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First Stroke of Midnight




First Stroke of Midnight


Niko hadn’t worn a suit in a while. Okay, he supposed he technically wore a suit every day, but not a real, proper tuxedo. It felt a little stiff, though that made him stand up straighter. He glanced briefly at the mirror that hung on the inside of the wardrobe door. When he was younger, he used to think that formal suits looked lame. Now that he was older, he wasn’t so sure. Niko might have looked a little sharp.


He knew that it had been a smart idea to pack the tux. Because that meant that when Cowell had pulled their entire little group together—himself, Cindy, Tommy, Flora, Kuro, and now Gilveidan and Muirne as well—and told them that not only was the Tea Party holding an exclusive party to celebrate Bacchae’s official return, but that he’d managed to get all of them tickets, Niko had been prepared.


“How did you manage that?” Muirne had asked incredulously.


“I dunno if you’ve noticed,” the daemon grinned, gesturing around to the crowded tavern, “but I happen to be the owner of a pretty popular establishment around these parts. Also I might have signed Kuro up as a bartender.”


“Of course you did,” Kuro’s wings dropped an inch as he sighed.


“Besides, you’re all heading off in your own various directions soon,” he added. “So what a great final send-off, eh?”


The girls had not been prepared, so Flora had taken them out shopping. Gilveidan would not be seen in anything besides his very long coat with far too many belts, but it was black so that was fine. As for Tommy, well, Cowell was in the process of trying to convince him to at least wear a dress shirt.


And so Niko had been left largely on his own. To mull. He had a lot of that to do, in the end, after he’d stumbled back to the pub from Outlook Rock yesterday. After everything Valki had told him.


At first he’d been confused, of course, about what this story of some ancient hero guy had to do with him. But then she had told him more. And he was still having trouble believing it.


Niko glanced at his face in the dusty mirror. It was his, wasn’t it? Of course it was. It had been his for eighteen years. But now, knowing what he did, he was feeling an odd sort of disconnection. Maybe it was because he knew, at some point or another, he’d have to make a decision.


There was a knock at the door, and Niko stuffed his hand in his pocket, having realized that he’d had it nearly pressed against his reflection.


“Yello?” he called, and Cindy pushed the door open a crack.


“Are you decent?” she asked, her eyes pressed closed.


“I think I probably woulda said by now,” he shook his head.


She shoved the door open the rest of the way, looking embarrassed. “I just needed someone to do this button on the back,” she spun around to illustrate. “Flora and Muirne are already downstairs.”


“Sure thing,” Niko obliged her. “But you know this means you owe me a life debt, yes?” he put on a very passable impression of his father. “And I always remember to collect my debts.”


“Well, I await with… mild hesitation,” Cindy giggled. “Now, how does it look?” The dress was a deep blue, sleeveless, with a high collar that showed off her somewhat broad shoulders and a knee-length skirt.


“Looks really nice,” Niko said. “You clean up well.”


“Thanks,” she sighed, looking a little relieved. “I may not dress up like this a lot, but at least I know how to, unlike certain brothers of mine.”


“How’s Cowell’s battle proceeding?” Niko asked, for once actually feeling bad for the guy.


Cindy rolled her eyes. “He’s broken through the dress shirt stalemate, and now he’s pushing for the bow-tie but I don’t think he’s gonna make it through no-man’s-land.”


“Okay, that I can’t miss,” Niko grinned, straightening his tie and following Cindy as she led him to the battlefield.


That’s right. Even if everything was a little different now, nothing had really changed. At least it didn’t have to tonight. Niko was going to crash this party with his friends and have a good time.


Even if it had the potential to be the last.


~~ o ~~


Doug stared into the mirror, and frowned. His outfit for the evening was pretty much the same as it always was—he guessed that Bacchae didn’t even follow his own rules—although Kei had added a tie to the ensemble. It was of course green, and she had specifically instructed him to tie it loosely. A world that wasn’t constantly exposed to Bacchae’s collarbone was apparently not a world worth living in.


As he kept looking at himself, he thought that he was finally beginning to understand why the get-up always looked so… wrong. Simply put, it was him. The appearance was perfect, almost more so than when he’d first gotten here, which was something he was not in the mood to unpack at the moment. He looked the part, but it didn’t… feel right. The essence wasn’t there, the aura was wrong, the chakras weren’t aligned.


Whatever. Doug didn’t really know what he was talking about. Maybe it was even like… anti-deja vu? Like he felt like he’d seen how it was supposed to be and this was not it.


It was probably because of that stupid dream he’d had yesterday. He couldn’t really remember most of it, but he’d been feeling off ever since. Like his skin didn’t fit quite right.


“Don’t get queasy on me, Doug,” Kei whispered in his ear, placing her hands on his shoulders.


“I’m not,” he huffed, pulling away. “Just a little ti—whoa.”


Kei was wearing more makeup than usual. Not only that, but she’d curled her hair, and the dress she was wearing… well, the dress was definitely something. It was skin-tight, and followed the line of her figure down to her knees. The collar was low, and the sleeves didn’t start until after her shoulders. It was a dark shade of maroon that complimented her pale skin.


“Pick your jaw off the floor, Doug,” she smirked. “You haven’t even seen me when I’m trying.”


He gulped.


“Anyway, you should be more worried about yourself. This is gonna be a very… different crowd than you’re used to dealing with.”


“Societal tryhards.”


“I would not call them that to their faces but, yeah, I guess you could say that. You won’t have to worry about winning them over, cuz they are all ready to kiss your ass, but you gotta find a balance between Bacchae, and Bacchae on his best behavior.”


“He would hate that.”


“Yes he would. But if he doesn’t do it, then he’s gonna anger a lot of very powerful people.”


Doug sighed, turning one more time back to the mirror. What a stupid tightrope Kei had placed him on. What a dumb fucking circus.


His reflection seemed to agree with him. For a second, he almost imagined it laughing.


~~ o ~~


“Alright, what is all of this?” one of the bouncers had called Kei to the front of the clock tower with a “problem”. Said problem turned out to be a grinning daemon and his gaggle of morons.


“I’m sorry,” Cowell said, grinning inanely as always. “But I fail to see the problem. My name is Cowell, it’s right there on the list, see? And these are my plus-ones.”


He gestured to the six others with him. Most of them were all too familiar to Kei.


She sighed. She did not have time to deal with this and also Doug would be upset if she turned all his little friends away. Cowell knew it too, as his grin widened to near Cheshire levels of shit-eating.


“Ugh, fine,” she said. “Come in. Whatever. It doesn’t matter all that much anyway.”


Begrudgingly, the bouncers opened the doors and let them inside.


“I thought you said we all had tickets,” Tommy muttered to Cowell, adjusting his dumb tie.


Cowell gave him that smile he always did when he thought he was being dramatic. “Well, we did get in, didn’t we? Besides, a little white lie never hurt anyone.”


As usual, Tommy didn’t understand how this man’s mind worked.


Cindy and Niko were also a little miffed at the whole situation, but they forgot about it entirely when they saw the inside. Empty, in the middle of the day, the first floor of the clock tower had looked cavernous, nearly a little sad. But now, filled with a whole host of extravagantly dressed people and the cacophony of a whole live swing band, it felt very… decadent. Too classy to be hedonistic, but nearly there.


While waving and grinning, Cowell pointed out a variety of individuals to the group. “There’s Mr. Debonair,” he said, after wiggling his fingers to a plump man with a waxed mustache. “He owns the Distillery of the same name. He claims that it’s the first such establishment in Discord, but that’s hotly up for debate.”


“Hey, Cowell,” a young man called as he passed. He had on a significant amount of eyeliner, which was confusing to Niko, considering that his hair was long enough that it almost covered his eyes anyway. “Still packin’ em in on Saturdays?”


“Not as much without you there,” he grinned. “That’s Darren Fost, singer of the newly christened band ‘Doesn’t Matter.’”


The crowd suddenly parted, and they found themselves stepping aside as well as a tall woman in a flowery silk kimono passed by them. “She’s Kimiko-sama of the Yamashita family. They’re, uhhh, a pretty important group around here.”


“Then maybe we should be exchanging contacts,” Niko muttered to himself.


But Cindy wasn’t really interesting in any of that. She looked over to see Kei standing alone against a wall, looking like she was catching her breath.


“Be right back,” Cindy said, and after grabbing a glass of champagne from a passing waiter’s tray, headed in the daemon’s direction.


She sidled up next to her, and was acknowledged with a small nod. Cindy had never trusted Kei, but she did admit that she admired her a little. She was a woman who knew what she wanted, and wasn’t afraid to make a big stink to get it.


They stayed silent for a minute, but Cindy was afraid that she might leave if she did nothing for much longer, so she started talking.


“It’s been a while since we’ve had a chance to speak properly.”


“Yeah, not since the cult, I suppose. How did that work out for you in the end?”


“Lucius is still recovering,” she shrugged. “But I did get a couple of new magic tricks out of the deal, so it’s not all bad.”


Kei looked in her direction for the first time. “So that’s why you were able to cast that illusion on a, uh, certain individual, huh?” she asked. “Something happen to you at the arena?”


“Pretty much, yeah. But… can I ask you a question?” the mention of said ‘certain individuals’ made her remember why she’d come over here in the first place.


“Depends on what it is,” was Kei’s only response.


Cindy glanced over at the throne, where Doug was currently sitting, guzzling a glass of wine and flirting with a pretty girl next to him. “I’m just a little confused. I guess I don’t really know either of you all that well, but… why would you do all this, go to all this trouble, for Doug? I just… don’t get it.”


“I’m gonna tell him you said that,” Kei laughed after nearly spitting out her drink.


Cindy’s eyes widened. “Do not.”


“Oh, I will, and he’s gonna whine to me about it all night and it’s going to be your fault.” Kei considered just leaving it there, to walk away and let the young magus struggle with her non-answer. But something… something in her wanted to do it properly, just this one time. And she thought she might have just the reason to give.


“But to answer your question,” she smirked. “I’m not doing any of this for him. He’s doing it all for me.”


Narrowing her eyes, Cindy thought about that for a second. “You’re the one who needed a Bacchae, and he just happened to fall right into your lap.”


“I knew you had some brains in there,” Kei smiled. “You… didn’t really get to see Discord before ‘Bacchae’ came back. Hell, I didn’t even see it before Malachi’s time. But… the city, that thing that made it Discord. It was dying. Malachi was slowly killing it, another fifty years and it probably would have been just like every shitty city in the cosmos.”


“I never thought you… cared about things like that.”


“I think most people do, in their own sorts of ways. In the end I just figured I could probably do a better job than Malachi.”


Cindy tried very hard not to giggle. “And all you have to do is deal with him.” She pointed behind her, and Kei turned to see that Doug was trying to stand on the throne. A small group had gathered around him and were chanting: “speech, speech, speech!”


“Oh, goddamn it,” Kei sighed and made her way over.


Cindy shook her head and walked off in the opposite direction, hoping at some point to catch up with Cowell and the others.


Across the room, Niko also saw the spectacle, and came to the conclusion that most likely, he wasn’t going to get a chance to talk to Doug tonight like he’d wanted to. He was surrounded by way too many people, and what sort of connection would the Lord of Discord have to a random traveler?


He wondered if, like him, Doug had tried to figure out what his dream had meant after their encounter with the Rat Lady. That’s where all of this madness had started. Had he found anything out? Had he been contacted, like Niko had?


Niko couldn’t be sure until he asked. Although he had a sneaking suspicion in his gut that—knowing Doug—he probably hadn’t done a damn thing since then. Niko didn’t even know what he had seen, ultimately, or if he had seen anything at all.


The assumption that Doug hadn’t done anything was quite correct. In fact, here he was now, actively trying to forget about it. It worked best, he found, if he didn’t think at all when trying to be Bacchae. So his current plan was to get drunk as a skunk and let Kei deal with the rest. It wasn’t as if it was out of character.


This was all working out pretty well for him until he started seeing the Horrors. At least, that’s what it had to be. There was no way that Mike Miller could be halfway up the stairs watching him. And there was absolutely no way that he could have just waved to Doug and started making his way up to the second floor.


And there was one hundred percent, never in a million years, positively no way that Doug was making his excuses and following him up into the darkness beyond.


Doug could still hear the madness behind him as he ascended to the next floor. He hadn’t spent all that much time up here. It was part-party-overflow space, part more casual living area. The couches were less fancy, more like something you’d inherit from a recently deceased relative that you didn’t know all that well. It was another one of those floors that felt a little too normal.


His latest hallucination, here after known as Mike Miller, didn’t seem to have these same reservations. He leaned on the back of one of the couches, staring off at who knew what.


At this point, Doug was starting to question whether he was just a fevered imagining created by his inebriated head or whether he might—somehow—actually be there. One would think that if he was gonna hallucinate Mike, it would have been as the little nerdling he’d been before Abigail had mind-broken the kid entirely. But right now, as he turned to look at Doug, he was giving him that all too familiar look, the slightly bored, condescending one he’d given him when he was gripping Jilli’s heart in his hand.


For just a second, Doug wanted to strangle him, or punch him in the face at least. But he checked himself. That hadn’t been Mike’s fault. It had been Abigail’s… and Doug’s. Mike had been nothing more than a pawn in Hodge’s fucked up little game.


“Nice horns,” Mike said, after the two had stared at each other for a little too long. “Did you grow them yourself, or…?”


“Ha ha, very funny,” Doug sighed. “Good to see you haven’t lost your lame sense of humor.”


“I guess it’s not possible to change some things,” Mike smiled, just a little. It looked so unnatural on his face that Doug almost couldn’t believe he’d once been the kid whose every emotion had been worn on his sleeve.


Doug wasn’t thinking very quickly, so he must have been quiet for longer than he thought he had.


“So…” Mike continued. “Are you going to ask me how I got here? You look like you want to.”


“Well, listen. I was just about to get to that. But I was still kind of going back and forth on whether you were real or not. Cuz if you weren’t, then, you know, the question would be kind of redundant.”


Mike tilted his head a little. “Does that happen to you often?”


“At this point I think I see more people who aren’t there.” Sick of standing, Doug used his sigh to deflate himself onto the nearest sofa.


Hopping over the back with a singular, smooth motion, Mike followed suit. “Huh.” He said simply.


“What?”


“It just dawned on me that Abigail might have fucked you over just as much as she did to me. Though it’s not really a contest, I suppose.”


“Jesus christ what a shitty competition that would be.” Doug’s eyes widened at the thought. “The grand prize is a lifetime of emotional turmoil.”


“That’s not even the big one,” Mike added. “That’s the one she gives out as a participation trophy.”


“God you’re so right.”


This was the part where the two of them should’ve started laughing. But Mike didn’t, so Doug kept his trap shut.


“So how, uh, did you? You know, get here?” Doug asked after clearing his throat. “Cuz I know you didn’t show up with the rest of the dork squad.”


Mike had to think about it for a second. “It wasn’t easy,” he admitted. “But once I knew it was possible, it was just a matter of making a… pathway.”


“I don’t get it.”


“I’m not sure if I do either.”


“Why go through all the trouble, then? Sounds like Niko and the other Miller spawn had a much easier trip.”


“I don’t really want them to know I’m here,” he sighed. “I’m here for a reason that I don’t think they’d like very much.”


Doug frowned. It must have been something pretty shady if the homeless vagabond and pyromaniac would disapprove. “And that is…?” he pried, hoping he still had some cool, older roommate pizzazz left.


“I…” For a split second, Mike looked like he was going to tell him, but then he glanced down at the floor and frowned. “I don’t think you’d like it either. It doesn’t matter. I wouldn’t worry about it too much.”


“You know if you say all that it just makes me worry about it more, right?”


“I’m well aware,” he stated, then didn’t elaborate further.


“Well,” Doug decided to change the subject, “whenever you’re done with whatever it is, I’ll have to take you out on the town, get you laid or something, cuz jesus christ you need it.”


Deep down, he’d been hoping to provoke a reaction, a blush, some embarrassment. Anything. The Mike that he knew would be bright red and unable to string two words together right now.


Instead, Mike just looked a little annoyed. “I doubt that will make me ‘chill out’ like you’re thinking it will.”


“Hey, you never know. Some good poon will do some wonders, man,” he tried to play off his disappointment as best he could.


“So, I take it you must be getting some ‘good… poon’ then?”


Doug rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed himself now. “Eh, well, y-yeah, you could… you could probably say that.”


“So you’ve moved on, then?”


Almost doubling over from the force of it, Doug burst out laughing. Mike looked confused. “You, uh, don’t know it,” Doug tried to explain in between fits. “But you just made a, whoo, a real zinger of a joke there. N-never mind,” he straightened back up. “But I… I want you to know, I… I couldn’t move on if I tried.”


Mike looked like he understood, and Doug wondered then just how good his sleep was these days. But he didn’t say anything.


“Sorry,” Mike said, and stood. “I didn’t mean to bring down the mood. Or keep you from your party for too long.”


“Aw, come on man, stay awhile!”


“No. I really can’t,” he insisted, already heading for the stairs. “Even hearing it all down there is a little… overwhelming.”


Doug frowned again, but before he could say anything, Mike paused. “Goodbye, Doug.”


“Hey, I’ll see you around, man.”


“Yeah, I’ll… see you.”


And he was gone. Doug wasn’t sure if he’d even gone down the stairs at all. He might have just disappeared for all he knew. Maybe he really had never been there. The whole encounter made Doug feel weird. Not just because he was so different from how Doug remembered him, though there was that as well. It was mostly just… it felt like he’d said hello and then goodbye just as quickly. Did he just want Doug to know he was still alive? It was weird. Though maybe it would be smarter to stop trying to apply reasonable logic to the “perfect being.”


In the end, it didn’t really matter. Doug had a party to get back to and Kei would probably come track him down if he hung back much longer. He was just gathering himself enough to stand and put on the mask once more, when out of the corner of his eye, he saw the smallest flash of light out on the balcony.


Any excuse to not be downstairs for another minute was good enough for him. Doug stood, wandered over to the doors, and opened them a crack. On the other side, his coat billowing in the breeze, Gilveidan was leaning on the railing. Maybe Doug was just imagining things again, but it seemed like his yellow eye glowed a little in the dark.


Ugh, this guy. He’d probably teleported up here just to be a dick. “Hey, you shouldn’t be out here, you know. The party’s downstairs, friend.”


Gilveidan slowly turned and glared at him. “If we’re counting, I lived here longer than you have as of yet, jester.”


Though he attempted to glare back, Doug couldn’t hold a candle to the absolute levels of not giving a shit that Gil possessed. “So is that the nickname you’ve finally decided on? You’ve gone through so many at this point.”


“I felt it appropriate, considering how often you make a fool of yourself.”


“Ahh, but you know,” Doug waggled his finger, “the jester was the only person who could tell the king he was being a moron.”


“So, when does that begin? You are also the king, are you not?”


“That’s what they tell me these days.”


Was that almost a bit of sympathy in Gil’s eyes? Nah, must have just been too dark to see him properly. “You look like the same old, simple-minded idiot I met back at St. Adelaide’s.”


“Holy moly, that was forever ago,” Doug almost doubled back thinking about it. “Feels like a hundred years ago that we were playing D&D in Jilli’s dorm room, huh?”


We were playing Dungeons and Dragons,” Gil huffed. “You were crashing it. I seem to recall Jilli made you a bard in retaliation.”


Doug couldn’t help laughing at that. “Oh yeah, I thought it was pretty lame until I realized what you could do with a high charisma score.”


“I sometimes have nightmares about it.” Gil shuddered, but Doug couldn’t tell if it was sarcastic or not.


They were silent for a while, but surprisingly, it was Gil who broke it. “I’m… sorry about Jilli,” his voice came out nearly a whisper. “I never got a chance to say. Also, I heard about… what happened at the sap witch’s factory.”


“Then you know about Hodge.”


“I can only imagine you did the deed.”


“Took forever to get the fucking blood off my heelys.”


Gil was looking away from him, so he couldn’t see his face. “And Victor? I know he was with her.”


It took Doug a long time to respond to that. What had happened to Victor had been the one thing he’d been able to block out. Until now, he guessed. “He… he tried to turn himself into a… a goddamn computer. He was just… sitting in a dark room when I found him. I don’t think he could… move anymore.” Doug was trying desperately not to throw up at the thought. “So I… I put him out of his misery.”


“Then we are the only ones left.”


“Huh?”


“You and me. The only one’s left from Adelaide’s.”


Doug’s stomach fell as he realized what he meant. Victor, Abigail, and Jilli were dead. Whatever had happened to Sonia, she certainly wasn’t herself anymore, and Mike? Well, hadn’t Doug just been talking to the stranger who was wearing his skin?


“Of all the fucking bastards it had to be you, huh?”


Gil scoffed. “I never would have imagined this outcome myself. I figured you would have ended up in a ditch somewhere by now.”


“If you weren’t all that was left of them I swear to god…” Doug said through clenched teeth.


“I suppose this means we can’t silently loathe each other anymore.”


“On the contrary,” Doug grinned. “I don’t think there’s a better way to preserve their memories. Keeping it old school, you know? Just like old times.”


Though his eyebrows knitted together, Doug could see the smallest hint of a smile on Gil’s lips. “I’m beginning to wonder if you will ever make sense to me.”


“I wouldn’t count on it,” Doug laughed. “You’re way too sane.”


“I’m not sure anyone can consider themselves sane after what the both of us have seen.”


“Well lucky you then, cuz it looks like I got hit with your share, huh?”


Gil looked like he was going to make another scathing retort, when above them, the clock tower began its quarterly chimes. You actually couldn’t hear it all that much from the inside—for some reason—but from the balcony it was nearly deafening.


“Aw, shit, I gotta get back,” Doug sighed. “Kei’s gonna kill me.”


“Is this where you’ll be for the foreseeable future?” Gil asked, skepticism apparent in his features.


“I’m under contract, so, yep. Feel free to swing by if you’re ever in town. I could use a familiar face, even if it’s yours.” Doug waved as he turned away. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pretend to have fifty less IQ points for the next several hours.”


As he made his way through the dark room and over to the stairs, Doug straightened his collar and let his eyes glaze over. More and more, he hated how easy it was to slip right into this entirely different persona. But what the hell was he going to do about it? This was his life now. For how long, he had no idea.


Even if he didn’t, you and I know very well that the answer is “not long at all, now.”

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