By Rose Argent


It began, as most such things do, with the poor -- with the homeless and the desolate, the dregs of society who are so frequently overlooked even under the best of circumstances. And so, when these wretched souls began to die, no one particularly noticed... until they began to die in great numbers, indeed, and in a manner frightful enough to draw, at long last, the attention of self-important doctors. The bodies of the most recent victims were examined, dissected, experimented on, until at last it was declared that a new, virulent contagion had indeed burst into vile bloom.

Too late.

As if being revealed to society at large was the cue it had waited for, the Red Death, as it came to be known, began to spread with terrifying speed. There seemed to be no pattern, no rhyme or reason to how and where it struck. Nor did there seem to be a cure. No corner of the Earth, no Colony was spared -- people of every type and description began to die, crying tears of blood as their veins dissolved within their bodies.

Fear spread along with the disease as day after day flew by and still no cure, no vaccine, no hope was found. The death toll of tens of thousands was exaggerated in rumour to a hundred thousand, to a million, as panic seized hold and the madness so singular to humanity tore through the population.

Gated communities everywhere were closing off all contact with the outside world, the residents sealing themselves inside out of terror of this seemingly impossible plague. For the most part, the rich and the privileged huddled in their homes, frightened of the power of the Red Death, but in one particular gathering of the richest of the rich, a festival air reigned. Her home thrown open to only the remnants of nobility and the powerhouses of the government, Relena Peacecraft defied the plague boldly, as if through vice and luxury she and her guests could convince themselves that the very people they were meant to govern were not dying all around them.

It was a never-ending party, the white marble and gilt of the Peacecraft estate growing tainted with smoke stains and spilled wine faster than the servants could manage to clean around the guests. A whirl of colour and light, the whole of the affair was too much to take in, having to resolve itself into disparate vignettes of excess before the scope of it could be grasped.

Dorothy Catalonia lay sprawled on a divan, half-empty wineglass depending languidly from her hand. All that was left of her costume was a black cat mask, the remainder of the outfit having been tossed haphazardly about the room by the very man who now knelt between her bare legs. The young man, if he was indeed young, remained fully costumed, a dark cape and deep hood concealing the most of his figure and features as his tongue darted between Dorothy's nether lips, wringing delighted moans from the Catalonia heiress.

If the drunken noblewoman noticed that her reflection in the ceiling mirror remained maskless, her face covered only by twin streaks of crimson, she made no sign.

Sharp teeth closed hard on a most sensitive part of her anatomy and the blonde woman shrieked and pushed her cloaked lover away, shivering at the sight of her blood on his pale lips.

The drug-addled son of the Earth Sphere President chased a shrieking maid through a narrow, faux-torch-lit hall, his half-cape fluttering out behind him as he willfully mistook the girl's genuine terror for coquettish teasing. He never realized it when the light from the flickering electric torches became real flames, dyeing the draperies scarlet. The red light seemed to creep across the floor, spreading in slow ripples that soon lapped at the booted feet of the would-be rapist.

When the torches were snuffed all at once, plunging the hall into stygian darkness, there was only the maid left to see, or care.

In a chamber all of mirrored walls and polished marble floors, Lady Une leaned back against the hooded form of her lover as his arms wrapped around her, one hand caressing her bared breast as the other traced gentle patterns on her belly. Only once did the nameless youth's attention stray to her hair, his soft lips and even, white teeth taking hold of the ribbon that held one tightly-wound bun in place, causing Une to strike his cheek sharply until he stopped.

In every mirror but one Une was greeted with the sight of her own pale body as it arched and writhed to the expert touches of her unknown lover but as she glanced into the mirror directly before her, there seemed to come a flash of light, perhaps a reflection from her glasses. When her vision cleared, that one reflection had changed, showing her hair flowing loose about her shoulders, and tears of blood streaming from her unprotected eyes, and the hood of the man standing behind her was filled only with a featureless void.

Screaming, she pushed herself away from the cloaked figure, dropping bruisingly to her knees in front of the mirror, hand flying to her cheek to find only that her fingers came away clean, no trace of blood on them. Shaking, Lady Une threw her glasses violently across the room, the wire-rimmed lenses cracking as they hit the marble floor. As she tore at her hair, struggling to loose it from the buns, her erstwhile lover knelt by her side, extending a pile of folded clothes that were not those she had worn before. After another moment of blind terror, Une recognized her Preventer uniform and clutched it to her chest desperately, as if to cling to the person she had been before the crisis unhinged her once more.

Lady Une glanced up to question the strange, cloaked young man, but he was no longer in the room. Dressing quickly, Une ran out of the party and the entire gated community, stopping her headlong flight only when she nearly slammed into a sleek black car. A pair of familiar blue eyes regarded her calmly from the driver's side window, as an elegant hand flicked white-blond bangs off one pale cheek. The Preventers' founder gasped in relief and hurried around the car, slipping into the passenger's seat.

"We'll wait a bit longer," Zechs murmured, staring towards the well-lit mansion off in the distance. "Maybe you won't be the only one..."

In the very heart of the mansion, Relena sat enthroned amid a milling mass of her drunken social peers. Dorothy Catalonia stood next to the throne, speaking in a low voice and gesturing emphatically, her expression dark. As her tirade came to an end, she pointed one shaking finger at a figure that had only just entered the room -- a short, slender form cloaked from head to toe in black.

Relena rose and stalked across the room, her bearing regal, her confidence complete. "You there! Who are you, how did you get in? I'm quite sure you were not invited!"

Seeing an opportunity to impress, two young men caught the source of Relena's ire by the arms, holding him in place. He made no resistance, only chuckling softly. "Ah, but when have I ever needed an invitation? I go where I please, when I please. Don't look so shocked. I may run, and I may hide, but I won't ever lie to you, little princess."

A puzzled frown drew lines across Relena's smooth brow as she tried to recall why this arrogant boy seemed so very familiar, but before she could say anything further the two men holding the hooded figure screamed and fell back, writhing as blood poured from their mouths and noses, from their eyes and their very pores.

The screaming began in earnest then, partygoers trampling each other in their hurry to get away from the two men who lay dying of the very plague they'd sought to escape.

The first young noble to reach the mansion's main doors threw himself through them in a panic, expecting to land atop the curved marble staircase that led down to the drive. Instead, he landed in a scattered pile of cushions, finding himself not outside, but in another part of the house. As he rose to try again, the first trickle of blood traced its slow, fatal path down his cheek.

As each attendee in turn lost hope and life, Relena alone stood fast in the central hall, facing he who had brought ruin on them all. Grabbing hold of the front of that concealing cloak, she shrieked at the mysterious figure, "Who are you? WHY ARE YOU DOING THIS?"

"Two questions, one answer," purred that too-familiar voice. "You know who I am." The spectre's fierce grin became, for a moment, the rictus of a bare skull and the hint of violet deep within the cowl became twin points of light, glowing eerily.

Relena's scream joined those of her dying guests, and she turned on her heel and ran. Room after room flew by her as she fled through a maze of golden light and mirrors that showed no reflection at all. Stumbling over cushions and other, heavier lumps that she could not -- would not -- think about, she ran on, despite the burn in her lungs and her legs.

At last the terrified princess came to a room with no exit but the one through which she had entered, and found that she recognized it not at all. In place of her favoured soft pastels and gilt, her mirrors and candles, here there were velvet draperies all of black, and a harsh, sourceless red light.

Sobbing, Relena turned to go back the way she came, only to find that her pursuer was leaning casually against the doorframe, utterly unperturbed. As he moved further into the room his cloak seemed to cling to the wall behind him, lingering behind as he walked out of it, until it was completely indistinguishable from the other draperies, and the door was no longer anywhere to be found.

Smiling still, the young man raked his bangs back out of his violet eyes and stretched, as if the cloak had been the heaviest of burdens. "So, here we are, Princess. Just the two of us. Nowhere left to run."

A name formed on Relena's lips as she stared into the face of her doom, but it was not the one she eventually voiced. "Duo."

Smile widening marginally, the slender youth shrugged. "If you wish." Closing the last few steps that divided them, Duo leaned in until his lips were a feather's thickness from Relena's and whispered, "This will hurt a bit, dear."

Relena's screams were muffled not at all by the bloodied lips that pressed against hers.

Une wrapped her arms around herself as she sat huddled in the passenger seat of the car, trying to block out the horrific screams echoing from the house. The sound had risen and fallen almost in waves, new voices joining and ceasing in a disturbingly musical rhythm. "Zechs, please... I can't listen to this anymore. What are we waiting for?"

The screaming stopped, cut off as if by a knife.

Sighing deeply, head bowed, Zechs whispered, "For that." He spoke no more as he started the car and drove away with haste that neither he nor Une chose to question.

In the mansion, filled mere hours before by laughter and music, by decadent vice and willful ignorance, there was now only silence. No breath stirred, no voice broke the stillness. The footfalls of the sole figure left standing made no sound as he turned to reclaim his cloak. As the dark fabric curled around his slender body, the violet-eyed being seemed to vanish into it, until there was nothing left of him at all, save for his night's grim work.