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King

And Then There Was None

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Rafael sat alone as he often did these days, when the sun was high and the royal court adjourned, dressed in a simple but sharp two-piece suit of the deepest black, offset by the white of the shirt beneath and complemented by the luxurious shine of his auburn leather shoes. This quiet corner of the palace gardens had become a sanctuary for him, much like they’d been for his wife before her departure. And though well into fall, the flowers were still in bloom, the grass lush and shimmering, and the trees still held all of their large, broad leaves, though kissed with an autumnal touch. He’d painted this Edenian landscape many times since porting his gallery and studio from Umbra to the Capital, but on this day, he’d brought neither paint nor brushes nor easel. This day, he’d brought only a book, The Wily Sparrow, which he’d read many times to the young prince.

The bench he’d claimed for himself was before a grand mausoleum of white marble, only slightly grayed from its exposure to extremes of the Orisian climate. The flora had taken to it well, spools of leafy vines coiling about the pillars and wreathing its ceiling. The flowers that grew there were beautiful and exotic, their reds, yellows, oranges, and purples seeming to glow like embers in the night. The sarcophagus at the center of the arrangement, fashioned from the same flawless marble, was large enough that a fully matured vampyre would have no issue fitting inside it, crowned with an imposing statue of his wife’s likeness. It had been far more than was necessary when they believed Irene was within it, and was more still now that it was the young prince interred within it.

It had become habit to visit him like this, once or twice a week, while his mother slept and the other nobles busied themselves with business or pleasure. Now that Irene was gone and the renovation of the island kept lords and ladies busy throughout all hours of the day with delegation, he visited Philippe’s grave more and more, sometimes twice a day. Sometimes he would speak to him, telling him of all the things he’d missed or reminiscing on the wild – unnecessarily dangerous – adventures they’d been on while Irene was pregnant with him. Other times, he would read a story, as the child had shown a great liking to this when in his mother’s womb. Then there were times, dark times, when he would simply stare at the sarcophagus and curse himself for lacking the power save him.

Sharp of memory, the elder remembered all about that painful day the prince was taken from them. His light had been so bright before then, so strong – but it had dimmed in the time before his birth, rapidly, until extinguishing in his mother’s arms. The days that followed were grim, void of laughter and love; the elder spent them with his wife, holding her, shouldering her grief as they mourned the loss of her son together. He blamed himself, even though she warned him against it. But as the coldness between them plummeted, the distance growing wider, he knew a piece of her blamed him as well. Why hadn’t he been strong enough to save him? Why, with all his gifts and power, could he not bring her child back from the abyss? It was a question without an answer, one beyond him and all his knowledge.

An errant breeze returned the elder from his reverie, and Rafael closed the book he’d opened in his lap, only a dozen pages from the end. “I think that’s all for today, sweet prince,” he said solemnly, his mood suddenly somber. “It would seem I’ve lost my drive for reading today.” Tucking the book by his side as he rose from the bench, the elder strode closer to the sarcophagus with sure, measured steps. He rested a bare hand against its lid, a marvel of craftsmanship. Not of Orisian standard, but Atitlean. They were the markings and styles of the old world, as was only fitting for their noble stock, a place he’d hoped to bring the prince one day. “Perhaps I will bring your mother the next time I come to read,” he proposed, smiling at the thought. Lifting his gaze, he studied the statue that towered above him, gazing off into the distance. “I think that would be nice.”

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“What a curious creature you are, Raphael.”

The voice was sweet -- charmingly soft, with strokes of strength through it that were near lyrical with the pulled strings of a Spanish accent that seemed nearly forgotten. The sound of it, her voice, was near perfect. Of course, what else could be expected from Darkness, especially when it came to any and all things having to do with his favored child? He had spent the last three hundred years studying her and committing to memory the most minute details of her very existence. And so then, would it come as any surprise, that when he donned her figure, it too would be a splendid, tantalizing, and utterly perfect representation of the woman they both adored? 

There sat Gabriela besides him, as naked and fresh, as the day she had been brought into this world by the grace of his good will. For her life had been his, her body his vessel to take for his own, and yet he had been unable or unwilling to push the tiny soul out. Here she was now, a dream like creature of long, pale limbs, and unending waves of nearly black hair that fell around her, from a halo that gathered around her head and covered her like a veil. Her legs were crossed, and upon her lap she held gathered locks of her hair, which kept her modest. Between her arms, her breasts were equally covered by thick sheets of hair that had fallen, like silk, over her shoulders. And her proud profile, with that pointed nose, pursed lips, and definitely pushed out chin, looked toward the massive sarcophagus that housed the little bones of the unborn child he had loved without ever knowing he loved. 

“Here you are, mourning father -- and your blood, thick and dark, as molasse, speaks truth to me, dear son. Your heart is broken for this child, this child that was never yours. Here you’ve sat and wept your blood tears…” Tenebre, in the guise of Gabriela, lifted his head and turned to regard a surely bewildered Raphael. “I would find it touching, save that I know that there…” a moonlit hand lifted from her lap, and a slender finger pointed to the floor before them, “...right there, you pushed my creation to the ground, you savaged my doll, my pretty little puppet. A righteous king, a cruel husband, a tender father, a rapist…what a great many things you are, Raphael. But all of them, failures, in the end.”

She moved and stood. Her petite figure stretched, as if she were a thing that had been in stillness for far too long. Onto the balls of her feet, she stretched upward with both her arms reaching over her head, her fingertips grazing the sky with a whimsical sway, and then a pivot that sent her spinning toward the catafalque, until she toppled over it, face to face with the stone rendition of his beloved daughter. 

“My goodness, wasn’t she beautiful?”

It was a sureal thing, seeing Gabriela admiring herself -- this queer creature of shadow, with eyes of solid black, for they were lacking in that radiant warm gold that the true Black Queen was so well known for. It gave Tenebre a monstrous appearance, but more so in this new guise of his. 

“To think this face will give in to death and the sickle of time, rot and decay...I never thought I’d see the day...I suppose I should be glad for it, but I feel -- well, I suppose, I feel a touch of sadness. There should be some sadness, shouldn’t there? When the world loses something beautiful?” 

The nude beauty pushed from the stone tomb and rose back up, Gabriela stood with her fingertips on the edge of the sarcophagus. She rubbed at the polished stone gently, almost...lovingly…

“At least she’ll be with Philippe…”

She glanced over a small, pale shoulder and those black eyes seemed to look toward Raphael. 

“Haven’t you noticed yet? Gabriela is gone. Your unborn son, he’s gone too -- but there will be no grave for him.”

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What a curious creature you are, Rafael.

It wasn’t often that he was caught by surprise. Always on the move, always plotting, always keen of his surroundings, it simply wasn’t in the elder’s nature to be caught unawares. Irene had, on many occasions, noted how uncomfortable it made her when he would surprise her. Many times, it was without effort—but there were a few, when he’d seen her gazing absently out a window, or perhaps when she’d finished bathing and thought herself to finally be alone, that he’d enjoyed sneaking his way behind her and confirming his presence with a touch here, or a gentle kiss there. She’d never taken kindly to it, of course. It was a betrayal of all that she desired, loving and wanting him, and so she denied herself the rightness of it.

But Darkness was not his wife, his servants or knights. It was not the wind in the trees, the streams in the forests, or the creatures that dwelt in the night. It was the deep cold of winter; the vastness of an empty home. It was the pit between stars, older than existence itself, and uncertainty of the dark unknown. It was shadow, always there, always watching, listening. That it had taken on Gabriela’s indeed furthered his discomfort, adding to the unease already breeding in his stomach. Tenebre had seemed forgiving of his favored son, though that forgiveness was never something so gentle. It was a cruel forgiveness, one that said, you will be my play thing as penance—now entertain me.

“I have never denied who or what I am,” Rafael finally replied, keeping his eyes fixed on the sarcophagus. He didn’t want to see Tenebre wearing her skin, not when he still longed for her. But it was hard to keep his gaze from straying, all but impossible not look upon the beauty of Darkness’ vessel. She was, indeed, perfect, and the longer he stared, the more he remembered the softness of her skin against his lips, the sweetness of her smell, or the long, silken tresses of hair streaming between his fingers. “It is because of me that your children have not yet plummeted into extinction. Because of me that they’ve found themselves a new home. I allowed my vices, no matter what form they might take.”

Rafael felt no remorse for his encounter with Dollya, or the poor fate he’d resigned her to in the aftermath. If she’d had any other face, any other shape, she may have yet found another way in this life. But it was not to be, and now she rotted away beneath the keep of Umbra, utterly broken to his will—kept to motivate the legions of the Dominion, as many were.

“That does not mean my love for Philippe was any less pure or worth,” he argued, only slightly offended.

Darkness didn’t seemed bothered by his reply. “My goodness, wasn’t she beautiful?

Why is he talking like this?

“What do you mean, wasn’t she?

To think this face will give in to death and the sickle of time, rot and decay...I never thought I’d see the day...I suppose I should be glad for it, but I feel -- well, I suppose, I feel a touch of sadness. There should be some sadness, shouldn’t there? When the world loses something beautiful?

Rafael turned to face Darkness fully, concern and confusion rich across his face in equal measure. Of all Tenebre’s games, it was not like him to tease about something so severe. Though, it was not as though the dark father was none prone to dramatics. Seeking to quell the unrest in his chest, the elder reasoned with his father. “She’s left Orisia,” he said. “It was… necessary, even if not ideal. I’ve come too far this time to let her ruin things. There’s too much at stake.” He could almost feel her swollen belly against his palm at the thought, his unborn child, so far away from him now. “There’s no need to be so—”

Haven’t you noticed yet? Gabriela is gone. Your unborn son, he’s gone too -- but there will be no grave for him.

Rafael blinked, confused. He ran the words through his mind again, over and over, in the matter of a few slow, staggered heartbeats. What? The confusion made way for disbelief as he turned his thoughts toward their bond. He’d made an effort not to strum those invisible chords between them, the ties that bound their blood together. And so he ignored it on most days, giving Irene the freedom she craved. All it would take to prove Tenebre’s words a lie was a simple thought, a touch of his mind and all Darkness’ lies would unravel. So why, then, did he hesitate? Why did he not immerse himself in the feeling of his wife and unborn child? Was it fear, he wondered? Could Darkness be telling the truth?

No, he decided. He’s lying.

And yet it was gone—completely and utterly. Irene had pulled this trick before, blanketing their bond in so much darkness that it had become invisible to him. But things were different now. Just as the child in her womb had made her immune to his influence, so too were his senses beyond her parlor tricks, insofar as the child was concerned. It was his flesh, his blood growing inside her. There was no force capable of severing those ties. No force, spare for one.

“This is your doing,” Rafael said in a low, threatening growl. “You and that little—” he bit back the insult, caging the venomous words behind his thin lips. You ungrateful, selfish, insolent little cunt. How dare you… how dare you! So it seemed he had, indeed, overestimated her. Even with the world at her feet, she felt compelled to cross him – to involve their child? I’ll bleed her for this, he swore to himself. I’ll bleed her dry. “Where are they, Tenebre? She does not have the right to involve our child in this. That isn’t right. Please, tell me where they are.” And though his voice was even, his pose relaxed, Rafael hands were curled in furious, trembling fists.

I’ll kill her.

Edited by King

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Tenebre turned fully, and the supple form that he had taken stood in elegant stillness with bent elbow resting against the edge of the stone sarcophagus, while her ankles crossed and her hip jutted out just so. For the most part, the rich and dark sheets of her hair continued to maintain her modesty, even the treasure between her thighs that was still neatly cupped away behind a curtain of gathered hair she had pulled with her free hand. She was a curious vision, looking curiously upon an even more curious beast. 

Watching the way realization dawned across Raphael’s face was deliciously satisfying. It wasn’t merely for the sake of pain or pleasure, for Tenebre did not harbor feelings of hatred or love for Raphael. His beloved son was an object of pride, a source of contentment, a thing of beauty in the Dark Father’s mind -- but that was neither a source of love or hate. Rather, it was the simple way that these new emotions played across his handsome face that managed to enthrall the ancient deity. 

“Just when I was beginning to believe that nothing could shake you, I see you tremble to your very core -- what a curious, curious beast you are…” His words -- her words -- in that voice of hers, filled with so much amusement, and so much lack of simple empathy for the sheer panic the poor wretch was certainly feeling at the thought of his unborn child having gone missing, was surely an insult to injury that would not be forgotten or forgiven. But would Raphael be able to remember that it was not Gabriela, or would it even matter when it came time to reap the consequences of yet another desperate attempt at freedom. Tenebre had to wonder, for even with all of his age and all of his power, he could not foresee the ending of this story. 

“This is your doing. You and that little -- where are they, Tenebre? She does not have the right to involve our child in this. That isn’t right. Please, tell me where they are.”

With eyes, black as a moonless and starless night, Gabriela stared back at him. She shifted position and stood upright, abandoning her relaxed pose and gathering herself up with her arms crossed under her breasts, and her modesty forgotten, or perhaps, simply ignored. From the corner of her eyes, small, black veins of bled through, as if the ink contained within her pupils had broken free and was spilling out. It did not seep far, but it gave her a fractured appearance. 

“Gone,” he repeated, and this time, her voice was replaced by the cold, unfeeling, and unsettling sound of Tenebre. It was neither threatening, nor booming, nor loud in nature. His voice was merely chilling in that it lacked a body, as it always had -- it was the sound of darkness speaking, and so it came as some disembodied echo, even when there was a manifestation standing there in solid form. “Gone away from you, from me, from everything and everyone. I cannot tell you where she is, I do not know. That was part of the deal. One true life time, one real life devoid of our influence...and then she’ll be ready...and then she’ll fulfill her true destiny.”

Edited by Pasion Pasiva

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Gone.”

The word echoed in the hollow drum of his stomach, growing louder as it worked itself through his limbs and into his mind. It wasn’t the first time she’d run away, even when there was no need to. It wasn’t the first time that she’d betrayed him, took it upon herself to write into place his destiny with her own hand. But it was different this time, and Rafael realized each and every time the word throbbed in his mind. There was a finality to the Dark Father’s words that bordered death, and he spoke of deals, life, and freedom as if to clarify her living status. So why did it feel as though she’d been ripped from this mortal coil, leaving not even a trace of her on the wind? Why did he feel this growing pit in the bottom of his belly, widening, deepening, swallowing him whole from the inside out?

It was the loss of his child, of course. This was no mere unraveling of blood ties or oaths spoken, no cleaving of love, obsession, or friendship. For all the cruelty and violence he’d inflicted upon Irene, he loved her in his own way, more than he’d ever loved another living soul. It wasn’t until her pregnancy with his child that he’d come to love another as passionately and fiercely, perhaps even more. For the elder was not like these other men and women of the realm, fortunate enough to bear children from other realities and other worlds, to know the bliss of true parenthood. The child his petulant, vindictive wife carried was his first and only child born of flesh – over a millennia of patiently waiting made manifest. And now, for all his effort to do right by her, by their son, she had ripped that away from him.

Truly, there was no creature more selfish or hateful than his darling Irene.

Could Tenebre see the hate brewing in Rafael’s eyes like a storm on the horizon, dark and foreboding? Did he notice the way his hands tightened on the book, fingers with the strength of ages tearing through its hard cover and sinking into the pages below. The way he grit his teeth, set his jaw in frustration? If he were but a decade younger, he might have torn the Dark Father’s vessel into pieces for this—though it would do the ancient entity no harm, of course. But to see his wife’s likeness, taunting him with her crimes, it was nearly maddening. Yet to see her was to think of their child, and though Tenebre had ignored her pregnancy (likely in an attempt to drive home his point regarding the unborn infant), Rafael could not unsee it, and so to do any harm upon her, real or otherwise, was to threaten that life he wished nothing more to cultivate.

Gone away from you, from me, from everything and everyone. I cannot tell you where she is, I do not know. That was part of the deal. One true life time, one real life devoid of our influence...and then she’ll be ready...and then she’ll fulfill her true destiny.

“She will never be gone from me,” Rafael hissed, pieces of the book falling from between his fingers. “Never.” He threw the rest against the ground with such force that it nearly exploded, chunks of paper and hard back bursting into the air. “She does not get to erase the past simply because she does not agree with it. She does not get to just throw her hands up and walk away from everything because she desires something else. Those days are over,” the elder shouted, his voice so very far from the cool emptiness of Tenebre’s. He was darkness, cold and older than time itself, but his son was a star of roiling emotions, raw and unbridled hatred the most prominent in these moments. Oh, how truly and bitterly he hated her now. “She does not get to do this with impunity—she does not get to take my son from me!”

Rafael hadn’t noticed he’d dug his long, glass like nails into the swell of his palm until he felt the warm rush of blood over his fingers. “I will find her, Tenebre,” he promised—warned. “Even if I have to tear apart this entire cursed world to do it. I will find her, and I will drag her back here, kicking and screaming if I have to.” There was violence in his eyes, and it took all he was not to rip the Dark Father’s pretty head from his soft, rounded shoulders.  “And when I am finished with her, she will beg for death—and I will deny her.” Deny you, he left unsaid. “Her anguished cries will become a testament to my peerless cruelty, and the halls of the palace will run black with her blood.”

He would never forgive her for this, Rafael promised himself.

Never.

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A small hand reached out and turned upwards. In the palm of her hand she caught the small, peacefully drifting pieces of paper that were floating raining down, dancing through the air like snowflakes. The book from which Raphael was reading was destroyed, and the testament of his love for Philippe lay in shredded ruin at the foot of his mother’s tomb and his final resting place. It painted a sad picture, even Tenebre could not deny it, and so he took a moment to appreciate the tragedy that was unfolding before him as the polluted love (but love nonetheless) that Raphael had once felt for his beloved daughter now turned into pure and unbridled hate. And much like the metaphoric snow that the fragmented pieces of paper represented, he knew that the self-proclaimed Blood God’s hatred would never thaw. 

Yes -- someone should stop to mourn the loss of beauty and the loss of love, even if it was insignificant in the scheme of the universe at large. And for a moment, as he regarded with his black eyes the tiny pieces of paper that were gathering upon his open hand, he wondered at the role he played in this although he lacked any sense of remorse. 

“You should go and you should rest,” said the vessel that wore his cousin’s beautiful face and figure. She moved from where she stood and dropped aside the collection of paper snowflakes. Her dark hair was speckled in the residue of his destruction, but she shook most of it out with her forward momentum as she crossed the room and returned to the bench and to his side. Once again, she sat down. “Whether you plan to avenge or to mourn, you are in no condition to do it now. You will either find her or you will not, her blood may run or it may not, but it will not be today, or tomorrow, or anytime soon -- what she has done, it is beyond what you could have ever thought her capable of doing.”

There she sat, in all of her likeness, her soft profile regarding the sarcophagus with that worried expression of hers -- pinched brows, pursed lips, and fingers interlocked, pressed between her knees. Thoughtful and troubled, she bore her black, abysmal stare upon the tomb with something akin to despair. 

“Surely, by now, you must have realized that I don’t care for the lot of you all. You and her are the exceptions, and before you both, your own mother, and her father, and so on -- I cannot help but wonder what the story may have been had Philippe lived, and your child, had she lived.”

There was a smile then, a slow, sad smile. 

“You were both so convinced that it was a boy -- let me tell you,” that voice lessened, and grew quiet and grave, “...she was just like her mother.”

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Tenebre’s talk of rest did little to soften the blow of this treachery, lesser still to extinguish the fire and fury of the hatred burning within him. Rafael had spoken these words before at Irene’s betrayal, whether of her duties or his heart (often times both, for the two aspects of her life were so tightly entwined it was nearly impossible to discern them), but never had he meant them with such raw and unabashed sincerity as he did now. Her previous transgressions against her husband and throne, they seemed childish when compared to her latest ploy—mere growing pains, hardly worth his acknowledgement. “She’s taken my son from me,” he repeated in a growing panic. “My son! A thousand years I have waited for this one moment in my life and she has destroyed it!” he screamed, his accented voice shrill and keening.

Like a foreboding storm looming on the horizon, that terrible, oppressive presence the elder was known to possess slowly built itself to strength. It stilled the breeze sweeping through the garden, and so too the fluttering of those pages as they danced toward the ground. Rather than snow, soft and weightless, they now fell like dead leaves, damp and heavy, gathering in piles on the ground. It was the darkness Tenebre had placed in him at birth, perhaps as an experiment or, perhaps the eldritch being had grown tired of carrying it himself. But it was undoubtedly different from the cold, dispassionate black that swept over you in the presence of the Dark Father. This was twisted and agonizing, polluted with anger and obsession and madness, and pain as pure and potent as sunshine.

He turned away from Tenebre then, too proud to let Darkness see the tears sparking in the corners of his eyes, threatening to spill down his cheeks as they blurred his vision red. “I will not rest,” he promised. “I will not sleep until she is found and our child is returned safe.” He could not bear the thought of closing his eyes and returning to those dreams of wife and child, so intense he many a nights believed them real. How could she do this to me? he asked himself, pacing about the sepulcher grounds. How could she do this to me?I’ll rip her heart from her fucking chest!” he screamed angrily in his native tongue, sinking his fingers into bark of a long, narrow tree. With a grunt of fury, he tore it from the earth, root and stem, and then hurled it well beyond the garden walls—so far that neither heard its crash.

she…

The word was the eye of the elder’s storm, and Rafael turned to face the entity, his tear-stained face wearing a softer expression. All lords and rulers desired a boy by right of their lineage, hoping to ensure the future of their legacy and house. Indeed, they—or perhaps only the elder—were quite invested in the child being a boy, but any that knew Rafael were well aware he couldn’t have cared less. Boy or girl, his child would be loved unconditionally, an emperor or empress to continue the rule of his bloodline. What have I done to deserve this from either of you? he thought, stumbling toward the likeness of his wife. But it was not violence he visited upon her when she was in arm’s reach (for what good would it do?) or more vile, harsh cursed.

Rafael debased himself as he’d never done before, throwing himself down to his knees, coiling his arms around her long, pale legs and pressing his face into her thighs. “Please,” he begged in the home tongue, sobbing. “Please, do not let her do this to me. Father, please, do not let her take this from me—our child is innocent. If there is any love left for me within you, please do not let her do this.

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There was never a sense of pleasure or pain for Tenebre -- nothing was done for personal gain, and little was done out of destructive tendencies. For the most part, a child-like curiosity drove him in all things, save one. Gabriela produced in him a sensation of love, pure and unabashed, but without the moral and ethical constraints that came with a mortal existence. He felt that he knew better, and with so much more time merely existing, anyone would find themselves hard pressed to convince him otherwise. All that he did, all the pain that he caused or the pleasure that he wrought, was for the sake of her -- to help her, to bring her closer to understanding, to free her, to make her like him and rescue her from the torment of a mortal existence. 

Never had he empathize with another living creature until this moment. 

Tenebre was moved to pity, a strange sensation that even Gabriela had not managed to cultivate within his abysmal heart. She was too hard, too strong, too proud to weep so openly, and so she had never done so when she lost her son. In silence, she had suffered the cruel heartbreak of Philippe’s death, though he had known of it, felt it, and understood it. But Raphael was a different sort of beast, a creature of passions and dramatic displays of emotions. Perhaps he was the stronger of the two vampyres, for now he knelt there sobbing no better than a child himself as he wept for his own child.

And this pain that Raphael attempted to convey -- it resonated with the Dark Father clearer and brighter than any ray of sunshine. 

Gabriela’s likeness lifted a hand and began to comb delicate fingers through his hair. In this guise, the Dark Father comforted him in a way he had never done before, with heartfelt compassion. 

“What a mess we’ve made,” said the woman with black, dead eyes -- her voice sad but sweet. She continued stroking back Raphael’s hair, even as he wept bitterly onto her naked thighs. 

“The way you love this child, was the way she loved her child, and it’s the way I love my child -- and all of us sit weeping with broken hearts, trying to break each others hearts for no better reason than the fact that misery loves company. Have I done this to you, children?” asked the Dark Father, his voice still that of Gabriela’s, still full of that strong, quiet willfulness. It sounded just like her, his little philosophical princess, who always questioned the value of freedom and happiness against the suffering all. She had been a martyr all her life, until this very moment when everything changed. 

And then things got still and very quiet, and the storm of his anger, madness, and obsession became meaningless as the overwhelming force of his silence overcame everything in the sepulcher. Even dust stopped shifting through the air, frozen it seemed, right where it had been floating. And then, the beautiful, porcelain white hand that had been offering it’s cool comfort shifted and reached down under his face to cup his chin. Raphael was forced to turn his gaze upward, and he would find that the visage of his beloved and now, hated, cousin was gone. All that was left was the black, skeletal outline of Tenebre -- a shadowy figure without any notable features, save the distant outline of a man.

“Raphael, I will give you back your daughter if only you will leave mine be.”

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“Yes, yes, of course!” The words spilled from Rafael’s lips before he realized what he’d said, and were Tenebre any less than what he was, he might have taken the weeping elder at his admission. But instead he stood in shadow and emptiness, a black hand, cool to the touch, eased under Rafael’s bearded chin, allowing time for his request to truly sink into his child’s mind. The words echoed in Rafael’s mind, and as his sobbing subsided, his eyes red and weary, he came face to face with a choice he never in his long life believed he’d be forced to make. To possess one was to lose the other—and to reject Tenebre’s offer was to risk losing them both.

Rafael’s expression darkened with the realization laid before him, the sinking feeling of loss welling in his stomach. Not the loss of life or love, or of his wife and child, but failure in the game—defeat. Irene and those she consorted with liked to believe themselves clever, but often times, their antics played into the elder’s hand. Even when he appeared bested, the outcome proved favorable to his many, ever-changing schemes. The wolf was the crest of his family by birthright, but many had come to associate with the elder with a spider, great and terrible in the way he weaved his webs.

But if the elder was a spider, Tenebre’s meddling proved a devastating wind. If he was a wolf, then Darkness was a cruel poacher, come for his pack. And for all his might, all his scheming and manipulating, Rafael was powerless to stop him.

Closing his eyes, basking in the heart of stillness, Rafael breathed deep of the moment. He loved Irene, and for more years than anything else in his life, he’d done so totally and with the obsessive ferocity of a madman. More than anything, he’d loved her. But that had changed with the conception of their daughter, bringing the elder’s concern elsewhere. What he once did to ensure Irene’s understanding was now to ensure their child’s future; mannerism and habits he once thought unbreakable lay shattered at his feet, slowly being shaped into something new, better. With time, Irene would learn that his love and affection were a blessing, not the curse she believed them to be, but their child—he was determined their child would know from the moment they opened their eyes and took their first glimpse of the world.

“Yes,” Rafael repeated, nodding as he opened his eyes. Still red from tears, still weary with pain, but there was also determination there. No matter how deeply he loved his dear wife, there existed no part of him that could forsake their daughter to the cold abyss of Tenebre’s shadow. “Give me my daughter, Father, and I will leave yours be for all time. I swear it.” He knew of those that feared deals with demons and devils, but to one such as he, what was it to parlay with such foul creatures? It was a deal with a creature older than time, an entity only comprehensible because he willed it to be, that chilled the elder’s spine and slowed his heart. “On the blood of my life and black of my soul, I swear it.”

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“So be it,” replied Tenebre, sealing the deal that he had never thought to make but had somehow felt propelled to follow through on once established. It was like divine inspiration -- he couldn’t quite come about how the idea had presented itself to him, save that an image of a seedling appeared in his mind, cracking open from a hard shell, sprouting forth tender, vivid, green shoots. And all things considered, it was appropriate, what with the thing that Raphael’s unborn child had been turned into. It even made Tenebre wonder if the idea had not somehow been born from that little creature itself, even in its current state of utter and complete suspension. 

“On the blood of your life and black of your soul, you swear it,” Tenebre went on to repeat, more quiet now -- more thoughtful too, as Gabriela’s black, borrowed eyes shifted and went back to looking upon the silent tomb where the bones of Philippe were laid to rest. “No--Not upon the blood of your life and the black of your soul, but upon the life and soul of your child, for it will fall upon her to suffer the sins of her father should you decide to betray this most sacred vow.” 

Gabriela’s figure stood then, gently but firmly, pushing Raphel’s kneeling and pleading figure to the side. His heartfelt embrace around her naked thighs forgotten as she took to her feet and took to pacing the cold marble floors of her sepulture. With her veil of dark hair flowing behind her, offering a thin layer of modesty, this strange manifestation that pretended to be his dear wife, walked in quiet contemplation, back and forth through the darkness and mist of the gathering night. 

What torture would Raphael suffer as he watched, hopeless and helpless to the whims of a God who tortured him not only with the facade of the women he most loved but the person who most tormented him? What was it like to have both creatures be one in the same… 

“Very well, Raphael -- beloved son, darling child of mine, my bright and beaming boy. There is no reason why you should not be given what your heart most yearns for. You have been a faithful servant, and the end is so near now that prolonging this torture is not only cruel but aimless, and a waste of your talents. I would rather you be healthy and happy, I would rather you be industrious. So have your child, and feel yourself compelled to reason. I give you anew, a reason to live, as I did when first I gave you Gabriela -- I now give you, Fatima Camila Bartolome.”

Tenebre turned, no longer in the guise of his beloved cousin. He did not want to steal from Fatima in this most precious of moments, but wearing her mother’s face. So he wore his own face, and he was nothing but darkness, a creature that held the vague resemblance of a man. And this man-like creature held out a hand, which slowly turned upward and slowly peeled open a fistful of fingers to reveal an open, black palm. There, upon his palm, sat a small walnut-like thing. It somewhat bigger, but of the same woody texture and wrinkled appearance. 

“Gabriela crossed paths with the Mutator when she landed upon Terrenus. He was touched by your poisoned hand, much like she was -- and so they helped each other. But see here, the proof that she is not without a heart. She could not kill your child, though she blames you for the death of her own. Here is your daughter -- now remember what you promised in regards to my own.”

Darkness held out his hand.

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Rafael carefully cupped the underside of Darkness’ hand, as if the gentlest breeze might cause the precious seed to spill over the edge of his palm. “Yes,” the elder agreed, the relief in his voice only rivaled by the pain and anger quietly lurking alongside it. He endured Tenebre’s barbs with grace for the sake of his daughter, now not even inches from his grasp—but he did not brush them aside or ignore them. Try as he might, he was far too vindictive for that. So instead, he held onto them, scorched them into darkest corners of his mind with the promise to revisit them when time and advantage allowed. But for now? “Oh my precious Fatima’s life and soul,” he parroted.

Taking the small walnut-shaped seed into his hands, Rafael ruminated on the Dark Father’s praise of Irene’s thoughtfulness. Not completely heartless? Was he mad, or did he simply choose to use such provocative language? There was no heartfelt sentiment in her ripping their child from within her, invoking foul magics to twist and transform her into this unnatural shape. It wasn’t for Rafael that she hadn’t simply had the child killed, but her own conscience. She was every bit as without a heart as he’d claimed, and in time, he would ensure Tenebre was well-aware of it.

But those were plans and schemes for another time; a night when his beloved Fatima was safe and sound, well on her way to life.

“Thank you,” Rafael whispered, scooting away from the darkened silhouette. He rose from his knees, still cradling his daughter in his hands. “I will remember.” Remember the embarrassment, the indignity, the shame of this cursed day. Yes, Rafael would remember those that had rallied in their cause against him—Tenebre, Irene, the Mutator—and their audacity to lay foul hands on his child. Long after they’d believed themselves safe, their transgressions absolved, the elder would remember. Beaten though he may have appeared, he was not broken, not without his claws and fangs – he would have his vengeance. “Your daughter will never hear from, or see me, again.”

Their agreement concluded, Rafael turned from Darkness and began a slow trek away. There was nothing more the entity could give him, and his pride could nary endure another quip. It would take time to understand the spell and reverse it, but not a soul would sleep in the Palace of Versilla until she was free. Already, his mind mulled over names of famed artificers, wizards, and warlocks that called the Dominion home. They would all of them be summoned to the capital before the sun set, and those that dared refuse would find themselves worse for it. “You’re safe now,” he whispered down to the daughter in his hands. “I’m here, my dearly beloved. My precious Fatima.”

Were he in a more stable place of mind, it may have perturbed him that Tenebre had taken the initiative in naming his daughter. It was a common practice amongst their people to divine names for their children from the deep of the abyss, as had been done for the first Rafael of the House Bartolome. And though a traditionalist by all means, for his firstborn, Rafael had wanted to try something different. It was to be an endeavor he and Irene shared together, something that might serve as a means to bring them closer together. But as he cradled his daughter in his hands, frozen in her stasis, he could think of nothing more fitting, more beautiful, than the name resting on his tongue.

“I’ll never leave your side,” he promised her. “And I swear, they will all regret this offense against you. Against us.”

There was work to do.

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