some shattered part of the front axle. The smell of blood was unmistakable, even from this distance.

Such is death, Sebastian mused. Sentimentality ended immediately afterwards as the German ripped off the left sleeve of his collar shirt, removed and stashed his cufflinks, and loosened his now-soiled tie. He checked to ensure that Weltschmerz still hung around his neck – it did – before flexing his will upon the world.
It was not his full power, but it would do.

A simple bangle circle hung from Sebastian’s left wrist, unadorned except for a small section that was made into the form of a hollow circle. Now exposed from underneath the dress shirt, a royal blue light started to emanate from the circle’s hollow, lazily yet purposefully growing in intensity. Some of the light that escaped curled back due to a supernatural attraction, eventually forming threads of silver that formed Sebastian’s Sanrei glove as the bangle closed around his wrist.

The conjuration took but a few moments, and the Hollow was stupid enough to hesitate. The fully-manifested glove itself was a dark black with silver accents and featured full fingers on the thumb, index, and middle fingers. The small hollow of the bracelet’s circle, now set above the wrist’s veins, had a small fin made of glowing ethereal sapphire protruding from it – this fin was complemented by a dark black fin on the opposite side of the wrist, set along the same position as the main bow.

It was his sole tie to his family, these Quincy powers. An observer might muse that his Sanrei glove, the manifestation of his inheritance, was the only clean article of clothing the young man had. Regal the young man was not, yet of all the aspects of the young Patriarch, only two facets seemed well-placed: Sebastian’s expressionless countenance and the Sanrei glove that now hummed in anticipation.

The first shot was wasted – Sebastian hadn’t been able to deal with the surge of adrenaline very well and had led his target poorly. After that, they were true. Yet the Hollow had, after the first arrow, learned the simple truth of Sebastian’s powers: move fast and annihilate anything and everything.

The battle itself did not take long, though that wasn’t to say it wasn’t extremely arduous. The two figures danced in between Tokyo’s skyscrapers, leaving behind a muted trail of devastation that seemed unexplainable to the common eye. Sebastian’s advantage in mobility was taken away by the beast’s ability to claw onto any surface with seemingly no regard for gravity. The Hollow stalked Sebastian through the city, cleverly hiding itself around building corners. The stinger, the instrument of his car’s demise, had an incredible whiplash effect that created a sonic boom even if the blow missed. Sebastian had found that out first hand when the wind had whipped him across the torso.

The final blow came when Sebastian had learned the fiend’s instinct. It was a beast, and like all beasts, it relied on the patterns and habits that had brought it this far. Seizing upon the fact that the third eye closed when the stinger was in use, Sebastian had been able to physically nail it shut with the help of an arrow and then annihilate three of the hands with a barrage of smaller arrows. After that it had only been a matter of time.

So with a fractured rib and a skinned left forearm, Sebastian sat upon the top of a skyscraper. He was panting so heavily that one might think he was having a panic attack, blood trickling down from somewhere a rock had hit his head. He wasn’t even sure where. His vision was blurry and his chest was tight, his left hand numb (maybe it was more than a skinned arm?), and his breath was painful.

It was, at one would say, not a good look. And it felt even worse.

Slowly, ever so slowly, he pulled out his cellphone. Speed dial 5. Green butto-nope. Screen was cracked. Maybe…maybe that top corner of the green button still worked? Yes. Dialing.

“Sebastian?” Annika’s voice answered immediately. They had a rule for this.

“…I’m hurt.” He admitted, his voice weak. It felt like a confession, deep to his core. Perhaps it was

“Send me your location.” She commanded him. At times like this, it was refreshing to have no authority.

But his humor cost him – for as he laughed, his bloody fingers dropped the phone. As he struggled to pick it back up, he eventually whimpered, “…I can’t.”

“Focus, Sebastian.” She intoned in a practiced voice, “Your pain is not you.”

It was their training mantra. It rang like a bell in his mind. And so Sebastian exhaled, took a deep breath, and let the world guide his fingers – Ransoutengai, the Heavenly Wired Puppet Suit technique. With spirits of reishi, he guided his (broken? oh boy) hand through the exercise of pressing the screen of his phone.

“Okay. I’ll be there in a moment.” She said, “Keep talking to me. Stay with me-”

There was a rush of wind and the connection was dropped. It was naïve of Annika to think her cellphone provider could keep up with hirenkyaku. But perhaps she simply hadn’t thought at all. Annika was originally human – every Quincy still alive today struggled to separate their two realities. The old guard, those who knew only how to be Quincy, they were dead. Slaughtered.

Sebastian imagined, for a brief moment, what it was like to die. It was not a pleasant thought, and his inability to focus was a blessing in disguise. Moments later he was awakened by the familiar sound of high heels.
“Last time, you found me like this.” The cold voice observed.

“Eve.” He knew the voice, he knew the tone. It was as close as she came to affection.

“I felt your spirit.” She explained, as if it was necessary. Even Sebastian could see what had happened to the city in the minute or two he had channeled his powers.

“You…” he couldn’t get the words out and his voice was raspy.

“I figured that you and I would meet like this anyway.” Eve said, “You used to patrol the city sometimes. Back then.”

“…you…”

“Of course, I didn’t think that you’d be in this state.” Eve continued, “We need to talk.”

“You should…backup-”

She didn’t get any more warning – but she didn’t need it. Eve’s eyes twitched and she was two buildings away before the light blue sphere slammed into the building like a meteor.

Dust spilled outwards as if there was a leak in some inter-dimensional portal. The world quivered under the weight of some titan, having split the air only to land gently and effortlessly at this point. There was no crash, there was no impact, but there was rush of wind as the physical universe struggled to restore order to new and unexplainable pressure differentials.

And there, in all her glory, stood Annika Erdeschalk.

Her family, the Blaustahls, allegedly got their name from the color of their eyes. But what so few know is that it was specifically from the glow of their eyes where they use their Quincy powers. It is a unique trait and had been a source of frustration when the family had tried to hide itself from the 1700s through the 1850s. Now, generations later, Annika displayed this unique genetic mutation proudly.

She was already standing between Eve and Sebastian, clearly in a defensive position. She had no bow in her hand, simply four hexagons of her trademark light blue reishi that were five times taller than they were wide. Around her neck hung a small sphere, spinning furiously in a type of silver double-gyroscope set into a grand cross the size of a man’s hand. Her eyes burned with the most vibrant sky blue.

The Olympic athlete’s body was raging in this state, as if finally unchained. Her great stillness was there, every single muscle optimized for whatever she wanted to accomplish. Though her gaze was placid, her intent was unmistakable. Her spiritual aura, unbridled and aggressive, was so powerful it actively pushed dust away from her. Annika regarded Eve for a moment before the hexagons all moved in front of her, twisting lazily in the air. Eve’s deep lilac aura flickered briefly as the two women assessed each other. It was not friendly.

“Are you okay?” Annika asked without looking at Sebastian, her eyes focused first on the Hollow’s body and then Eve.

“…my sister.” Sebastian said weakly, “She’s…”

“We are leaving.”

And so they did, leaving Eve alone with the echoes of Sebastian’s fitful fight to survive.
 

Kishyotai's Ghost

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They called it Hafen.

Years ago, Sebastian had bought a temple on the edge of Tokyo to house the family in. With Eve’s help, they had retrofitted the temple with a type of glass that suppressed Quincy aura – and grown trees with these shards placed inside to further scatter any spiritual signature. It was their home, their safety, their harbor.

The temple itself was a grand old building, but it was only a minor part of the estate. Sebasitan had built an incredibly modern mansion deeper into the heavily-forested area, outfitted primarily only with the special glass. No concrete, no metal. They were prey to a different sort of beast. This let almost all Quincies fully flex their powers without restraint – only the powerful actors such as Annika and Sebastian needed mind a type of limit.

He had been in a car accident was the first story. But eventually, the Japanese government started an investigation into terrorism, and then focused on organized crime. In the news, Sebastian was an “unnamed European executive”.

Sven had sent a crisis team to secure Sebastian while the younger German was in the hospital. They were all ex-something-or-others and had made life very difficult for the people trying to care for the Patriarch. Sebastian knew it was unnecessary but couldn’t say it to Sven – it would be difficult to explain why he knew that, so he let it go. Annika remained at his side and seemed to be the only individual the security team gave wide berth to, though Sebastian imagined they had gotten an early lesson in interacting with her.

While Hafen wasn’t a hospital, they had purchased rudimentary medical facilities to stabilize someone or take care of someone should this situation occur. So after Sebastian was released from the hospital after a few days, they transferred him home. Some of the Quincy survivors were nurses and there was enough a general doctor, so he had medical supervision. The security team was originally to follow, but Sebastian convinced Sven it wasn’t necessary.

“You are important chess piece, Sebastian. You have seen behind the curtain. I need you to live.”

For all their difficulties as a couple, Annika’s iron will and stubbornness was a comfort in these times. Sebastian didn’t need to decide anything, and that was its own type of care.

Sebastian’s hospital bed was in his room on the top floor, in the corner of the estate. It was a foggy morning, and the forest seemed to tease hidden horrors. Sebastian took a deep breath and closed his eyes – there was nothing there. A great absence. The gift of the forest, Sebastian mused – no one could find them, yet they would never sense anyone coming.

“How are you feeling, my Lord?” Annika asked.

“Please, Annika.” Sebastian responded without looking, “It’s just the two of us.”

“No it is not, my Lord.” She chided him. Sebastian’s ear, bandaged, hadn’t heard the kling of her ceremonial garb, which would have alerted him to a guest.

Sebastian waited for the two to round the corner and chuckled hollowly as Eve stood next to Annika.

“Met each other formally, I see.” He remarked, his coarse throat adding a touch of sarcasm that wasn’t intentional.

“Indeed. I had no idea you were married.” Eve nodded in deference to Annika. It was a different mode for Eve, who was typically not traditional in the least nor did she observe any rituals but her own. No doubt Annika had asserted herself in the first few moments. The strong recognized the strong, after all.

“There’s a lot you don’t know.” Sebastian intoned. This time, the heaviness of his voice was intentional.

“I needed to be sure it was you.” Eve responded, “I do not apologize.”

“Mmm.” They are only feelings, Sebastian Eve had once told him, they are not real.

“My Lord is not well.” Annika added.

“Another time, perhaps.” Sebastian remarked coldly.

Eve’s eyes flashed dangerously, but an instinctual half-step from Annika clarified that there was no arguing.
“…maybe a final word.” Eve said after a moment, “The people that tried to kill you? They are standing in the way of our partnership.”

Without another word Eve turned sharply on her heel and left, the kl-klak of her high heels ringing in the great room. Sebastian now heard other shuffling feet as someone, likely Silvia, escorted Eve back out to the entrance.

The husband and wife looked silently at the great mist before them.

“That was a bit much.” Sebsatian exhaled.

“It was a reminder of the world outside. I need you out of this bed.” Annika remarked, perhaps somehow colder than Eve.

“I can’t heal myself faster than here in Hafen.” Sebastian said.

“…you proclaimed unto me, Sebastian.” Annika said heavily, “We cannot wait for health.”

“…there is no need to. Eve gave us a gift.” Sebastian said, “Call the office. Set up a meeting with the strategy team, here. And call Reginald, have him tell the police I’d like to give a statement.”

Annika looked at him for a moment, “Okay. But this can’t happen again.”

“What’s your suggestion?” Sebastian asked.

“It’s not a suggestion. I will take care of it.”

The two never made eye contact throughout the whole conversation. It was not unusual for them. Cold and transactional, yet functioning. They made their own context, and in this glass cube that hid them from the world, they fit.
 

Kishyotai's Ghost

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“I remember a bit more about the accident now.” Sebastian said, shifting his weight slightly, “And I wanted to share it with you.”

The two detectives stood at the side of his bed, with a goateed man in a dark trenchcoat nearby but taking no notes.

“Well, what would you like to share?”

“I see images but am having trouble placing them in exact sequence.” Sebastian shrugged, “Perhaps you can describe to me what you know so far?”

“That’s not how this works, sir.” The elder detective said.

“Mr. Erdeschalk is being accused of no crime, correct?” Reginald intoned, “I understand wanting to avoid leading questions, but that would only apply if he were a person of interest.”

“It’s not often that you get a spectacle like that.” One detective remarked, “Everyone involved in this is interesting.”

“Gentlemen, please.” Reginald responded with a firm voice, “My client is in a medical bed still receiving care. He’s just asking you to jog his memory.”

“Well sir, describe the imagines.” The detective relented after a moment of consideration, “Then we can try to help.”

“We were driving just under the speed limit – there was heavy traffic. Then I remember being inverted, feeling cold air on my face.”

“Were you thrown out of the vehicle?”

“I don’t remember opening any doors, if that’s what you mean.” Sebastian responded. The detectives each wrote for a few moments, “But I do remember seeing a suspicious vehicle, almost purple and blue at the same time. Red undercarriage lights. They…blinked. I remember one of them pointing at me.”

“…red?” the elder detective responded slowly.

“Yes, red. I remember that clearly. With a modification to the front that looked like a toothed bear.”

“A bear?”

“Something with big teeth. Maybe not a bear.” Sebastian shrugged, “With curled teeth at the edge.”

It was difficult to navigate the balance between believable and accurate enough. Sebastian was describing the stereotypical car of a soldier in the local Ichigami Yakuza group. They were known for their red undercarriages and the dragon detailing on the front end of any cars they stole. And they were known for being gaudy. But of course, Sebastian had been on the edge of consciousness when everything had happened (according to the official turn of events), so he threw a few red herrings in there.

The meeting with the strategy team had served a few purposes – to let them know they weren’t off the hook for this partnership, and to milk them for information on the Yakuza. It had been easy enough to get the team to speak, though they had done so to Reginald as they waited in the foyer before meeting Sebastian.

“So you think you were attacked by the Yakuza?” The man in the trenchcoat suddenly said.

“I’m not sure who attacked me.” Sebastian countered quickly, “I’m not the police.”

“The individuals assessing my client is highly unusual.” Reginald interjected.

“If I saw an explosion, I’d point at it tot.” The man stated, pulling a lone cigarette out of his pocket. Annika gave him a stern look as he put it in his mouth, but the man never made any attempt to light it, “Even the Yakuza can be surprised.”

“Do you have another proposal?” Reginald pressed hard now. He knew why they were meeting – to pump the police for information – Sebastian was happy that he took a chance to act.

“You were under investigation in Germany for transactions involving sanctioned countries. Countries that sponsor terrorism.” The man offered, pointing at Sebastian and holding the gesture as he continued to speak, “I don’t like hearing Japanese people being blamed for the mistakes gaijin make.”

“That’s a serious allegation.” Reginald intoned gravely.

“It’s not an accusation. It’s a theory.” The man shrugged, and he raised his thumb to turn his point into a finger-gun, “…I’m looking for the smoking gun. And I don’t see any motive for the Yakuza to target a new arrival in Japan.”

“…I do.” Sebastian tried to perfect the length of his pause. The detectives’ body language suggested he had nailed it.

“Then do tell.” The finger-gun was holstered and the detective looked at Sebastian.

“I’m proposing a partnership with local companies to enter the construction industry. As you know, that’s tightly controlled by the Yakuza here in Tokyo. “ Sebastian said coolly, “I’m not at liberty to discuss details, but we are targeting 75% market share. I’ve presented to multiple firms, so word must have gotten out.”

The finger-gun was dropped.

“That’s…ambitious.” The younger detective said diplomatically, glancing at his partner before continuing, “…could represent a motive.”

The man in the trenchcoat remained silent as the conversation continued, now with more interest.
The interview centered mostly on the car and the crash itself, and it lasted roughly thirty more minutes before Reginald ended it due to Sebastian’s fatigue. The detectives and their trenchcoat friend gave Sebastian a courteous goodbye before departing, nodding wordlessly to Annika, who stood behind Sebastian’s bed and played the role of supporting matriarch.

“And?” Annika asked.

Mal schauen.” Sebastian responded in German, sitting up in bed, “You?”

“Successful. Next week.”

“May I know what it is now?”

“Peace of mind for me.” Annika responded, “And strength for you.

“A bodyguard. Former French special operations. He will protect you and train you.”

“You know the gun laws here are-”

“It’s done, Sebastian.” She waved a hand, “Sven agreed.”

“…Sven?” Sebastian asked incredulously. Reginald shifted and clearly wished to leave, but Annika ended the conversation swiftly enough.

“Yes. He called me. We agreed.”

“Sven is…” Sebastian took a deep breath, trying to re-balance himself, “Annika, you need to be careful with him.”
“I know.” Annika said, “But I need you alive and well, and that takes priority.” Annika raised a finger as Sebastian started to protest again, “It is decided, Sebastian.”

She was not fickle, but she felt fickle sometimes. Or maybe Sebastian was fickle. He fully realized how dumb it was to enjoy and rely on her iron will when injured and now, a few days later, to rue its indomitability.

“…Reginald. Please.” Sebastian said awkwardly, and the lawyer left without another word. The couple waited until the door audibly closed and Sebastian heaved himself onto a semi-standing position on the bed.

“I’m…trying to honor our promises.” Sebastian said laboriously, “But I feel it is lopsided.”

“Lopsided?” Annika responded with an arched eyebrow.

“I do not feel that we are equally-” Annika started to speak, but Sebastian raised a hand, “See?”

Annika took a deep breath and tilted her head back before nodding, acknowledging Sebastian’s point.

“I feel that we are equally invoking our vows to each other.” Sebastian said, clearly trying hard to communicate in a certain framework.

“I do not feel there is any onus on equality. It is not a favor system. That is a toxic behavior.” Annika responded neutrally. Sebastian paused for a moment and sighed.

“Okay. I…I can understand that.” Sebastian was trying very hard now.

“Furthermore, I feel that how often I must remind you of your proclamations is more of a reflection of you than of me.”

Gott es willen, Annika.” Sebastian cracked, “Das kann nicht deinen Ernst sein.“

“Ist es doch, Sebastian.“ Annika replied, switching to German, “And I remind you what your proclamations to me are.”

“Un-fucking-believable.” Sebastian hissed, “As if I could forget.”

“I saved your life when the Hollow attacked you. I’ve been protecting you while you’ve been injured. I’ve been keeping this family, as it is, together. Food is on plates, water in glasses, and the beasts outside do not notice our scent.

“Your struggle is outside. Mine is inside – it is silent and it is contained. Do not forget that I cannot sweat in my labors as you do, that my purview is the world we have now, not the world we wish to create. Only you shall I push, as only I am entitled to do.

“Am I not faithful, my Lord? Am I not true?”

Every word of that sentence was a hammer’s strike on a bell, ringing clear and long in the room. Annika stood there, somehow both indignant and grandiose – every bit the Queen of the Quincy that she was to become.
“…yes. Indeed.” Sebastian shuddered in her presence, “I apologize.

“…really, Annika. I’m sorry.” He repeated after a moment.

“Once is fine.” She said after a deep breath.

“I wonder if…” he trailed off, “Nevermind.”

“Indeed.” Annika said, placing a hand on his shoulder, her tone now completely reset, “Now, Sebastian…what can I get you to eat?”
 

Kishyotai's Ghost

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“Frightful business.” Sven said, shaking his head. The two were using a videoconference so that Sven could see Sebastian’s state – Sebastian needed to show strength.

Sven was precarious and dangerous. A moment of weakness could be used against Sebastian – he was not only hunted as a Quincy. He would be kept in Asia only as long as Sven thought it was creating value. And "value" is a very vague term.

“It is what it is.” Sebastian shrugged, “We don’t know if I was a target or just lucky.”

“Indeed. But I’ve heard your team is putting something together.” Sven cocked an eyebrow.

“I promised results.” Sebastian said.

“I hope the two aren’t connected.” Sven gestured to Sebastian’s condition.

“Like I said. We don’t know if I was a target.” Sebastian said, “But it’s possible.”

“Well then, your wife is a very prudent woman.” Sven nodded, “Your wife told you the news?”

“Indeed.” Sebastian nodded, “I look forward to meeting him. Will take my mind off a few things.”

“He came highly recommended.” Sven’s gaze sharpened, “I imagine it will help you focus a bit more.”

“I imagine as well.”
 

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His frame was not the first thing to draw one’s eye, significant though it was. Broad shoulders announced themselves underneath the hoodie he wore, and while the rest of his torso was hidden it was clear that from the way the fabric folded around his arms, there was only a wrought iron frame underneath the heavy cotton. It was not the frame of a bodybuilder, to be sure, but it was the frame of someone who had forged their body. What could be seen from underneath his travelling clothes was dark black and seemed to pulse with every movement.

His face was also not the first thing to draw one’s eye, unique though it was. His strong jawline naturally lead to his almost-bald head where most of his hair was missing. His head was crowned by a small yet thick island of hair at the front of his forehead, as if his widower’s peaks had expanded endlessly save for the single vanguard at the front his hairline. There were scars in his scalp, too – and not the pretty kind.

No, the first thing to draw one’s eye was his watchful gaze. It was heavy and purposeful, observing everything yet admiring nothing. It was the gaze of a man who had been betrayed before.

With only a duffel bag in his arm, he walked through the arrivals gate of Narita and strode directly to a meek young Asian man with a simple sign:

ERDESCHALK

“Yer mah driver?” he asked the young driver, a man of unremarkable stature and dress. The thick Southern accent didn’t really help, but the message was clear enough – so the driver nodded and reached for the duffel bag, “No, puhlease, I insist. They’re very heavy.”

They drove an Audi of some sort, long and spacious. He sat in the back, knowing it would never happen again. Protective agents sat in the passenger seat, mostly, and he had been serving as such for a while. Of interest to him through this first drive were two things: driving patterns and any sudden shifts. He knew Tokyo was too large and complex to learn during a single drive-through, but there were some key behaviours he could pick up immediately. Plus, driving was when the target had last been attacked, and he needed to be sure he knew what ‘abnormal’ looked like in this country.

Before long they turned into what he had originally assumed was some type of park, driving down a long and somewhat winding driveway up a hill that was steep at times and flat at others. They drove past an aged temple and stopped in front of a very modern-looking house that seemed to be made out of glass. Frosted in some areas, see-through in others, it was almost a caricature of what people twenty years ago though houses would look like in thirty years.

Francois was shown into the grand glass mansion and given the chance to refresh himself. Thankfully, the walls inside the house were not made of glass and he had some privacy. He showered and shaved his five o’clock shadow and re-did his thick black hair with hair gel. Running a hand over his stereotypically square ex-military jaw, he put on some aftershave and got into the clothing that had been pulled into the dressing room while he had showered. Three-piece black suit with an off-white pinstripe and a blue tie that was a bit too bright for his taste, paired with black loafers.

He was fetched and brought up a few flights through a grand-yet-modern stairway up to a ballroom of some sort, where he saw her. He hadn’t met the woman before, spoken only to her on the phone, yet he knew immediately that she was the client.

Gorgeous yet intense, she was dressed in clothing that seemed to be a modern interpretation of the word regal – she had an extremely short cape that reached only halfway down her biceps but had a barely-perceptible pattern embroidered into with a cloth the slightest shade different than the base material. This quarter-cape was fastened onto her body by a gold thread that had hand-sized shields where it affixed to the material, showing what Francois would later learn were the crests of House Erdeschalk and House Blaustahl. The sleeves of her outfit draped in that medieval way, and her blouse had large buttons down its entirety. She had midnight-black flat-footed boots on, contrasting sharply to the rest of her outfit. Her hair was braided tightly into an elaborate bun, which itself was adorned with jewelry. Finally, her left ear had a single earing that ran up its entirety with three pieces dangling off it, each of them an elongated cross of the deepest sapphire.

They were not alone – various people fussed about her, making small comments and pinning the clothing in certain ways. She remained impressively still but clearly noticed Francois, stoping the activities but by raising her hand. At this, everyone was roused from their intense concentration.

“Annika Blaustahl.” She introduced herself in the Queen’s English, slowly offering a hand, “I apologize for the business, we are doing a fitting of traditional attire.”

“Francois Xavier.” He introduced himself, taking her hand gently. If she was surprised at a man from the southern United State with an extremely French name, she hid it well.

“Indeed.” She looked him over, “…what do you think of the suit?”

“Ma’am?” the question took him off guard, and his Southern accent shone.

“Your suit. Does it fit, as one of your profession requires?”

Francois-Xavier took a moment to reflect and then nodded, “It fits well enough, ma’am. I might recommend a few changes.”

“Let’s hear them.” She commanded, “I may need them for these clothes as well.”

“The shoulders are the first thing everyone thinks off, but the back is important as well.” Francois moved into a pistol shooting position, feeling how he flexed against the fabric in the back, before taking the stance of a man with a rifle and feeling the pull , “That is often underlooked, especially the flex required from the inner fabric. The underarms as well, though this cut seems to be adequate.”

Francois returned to a neutral parade rest position, “I’d suggest a bit more give in the quadriceps, ma’am, for crouching. And the hip flexors are a bit tight, making it hard to sprint. And the tie is a bit bright for my taste. Too noticeable, ma’am.”

“I want you to be noticed.” She said gravely, raising an eyebrow, “It is a key aspect of your station, to be noticed. Most people in this situation would hire the largest man with sunglasses and tatooes we can find. I believe in a more subtle approach.”

“Fair’nuff, ma’am.” He nodded, “Then I’d only say loafers’s often a bad choice. Bad for runnin’.”

“Then we will get you new shoes.” Annika smiled, “It’s nice to talk to an expert.”

“You are the wife of the Principal, ma’am?”

“Yes.” Annika nodded, “I asked to meet with you first. This is not the military, but I wanted to take the measure of the man who will be protecting us.”

“It won’t be just me, ma’am.” Francois stiffened slightly, “We work in teams-”

“But you are the…team leader, yes?” Annika interrupted.

“Yes ma’am.”

“Then you’re the one I wanted to meet.” The way she said it implied that there would be no further discussion. Francois knew the tone well from the service.

“It may not seem like it to you, but my husband’s job puts him in a considerable amount of danger. He has decided to engage a foe that is brutal, camouflaged, and prone to dramatics.” Annika’s next words made it clear that she knew the answer to her question already, “…I understand you have experience with such an enemy?”

“Yes ma’am. An abundance of experience.” Francois responded darkly. In a way, his experience in deserts were with a type of local mob. Each of them had their own rules, could fade into the populace, and wanted to make statements of a certain sort. Some mobs simply understood the power of cash more than others.

“My husband can only keep himself so safe. We are neither experts nor novices in infantry tactics. While my husband can protect himself in varied ways, he is no rifleman. He is no infantryman.” Annika was clearly trying to use words outside her normal vocabulary to express her point – Francois appreciated the gesture, “I need you to protect my husband while as we endeavour to improve lives. I need you to protect my husband as we try to do good.”

“I understand.” Francois nodded.

Francois had barely noted any noise, but Annika gestured to the door, “And here he is.”

Francois turned to see Sebsatian Erdeschalk, sizing him up immediately as the German walked into the middle of the grand room. Sebastian was a head taller than Francois and wore enough clothing to make it difficult to size him up physically, but the small tells were quite impressive. He had the forearms of a man who was in the gym for hours at a time, yet his frame remained the wiry build of a man who practiced endurance sport. He was not bulky, but he moved with a certainty that belied a strong frame underneath his well-tailored suit.

Francois noticed too late that Sebastian was sizing him up in turn.

“Sir. I’m Francois Xavier.” Francois offered a hand, and Sebastian took it.

“Sebastian Erdeschalk.” The German returned the greeting before turning to his wife, “Annika.”

“My Lord.” She bowed her head minutely yet deferentially.

“Would you like anything?” Sebastian asked Francois, “Coffee? Tea? Food?”

“No, thank you sir.” Francois, “Very kind.”

“Are you familiar with the arrangement?” Sebastian asked, and Francois noted a certain amount of tension.

“Yes sir.” Francois nodded, “I’ll be assigned as a team leader within the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department VIP Protection Division. You’ve been granted foreign resident VIP status and I’m

“There will be times in certain areas where you cannot be at my side, per se.” Sebastian said cooly, “You may consider this great forest area the beginning and end of your responsibility.”

“I love the wilderness but I struggle with that, sir.” Francois pressed, “Our firm would be more comfortable with door-to-door.”

“The forest is our door.” Annika interjected.

“Well put.” Sebastian nodded, “Are you armed?”

“Not yet. Full assignment arrives in an hour with my duty weapon.”

“Good. We will head to the office.” Sebastian said, a sarcastic smile painted on his face, “Need to earn these death threats, after all.”

The rest of the morning’s preparation didn’t take long. The rest of the detail were Japanese members of the apartment to which Francois was attached, called “Security Police” for short. They were the Secret service of Japan and they looked the part. Francois’ attachment to them was unusual, but so was Sebastian’s status as a foreign VIP.

Sebastian new he didn’t have much time in this setup. His status would have required that innumerable strings be pulled, especially since he wasn’t a dignitary or representative of any government. Being a rich man meant being threatened, so he wasn’t any different in that respect. Japan’s strict gun laws made it difficult to get private party protection without bending a few laws, which Sebastian wasn’t yet comfortable doing.

Being an official designee had other benefits, of course. Sebastian suspected he wouldn’t see any return on that gamble for a while – but he was wrong.

Sebastian’s two-car motorcade hadn’t driven five minutes outside of Hafen’s forest boundaries before the motorcycles enveloped them. At first it was one or two relatively nondescript bikes before the real yakuza bikes came out – with giant handlebars, gaudy paint schemes, and shrieking youths wielding low-budget katanas. They numbered fifty in all at any moment in time, but the total group seemed to be a number four times that that simply drove by in batches, sometimes staying nearby and sometimes shooting past at full speed only to return from another angle two moments later.

Francois was having a heated argument with the other SP officers about the rules of engagement, and even Sebastian’s hunter instincts were being overridden by this new stimulus. They were so many of them. And while none of them held a gun (this was the primary point of contention between Francois and the Security Police), Sebastian suppressed through sheer will the fear-based response to annihilate everything and anything around him.

“-cannot engage, they are simply antagonizing. They are not a threat.” Sebastian heard one SP officer say.

“The size of this mob tells me differently.” Francois said, having already assembled a semi-automatic rifle out of…somewhere. The car door?

“This is typical. They will not attack us now. They will approach later to make their demand as part of the protection racket.”

“Then get us out of here.” Francois stressed, “Run them over if you have to!”

This, the SP officers agreed with. The sedan’s engine roared to life as if the driver had pressed a big red “Yakuza” button. Sebastian felt time slow down as he tried to digest all the stimuli – the powertrain groaning under the sudden torque, the sudden smell of burnt rubber, the young officer’s urgent voice as he called in the situation, the increase in the temperature of the air due to the engine’s increased thermal output, the smell of sweat-

Sebastian closed his eyes. It didn’t take more than a moment.

“There! Left!” Francois called. One of the bikes had just endo’d involuntarily, launching the two riders forward and leaving the bike to somersault on the pavement. A hole naturally appeared as the screams of the young men rang out over the motorcycle engines. Sebastian’s car shot the gap immediately and they were clear.

The men remained silent, except for the one young officer who breathlessly called in the situation’s resolution. The backup car hadn’t been able to make the same maneuver but the yakuza quickly dispersed – some going backwards to retrieve their friends, others spooked, but all of them in no mood to chase their target. Not more than five minutes later, Sebastian and his detail were safe again in Hafen.

Francois’ training had kicked in and they rushed Sebastian back into the deepest part of the house. Everyone in the house was commanded to stay were they were – all except Annika, who instantly appeared at Sebastian’s side. The officers would have never seen her use hirenkyaku, so they simply assumed she had slipped through the halls or was nearby. No one cared.

The two looked at each other. Overcome by the moment, Sebastian embraced Annika – a gesture she was clearly unfamiliar with, given her rigid response. He half-released her and then leaned his head forward until their foreheads touched.

Bist du bereit?” Sebastian whispered to her in German, locking eyes with her.

Natürlich.” She answered, her gaze never wavering, “Machen Sie sich gefärlich, meinen Herr.“

Alles” they both said in unison, “für die Familie.”
 

Kishyotai's Ghost

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The hardest part was the waiting. I had done what I needed to – I had killed two of their young men, I had threatened their business interest, I had notified the police that we all assumed had yakuza moles. I established resistance and made myself a danger.

There were overtures. They tried to intimidate me in my office – I had them forcibly yet politely removed. They visited me at my house – they were firmly turned away by SP officers. They tried to harass the monks of the temple and were imprisoned for the night.

I gave it to them on a platter. I dropped it in their lap…and then had to continually charge blindly forward. It was a world we knew very little about. I used every trick that the Staatsanwalt had tried to use against me to follow their money, isolate it, threaten it by forcing legitimization or auditing it. Eve was helpful, since she had a long blacklist.

Annika didn’t worry, which irritated me. She said she trusted Francois and trusted me. Part of me wondered if she was ambivalent to the idea.

I found out soon enough. It was worse than I imagined.
 

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“Is that a-“ Francois’ tone was one of wonder at first, but it quickly shifted, “Shooter! Left side! Go!”

It was the only warning Sebastian got. That any of them got.

Francois’ job as team leader was to call the shots. He sat in the passenger seat of the sedan. The driver sat, obviously, in the driver’s seat. The young SP officer who had worked in the radio in their first encounter had been removed from the sedan and put into the backup vehicle – part team setup optimization, and part unofficial demotion. Sebastian was behind Francois, his entry out of the vehicle solely at Francois’ direction.

The driver didn’t need a second warning, or even to know exactly what was going on. Francois’ statement could be boiled down to one word for him: right.

The tires screeched as the car’s back end kicked out, the four wheel drive struggling to understand why it was being pulled into duty so suddenly. Sebastian felt his pen leave his hand before he truly understood what was going on, and then he felt the movement in his hips shortly thereafter. He reflexively reached out for the papers that were slowly slipping away before deciding that it was best to simply hold onto his seat belt, but the lateral g-forces made that impossible too.

First – evaluate self

Sebastian grasped at the air as his survival instincts kicked in. They were sluggish without the smell of a Hollow nearby, as if not believing that he could be in danger without the presence of the supernatural crnivores.

He would laugh, if he had the time. He was one of the perhaps one hundred remaining humans not afraid of other humans. And here he was, suddenly realizing that he should be terrified of those standard-issue homo sapiens.

Francois was on the radio with the backup vehicle, which was struggling to keep up in their SUV-like automobile.

Second – secure immediate area

“What’s going on?!” Sebastian demanded, looking around, “I didn’t hear any bullets!”

“They didn’t shoot.” Francois said rather calmly, “They must be trying to direct us somewhere-here, go left. Avoid the underpass.”

The car screeched again, but by this time the driver had activated the sport mode and the sedan was mentally prepared. Unchanged though it looked, the engine roared to life as if it had something to prove after the initial threat. The driver turned on the high beams and floored the accelerator, and this time the car’s onboard computer did not hesitate. The fuel injection system was put under full stress and Sebastian felt his lunch start to come up as the automobile surged forward down a street.

Third – secure against second attack

“Are they still behin-”

KHUM-ssssssssssssssip

Sebastian felt the air be stolen from his mouth. And not just his mouth – his entire body. His throat tightened as it struggled to understand what was happening, since air doesn’t just leave lungs like that. Sebastian didn’t even have time to process the fountain of blood that erupted upwards from the driver’s seat, but he did hear the shrieking of metal being torn apart like paper. The car continued to surge forward but Francois was able to grab the wheel and spin it so the vehicle spun out.

First – evaluate self

There were a few moments of eerie silence as the car’s engine continued to rev out at full speed. The two remaining passengers each blinked slowly, the world slowly regaining its former definition. Sebastian’s ears pulsed in agony as an ever-present ring started to fade in. The German’s spiritual senses seemed to wobble as his body failed to understand that it wasn’t moving anymore.

They had crashed, though not too hard. The spinout had taken most of the kinetic energy out of the vehicle before it had collided with a street lamp in an alley.

“Sir! Are you okay?!” Francois yelled with a tone Sebastian had never heard before. A commander’s tone.

“Yes.” Sebastian responded breathlessly, trying to understand why the room was spinning. He had no idea, but it seemed like the right thing to say. As if on autopilot, Sebastian lethargically released his seatbelt and flopped onto his side, sprawled across the entire rear seat.

KHUM-ssssssssssssssip

This time Sebastian heard the remaining glass shatter, both windshield and the rear window. Francois body-slammed his seat and broke the internal mechanisms, reclining it immediately. He pulled Sebastian down and the two men had a half-moment that stretched into eternity.

“Sir. We need to move.” Francois’ hand somehow had a knife in it and Sebastian felt the pressure of the seatbelt against his torso released abruptly, “Your door. NOW!”

The Patriarch woke up. It took a single moment to close his eyes and breathe deep. Time seemed to dilate as the hunter processed the fact that it was prey.

The lack of air had been the effect of a high-powered designated marksman’s rifle. It had created a half-moment of vacuum before the glass fully shattered and the pressure difference released. There was a sizable hole in the car’s ceiling…perhaps a deflection off the chassis?

Sebastian’s mind somehow pulled an arcane fact out of a deep memory: the hissing sound meant that the sniper had pointed the gun directly at them. Obviously, he would think in retrospect. But the deflection off the chassis meant that the user wasn’t an expert with the weapon, given that they had been travelling towards the shooter. Either that, or a certain angle was being used to conceal the shooting area in the middle of one of the world’s largest cities. Or both.

He was laying on the seat – he could feel the leather rubbing against his cheek. Francois’ order came to mind as the young man yelled it again. Sebastian raised his right knee and slammed it down against the door but was unable to force it open. He knew they didn’t have much time, the third shot would follow shortly-

The door blew open but Francois didn’t ask any questions. The two men crawled out of the car and scampered into the alleyway, leaning against the wall and panting. Francois immediately starting patting down Sebastian. He found blood, but it wasn’t Sebastian’s – the driver’s head had been blown clean off by the ricocheted bullet. In his haste, Francois didn’t even see a black glove receding into a simple silver bangle.

Satisfied that his Principal was alive, Francois tried the radio – but no luck. It was either broken, or the other car was similarly indisposed of. Both were likely.

Sebastian saw Francois’ mind spinning on overdrive, trying to calculate what to do next. It was a long-distance ambush, so normally they would establish a base of fire and exit the kill zone…but they had no backup, so a tactical egression under suppressing fire was out of the option. The definition of the kill zone was also undefined as of yet. It was early evening in the alley of a city, so they had very little light. The assailants knew where they were, so hiding wasn’t going to work. On and on the calculations went.

The Patriarch saw the way the young man responded to stress. It was a trained response. No man could train a direct response to fear, of course, but you could train how a man responded to the fear response. Deep breaths, a logical thought progression that had been hammered into his mind, familiar body ticks so he could take stock of his firearm and ammunition.

“…sir. I need to get you out of here.” Francois said after the pause, “Can you walk?”

Sebastian flexed his feet – no sharp pains, no blood, no loss of sensation, “Yes.”

“We are moving. Right fucking now.” Sebastian would later notice that the southern accent was gone. Francois’ entire communication pattern, intonation, and word choice was changed. He would later realize it was based on the unique needs of communicating in a combat situation via radio – his accent had been trained out of him for such moments. At the time, he noticed nothing but the man’s physical stress responses.

Sebastian would also later notice how different his were compared to the American’s. Francois was trained – Sebastian was self-trained. And Sebastian was self-trained for monsters that were grotesque but visible. Sebastian was trained to keep himself alive at all costs – not to protect someone else at the same time. And Sebastian was not used to guns.

Francois pulled Sebastian up and pulled out a laminated sheet of paper – safe areas as designated and protected by the Tokyo Metropolitan police. There was one nearby, Francois explained to Sebastian, but they needed to go now, and they needed to proceed unseen.

Sebastian practically hugged Francois as he navigated the quickly-darkening alleyways. Francois had only his service pistol, having abandoned the larger rifle in the car. So they moved deliberately and tactically, in a set of staccato short bursts.

Sebastian, for his part, tried to help. But his increased Quincy senses were useless – the smell of garbage so typical for a city overrode his ability to smell, his hearing was similarly drowned out by the city, and his reiatsu sense was so heightened by adrenaline that he couldn’t sense normal humans.

Run to corner. Brace against wall. Listen. Visual check. Bound across. Repeat. They navigated through the small streets of Tokyo for what felt like hours, though he would later realize it was only minutes. Each moment, each smell, each noise, was stretched into to some infinite duration. Their bodies wanted to pant but they couldn’t allow the extra noise, so as they-

A sharp bell rang out, and Francois fell to the ground. Shot by someone around the corner. It was all Sebastian could do to remain silent – he saw how the body had fallen. There was no more Francois.

Sebastian heard the subtle creaking of hard rubber against something. Boots, most likely. But then he heard…something. Whatever it was, it wasn’t Japanese. It was…Slavic?

And that meant that whoever and whatever was in the upcoming alleyway, it wasn’t a group of SP officers.

The Patriarch recklessly amassed his full will, the utmost extent of his powers. The adrenaline ensured that he had no control. Looking at Francois’ body, Sebastian was suddenly standing on top of a street lamp kitty-corner from his current direction. Hirenkyaku had ensured that he moved silently, and from his perch, he saw four figures as he looked down his arm.

There was no mercy – only a wash of royal blue that illuminated the alleyway. Had Sebastian been somewhere else, he would see how it had colored the Tokyo sky for a half-moment.

The Patriarch stood over his work, having used hirenkyaku one final time and set himself down next to their bodies. He hadn’t completely annihilated them for whatever primal reason, and so the human pincushions lay silently on the ground. They were distinctly human – their remains did not fade into the great beyond, they remained. Crimson spilled abundantly out of the new pores they had been given, staining the sidewalk under Sebastian’s feat.

His hand was shaking. It hadn’t been doing that before.

“It’s so…permanent.” Sebastian remarked.

The German fell to his knees and vomited after he spoke those words, remaining on all fours as he panted in the aftermath of a second and third heave.

Then the panic set in – he had killed them. Francois hadn’t. And at the end of the day, Francois was the one that needed to kill them.

Struggling far too much for the simple action, Sebastian got to his feet and searched desperately for something that had to be there. Well, Sebastian needed it to be there. He found it soon enough, a half-meter from Francois’ hand. The young German was on autopilot as he aimed it from Francois’ position at the first man-

Miss.

Sebastian rubbed his eyes furiously, and while he had wanted to clear his vision he ended it up muddying it with the dirt on his hands. Heart now racing (ohmygodsomethingwaswrongwhatisthispainareweunderattackagain), Sebastian summoned the entirety of his stamina and willpower to take a few deep breaths. It was almost too much to handle at first, but after a few seconds he was once again in command of his body.

“Again, Sebastian.” He told himself. The few moments of pause had given him perspective - Francois was an expert marksman...probably. One miss was all Sebastian would be able to explain. Sebastian wiped his hands on his tattered shirt, blinked the dirt out of his eyes, and looked at his mark.

A few deep breaths later, and Sebastian was able to fully concentrate. There was no hiding, there was no shock. He wasn’t allowed to be in shock. He pulled the trigger twice, hitting the first man in the head and the knee. The second man thrice, all in the torso. The third man in the neck, and the fourth man received the remainder of the bullets.

Sebastian wiped the gun and pressed it into Francois’ hand before tossing it a few yards away. He would later learn it had been a standard fireteam. Ex-military that had been hired by the Yakuza to execute an extremely well-planned hit. The planning was to ensure that it didn’t look like the Yakuza, that some European business interest had simply migrated to and poisoned the country of Japan.

Sebastian walked back next to Francois and knelt over the young boy. He raised his trembling hand and crudely closed the young man’s eyes before realizing he wasn’t allowed to do that. Even this peace couldn’t be given to Francois, lest someone wonder if the body had been tampered with. Quincies did not exist, Sebastian reminded himself repeatedly, as he walked a few paces backwards. He picked up a sharp rock and drew it roughly across his forehead, wounding himself. He then laid down.

“No stars.” The German commented. He could hear the sirens now. Perhaps the backup vehicle was still alive after all. Or perhaps a firefight in a large city would indeed be noticed. They were closing in around him. Yet the rude was not complete. he final touch…there needed to be one last stroke. The rest of the wounds were inexplicable. Sebastian looked around and found the tiniest crack in the glass of one of the buildings that formed the alleyway.

A flash of royal blue, and the building came crashing down.
 

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The aftermath was immediate.

Japan couldn’t afford to have organized crime complicate its national interests and complicate international investment, and an attack on a designed VIP under the protection of the Security Police was too flagrant an offense to not be taken seriously. Sven played his part and used the German Embassy to put intense political pressure on the country to address these “apparent and shocking lapses in security”. The reaction was to overreact, and shortly thereafter, Japan was at war with a great section of the yakuza.

It was, of course, a war driven by the police, so arrests were made instead of bodies being piled up. Japan’s military wasn’t as militarized as many other countries, making the tactical nature of the operation somewhat pedestrian. The greatest tailwind: many of the politicians now had the backbone to go after organized crime. And those that may have had inappropriate relationships were summarily forced out of office by either their peers or their rivals. Committees were formed, public debate shifted, and international expertise was brought in.

A series of officials in the National Police Agency all took potshots at each other in the press through anonymous sources and whispered rumors. It took the National Public Safety Commission a few months to lock down these strategic leaks so its investigation into the incident wasn’t compromised. Or at least, didn’t appear to be compromised. There was a wave of resignations, two key public safety officials, but the remainder stayed on, all hoping to be exonerated by the public version of the report.

Much of the public believed it was theater. Perhaps it was, but it was a grand epic of many acts and the Yakuza did suffer. While many key figures were not caught, the underlying enterprises that funded money into the yakuza conglomeration were almost annihilated. Most elaborate schemes were wiped out, leaving the Yakuza only the traditional basics: gambling, forced prostitution, and protection rackets.

Sebastian stayed out of the limelight and was able to keep his name out of the press. The government had helped with that, citing ongoing investigations. He was found by the officers, playing the part of a man who had been knocked out and was just waking up. Stumbling to his feet, he had been quickly escorted to a nearby military hospital and checked out – all fine. He had been returned immediately to Hafen, but thereafter the Security Police afforded him no longer the freedom of movement. Annika was given protected status, and the other family members were asked to remain at Hafen as much as possible – and when they left, they were shadowed by police officers.

What Sebastian did do was push for results. He pursued every official he knew and got to know the officials he didn’t know. He made calls and sent letters and dispatched Reginald. He was furious and tireless, demanding information. Polite yet firm, he insisted that he needed to see proof of forward progress – not the thugs on the street, but the kingpins. He needed the figureheads. He offered the full extend of Rothskinder’s financial information, though it was politely refused. He badgered and asked and inquired.

But in truth, Sebastian needed it to be worth it. He needed it to be worth Francois’ life. He needed it to be worth the life of all the bystanders in the building he brought down. It needed to be worth it.

Sebastian needed a name. And eventually, he got one.

“Usui Aeko” the German repeated slowly, as if it was a piece of meat meant for slow chewing.

“That’s where the investigation stopped.” The young officer of the SP said, shrugging. He was frustrated by the lack of meaningful progress, mistaking the methodological nature of his superiors for a lack of willpower, and Sebastian’s ruse had connected with him, “No, where it avoided. Other leads were followed, but this name hasn’t been spoken again since.”

“I’ll see what I can do. See if there’s anything in the financial world that we can find.” Sebastian said, “If we find anything, we’ll have to be careful about how we use it.”

“I know.” The young man said, nodding earnestly before repeating it once more, “I know.”

“Thank you, Sazama-kun.” Sebastian bowed. The young officer, startled at Sebastian’s heartfelt gratitude, bowed awkwardly and then slipped out of the room. As soon as the main door closed, another opened.

Annika strode into the sitting room, dressed in clothes for a lazy day. Sweatpants, loose-hanging t-shirt, messy bun. Normally one to dress impeccably even within the house, it was early in the morning and she had been training in the private gym. Annika had taken this period of forced solitude to increase her fitness level even more, knowing full well that any threat against Sebastian was one against her own person as well.

“A name.” Annika observed neutrally.

“Finally.” Sebastian said, absent-mindedly fiddling with the bangle around his wrist. Annika slapped it lightly as a gentle reminder – the German exhaled and let himself be scolded.

“What’s next?” she asked.

“I’ll need Reginald. We need to find this Usui Aeko, whoever they are. We need to find them before the police does.”

Annika knew from Sebastian’s inflection that he wasn’t finished. She waited for a long breath before Sebastian sprung to his feet and continued, “It’s here. All of this, for a single chance.”

“For the family.” Annika chided him.

Sebastian let the quip pass. He was worried about other things.

“Is this going to work?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Annika said, “If it doesn’t, we will adjust.

“How are your wounds?” she asked, though she knew the answer already. She had once told Sebastian to become dangerous, and now the man was honoring his pledge. Finally.

“Fine.” He said, repeatedly clenching and releasing his fist, “Fine.”

Weltschmerz?”

The hand fell to his side.

“Nothing.” He said, “Still.”

Annika sat in silence. It was the one trial she couldn’t help Sebastian with any more than she already had. He needed to be ready – mentally, physically, spiritually. Something was apparently missing, and only Sebastian could know what it is.
 

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“To be honest, I had little to do with it.” Reginald coughed lightly, “Hans was the one who found her.”

“Well, who is he?” Sebastian respected that Reginald was trying to honor is compatriot, but he had been waiting a long time to identify this weak link.

“It’s hard to say.” Reginald shrugged, “We don’t know much about her, but we understand her role.

“…how much do you know about money laundering?” Reginald had clearly struggled with how to explain whatever he was trying to say, and eventually fell upon Sebastian’s theater of expertise.

“I’m a banker, Reginald.” He replied flatly, “I know the regulations.”

“Well then, you know that the easiest way to wash dirty money is actually to dilute it.” Reginald leaned forward, “In every criminal enterprise, there is always a bank. Much like a board game. That bank’s function is not to take deposits, but to legitimize deposits.”

“Reginald, please.” Sebastian pressed, “I understand money laundering.”

“Then you know that working-level police are never able to convict them. And that there’s nothing a gangster won’t do to protect their money.” Reginald shrugged, “Usui Aeko is the local bank for the yakuza. But we’re in Tokyo, so a local bank is a sprawling enterprise.”

“…we saw signs of its size.” Sebastian looked out the window as he collected his thoughts, “But I thought it was multiple entities. The forms, the registrations, the processes…they’re fundamentally different.”

“It’s not.” Reginald shook his head, “That’s what Hans found out. There are five main people, but they all report to Usui Aeko.”

“A corporation of their own make.” Annika commented, her first words in hours.

“…corporations are about coordination.” Sebastian said to no one, leaning forward, “…perhaps their intention was to coordinate being disorganized. To avoid detection.

“And the photo?” he asked, eyes slowly meeting Reginald’s. The Englishman silently drew a manila envelope out of his briefcase and handed it to Sebastian. The German opened it unceremoniously, staring at a photo of…

“A woman.” Annika chuckled.

A woman she was, though she looked a bit like a girl. Her heritage was clearly Asian, though Sebastian didn’t want to assume Japanese simply based on her name. The photo showed dark hair, styled imperceptibly but certainly short. She was wearing streetwear of a unique fashion, as if a hip hop artist had spent too long in an army surplus store.

“You’re…she’s a woman?” Sebastian repeated, “A female money launderer for gangsters? For the yakuza?”

“You…don’t believe me?” Reginald arced an eyebrow.

“It’s not-” Sebastian stopped himself, “…the yakuza. The culture here. I…didn’t know this career path was open to women.”

“Sometimes, we open our own doors.” Annika stood and pulled the photo from Sebastian’s loose grasp, “Interesting.”

The three sat (and stood) for a few moments of silence. Sebastian’s mind was racing – could he do this? It shouldn’t matter that she was a woman but…but it did. Somehow.

Machen Sie sich gefährlich, meinen Herr.

The words echoed in his head, pulling Sebastian out of reality for a moment. He was, after all, human. And to his core, he was a man who respected and loved his family. It’s what had pushed him this far, what had driven him to this situation. He had now repeatedly called out for death, believing himself clever enough to escape at the last moment and taunt the world for it – and humans were not equipped to look into eternity more than a few times.

“Her companions?” he asked, woken suddenly by one of Reginald’s previous statements.

“We don’t have photos of them, not yet.” Reginald looked at Annika (Sebastian could only imagine her scowl), “Hans is in the city now.”

“Quincies cannot aim blindly, Reginald.” Annika chided the Englishman.

Eyes open, prey in view.” Reginald repeated, as if subconsciously. While Sebastian didn’t recognize the phrase, he recognized the sequence – so Annika had been training Reginald. It explained the shift in his posture, as if the man’s body was aching from its very depths.

“…I’d like to know who they are.” Sebastian pulled the photo back from Annika, “…but I don’t need to know.”

“Sebastian.” Annika pressed, “That’s foolish.”

“It’s timely.” Sebastian stood now, as if the gesture reinforced his argument, “There is a cost to waiting.

“Look at this photo. She’s looking out of the corner of her eye right at the photographer – and humans don’t normally look upwards. We have to assume she knows we are watching her. Which means she and her friends will be even harder to hide.

“I want to focus on finding her. The other four can be dealt with.” Sebastian looked at Annika.

“…as you wish.” She relented, nodding. Annika, for all of her annoying inflexibility, thankfully embraced pragmatism.

“Reginald, good work.” Sebastian said, putting the photograph away, “We will take it from here.”

The Englishmen knew what that mean. He nodded, asking no more questions, and hurried out of the room. The attorney-client privilege had exceptions, after all.

“Have you ever killed someone?” Annika asked, once Reginald had left the building.

Sebastian remained silent.

“Find her, Annika.”
 

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“I’ll go alone.” Sebastian said, his tone firm and final.

“This is…unwise, Sebastian.” Reginald said cautiously, caught in a difficult situation. He was a lawyer speaking to a client, he was a subject speaking to his Lord, but he was also a man speaking to his friend. And all three of those masks would have said it differently, given the chance.

“It’s not unwise.” Annika remarked, “It is his decision.”

“You said there is a brothel here, right?” Sebastian pointed to the map laid out before them and indicated a general corner of the building, “If I go alone, I can pretend to be a customer. This will at least get me in without having to fight.

“After that, I’ll use Quincy techniques to infiltrate further.” Sebastian traced his finger down a long hallway, an underground chamber that covertly connected two buildings underneath a street. His finger came to a rest at a larger chamber – Hino Aeko was there. Perhaps not in that room, but that was her residence. Secreted away within an interior part of a newly-built skyscraper, hidden from the world and accessible only via a single covert channel. The building’s blueprints blocked it off as an area where load-bearing columns ran through the center of the building…but Hans had been able to pierce that veil.

The remaining hour was spent detailing logistics and backup plans. There would be other family members nearby, ready to wage an all-out assault if their Patriarch called. Many protested, wishing to take Sebastian’s place – but it was firmly rejected by the Patriarch at first, and then Annika if they resisted.

The calculus was as cold as it was risky: no one else was Sebastian. This grand scheme, this great endeavor, was something that only Sebastian could negotiate. Though it had taken lives and carved scars into the city, these exchanges of harm were rooted firmly in business. Sebastian was threatening the lifeblood of the yakuza, their money. And he was doing it for schemes that supported his great Trial to protect and empower his family. At the end, there would be no discussion – there was only the decision, and Sebastian had made his decision.

After the meeting’s conclusion, the family buzzed into action. The others went to take their positions in coffeeshops, restaurants, libraries and bars nearby – areas where humans could linger without raising suspicion. Sebastian remained in Hafen for a while longer, fussing with a suddenly-uncooperative tie.

Her hands brushed gently against his as Annika approached from the side. They brought stillness – born not of calm, but born of tension and compression. The tie had not been the problem, but instead the German’s trembling hands.

“Have you ever watched the Olympics?” Annika asked, moving not a single muscle. They remained there, as if two beings in mid-action that would eventually turn into statues.

“Of course.” Sebastian said, his voice betraying a bit of the exasperation he felt.

“Humans yawn before they compete.” Annika’s hands exerted the smallest amount of pressure now, guiding Sebastian’s hands with the grace of an eternally patient soul, “Not because they are bored or tired…but because of the adrenaline.”

Her hands pushed his to his chest, and Sebastian was suddenly aware of his fast his heart was pumping.

“To stand on the world stage is an achievement in itself…but when you are competing, you want to win.” Annika’s hands pressed Sebastian’s ever so slightly harder into his chest, as if to solidify the contact because the German’s hands and his heart, “And in that moment, the moment before it all starts, you can lose. Those of us who reach the top do not try to fight our body, we learn to work with it.

“Deep breaths.” Her voice was lower than normal now, firm and resolute, “Close your eyes…just for a moment. Deep…long…breaths.”

After what felt like an eternity, Sebastian felt his heart rate return to only somewhat above normal.

“What if I fail?” he asked suddenly.

“Then we will adjust.” Annika’s voice remained altered, lower and calmer.

“How?”

“We will decide at that time.” Annika released the pressure she was putting on Sebastian’s hands.

“…the world stage.” He repeated her phrase.

“It is where you are now.” She placed her chin on his shoulder, “It is where we are – the moment before the podium is decided.”

Sebastian almost faltered – never before had Annika been so affectionate or supportive. Perhaps it was her training as an athlete, her familiarity with the moment before the starting gun, that suddenly gave her the empathy and the tools that she so often lacked. In this moment, Annika knew above all else, doubt was the killer. One could not win the race outside of the moment, but one could lose it – wracked by doubt or self-pity or neuroticism or anything other than dedication to the dream.

He would think about it hours later, as he sat in the subway. In order to maintain his disguise, Sebastian couldn’t be driven to the location. He swayed as he walked, and the peons mistook his doubt for a drug-induced high and let him in without a word. Sebastian’s hands shook, so half-drunk on the doubt that plagued him he struggled to hand money to a bouncer. He was led a few turns down a dark hallway and was brought to a windowless door, opened for him by the bouncer – and closed behind him by that same man.

“Well, that explains why they brought you to me.” It was a southern drawl – one that reminded Sebastian of Francois. It snapped him awake, and the German perceived his surroundings for the first time.

She had no relation to Francois, but the accent’s similarly was eerie. Of course, the United States was a big country with big states, it wasn’t impossible that two people from a similar area both lived in Japan. It was simply…remarkable.

As was she – she was Caucasian. Sebastian blinked a few moments.

“I either get the ones lookin’ fer Barbie.” She said through a cigarette, “Or ones like you.”

“Like me?” Sebastian blinked.

“First time.” She shrugged.

Sebastian took a deep breath as he found himself beset upon by memories of Francois’ death. The smell of dirt, dust, oil, and blood. And sweat. His clothes had stuck to him that night, as he and his bodyguard had been running through Tokyo.

And he was sweating now.

She turned away to ash her cigarette and he seized the opportunity – he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, peeled back a thin plastic coating, and grabbed her from behind. She struggled for a moment before falling onto the bed, after which Sebastian pulled a small vial of translucent liquid out of a hidden pocket and poured it up her nose.

Of course it seems inhumane, Sebastian. But if we are too gentle with those uninvolved, the other say may think they are in fact, involved. Savages do not recognize civility…they see only conspiracy and weakness.

Annika’s words rang in his head as he gently laid the young woman down onto the bed, pulling a pillow underneath her head. A last act of decency before he perpetuated this system further.

Closing his eyes, Sebastian took a moment of deep breathing to blend out the distant thumps of bass from the club upstairs. They were in the basement now, he recalled. The fogginess of his experience the past few minutes faded slightly as the Patriarch’s senses were brought to bear. Once more, Sebastian became the hunter.

He moved silently and efficiently – and unseen. Using hirenkyaku to bound distances in the blink of an eye, using Herrschaft to destroy any cameras and to short-circuit lightbulbs, Sebastian furthered his infiltration within a matter of moments. It would not be invisible, of course, so Sebastian flipped open the burner phone in his pocket and sent a single text message: bereit. Moments later, the club’s fire alarm upstairs blared.

They would know something was happening. But humans cannot guard against something they do not understand. So Sebastian continued his infiltration, opposed by those too naïve to understand what he was doing. A simple distraction, a flicker of the lights, and his supernatural abilities allowed him to pass unimpeded.

Only in the fact of a hard barrier did Sebastian resort to force. Two armed guards standing in front of what was a comically oversized steel door, clearly a safe door that had been repurposed. Each of the fell to an arrow before Sebastian strode forward. No cameras – that meant he was indeed where he wanted to be.

In the rooms where these deals were made, cameras would be nowhere to be seen.

Sebastian’s body tingled as he summoned a considerable amount of his strength and pointed his left finger forward. He enjoyed the moment as a familiar black glove manifested around his wrist and an ethereal bow hummed to life.

A moment later, and the door was launched forward by an explosion. Sebastian quickly recalled his bow and pinged the room with his sense for any reiatsu or living beings – a minimal response. And no significant movement. As he strode in, Sebastian had expected to find a small army on the other side of the door…but was greeted by emptiness.

Well, almost emptiness.

There, sitting in a two-dollar foldable chair with her feet resting on the table in front of her, was a solitary figure.

Sebastian had found his prey.

“It’s not often I get a visitor. Even less so I see a new face.”

She had shoulder-length black hair but it was pulled into some type of haphazard style whose only intention was to keep it out of her face. A few bobby pins on each side ensured his vision was unimpeded, showing a face that belied a deep and long Japanese heritage…though stained by a bit of the foreign. She wore beaten-up combat boots and camouflage capris, a white tank-top underneath a scarlet red jacket.

Above all, she seemed unconcerned.

Though she had a pistol on the table, she made no move to grab it. Instead, she continued eating the rice bowl grasped firmly in her hand. And she continued to do so, even after Sebastian had walked into the room. She didn’t appear to give Sebastian a deep or in-depth inspection, instead focusing on the food in front of her.

It was a ludicrous scene, to be sure. Sebastian had literally just blown in a safe door using no visible tools, had walked into a room accompanied by dust and a literally supernatural explosion, and the young woman remained unmoved. She was so unperturbed, that Sebastian was, in turn, perturbed. They regarded each other for a moment as the safe door finally came to a rest, creaking a final time before it fell down onto the ground.

She set the rice down and stood up – her height was unimpressive, a full three heads shorter than Sebastian – before she sized up the German. Sebastian was able to see the tattoos now – all down her left arm, some by the edge of her right eye, and a scar above her left eyebrow.

“So” she said, “what do you want, Visitor-san?”

“I want to finance you.” Sebastian said, “And the Yakuza.”

She took it in turn, though this was clearly more surprising than Sebastian’s entrance. She frowned and looked at Sebastian’s wrinkled suit, surely piecing together how he had gotten into the club. Perhaps piecing together more.

“Should I know you?” she asked suddenly.

“Not you. But your compatriots.” Sebastian returned, “I’m the reason everything has gone to hell for you.”

“Well, not me personally.” She brushed Sebastian’s statement off, clearly uninterested in him establishing his supremacy, “I guess you’re a troublemaker.”

“I’m a potential business partner.” He said, “And I’m hoping you are open for business.”

“I’m always open for business.” She said with a fake smile, “So then, let’s talk.”

She pulled up another cheap folding chair and offered it to Sebastian, brushing a bit (but not all) of the dirt off. Sebastian regarded it for a moment and sat down.

“Not afraid of the dirt.” She remarked.

“No I’m not, Usui Aeko.” He responded, as if levelling a charge against someone in court.

Her eyes flickered at this, and she let her mouth curl into a smile, “Well, then you know my associates.”

She gestured behind Sebastian, where four others now stood.

“Nobuatsu, Kenji, Denbe, and Han.” She said, gesturing to each in turn, “My current business partners. Your competition.”

“Not competition.” Sebastian raised a hand, “I think it could be complementary.”

He took a moment to survey each for a moment while he had the chance, and to size them up. They were normal humans, all his senses told him. Nobuatsu was a tall, slender woman with platinum blonde hair down to her waist. Kenjiro was clearly the most excitable by how hard he was trying to look uninterested, standing with his arms crossed and with his curly ear-length hair artfully covering up half of his face. Denbe was a brute of a man and wore the tightest clothes, but had kind eyes and a bald head. Finally, Han was a female in her late twenties literally wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket inside – and chewing gum loudly.

“You all help wash money for various parties in the city.” Sebastian spoke to all five of them now, “I want to help you.”

“Why would a troublemaker want to help us?” Aeko asked, feigning curiosity.

“Because he’s a narc.” Han popped a bubble and then spit her gum out, clearly looking at the safe door that Sebastian had blown in.

“No he’s not.” Nobuatsu laughed emotionlessly, “He’s just lost.

“Aren’t you, Sebastian Erdeschalk?”

Sebastian blinked and slowly pivoted his gaze, which had been on Denbe, to Aeko.

“You do know me.” Sebastian remarked to her, very much wondering if he had misinterpreted the situation. But how could he have? They were literally humans – and he was a Quincy. None of them were visibly armed, none of them betrayed the body language of someone with a hidden gun, none of them could…well, none of them could do what he could do.

“Don’t be flattered.” Nobuatsu said, “I know everyone.”

“And that means I know everyone.” Aeko smiled without even the smallest hint of sincerity, “So, why would a troublemaker want to help us?”

“You want things to go back the way they were. You want things to be better. I can make that happen.” Sebastian assumed a more upright body posture as he entered negotiation mode, “I only require a small fee.”

“You know, I was told once, that negotiations are twice as difficult as people think. Most people focus on ‘yes’, but the true masters focus on the ‘yes’ and the ‘how’.” Aeko pointed a finger at Sebastian, “And your fee sounds like a problem for ‘how’ this is all going to work.

“I imagine you’re going to tell me about new ways to legitimately launder money through subsidiaries and through certain types of cash-heavy industries. You’ll say that your connections in the global banking world will help us – and they will. But in order to help us, we’ll have to move thirty percent more money. And that’s too much for what you will propose to me.”

“…is that what the rest of them tell you?” Sebastian laughed, “If you know who I am, you know who I work for. And…I’m guessing, that’s why you haven’t killed me already. Because you’re curious.”

“Of course. It is my profession to be curious – as long as I am careful, first and foremost.” Aeko stood up now, and Sebastian followed suit, “So that means this is a conversation we can’t have here. And no, don’t worry, you aren’t being abducted. You will follow us.”

“Follow?” Sebastian’s skepticism was clear.

“Of course.” Aeko tilted her head to the side, “Someone like you should know how to use hirenkyaku.”

He blinked, and they were gone.
 

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“…you’re a Quincy.” The words fell out of Sebastian’s mouth – he couldn’t help it. How had he not noticed it before? With hindsight’s benefit, Sebastian suddenly felt the full scope of the woman’s powers, “…you’re all…”

There had suddenly been a weight to her. A great weight. It had guided him as he had followed her at impossible speeds to an abandoned warehouse, built from concrete and seemingly on the outskirts of the city. As he had landed, the other four had waved him into an interior room. It was long and had a high ceiling, perhaps earlier the site of a series of machines, with a noisy ventilation system that still dutifully did its work.

“…that’s a dangerous word.” Aeko raised her chin from the other side of the room, revealing another half-inch of an intricate neck tattoo, “It is a curse.”

“How so?” Sebastian’s mind was wiped clean by this revelation and he could only react. All of his plans, all of his ambitions, they were all erased by a new one: help. To help this Quincy.

“You only know the word if you possess the gift. And if you possess the gift, you are hunted. So you must, in turn, hunt.” She continued, “It is a life of hunting. The life of a carnivore.”

The life of a carnivore Sebastian reflected…it was an elegant phrasing. To always be in contest, to always be surviving, to take the lives of others to ensure one’s own continued existence. Collaboration was possible but targeted. Tribes were formed out of necessity, and because otherwise, life was lonely.

“Join me.” Sebastian said, his eyes glimmering with earnest care, “We can take you in. You and your friends. We can provide food, shelter. I’d normally say training, but…”

“You are part of a family?” she asked skeptically, standing up slowly.

“I have a family.” He stressed, “Sebastian Erdeschalk. I’m the Patriarch of the Erdeschalk family.”

“The Erdeschalks…” she blinked, “I know this name.”

“It’s hard to explain. We hid from history and withdrew from the Quincies…we integrated into the modern world.

“The Patriarchs, they are all dead.” She shook her head, “There’s no way.”

“I…was not born to be Patriarch.” He said, breathing deeply, “But I am the eldest son. I have become the Patriarch.”

“The eldest son…” Aeko repeated, the words coming out of her mouth awkwardly. There was something there…

“Your name-”

“Usui? What about it?”

“No.” Sebastian shook his head, “Your real name. The one you gave up. Hino-

“An old name.” Aeko interjected again, raising a hand, “Not my name.”

“It’s an old name. An old family. A former noble house of Japan.” Sebastian couldn’t help himself – he leaned forward, gesturing to Aeko with an open palm, “This. You were born for this. You were born to lead Quincies.

“With your power and your name, we could consolidate the native Japanese Quincies. Organize them. Protect them and train them. With my resources, it would take only a matter of years. I can return to Europe and we, together, can begin the process of rebuilding the Quincy.”

Aeko looked at Sebastian for a long time before slowly standing up – the threat in her posture was gone, though she still moved deliberately.

“If I did this,” she started to walk down the long table towards Sebastian, “what would you need from me?’

“Your name. Your face. Your history.” Sebastian stood up slowly as well, “I’d need you to join my family, unofficially. I’d need your advice. And I’d need money from the yakuza.”

“Money?” Aeko raised an eyebrow.

“This whole strategy…our family is large. My resources are considerable…but they aren’t infinite. There are many of us out there that need shelter and protection.”

“You need me. You need money.” Aeko was now only a half-meter way from Sebastian, looking up at the German, “You will protect my people?”

“Yes.” Sebastian returned her gaze, standing proud. The two looked for a long moment into the others’ eyes, and Aeko reached out a hand. The German’s face broke out into an easy smile and-

Amai na, Erdeschalk-dono.“​

Distaste. It had been distaste that flavored her words, when Aeko has repeated “the eldest son”.

Sebastian didn’t register the movement but he felt the reishi around him be seized by an alien force. A moment later he was skidding backwards, his shoes finding no traction against the concrete floor. Blood streamed out of his nose and he could only see from his right eye, but the flare of dark red was enough for him to register the second threat.

His glove was fully manifested in a moment and he was able to push back the wave of energy through raw force – summoning the entirety of his powers, Sebastian threw as much energy was he could forward to annihilate whatever technique was coming at him. There was no whisper of any color in the dark night, but also no sign of Aeko. With his full strength now marshalled, the Quincy’s eyes and senses looked for the glowing red once more-

He was forced to the ground as his knee was kicked out, so he turned around into a type of half-crouch to-…receive the follow-up strike to his nose. Screaming in agony, Sebastian braced himself against his front foot and lunged forward, but he was twisted in midair and thrown against the ground. He found his breath after a half-moment of panicked breath, just in time to see Aeko’s fist descending for a strike that would surely break his entire ribcage.

Using hirenkyaku, Sebastian threw himself “upwards” along the ground. He crashed into Aeko’s footing and knocked her over, but most importantly he put distance between himself and the young woman. From his position laying on the ground, Sebastian’s now-manifested fired three arrows and used Herrschaft to spawn others from obtuse angles. Aeko deftly threw herself upwards with hirenkyaku, using her high ground to assault Sebastian with an arrow the size of which the Patriarch had never seen before.

It was all Sebastian could do to dodge – he hurled his body to the side using hirenkyaku and landed haphazardly. Comfort was now a secondary concern His eyes searched frantically for Aeko and shot a series of suppressing arrows through the entirety of the room before seeing the red glow – from behind him.

His left shoulder was blown apart by a shaft of crimson and he felt the impact of multiple physical blows on his body. The German’s torso became a ragdoll that endured further punishment before it was finally thrown against a wall, fixated against it by a Quincy arrow that Sebastian watched Aeko push by hand into the hole in his left shoulder.

Aeko’s punishment continued, though it was no longer spiritual. The young woman’s martial arts training would have impressed the German if he had been able comprehend what was happening, but he was long past that point. Eventually the young woman stood tall over the German and she spat on the ground.

“Weakness.” Her disgust was apparent in every word, “This is what we were given. We...hey!”

Aeko stomped onto Sebastian’s left thigh, and the adrenaline brought him back to life. Gasping for air and struggling to understand what it meant to be conscious, Sebastian’s wild eyes attempted to process the world in front of him.

“I was taught a word. ‘Primogeniture’. When the eldest son reigns after the father.” Aeko shook her head, “Meritless. It gave us nothing…it gave us weakness.

“I didn’t leave the Hino family. We were cast out. A long time ago” Aeko leaned in, “Cast out by people like you. By those born into the position to make decisions.”

“…you…” Sebastian gulped, not quite present, “…you are…”

“I am your reckoning.” Aeko finished his sentence coldly.

“…you hunt…” Sebastian’s eyes were clearer now, adrenaline clearing the mist of confusion, “…your techniques…hand to hand combat…Hollows don’t…”

Aeko waited patiently as Sebastian spoke. Perhaps it was a corrupted form of the respect martial artists show to their foes, or perhaps she was enjoying the literal image of a bloodied patriarchy. She wasn’t bruised, was barely dirtied, had stopped perspiring.

“…you hunt Quincies.” Sebastian finished, the German now firmly anchored in reality. Aeko’s eyes glimmered in recognition – this whole time, he had been replaying their exchange in his head.

“I know…who you are…” Sebastian continued, wheezing.

“I’m not a Quincy, dear Erdeschalk.” The fake sincerity was apparent, though her sentence ended boldly and proudly, “I am a Renegade.”

“No.” Sebastian shook his head, “You are…murderer.”

Aeko scowled at this.

“…it’s fine…” Sebastian laughed suddenly, inexplicably, “…Annika…will be a good Queen.”

Confused by Sebastian’s statement, she didn’t see his right hand grasp the glove on his left wrist.

“They told me…only for that one moment…” he laughed, smiling, “…Emmerich and Lorelei…they told me…only if I was already dead…they told me…only for the family.

Sie haben es mir gesagt…alles, für die Familie…und nur, für die Familie.“

krt


It took all of his strength, it took Ransou Tengai, and it took the full measure of his focus, but Sebastian’s small finger was finally able to pull. Pull hard enough against the one fin. Pull hard enough for the world to get brighter. Pull hard enough for the air to get thicker. Pull hard enough for his will to manifest itself in a way beyond comprehension.

Pull hard enough to break his Sanrei glove.
 

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