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Mwaha! ROA has an actual project manager--and Marshal has gotten a coder on board. Hopefully this means that I will soon no longer be embarrassed to give out the link for the ROA site.

Still bummed about Steamcom...slight hope I might still make it, but chances are slim.

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I have noticed, within myself, a recently developed, or at least recently realized disturbing reading habit. My brain refuses to finish books. I will read a book up until the last ten or twenty pages and stop. I will then conceive of every excuse possible as to the reason why I cannot finish the book--or in the case of a series of books, I will not finish the last book in the series.  Even if it's a book I've read before!  What is this about!?  And yet--I can't do it.  I never finished Jack Maggs, I stopped ten pages from the end. It's my favorite book of all time, I've read and re-read it and I have never finished it.  I can't bring myself to finish the last book in the Temeraire series, I can't finish Cabal, I can't even finish (actual complete) fanfics I've been reading for years!

How did I not realize before that this was happening? And how the hell do I get over it?  I assume it's some subconcious thing about not wanting a good story to end, but I'm doing it with books that are utter shite as well.  ARGH! I'm so frustrated with myself and yet, I feel I can do nothing about it!
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Originally uploaded by von Karsh
Underbridge Dream--one of my final photos from Seattle.

Took this on a walk to the bus stop after spending a pleasant and enlightening evening with Molly at Underbridge Studio. Many other interesting photos from this walk were taken, but you probably won't see those.
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This is a test post from flickr, a fancy photo sharing thing.
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Yes, I realize Deathmask is all out of order now, but it doesn't matter! I'm deleting it from LJ (leaving the illos up) since I've moved it over to FFNET, where it can be posted all in order without fancy trickery and the inability to actually post anything to my LJ itself.
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Nearly two hours had passed by the time the Opera Ghost was on his way back to his home. Without the talent of his ventriloquist's voice, procuring the meal had been a little more difficult than he'd anticipated, and he had eventually left the scene feeling a bit sullen, having taken both the food and a basket to carry it in like a common thief. Not that the items wouldn't have been purloined anyway, but had he his voice, it would have been more a game. Entertaining for both himself and his hapless victims. He certainly had the means to purchase a fine meal and the means to convey it better, but a man in a mask spending a good deal of money was bound to draw unwanted attention. After all, he was still rumored about in the opera house and in the streets, even if assumed disappeared or dead.

He was in a rather foul mood as he made his way back through the catacombs and to the lake, but the motion of poling through the water, the stark, repetitive echo of the boat gliding forward, resting, moving again and his own somewhat ragged breathing calmed him. His humour improved at the thought of a somewhat pleasant dinner spent in fairly tolerable company—perhaps another game of chess; he wouldn't ruin it this time. When he alighted on the bank before his house and plucked the heavy basket of food from it's place at the bow, his step was light and his mind clear. A moment later he was inside, hanging his hat and cloak and turning his eyes naturally to where he'd left his guest on the divan. The smiling face that greeted him brought the basket to the floor, some of it's contents spilling out—something inside breaking with a muted, tinkling crunch. Erique turned away, the dropped meal forgotten, leather creaking at his sides as his painfully thin hands clenched into more painful fists. The beauty of the face had been singularly devastating, the familiar orangeish eyes staring out from a pale face of startling planes and angles, high rosy cheeks flexed up from the smile of full, ruddy lips and the healthy glow of the light of the room reflecting from a clear forehead above a long, straight nose and the whole affair topped with that already lovely golden hair. It knocked the breath from him and he'd had to turn away, now one hand rising up to clutch at his chest as he felt his guest rise from his seat and approach, stopping just short of him, he could hear Death bending to pick up the dropped dinner.

Startled you, have I? Don't worry about this, I'm sure it's still fine.” The basket came into Erique's peripheral field of vision. “See? All taken care of. What did you bring—I'm eager to taste.” The voice that accompanied that face held a note of rich warmth, but he could not say weather it belonged to a man or a woman—it was the same voice, of course, that he had been hearing since the creature had first come to him, but now it was all too human, too real. Too beautiful. Erique mastered his trembling and shot his hand out to snatch the basket back to himself, refusing still to turn. The hand that pressed gently to his shoulder was mercifully still made only of bone. He could bear it's touch, but only just, and those lips came too close to his ear, making him flinch away.

Come now, Erique—I've cleared the table. I found your wince cellar as well, but I thought the choice there be best left to you. I'm hungry, let us eat now.”

The ghost wrenched his shoulder from the angel's grasp and growled out a guttural, torn protest. “No! I don't—Erique does not like this! How dare you come into his home with that face—you continue to mock Erique, you show him a kindness and then this?” He felt the angel back away from him a pace and his anger was replaced with hurt again.

The longer I remain here, Erique, the more my appearance is bound to change—to suit you. I had not realized, but should have. Forgive me. Please, bring the food to the table.”

How could he forgive such a treachery, such a cruel torture, to show him a face so much like his own, but one with the ability to become normal—and more than that, truly exquisite. He remained where he was, the basket clutched to his chest like a shield, his eyes shut tight against the image. When he heard the flare of a match and the draw of Death's breath, his imagination snatched hold and burned the picture of that beautiful mouth wrapped loosely around the little smoke stick into his eyelids, making him feel both exultant and sick. He steeled himself and turned to stride to the the little table that had held their failed game of chess earlier, and nearly dropped the basket again in relief when the face that greeted him was only the familiar visage of the thin, pale yellowish skin laid smooth over the skull. Just another pace away. The tightness in his chess loosened and he held out the basket for his guest to take, rasping a quiet thank you.

They dined under the false window in Erique's parlor, at the table where the chess game had taken place earlier that afternoon, the board and its pieces had been temporarily relocated to the flat cushion of the divan, the “wounded” cat knight set aside atop the piano. While his guest seemed to enjoy the meal, which had long since grown cold, Erique simply sat and waited in silence. Apart from his general aversion to food, to eat would mean having to remove or at least raise up the mask. When he sipped at his wine, he turned completely away to do so, twice drawing looks from his companion that might have been pity—or worse, hurt. Once it had downed a significant portion of cold chicken, mushrooms and vegetables, Death finally sat back in its chair, the long legs stretched out, ankles crossed, and sipped the wine, filling their not uncomfortable silence with the click and cling of bone fingers on fine crystal. Erique found the light ringing rather pleasing and his orangeish eyes glazed for a moment as his brain composed an impromptu melody to accompany the random noise, the challenge of changing the tune in his head to keep up with the altering dissonance lulled him. It was a moment before he noticed that his guest had leaned forward and was speaking to him. He grunted a questioning response, the music gone from his mind.

“I said, why've you bothered fixing a window to a blank wall? It certainly can't be for the view.” The thin creature twisted and curled its frighteningly flexible hands into the provided napkin, Erique's eyes mirrored in it's sockets turned to look with curiosity upon the framed plate of glass affixed to the wall, only blackness showing behind it. Erique answered raggedly, turning again to take drink and soothe his pained voice “A house ought to have windows...” He paused to face his companion again and continued uncertainly “And...this one offers quite a view—yes. Of the sunset.”

“Does it, indeed?” The slight curve to the creature's cupid-bow lips belied its amusement, and there was a note of patronizing humor in the angel's soft voice. The host leaned forward slightly, over the table, and indicated the “view” with an open palm. “Oh yes, monsieur, and more. Why, you can see all the way to Marseilles through this window. If you listen, you will hear the ocean and the gulls...” he restrained a cough, killing it in his chest painfully before it ruined the illusion, and continued, as it was clear his guest did not yet believe. “Look closely, monsieur, you will see the far off cliffs, and the bright blue ocean—go on, look if you do not believe me.” Death gave a chuckle and turned its yellow orange gaze to the window, curling one hand around its wineglass with a series of soft clicks. As it watched, the window began to lighten a bit, and indeed, the soft rolling of the ocean could be distinguished—the distant cry of a sea bird, waves breaking against the cliffs. Death arched it's smooth brows in amusement as the ocean slowly came into view, a long way off, as if they themselves were upon an impossibly tall cliff, looking down at the scene. He could see the distant disc of the sun, blazing red gold and spilling brilliant hues across the sky, lighting the ocean in hazy purples and blues. His lips curled into a more genuine smile, and Erique sat back in his chair—of course, he had not expected an angel of all beings to be overly impressed with the display, but he seemed pleased. The sun was setting slowly, the colors splashed across the ocean and sky and painting the city shifting and darkening gradually, the sounds of the sea fading with the light as Death sat absorbed in the spectacle, his chin propped up on one boned hand.

Erique frowned behind the mask as the scene went silent, having caught the shifting of thought in his mind. Up until that moment, his guest had been a creature, a thing—it. He shuddered and clenched his fists on the table, a sudden curl of self-loathing rising up in his chest. Of course, how could he have been so callous in his thoughts—how could he have been just like everyone else in this regard! To degrade the being who had showed him nothing but kindness and patience to an it. He—Erique--at least deserved the heartless description, he was indeed a foul thing to he shunned away, to be feared and hated and cursed as unnatural! He stood suddenly, the chair scraping on the bare floor as he rose. “Erique must go. He has business to attend to.” The extra strain sounded even through his damaged voice, and his guest rose as well, turning away from the black window, the pleasant smile slacking away from his pretty lips as the smooth brow came together in confusion. “But you haven't eaten, Erique. You must eat something. And hadn't you fancied another game?” he spread his large, long hand toward the sofa where the chessboard waited. A growl rose from the Opera Ghost's throat, but it brought up a cough which he could not suppress. When Death moved to help steady him, he backed away and waived the man—the man—off, struggling to get his words out through the fit. “No! No person must....ever touch Erique again! Not...not after...” he gasped for air as the fit passed and took another step backward. “not after her.” His hands flew up to the mask, long, thin fingers clutching into the hard leather of the black thing, and it looked for a moment as if he might tear the barrier away from his face before they fell to his sides again, looking more bloodless than they usually did. Death remained where he was, straightening his posture, possibly to signal that he would not advance on his host any further. “Very well, my child. But please, sit, and eat something. I will turn away so that you may enjoy your dinner in private.” His eyes made a quick sweep over the room and settled on the piano. If he sat there, his back would be to Erique, and Erique's to him. “May I?” The angel nodded toward the instrument and when the black mask moved once in the barest nod, he moved away. Erique did not move from his place until he heard the click of those impossible fingers over the ivory of the keys. The intruding digits did not depress, simply floated lightly over the keys, and he knew that Death would not be so rude as to play the instrument without his permission. After another moment, the Phantom moved back to his chair and sat, carefully pushing the mask up enough so that he could eat the few meager scraps he had put unthinkingly onto his own plate at the start of the meal.

When he had taken all that he could stomach—even he would have admitted it was very little—he rose silently, pulling the mask back into place and making certain the binds were secure under the wig, and approached his guest, who still sat, though now his fingers were engaged in the pages of a manuscript he had found at the piano rather than with the keys. After a moment, he must have sensed his host behind him, for he closed the music and straightened, the harsh curve and bone ridge of his spine becoming less prominent through the silken material at the backing of his vest. He wondered if his own back looked so grotesque. “Are you ready for me to turn around, now, Erique?”

The courtesy of the simple statement crushed down upon his chest, and he again felt a wave of disgust at himself for ever thinking this being a mere thing. He nodded in answer, and felt his face heat as he realized his guest could not see the action, and so he croaked out something affirmative, and then quickly turned away himself, his head bowed, finding with a sudden panic that he could not face those mirror eyes, or the smile he could sense curved upon the lips which so mocked his own in their perfection upon that broken face. “I should not...” his torn voice broke down into a dark and tattered chuckle and he drew himself up again, half turning his masked face to his guest. “Erique has reacted to your beauty in the same manner in which his own ugliness has been so often received. You must forgive him for forcing you to wear such similar hideousness...he has no right to demand this from you.” The light touch at his shoulder was not becoming any more familiar, and he tensed under the hard fingers, feeling them burn him through his many layers.

“How shall I change my face to cause you the least offense or hurt? Would you prefer that I also wore a mask, my child? “

“No!” The Ghost rounded quickly and fixed his yellow gaze fiercely upon the gentle visage of his companion. Anyone else would have wilted under that shadow. “I would never force you to cover yourself. Never.” His vehemence faded with the strength of his damaged voice and he took a small step back, removing himself from the reach of those infuriating hands. “I will play for you, now.” His drawn breath wheezed through his chest, but his gaze remained intense, commanding the man before him to move out of the way so that he might take his place upon the piano bench. Death inclined his head and stepped around the masked man, giving him a wide berth as he made his way to the divan to sit and smoke and listen.

After a couple of pieces, the angel got up to clear the table, simply replacing everything with the broken plate in the basket and putting it aside. He reset the chess game, and left the pair of wineglasses and the bottle where they were on the table, all of this done as quietly as could be managed before moving to stand at Erique's shoulder at the piano to wait quietly while he finished this last refrain. When Erique lifted his hands from the keys and turned, he held the missing chess piece in his palm, his long fingers curling and loosing around it in slow pulses. His guest smiled down at him and held out his hand. “You may continue playing, if that is your wish. I enjoy listening. The chess was merely a suggestion.” Erique placed the knight into Death's bony grip and sighed raggedly, pressing his palm to the cool forehead of the black mask. “Perhaps tomorrow—for both. I find I am very tired.” He looked up sharply, the slight glow of his eyes narrowing. “Does this mean that it is nearly time?” Death had turned to walk to the table and rejoin the piece with its brothers and sat himself now on the divan with a chuckle. “It means that you are tired, Erique.”

“I have never been tired; I hardly sleep, I have no time for it.” But his tired gaze drifted to the bedding that had been folded nearly over the arm of the divan earlier in the day. Death followed the path of his eyes and smiled. “Ah. I will see to it that you wake up again, dear boy. You have my promise of two weeks, remember. You are still ill, the rest will do you well—if you intend to live a little while longer.” Erique nodded stiffly. The angel stood and shook open the blanket, laying it out over the sofa and tucking the pillow against the arm and straightened, spreading his surreal hand toward the cushions. Erique was already less than a pace from him, and exhausted. Starving. Death canted his head a bit and swung the open arm from gesture to offer. The Ghost doubled and fell against him with a grateful sigh, bent awkwardly so that he could rest his forehead lightly against a lean velar shoulder. But when Death moved suddenly away from him he gave a thin, injured cry and clenched his hands at his sides to keep himself from reaching out. Of course he had misinterpreted his guest's actions!

His body swayed dangerously with the support gone, and he kept his eyes clenched tight, his masked face toward the floor. One hand flew up to clutch at his chest. “Please...” he wavered “Please forgive Erique his beastly conduct.” His whisper sounded harsh and pathetic in his ears, and was met with soft laughter, causing the hand at the front of his suit to clench so hard that he could feel his long nails digging into his poor parchment flesh. “Erique, you do yourself so much injury by not opening your eyes. Just come here, boy.” He swallowed thickly and lifted his head enough to see his companion was seated longwise on the divan with his back pushed up against the joint of the arm and the back of the sofa and his legs stretched out on the cushions, one long slender arm curled along the top edge of the sofa, the other on the armrest, under the situated pillow. Erique approached cautiously and his guest merely smiled at him with his perfect lips, making no move to block his path or vacate the sofa. When had anyone been so patient with him? After another moment he forced his body to move and perch on the very edge of the sofa, waiting. When Death did not move, he shivered and gave a cough and stretched out as much as his height would allow, lowering his head onto the pillow and was gently shifted over so that his masked face ended up cradled against the bony chest. He felt the skeletal hand secure about his own far shoulder and he curled his arms up against his chest, turning into the embrace, knowing that he trembled as he closed his eyes. A few silent moments passed, and the second hand came down from the back of the sofa and pushed into his wig.

“My poor child. If I could have come to you sooner to offer you this small comfort, I would have. Will you allow me to remove this? --only this, I promise.” He felt the gentle tug on his wig and lifted his head enough that it might be eased away. The air was cool against his scalp, and his mask remained securely buckled in place. The blanket was pulled up over him. The hand came back, gentle, warm hard fingertips smoothed back the short and brittle hair that was his own before the bones curled carefully around the back of his skull and drew him close again. Death's chest did not rise and fall with breath, there was no heart beating within the ribcage, so easily felt under the thin shirt and vest, but he was warm and the stillness of him was comforting. Erique slept deeply.

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And alone he awoke, stiff and sore from his night on the cramped sofa; it seemed his bones would be forever bent and bowed as he stood and tried to stretch them out. He must have fallen asleep quite early, and slept quite late as the fire was out. She would have found it too chill to leave her room, but he felt nothing against the cold. Still, he bent himself over the hearth and tended to the coals, adjusted the gas, then went to the piano and sat. Something warm and sharp and passing tickled the back of his neck but was gone in an instant, leaving him with a terrible ache in his chest. Erique found he could not bring himself to play anything sensible and simply depressed the keys randomly with no passion or direction for several long minutes before standing again and turning away. He had missed something last night. His dreams were telling him something—yes, it was time to die, that's what he had been up to before he somehow fell prey to queer dreams. But how to proceed now? Recollection of his original intent made him shudder again at the though of being on display for the passing pedestrians on the street. Poison would perhaps be a viable option, but as he had become resistant to the effects of so many, it would be difficult to judge a proper dosage, and too little of something could have frightful effects. As he contemplated, he trudged to his room and stripped himself, gathered a set of clean, crisp blacks and left his house to bathe in the icy lake. Ah—drowning, perhaps. It had been good enough for a Changy, after all!

He could not get his lungs to hold in the water. His body betrayed him on four attempts; panic set into his limbs, and without his accord, they brought him back to the surface again and again to sputter and choke on the foul water, rasp out curses, and splash about like a child throwing a tantrum. Erique finally realized that perhaps drowning was not for him—he could not join Christine in this manner either. When the corpse hauled himself onto the bank, wheezing and retching, he was immediately met with a long, warm hand curling under his arm, pulling him to his feet, and draping him modestly with the towel he'd intended not to have to use. The moment he was touched he regained his wits, turned sharply away, and bent hastily to replace the mask, clutching the towel over his pathetic frame in chilled, numb, white hands and remaining where he was, hunched on the ground with the towel stretched over the ridge of his back, which he kept to his guest.

Not as easy as you thought it'd be, hm?”

Erique turned his upper body enough to glare up at the creature. “It is impossible to drown oneself!” He argued—it certainly couldn't be his own failing. His body had betrayed him.

Death flicked its cigarette into the lake, the little light going out with the faintest hiss, and gave its light, musical laugh. “Oh, and I suppose you would know better than I? Self-drowning is never an easy affair, but only impossible if one's heart does not yet wish to seize in one's chest. Get dressed; you look ridiculous down there, huddled like a rat in a wet skin.”

Erique growled at the creature and pulled the neatly-folded pile of his clothing against his chest, which still heaved with his efforts to gain breath, trying desperately to keep his modesty hidden from the eyes of the Dead. “I would appreciate it if you would leave!”

Death raised its bony hands in petition and cocked its head sharply to one side, looking every bit like Saint Sebastian ready to accept his arrows. “I don't think that's what you want at all, but I will turn around so that you may dress yourself.” And it did, boots crunching on the crumbled mortar and dust. A momentary flare signaled the lighting of another cigarette—did it never run out of those damnable things? Erique struggled to cover his hideousness quickly and then stood, having regained his dignity, and turned to go into the house. He gave no word but left the door open after himself so that his guest might follow.

Tiny Persian cats clicked and skittered across the table and floor, their respective roles—those of marble chess pieces—had been interrupted when the board was upset. Pale, yellow hands clenched on either side of the white mask, and a moment later a breath was huffed out behind it with the force of the wearer's frustrations. “I've ruined the game now, haven't I,” Erique muttered miserably—his first real game of chess with an opponent other than himself and he'd sent the board flipping off the table with in a moment of childish rage at not having seen his competitor's last move before it had been made. He suspected Death would now not care to keep his company, such as it was. What a strange thing to suspect—especially for him.

The creature across the table sat in the same relaxed position it had been in the entire game, sleeves rolled up over the pale yellow-white bone of its forearms, cigarette clutched in the rough fingers of the right hand above where its elbow rested on the table and the other hand curled casually over its thin hip. “I think you've broken your knight's ear. And they are such lovely pieces—I'm sorry. If you feel up to it, we can try again later.” It took a long draw of its cigarette and shifted to lean over and pick up the broken chess piece which lay near his foot, setting it carefully back upon the table. “Of course, Erique, you should not expect to be able to defeat me at this particular game; I've played with every master who ever died. Ah now—I have no doubt that you can repair this poor little fellow with your considerable skill, and no permanent damage will be done.” Death smiled across to his host and pushed the little, black-marble cat across the tabletop with a pair of fingers.

Erique lifted his head and nodded a bit, unfolding one long arm to take the piece carefully between his own fingers, being quite delicate so as not to cause any more damage to the piece in case the fall had caused any of those treacherous unseen fractures which could split at the smallest bit of pressure. He still marveled and how the skeletal hands of his guest could be so warm when a fingertip slipped over bone on the exchange. Once the piece was safely in Erique's gentle grip and the inventor was scrutinizing its surface with a jeweler's glass that had suddenly appeared in his other hand, Death sat back in its chair again, the comfortable old wood of it creaking under the slight weight of the occupant. The silence that passed between them was easy while Erique found and affixed the little black ear to the cat-knight's head and set it aside, moving to pick up the remaining pieces, inspect them, and then set them all back up on the polished ebony board, ready for another game. When Death finished its cigarette and turned to flick it into the fireplace, it stood, stretched, and announced that it was hungry. “I haven't eaten in ages, you know—honestly, I'm incredibly famished!”

Erique's comfortable mood dissolved instantly, and he stiffened, fixing his yellow glare on the smaller creature. “Hungry? You cannot possibly be hungry—you're lying—and I have nothing to offer at any rate.” He crossed his arms over his chest and turned his head to look toward the rear of his house where the passage to his wine cellar lay. Well, he certainly wasn't going to part with anything in there for the sake of some thing that couldn't possibly enjoy it properly—it'd probably leak right through Death's old bones and be wasted on the floor, or worse, stain his furniture! The sudden image of the creature with its trousers down around its bony ankles seated over a bucket to catch the wine made him choke and then cough where he might have laughed had his voice not been destroyed. He bent double, his mask dislodging slightly, and thin arms were about his shoulders, helping him to his chair, the humor of the situation suddenly gone. Death fixed the mask for him, gently nudging it back into place without a word and standing over him. Once Erique's fit had passed, leaving him wheezing a bit, Death spoke, leaning back against the table with one ankle crossed over the other. “Well, haven't I a right to be hungry? Surely you have something. You must eat, after all—Opera Ghost though you may be.”

Erique held up a hand, his breath catching up to him again. “What will happen to my furniture! Erique's furniture was acquired at a steep price; he doesn't intend to have it spoiled with your...leavings.”

The angel laughed and bent forward “My ‘leavings?’ D'you expect I'll do any business I may have on your lovely divan? You do have a water closet. Ah, or perhaps you're thinking whatever goes in has no where to rest? In that case, let me reassure you.” It straightened again and leaned back a little, tugging loose its shirttails from its trousers and lifting the bottom of the soft, white cotton up over a very thin, concave, pale stomach which notably lacked a naval but was solid all the same, up to the point where it met bone and stretched tightly over the lower ribs. It looked almost painful, actually. The shirt was dropped and Death raised its shoulders in a graceful shrug. “So then, I should like some dinner.”

“I don't cook.” Erique countered, his arms folding over his chest again. “Can't you simply...appear somewhere and eat what you like?”

“Yes. But I don't know what I like. And I rather prefer the company.”

The masked gentleman snorted at that and planted his long, spidery hands on his knees. “Do you. I rarely eat. I have better things to do—so when I do take a meal, I try to make it as... entertaining as I can manage. I doubt you would approve of my methods.”

The creature shrugged “It's not my place to approve or disapprove of anything. And now you have me curious.” It tucked its shirt back into the rich brown suede trousers it was wearing and straightened itself out a bit, rolling sleeves back down to cover the raw bones of its arms, tightening its loosed cravat. “If you don't cook, I assume we're going out—where've I put my coat...” Erique jumped to his feet and slashed his arm in front of himself violently.

No! Erique will bring the food, and you will not touch his things while he is gone—nor will you leave.” He growled, though there was nothing he could do as repercussion for the latter action should it occur.

Death raised a hairless brow at him and opened its arms with a slight bow. “Very well, dear boy, very well. Be on your way then, my stomach growls.” The composer straightened himself again and made for the door, looking back once to see Death moving to the divan and sitting with its arms stretched across the backing, the urge for a cigarette painted smoothly across its pale features—almost pretty, if they had not mimicked his own so well. He pulled his cloak on, grabbed his hat and rushed out to meet the world above.

* * *

The hall was winter cold, dark. He had let the fires burn out and locked his door, left it as a sort of museum to his memory. The world should not remember such a beastly thing as Erique, but perhaps his music, at least, would be found one day. He remembered a shallow hurt in his chest as he'd covered the beloved organ and extinguished the lamps and candles that had remained constantly lit around it, as if he'd left a beloved pet to starve to death alone in a dark tomb.

His absence had not even been long enough to let a layer of dust settle over the white sheet that covered the thing, but he whipped it away with relish and tossed it aside, standing still for a moment over the only thing which returned his love, which bent perfectly to his will and moaned at the touch of his cold, spidery fingers. They touched the keys now, lightly, reverently, and a moment later he slid onto the bench, and his hands danced lovingly, compressing the keys, bringing forth gentle sighs and trills from the beloved instrument. He played for only a few moments before abruptly standing again and moving to relight lamps and candles, lingering in his bedroom until it was lit bright as the sun that had abandoned his universe. The task done and his apology made, Erique moved out into the main chamber of his home to stoke the fire and make similar amends to his piano, and then to his violin. When the room was lit warm orange with the blaze from the hearth and he had turned his attention again to music, he was met with the grim, grinning visage of his master once again.

Death sat on his divan, one leg crossed over the other knee, its arms stretched out on either side of it over the back of the sofa. Its mourning hat was laid on the cushion beside it, and Erique saw now that the creature had a fall of golden, curling hair, much at odds with its otherwise skeletal appearance. But looking again, he could now see the dim yellow glow of pinprick eyes deep in the black sockets, and a thin skin which stretched over the skull and wrinkled at the lips and now existed over the grinning maw. It looked much like Erique himself, only somehow less...repulsive. The face was smooth rather than aged, scarred, and pitted, and the lips were much better formed. After another moment, he remembered to stop staring and be angry that the creature had now invaded his home—of course he had to admit that he'd invited Death into his home long ago, and really had no right to send it on its way now.

“Will you haunt me until I give myself up? Is that what this is? Well, monsieur, this Erique does not give in so easily—you will be waiting quite a long while.”

The Opera Ghost rasped, again absentmindedly touching long, gloved fingers to his ravaged throat as he dropped himself into the plush chair near the hearth, letting his arms hang over the sides. Death gave a low, musical chuckle and pulled one long arm across the back of the divan, drawing a cigarette from its inner pocket, this time taking it between its newly formed lips. “You won't mind if I smoke, Erique,” it stated, and the little stick sparked to life of its own accord. “I am not here to wait. But let us talk. It has been so many years since I have lain true eyes on you, child.”

The mask jerked up and toward the less-gruesome mirror visage. “You taunt me now, monsieur! It is dangerous to taunt Erique!” He realized as soon as the words had left his lips that his threat was rather empty, but the creature did not laugh or stir except to blow a halo of bluish, sweet-smelling smoke into the air above it. It curled and writhed like a dying serpent before dispersing into nothing. “Do you blame God for your appearance, Erique? I have no doubt that you do—” it held up a bony hand to still the Ghost's tongue and continued “—no matter how you say you believe that there is no God. It isn't His fault, of course. I have dealt only with the dying since the first man lay down to the dust—that was an affair, let me tell you. You cannot blame me for wanting to witness a new life enter the world. Just once, just one little life. I could not resist, and I laid my hands upon your mother's swollen belly and bent my ear to her to hear your heart beating as fast as a humming bird's wings. My touch infected you. I heard your heart still for several long beats, and I believed that you would in a moment be cradled in my arms, but it started again, weak and slow, and I knew that my mark would be upon you all your days.” It took another long, halting draw from its cigarette, released another wild serpent, then uncurled all its long limbs and stood. “God does not make mistakes, but his servants sometimes do.”

“You did this to me. You!” Erique had stood now as well, rage threatening to shake apart his horribly thin frame and rip his throat raw and silent forever. A single stride brought him to loom over Death, and he continued in a whisper “And you have let me serve you so well for so many years—that was your aim, admit it. A marked slave to bring you lives, as many as you pleased, and you saw to it that I would enjoy introducing you to as many as I could find, that I would not be taken in and shown any compassion which might sway my purpose.”

Now Death canted its head slightly to one side and flicked the cigarette over Erique's shoulder into the fire. “Ah, my child, it was never my intention. But I have come to meet you now, to take you.”

“And where will I go! Because of you—where will Erique go?” Erique countered, whipping around violently to turn his back on the creature in his living room. “Erique's salvation is gone—did you intend that as well? Did you expect Erique to deliver her into your hands! If you lie, he will know—” the voice strangled behind the mask and the thin gloved hands clenched in spasms and pulled against his chest, thumping the hollow, bony cavity through his cloak and jacket. He had not been meant to love anyone, least of all Her; his purpose was clear, his gifts were meaningless, and it now did not matter that the Voice was nothing more than a ragged gasp that died on his lips and pained his discerning ears. He covered them now and howled, his skeletal frame doubling over, finding a moment later that he had not fallen onto the floor as he'd expected, but against something sharp and warm.

“Hush now, boy. I know your fears and your pains. You think that I have not watched over you? I have seen all, Erique, but I am the Angel of Death and could do nothing to interfere on your behalf. Now you are at the end of your life, and I will grant you a stay if you wish it; I will keep you in my care until your own actions put you bared in my hands.”

Erique had remained bent as he was, unable to move from the shelter of his master's thin, hard arms. His own spidery hands clutched at the creature's fine silken suit, his gloves leaving dusty prints where they spasmed. A longer, warmer hand rested on his back, splayed wider than a hand of flesh could spread, covering more of him, comforting better. The mask pressed hard against the fabric underneath it, and the yellow lights buried deep within its wells blinked out as eyes were squeezed shut. After a few moments, he was guided upright, a long, warm bone-hand curled around the back of his skull gently. “Come now, child. I have traveled a long way to bear witness to your other talents.” The free hand of Death gestured broadly toward the piano, and the smooth face wrinkled up into a smile. “Sit and play for me now.” Death returned to the divan, stretching itself out again on the plush cushions, freeing its loose collar from its looser cravat and lighting another cigarette.

Erique obeyed mechanically, the brief contact with his guest having left him in a state of blissful shock. He took the bench stiffly and had little control over his hands as they stretched over the keys and moved in a furious torrent of alternating rhythms and harmonies—disharmonies—at once enraging and enrapturing as his impromptu composition shifted with his own confused and conflicting emotions, too rapid, too violent for human ears to bear lightly. It would have sent her fleeing from the room to her little apartment, but Death bore it much more easily, though its cigarette hung limp and forgotten between its lips. When he finished on a savage, hammering chord and let his arms drop to his sides and his body slump over on the bench, he was sobbing quietly.

In the moments after the piano's last howl had reverberated and died away, leaving only the crackling of the fire and pitiful gasps of grief issuing from the piano bench, Death had risen and crossed the room, leather soles shuffling almost silently on plush Persian wool, stopping behind the bench, at the composer's back. It leaned over him, not touching.

“Dear boy—unfortunate child of my folly—I see how you tremble so. Come now, I will put you to rest,” a hand curled gently to the back of Erique's skull, rough bone catching lightly in the wig the Opera Ghost wore, “in the box you call your bed. I will give you a fortnight to decide what you wish to do with yourself. When you are ready to give yourself over to me, you need only speak the name I see shining just behind your eyes.” Hard, warm points pressed gently into the flesh of the composer's neck, moving to his shoulder and urging him up.

Erique rose and turned to follow as Death led him to his own bedroom, but he halted at the threshold, his teeth chattering and limbs shaking as the sight of the open coffin greeted him. “I do not wish to sleep in that just now...” was all he managed to croak out before swallowing the metallic taste of his own raw throat and turning around to glare down at his guest, mastering his body, stilling himself in preparation for an argument.

Death chuckled lightly. “So many years you've slept in my bed and now you refuse? Well, sleep where you will, Erique. There is only one other bed in your house.”

The hidden face blanched white as its façade and Erique whirled around again, feeling ill. “You bring that up—Erique's poor Christine, lost to the Lake. He could not save her. Erique will not spoil her apartment with his horrible presence. It must remain untouched; it is her tomb—let her sleep there in peace.” The defeated phantom gave a rather violent and startling cough, his breath rattling in his chest. Perhaps if he did not choose to leave the world on his own terms, this damnable infirmity would kill him anyway.

Death did not bother to correct the confused man. It had not yet met the girl whom It had watched utterly devastate the somewhat peaceful life Erique had come into under the Opera.

Very well, what have you left? The divan, then; make use of it.” It sounded almost impatient, and it pushed past Erique into his room to grab the pillow and coverlet from inside the coffin, then returned to the main chamber of the house, where Erique had wandered to the sofa and dropped down on it, curled up and facing the cushioned back. It was too short to accommodate his considerable height; his cloak was tangled up under him, the mask still tied to his face, and the wig slightly askew where the top of his head crammed up into the arm of the divan at an uncomfortable looking angle. Death regretted its moment of annoyance at the child and knelt down on the floor beside him. “You are very tired, I can see. Lift your head.”

The familiar pillow was stuffed under his skull, the cloak was tugged out from under his painfully slight frame, and those long, warm bone fingers reached around his throat to remove it altogether. They did not make for the mask nor the wig, and Erique was grateful that he would not have to put up a violent struggle he was far too tired to win. He was covered and then left alone.


M. Death

* * *

He tried to suppress his slowly waking mind, wanting to sink back into the warm and comfortable sleep that had consumed and soothed his thoughts, fear rising in the pit of his heart until he shifted with a groan and felt the bony protrusions of his protector's body under his stiff neck and against the fingers of his twitching hand. He allowed his eyes to open and focus in the dim of the room. The fire had gone out, but his eyes could see well in the dark, aided by the single lamp that burned dimly from the table where they'd dined and played chess. Death's golden head was rimmed appropriately with light and Erique frowned behind the mask. Now that he was awake, they must break apart, he was sure. The Ghost huddled pathetically against his angel, clutching to him, hating himself for his wretched need to remain there. The skeletal creature stirred, smiled down at him and granted a stroke of those hard fingertips to a bit of Erique's exposed jaw, just under his ear. “You have been sleeping nearly a day now, Erique. You should get up and stretch yourself, I imagine the cramped quarters will have left you very stiff and sore. Are you well?”

After another moment, Erique released his guest and pushed himself up; Death was right, he was incredibly painful at his back and the left shoulder which he'd been laying on and his neck was stiff. Not only that, but sleeping with the mask on in such warm conditions had left the thin skin under it too moist, hot and now his flesh was raw and peeling away in patches which smelled rank even to his own poor little nose. He stood and moved away quickly to his room where he could see to himself in private, sit without the mask for some time to dry out his skin and allow it to return to it's usual dry chill. After that, the wrinkled rolls of displaced flesh were dry and brittle enough for him to peel away without damaging anything terribly, and he drew from his wall a mask which had been covered in rich, dark red velveteen. He had rarely worn it, but it hardly seemed to matter at the moment. He buckled it tightly into place and remembered that his wig was still in the sitting room, well, no matter. As he tended to the rest of his toilette, he heard his companion stop outside his door and speak. “I must leave you a while. There are some things that I must see to personally.”

Erique froze in his ablutions and frowned, but what had he expected. Death must of course be very busy. He could not focus his attention all on one pathetic monster, no matter his supposed hand in helping to create it. “Do what you like, monsieur. Erique has his own business to attend to.” Perhaps he could work on his magnum opus, ah, but nothing of it had come to him for some time now. That music had died within his breast. Perhaps he would start something new, though two weeks was hardly enough time to compose something as epic as his Don Juan.

He waited until he heard nothing from his front rooms and finally emerged to retrieve his wig, it was a bit mussed, but he could tend to it later, for now he simply fixed it into place, letting his hands smooth over the velveteen of the carmine mask momentarily. Perhaps he should have worn it more often, it's smooth softness was more inviting and less chilling than his leather or ceramic masks. If he had worn it more, it might have elicited a few curious, delighted caresses from her. She might have grown used to the feel of it, it could have been a pleasant substitute for flesh—but no. He shook the thoughts from his head as the ache started in his chest. He hadn't even noticed that he'd gravitated slowly toward the locked apartment, his breathing growing heavy, teeth bared behind the perfectly sculpted velvet lips of the mask. Somehow, the key was in his hand, the heavy iron flats digging into the long, spare pads of his palm. It was in the lock. The door was open. And the bed. The bed was empty; Erique's mind slipped into oblivion. He thought he must have died, and his last moment was spent in hurt and anger that Death had not returned to his side to shepherd him into Hell.

Sound returned to him first. The familiar, quiet lapping of calm water told him he must have been in the lake, but then, the pattern of the noise was too well-timed, too perfectly shifting to be anything created by nature, even nature designed by his own hands. Sensation came then and he was submerged in water far too hot and pleasant to be the chill body that lay just outside his front door. With feeling returned to the very tips of his fingers, which now twitched in the bath, he knew he was naked and woke fully with a sudden terrified thrashing, his eyes flying open as he struggled forward and groped for the edge of the tub to haul himself out, splashing water over the sides with his wild attempt at escape from his own eyes. Something pulled him back down into the bath and held him firmly, drawing him back against a warm and yielding, slightly sticky with moisture. A keening cry fell past his twisted lips and he raised his hands to pry himself free from his bonds, looking down to see the strapping across his chest and lower abdomen only to find that two lean, pinkish arms had snaked around him, strong, elegant hands pressing into his corpuscular flesh and keeping him still. His own hands spasmed and his arms shook violently as he could not bring himself to lay his dead man's skin to the healthy flesh that secured him.

He was hushed gently but continued to thrash as well as he could, bringing a leg up under himself and trying to push away. The response was a stronger hold and a chin hooked over his shoulder, damp blond hair falling over his chest. Erique began to understand from where some of his seemingly unnatural strength had come and his fight slowed, he stilled, though his hands still clenched and clawed at the air. He turned his face away from the head at his shoulder and hot tears stung at his eyes, slid down his hideous cheeks to join the heat of the bath and he sat despondent.

Death's hold on him loosened slightly, enough to allow him to breathe comfortably, and he felt the angel's breath on his ear, patient and gentle. “My eyes are closed, Erique. They have remained so since I removed the mask. As for myself, you have only to look to see that I have nothing indecent to foster upon you. You must have exhausted yourself, I found you cold on the floor in the wreckage of the room—don't worry, it can all be easily mended. You know that it wasn't a great shock, not to find her body where you imagined it was left. You know your own inventions, my child. Even you cannot fool yourself so well.” Erique's answer was a choked and sobbing cough that shook his skeletal frame so violently that he wretched and gasped for air. The warm arms around him loosed a little more, and then tightened again, gently, long fingers curling over one hip to hold him still. Erique's hands had fallen to his sides, the insides of his arms rested against warm, firm flesh which did not flinch away from him, and a smooth chest, only slightly thicker than his own remained pressed to his back. “Keep calm, Erique. All is well here. Would you like to get out now? We will stay here as long as you like, or we can go into the bedroom, the parlor, I will take you to your room if you wish.” The Ghost found his breath and his definite response shuddered out of him “My mask.” The meaning of the words were as clear as if he'd said them outright; My dignity. Death released him and drew back, getting out of the bath and padding gracefully to where the little pile of Erique's clothing lay. Erique turned his eyes away from the sight, but not before understanding what the angel had said of his own appearance. The body was clearly masculine in general shape, but beside lacking a navel, it also lacked nipples and genitals. That didn't make the creature's nudity seem any less indecent and Erique prodded momentarily at his own heated cheeks before Death returned with one of the large Turkish towels over one arm, the mask held in his other hand. His eyes remained closed, but a gentle smile played at his pretty lips. “Here then, I will fetch you clean clothes. Ah—and should you like me to return to my previous state? This shape is better for bathing—wet bones are very uncomfortable, I fear, they seem never to dry.”

His light chuckle soothed and Erique stood on shaky legs and grabbed the towel, drying his ugly face and brittle hair first so that he could buckle the mask in place, then wrapped himself in the thick softness of the towel. “This appearance is more normal.” He said unsurely, his voice rising more in question rather than statement. The angel nodded in agreement and smiled, pulling another, darker towel around his own lean frame. “This is as human as I can become in appearance. Do you find it disturbing?” Erique shivered in his towel, keeping it clasped closed at his throat. “No. Why should I?” Death laughed again and sat himself down on the edge of the tub, reaching in to open the drain. “Because I lack those most basic attributes which mark you—though you may deny it—as human, my dear boy.” The composer squared his shoulders and raised his chin, his yellowgold eyes coolly regarding his guest. “What matter is it to me whether you wear stick and stones, or basket, or rest as smooth as the curve of a river rock.” The angel gave a graceful shrug and retrieved his clothing from the shelf over the toilet, making to dress himself. Erique turned away and pulled his towel tighter around himself, waiting until the rustle of cloth on flesh stopped before he returned to make his way out of the little bathroom and into Christine's bedroom while he waited for his guest to bring him fresh clothing.

His raw throat closed up a bit at the sight. The vanity had been smashed, the mirror he'd granted her was little more than glittering dust over the carpet. A wardrobe leaned crooked up against the wall with a door hanging by a hinge, gowns, dresses, shifts lay in rumpled piles, some in tattered and torn strips. A broken lamp oozed an oily stain over the once-fine rug and the drawers of the dresser had been pulled out and tossed about the room, one lay splintered against the far wall. Erique gave a wheezing sigh and sat down upon the bed, grateful that it seemed to be untouched by his rage and grief, and waited. His angel returned and laid the well-pressed pile of clothing on the bed beside Erique, then turned his back to the man to allow him to dress, stepping in only when Erique moved to straighten his cravat, Death's thin but warm and healthy-looking hands moving to assist and causing the Ghost to freeze for a moment until the other man had taken half a step back with a slight smile. “I hope you don't mind the red, you didn't seem to have any clean white shirts in your wardrobe, and where you keep your clothes to be laundered is a mystery to me. Well, it matches your mask now, at any rate.” He'd raised a hand to touch the intimate article and Erique's own sickly-looking paw shot up to grab his wrist, causing the flesh around his icy grip to whiten. He was disturbed by the feeling of the familiar bones under his fingers, and how easily they would break, just as any man's, but Death did not wince or pull away, he just stood with the smile still curving gently on his lips, though his eyes held a subdued hurt.

Erique loosed his grasp slightly and pulled the man's hand up to his mask to let it rest against the red velveteen. “You must forgive Erique for his nervous reactions. He knows this mask invites touch, but it is difficult for him.” He rasped out, his eyes sliding away to the side, and then slipping closed as the soft sound of Death's fingers stroking along the carmine mask reached him. “He trusts you not to pull it from his face.” The hand was taken back and Erique could open his eyes again to find Death retreating to the sitting room—had he offended the angel? If that were the case, he decided, his very existence would be an offense. At any rate, he could not bring himself to call out for the man, and wasn't sure he should. He sunk do the bed again and stared at the glittering mess across the carpet, the mirror he'd allowed Christine, which had so many times held her reflection, seen so much more of her than he would ever have had the privilege to. Did mirrors have memory? He would have discovered how to glean their secrets from their polished surfaces decades ago. One day, mirrors would have memory. They would record what they saw, and they would keep the images of those long gone alive for their loved ones to see whenever they wished.

He gave a start at the hand on his arm and the familiar voice softly bringing him back to himself. “Erique, go into the sitting room and set up the chessboard, bring out one of your better bottles. I'll take care of this for you, and after the game, I'll go up and engage your box. You'd like to see the opera tonight, wouldn't you? I know nothing of the theater, but I have heard it's a rare performance. Something called Armide I think.” The Ghost nodded as he was moved toward the door, a moment later finding it closed behind him. As he had nothing better to do, and still felt a bit lost and foggy, he fetched the wine and set up the chess, then sat at the piano and played absently while he waited for his guest.

* * *

    Phoebe hung low and huge in the sky, glowing with a yellow-orange light, a pregnant goddess swimming through the rich navy velvet, oblivious to the cares and worries of the little creatures she overlooked. It lit up the mask—set it ablaze in the most frightening manner, a twin to the moon, but angry and vengeful. The face behind it, however, was undemonstrative, and the unnatural voice was silent. The figure to whom the voice belonged stood now on the parapet, impossibly tall and slightly less-black than the night, dusted here and there with a whitish, chalky powder, trapped in the folds and wrinkles of the heavy cloak: a star-sprinkled sky, ready to throw itself at the sun and be consumed in its blissful fire, burned away until only the pure, clear blue light of day remained, leaving the world unstained once more.

    The impossible had happened. That voice—the voice of the Host itself, the sweet, strange, frightening tonality which had seduced any who had ever heard it, however briefly—was no more. Ravaged by disease, stolen away! That one truly unique and extraordinary feature to which no other man, woman or child could lay claim had been ripped away. A punishment. A punishment for refusing to die when the way of things dictated that it should be so. This was an error the figure now intended to correct, and it stepped closer to the ledge. A dry, ragged rasp of a cry issued from the mask, and the pale, yellow hands belonging to this skeleton clenched to trembling white fists at its sides. To die this way meant being found easily by any passing by—by a crowd. A horde to stop and gawk at the twisted remains on the stones of the street, its mask lying slightly askew and revealing death's face underneath. To have all those people stare and gape like stupid, bottom-feeding fish at the horror of the face, not even noticing that it was attached to a dead being. No, best to have done with it all in private, where he wouldn't be found, at least not for long enough that his unnatural appearance would simply be thought natural decay. The thin creature stepped down from the parapet and unclenched its hands, the whole skeletal frame relaxing, slumping in defeat, masked face dropping to cravatted chest.

    “What, you're not going to consummate our acquaintance, Erique? And you have been courting me for so long—I do believe I feel a bit insulted.”

A light, lilting voice shuddered through the bent grotesque like a shock, and he wheeled around, sharp, yellow eyes searching for the impudent intruder. The expression of rage was somehow apparent on the serene leather facade that hid his face. There, across the roof and leaning against Apollo's knee like some knave, some cocksure jackanape stood a mirror figure of himself, or so it seemed. This new phantom pushed itself from Apollo and approached, its steps lazy and graceful, grit crunching under spitblack boots. It wore fine pressed trousers and coat with tails so ridiculously long they nearly dragged on the ground behind it. One hand was pushed deep into a pocket, and the other looked long, frail, and white swinging at its side. It likewise wore a mask—a death's head, perfect mockery of the observer's face, but even more featureless, more grotesque: a true leering, lipless skull. It wore no wig but had upon its head a low topper with a pall-bearer's scarf dangling from the band.

Erique leered at the impudent creature and croaked out, in harsh, cracked, broken tones, “You mock me, monsieur! Come to have a close look at the Opera Ghost, have you? You'll get a better look still.” His intention was to employ the Punjab lasso, but he must have been more ill than he'd thought, for his aim fell terribly off his mark. The target was not where he had thought it was; it was closer than he judged. When he missed, it did not laugh but pulled its pocketed hand free, holding a large, silver pocket watch. When it spoke, incredibly, the jaw of the mask moved with its words.

    “You have been so enamored of me for so many years, I thought I might come and pay you a visit here upon this facade.” It gestured broadly, the bony, white fingers of its hand spreading out over the view of the city. “And I was hoping to take you at last.”

    There were no eyes hidden in the deep sockets, no lips moved behind the wagging mouth, and Erique knew his master and trembled.

    The apparition gave a quiet chuckle and inclined its head a bit, touching the brim of its hat in respect. “Ah, so now you know me. Are you ready, then?” It stuffed its hand back into the pocket of its trousers and cocked the grinning death's head slightly to one side, giving the disturbing impression that the skull, if tipped any further, would topple from where it joined the creature's vertebral neck. All wit left the Opera Ghost, and he wondered if perhaps he had not been more ill than he'd thought. He was not, of course, afraid to die, or of Death itself—in fact, he considered himself a rather devout apprentice in his younger days.

    “You have time for this? Do you show yourself to every man before he gives himself to you?” Erique pulled his frame back up to its full height, finally drawing back the lasso and coiling it away under his dusted cloak. His twisted lips curled upward behind the mask as he saw that he was taller than Death by a hand. He had always known. Death came closer, its attitude still cocksure, and it produced from its pocket a cigarette, which it offered to the Opera Ghost. “Every man sees me in the end, whether I present myself to him or not. For time, I have nothing but, do you really think I attend each mortal's failing personally? I am everywhere. At this moment a million eyes are set on me; they see my face, they know or do not know me. I am a kindly stranger come to help them from their suffering. Or an avenging angel to strike them down for their pride.”

Erique took the cigarette mindlessly, but only tucked it away into his own pocket, disappearing it under his cloak with the rest of his poor, sickly frame. “You are too late, master Death. I have not jumped to my doom,” he sneered and whirled quickly around, striding across the rooftop, one hand floating to his throat as if trying to soothe and comfort his damaged voice. Yes, he had planned to go below once again, perhaps to take a heavy dose of laudanum and sleep until his bones were dust, but now that Death had presented itself to him, his old stubborn fire returned, and he would master the creature by refusing to submit to its one purpose. He would die soon, but on his own terms, when he was again alone.

    Of course, he should have known better. One cannot fool Death into leaving him to die in peace!

* * *
* * *

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