I am doing this, you must understand, under protest.
I, Telulu, am a very busy Deathbuster. Bringing about the Apocalypse isn’t going to happen on its own, you know. It especially isn’t going to happen if you sit around in a house teething some mewling brat and promising that yes, she’ll grow up to be a nasty little Messiah some day. That cretinous Professor couldn’t even hold on to his supposed trump card! A far more competent (if laughably short-sighted) villain named Vega kidnapped her from right under his nose!
Then she was re-kidnapped by my fellow witch Eudial, then re-re-kidnapped by Ukyou just when the Professor thought she had been returned. Having no contingency plan, he was forced to just let Ukyou take his precious saviour away. Not that taking her away from her “father” endeared Ukyou much to the little brat.
Speaking of brats, apparently some girl named Kaede is trying to destroy this island nation before I, I mean we, can destroy the entire world. Ukyou made a big deal about how her friends and loved ones might need to kill her and conveniently excused herself to go re-re-kidnap the brat Hotaru so she wouldn’t have to break her contemptible vow against killing.
One person not so burdened is the youma Tethys, whose use of the human Hayato’s martial arts skills and physical prowess allowed her to kill her former queen when the foolish woman let her guard down. Now she rules the Dark Kingdom… for whatever good that will do her when the Silence comes.
It pleases me that that moron Chris has dragged Sailor Moon and her friends out of Tokyo, heading for an unimportant school named Ohtori Academy somewhere in the north. Just two less problems standing between me, I mean us, and universal destruction.
One problem I’ll have to deal with, perhaps, is the overly self-confident wench Nabiki Tendo and her imbecilic bodyguard. They extracted from Ukyou the information about a sword that grants wishes to the one millionth person to attempt to draw it from its resting place. In exchange, they – well, rather Ryouga, for Nabiki has laudable good sense in sending disposable flunkies to do her own work – helped Ukyou re-re-kidnap Hotaru. I understand Vega was most cross about this whole situation, not to mention his being obliged to retreat by the combined forces of Ran, Akira, and Ranma.
Hmph. Really, that ought to suffice for even the most dull-witted of readers. The more so since none of this matters. All the characters you love, you hate, or are indifferent to will perish soon enough!
On that note, I’m leaving now. Apocalypse to choreograph, and all that…
Chapter 16: Step Up
Akira slid off the end of the bike. She slipped her helmet off and shielded her eyes from the sun. It was a bright sunny morning. The air was heavy, almost stagnant, and the heat had crept up so high that it felt like an oven. It was the first heat wave of the summer, and true to its name Akira could literally see the air rippling as it rose off the pavement. She sighed and undid her jacket, pulling off the tight leather so that her torso was clad only in a blue and yellow t-shirt.
“Are you sure you’ll be okay?” Daigo said. He was still sitting on his cycle. He looked pristine in his long black coat. The heat didn’t affect him in the slightest: not a hair was out of place in his short black mane, and not a bead of sweat stood out on his brow. He frowned down at her, and to most people his scarred face would have been intimidating. But Akira could see the worry there, the concern and sense of responsibility. He wasn’t frowning because he was annoyed, he was frowning because he cared.
He reminded her a bit of Ukyou.
“I’ll be fine,” Akira said as cheerfully as she could.
“Akira…” Daigo reached out and clasped her on the shoulder. She shifted slightly, but his touch was gentle and kind. “You don’t have to do this.”
“I think I want to,” Akira said, although she didn’t know why she felt that way.
Daigo stared down at her for a moment. He released her and sighed. He raised the same hand and stroked the length of his scar, not flinching away from the ruin that marked where his eye had once been. “I just don’t want you to end up like me,” he said. “The only thing fighting does is lead to more fighting.”
“Brother…” Akira said plaintively. “We aren’t fighting today.” She smiled. “This is a victory celebration. The good guys won, yesterday.” She patted him on the arm. “Can’t you just be happy for once?”
“Maybe.” He smiled thinly. His was a face not much used to smiling. He didn’t say anything more before kicking his motorcycle to life and riding off down the street. Akira looked after him wistfully. It would be years before she could afford to replace her own.
“Hey, that your brother?”
She turned and saw Ranma walking up to her. He was wearing a yellow t-shirt with a little bowtie and a pair of slacks with his hands thrust into the pockets.
Akira’s lip twitched a little. “Yeah…”
“He looks strong,” Ranma said with a nod in the direction he had left. There was a sort of eagerness to his voice.
“He is.” Akira nodded. “Much stronger than me.” She glanced out of the corner of her eye at Ranma. “Probably stronger than you, too.”
“Me?” Ranma laughed. “I’d like to see him prove it.”
She poked him in the ribs. Ranma toppled over with a cry, clutching his side. Akira giggled.
“That… was a dirty low down trick,” Ranma muttered as he got to his feet slowly.
“Sorry,” Akira said, feeling a little bad. “It’s just…”
“Yeah, yeah…” Ranma grinned at her. “Everyone wants a shot at the guy on top.” Suddenly Akira didn’t feel so guilty anymore.
“Didn’t Ukyou come with you?” she asked, changing the subject.
“She said she’d meet us here.” Ranma said. “She didn’t want to be walking around with the kid all day.” He grinned again. “I guess she’s afraid Hotaru will try to make a break for it in a crowd.”
Akira didn’t have any response to that. She believed Ukyou’s story. She wasn’t lying when she said that Hotaru’s father was a monster… but still… How did you deal with that? How did you save a girl like Hotaru without coming off as the bad guy? Well, maybe Ran had done like she promised and come up with some way to prove Ukyou right.
“C’mon,” Ranma said as he started towards the gates of the school. “Ran’s probably inside working on the big story already.”
Akira followed him with a nod. Taiyo High School was virtually abandoned at this time of day. The sun had risen not a half-hour ago, and it was still three hours before first bell. Not even the teachers and other staff would be here this early. Ran had once joked that it was the only time she could get any work done. Akira just marvelled that the girl could still manage to produce a daily paper, by herself, and run around helping Ukyou and Ranma out. The newspaper at Seijyun ran about once a month, and anybody asking about the Gedo High School paper would be directed to gossip scrawled on the bathroom walls.
Her office was up on the second floor. Ranma led the way, obviously familiar with the trip. Akira lagged behind him a little bit. She supposed Ukyou would know to come in when she arrived. She glanced behind her, out one of the windows at the hot pavement. She grimaced – somehow it was even hotter in the building. She did not look forward to attending classes today… especially since she would have to explain her absence yesterday.
The door to Ran’s office was open. The hallway was deserted except for Hotaru. The girl was sitting against the far wall. Her black hair gleamed in the hot light. She was wearing the same dress she had been wearing yesterday. She was crying. Large hiccuping sobs. Her face was buried in her hands.
Akira slowed down even as Ranma sped up. Something was wrong.
Ranma reached her and bent down. He asked her if she was okay, but she didn’t look up at him. She just kept crying into her hands. Ranma turned to look into the office…
Looking back, Akira realised that was when she knew. It was his eyes. Not just the way they widened, not just the way they flinched back… it was how they changed. The moment they looked into that room… Ranma’s eyes changed.
He stepped forward, his entire expression twisting. His lips pulled away from his teeth as if he was trying to scream. Akira was running now, but it was like a dream and everything moved in slow motion. The only sound was Hotaru’s pained sobs and the loud echo of her footsteps. It was so hot.
“Ran…” Ranma said, his voice a whistle as he forced air from his throat. He vanished into the room, moving like an automaton.
Akira skidded to a stop in front of the room. She didn’t want to look. She already knew what she would see.
It was worse than that.
Ukyou was inside. Her hands were pressed against the window as she leaned against it for support. Her hair hung down over her face. Her jacket fluttered in the hot breeze. It was covered in blood.
On the floor…
“Ran…” Ranma was on his knees. He reached out and grabbed a hand. The hand was too pale. “No… no… this isn’t happening…”
Akira felt the wall hit her back. She couldn’t back up any further. The air was too hot. She couldn’t breathe. It was too hot.
“Wake up!” Ranma screamed. He pulled her into his arms, cradling her against his chest. Her arm… oh god… it flopped to the ground at his side. Just flopped. It was almost comic. “Wake up, Ran!” Ranma’s jaw was trembling, his words kept stuttering. “W-Wake up… oh g-god… this is t-too much… d- don’t do this to me…”
Akira closed her eyes. She looked away. She couldn’t stand it. She wanted to cover her ears. To block it out. But Ranma kept talking.
“Do something!” he roared. “She needs help! We need to get her to a doctor!”
“It’s too late…” Ukyou’s voice; soft, cold…
“Don’t give me that!” Ranma screamed. “Do something! My God, she isn’t breathing… Ukyou… she isn’t breathing… DO SOMETHING! Please! Anybody! Please!”
“It’s too late…” Ukyou said again. “I tried. I saw… I tried… I…”
There was something wrong with Ukyou’s voice. Akira opened her eyes and looked. Ukyou had turned around and was looking down at him. Her hands were covered in blood, and they hung limply at her side. Akira remembered briefly the ruin that had been Ran’s chest.
“Hotaru!” Ranma snapped suddenly. “You said she could heal people, right?”
“Ranma…” Ukyou reached up toward him but he wasn’t looking at her anymore. Ranma was staring out the door at Hotaru. The girl was sobbing. She was curled into a ball against the wall. Ranma stretched a hand out toward the little girl.
“Help her,” he begged. Akira had never heard Ranma beg. She had honestly thought that it was something he couldn’t do. But he was begging now. His voice was full of anguish. Akira’s sides hurt. Her eyes burned. Ranma was crying too. The tears were streaming down his cheeks. He didn’t notice. He didn’t care. He was begging. “Please! Use your power! HELP HER!”
“Ranma!” Ukyou snapped harshly. But Ranma wasn’t paying attention to her.
“She isn’t breathing!” Ranma said, his voice catching. He tried to say something else, but for a moment all that came out was a series of choked ‘huh’ sounds. “You huh-have… you have to… she’s too cold… we have to…”
“Close the door.” It took Akira a moment to realise that Ukyou was talking to her. Akira looked up mutely, meeting Ukyou’s cold black lotus eyes. “She can’t do anything. It’s too late. She doesn’t need to see anymore of this. Close the door.”
Akira walked over. Her body was moving of its own accord. She had no control over it. She couldn’t think. It was too hot. She couldn’t breathe. The door clicked shut under her hand. She spun around and leaned back against it. Hotaru had changed position. She had stopped crying. She looked up at Akira. Her little girl eyes looked far too old. Akira could still hear inside the room.
“Damn you, Ukyou!” Ranma screamed, his voice wavering. “Open the door!”
“It’s too late for her,” Ukyou said softly.
“It’s not… it’s not…” Ranma’s voice trembled. “I’m Ranma Saotome, damn it!” Now his voice had regained its strength. “Ranma Saotome does not lose! Not this battle!”
“Please… Ranma, please… listen to yourself…” Ukyou’s voice grew closer to the door. “Feel her, Ranma. She’s cold. She’s dead. She’s been dead for hours. I found her… I tried to help, but it’s too late. There is nothing anyone could have done!”
“I can do something!” Ranma roared.
“No… no, you can’t… nobody can…”
Ranma tried to say something, but his words kept dissolving. Finally he gave up and just screamed. It was loud and primal and Akira sobbed to hear it. His voice grew hoarse and then his scream trailed off. It faded into sobs. Sobs that continued for Akira didn’t know how long.
Finally there was silence.
The heat hung on the air like a specter. Akira could see it out the windows. It was all she could feel, the heat. Her mind was numb.
“Who did this?” Ranma said. Akira started. That couldn’t have been his voice. It was cold. So cold that even Ukyou at her worst sounded warm in comparison.
“Ranma, you have to put her down… the police are coming…” Ukyou said slowly.
“Who. Did. This?”
There was a pause.
“Vega,” Ukyou answered simply.
“Where is he?”
“He… left a note…”
There was a soft sound as Ran’s body slid to the floor. Akira fell away from the door and was suddenly on her knees. Her breakfast came up.
“Give it to me.”
“Ranma!” Ukyou sounded desperate. “You can’t do this! It’s just what he wants-” Ukyou cut off, crying out in pain, and there was a thud as she fell against something. “Ranma!” Ukyou sounded more desperate now.
A moment passed. Then the door opened. Ranma stepped out into the hallway. He wasn’t looking at anything. He didn’t even notice Akira or Hotaru as he stepped out into the stiflingly hot corridor.
“Ranma!” Ukyou appeared in the doorway. She grabbed the frame to hold herself up. Her eyes were staring at him and shaking. “Ranma, it isn’t worth it!”
“Ukyou…” Ranma said, his voice still cold. “I am going to kill him.”
“NO!” Ukyou shouted. “You can’t… not like this!”
Ranma didn’t respond. He just turned around and started walking down the hallway. He dropped a piece of paper on the floor as he walked. It was crushed into a ball. Ukyou started after him, but her steps were slow and unsteady.
Akira reached out and grabbed the note. Her body was moving of its own accord again. She didn’t want to read it, but her hands unfurled the paper and her eyes fixed on it. The handwriting was neat, even beautiful… like the work of a master calligrapher. “Ranma Saotome, Akira Kazama, Ukyou Kuonji. Please excuse the drama of this message. I’m afraid you left me little choice. I was far too disappointed by our last encounter to let it go at that. Perhaps you can meet me again soon?
“I would also suggest you bring along the thing you took from me. I have grown attached to her. If you do not, I shall have to take something precious from you. Miss Hibiki told me an amazing story, about a fabulous sword. Perhaps if you do not meet me, I shall console myself by acquiring it?
“I’ll be waiting.
Akira stood up slowly. She wasn’t moving like a robot anymore.
He hadn’t just…
He had tortured…
Despite the heat, Akira pulled on her jacket one arm at a time. Ranma was disappearing down the stairwell now. Ukyou was caught halfway down the hall. She kept glancing back at Hotaru. Akira buttoned her collar in place. Ukyou’s eyes met Akira’s, and she mouthed ‘no’ at her. Akira ignored her. She pulled on her helmet.
She had to catch up to Ranma, so she moved quickly.
Alone, he might not be able to kill Vega.
Telulu stood on the tarmac, looking over the base with a critical eye. Azuma had been right: the place was nearly deserted. She hadn’t even been accosted since she had walked through the front gate. It was wonderful having a friend with access to nearly any military equipment she wanted. It opened a lot of doors.
She paused as she heard a light, musical beeping coming from her coat. Azuma wouldn’t be calling her so early. Then she remembered that only one other person had access to this number. She smiled and pulled the cell phone from her pocket.
She listened to him rant and rave. Apparently he had used the device Eudial had built to track down the Messiah again. He wanted her to come with him and help liberate the Messiah from the clutches of the martial artists who had kidnapped her. Telulu clucked her tongue.
“I’m sorry, Professor, but I’m rather busy at the moment.” She tilted her head to the side. “Perhaps we can meet up when you are finished doing your own dirty work… for once?”
There was silence on the other end of the phone, but that was all right. Telulu was hanging up anyway. She smiled. Did that fool really think she would let him pit her against the martial artists alone? And end up in a hospital bed for the next week like Eudial? She had bigger things to do today.
Destroying the world, for example.
Which reminded her that she had a schedule to keep. She walked jauntily down the tarmac, looking at each of the war machines in turn. The only problem was: which one to pick? She needed something mobile, but still powerful.
Telulu looked over her shoulder. A half-dozen soldiers were walking towards her. They were heavily armed. Ah, dependable Americans. She shrugged. She hadn’t expected to have the run of the base forever. Besides, she had picked out her target.
“Stop! Identify yourself!” the man in front ordered. He was reaching for his sidearm by now, but Telulu had already finished. She held up the grey-ribbed daimon egg and blew on it gently. It floated forward almost lazily. The guards shouted something and levelled their guns at her.
The egg touched the nose of the jet fighter. Immediately, pink webbing erupted from it and adhered to the machine. Slowly the egg sunk into the aircraft until there was no trace of it.
“On the ground, or we will open fir-fi…” the leader’s voice trailed off as the transformation began. The entire jet was consumed by a swirling nimbus of light that stretched over its form like a skin. Then it began to twist and distort, slowly shrinking down as it did so. The humans stared at it in wonder and horror as it began to take on recognisable shape and form. Slowly it became humanoid.
Then, with a blast of light and a sound like a thunderclap, the daimon was born. She stood nearly three meters tall and was made of white metal that glinted in the morning sunlight. Her face and body were feminine, but extremely thin and angular, like a rough-hewn sculpture of a woman’s proportions. A large metal plate descended from her head like hair, and the cockpit of what had once been the plane emerged from her crotch. She stretched her arms up to the sky and her mouth opened in rapturous joy. “VALKYRIE!” she cried, naming herself.
“OPEN FIRE!” the guard yelled, finally snapping out of his stupor. It was too late. Telulu leaped up and back out of the line of fire as the humans opened up with their assault rifles. The bullets pinged harmlessly off of Valkyrie’s armour. The daimon looked over at them. Her sky blue eyes narrowed.
“Valkyrie… kill them,” Telulu said mildly.
“Valkyrie acknowledges her command!” the daimon roared and turned to face the humans. They continued firing. One of them reached down and pumped a cylinder under his gun. There was a soft exhalation of air and a small black object flew directly into the daimon’s face. An explosion tore across the tarmac, and for a moment the monster was hidden from view by the smoke.
Telulu smiled. She had used the most powerful of the daimon eggs to create this weapon. Eggs that the Professor had intended for the creation of others like Telulu down the line. She watched as Valkyrie stepped out of the smoke, not even scratched.
“Valkyrie is locking on target!” the daimon cried happily as she stared at the humans and leaned back, thrusting out her chest. The soldiers had stopped, stunned by the lack of effect their weapons were having. “Valkyrie is firing!” the daimon declared.
Telulu quirked an eyebrow as Valkyrie’s breasts exploded off her body. The nipples became nose cones, and long shafts extended from them as they transformed into missiles. The humans screamed and began to turn and flee. They were hopelessly slow as the missiles tracked in on them.
The explosion was quite a bit more spectacular than what their grenade had caused. When the smoke cleared, there was nothing but a two–meter-deep crater and the gore of the dead humans. Sirens and alarms were ringing out. Valkyrie turned to gaze at the base proper. Dozens of soldiers were pouring out of it now.
“Valkyrie has spotted new targets!” she declared as she levelled her arms at the base. Her breasts had regrown, and now her fingers locked forward as their tips opened, revealing the bores of miniguns. She roared and her fingers twisted around in circles as a hail of bullets flew forward. A line of torn tarmac traced across the ground to the base, and a dozen soldiers died on their feet as their bodies were literally sliced in two. Then the assault climbed up the side of the base. Valkyrie stopped when her hands were both pointed skyward. A second later, the side of the base exploded.
“Excellent,” Telulu said with a smile. “But as entertaining as watching this is, we don’t have time to waste here.”
Valkyrie turned and looked at Telulu. Her body snapped rigid and she gave a crisp military salute with her still-transformed hands. “Valkyrie is awaiting orders!”
“Come along,” Telulu gestured. “It’s a long way back to Tokyo, and we have a schedule to keep.”
“Valkyrie will escort the commander!” the daimon yelled as she blasted forward, the flare of her jets coming out from just behind her cockpit. She scooped up the startled Telulu in both arms, and then without missing a beat adjusted her aim so that they were both flashing into the sky. Telulu looked down at the flaming base as it rapidly vanished behind them. Then she began to laugh.
Things were working out even better than she had planned.
Kusanagi landed on top of the office building. He glanced to the side. Another giant ward encircled the building across the way. The second of three, if Ukyou was to be believed. Even now, the others would be on their way. He wanted to be below the city with them. He wanted to see for himself what was happening down there.
He wanted to know the truth.
But he had felt it. A power on top of this building. It had been mostly dormant, but it had been incredible. Momiji was usually the only one who could sense the aragami, but not sensing this would have been like not spotting the sun. He hated to admit it, but Ukyou had been right: there was something up here he needed to do.
There was a man standing across from him. He had one foot up on the raised ledge of the roof and was gazing favourably at the giant brown centipede skin that encircled the other skyscraper. His long black hair blew behind him, falling to his waist as the morning sunlight tinted it purple. He was clad in a grey and orange jacket with white slacks. Kusanagi clenched his fists. Every instinct that he had was telling him to run, but he wasn’t about to do that.
“So, Kusanagi, we meet at last,” the man said, his voice a chilling, reverberating mockery of a human’s. He looked back over his shoulder. His skin was pale, almost chalky, and he had black irises. His face was pretty, and he smiled arrogantly before he spoke. “I suspected this would be inevitable, however.”
Kusanagi already knew the answer, but he had to ask the question. “Who are you?”
“I am called Murakumo,” the man explained. He turned and bowed, his hair flowing neatly behind him. “And you are Kusanagi. The traitor who abandoned his duty to us, instead serving and protecting the humans. Now we are introduced.”
“What did you do to Kaede?” Kusanagi shouted. He couldn’t play pretend. He wasn’t about to deny what he had been told. Kusanagi raised his arm and clenched his fist. His blades painfully tore themselves free of his arms and locked into position. Damn Ukyou and her plan. He was going to beat the information out of that bastard!
“Ah…” Murakumo crossed his arms. “I’ve done nothing to her. And I don’t respond well to threats.” He smirked, shadows creeping across his features. “Especially from a low–class soul like you.”
“Low class?” Kusanagi snarled. “I’ll show you low class!”
He charged. Murakumo vanished. Kusanagi slashed through empty air. He stumbled to a halt, his foot teetering on the brink of the building. He gasped. That had been fast!
He looked behind him and saw Murakumo standing on the opposite edge of the building. He hadn’t even uncrossed his arms.
“You’re too slow and weak to fight me, Kusanagi,” Murakumo informed him. “You only have seven pieces of your own soul.” He grinned again; a sinister grin. “I have eight: a complete set. I am as much beyond you as you are beyond the human worms you fight so desperately to defend.”
“Yeah, right!” Kusanagi turned around. Ukyou had told him that if he confronted Murakumo, his sole job would be to buy time. Kunikida had told him that they needed to make sure the most powerful of the aragami was occupied while they went down there to deal with Susano-oh before he could be awakened. Momiji had begged him not to get in over his head. Everybody agreed that Ukyou was probably right and Murakumo would be a lot more powerful than him. The best he could do was keep him busy. That was his job. That was the plan.
“Let’s see you beat this!” Kusanagi roared. He grit his teeth and flexed his muscles. He reached down inside and pulled aside the mental block that kept his powers in check. His head flew back as pain and energy crashed through his body, contesting for control. His body shifted and transformed as great spines ripped free of his back and his feet became twisted claws. His jacket and shirt were torn asunder and his shoes shredded under the onslaught. He stepped forward, breathing heavily as the transformation completed itself.
Kusanagi grinned. He would beat the truth out of this bastard. He would find out what the aragami had done to Kaede. He would make them pay for it.
“Well, well…” Murakumo smirked. “Perhaps I shall have to show you how truly pathetic you are?” The man spread his arms, and his eyes turned black.
Vega let the monk fall to the ground. He had been unhelpful, so his death had been long. That had pleased Vega a small amount. On the other hand, he had been unhelpful, and that had displeased Vega far more. Perhaps he shouldn’t have killed all the other monks in a fit of pique?
He looked around. The field next to the small temple was empty. There were only the corpses of the monks that had served the place strewn about here and there where Vega had chased them down. There was no other living soul in sight.
There was no wishing sword.
All that trouble to torture the location out of the reporter…
According to the monk, this was the right location. There was even a dead spot in the middle of the lawn where something large had obviously stood until very recently. The same monk had told him that they had opened up their doors this morning just to find the entire wishing sword, stone and all, gone.
Vega walked over to the place where the stone had been up until now. He flicked his claw, expertly cleaning all the blood off with the motion. He looked around for some clue as to the sword’s new location.
He stood up sharply.
Two of them, approaching fast. Vega held up his hand and turned to face the temple. He watched as two shadows appeared atop it, silhouetted against the rising sun. One was taller than the other. They paused as they noted him below, and with a single leap they landed on the lawn not three meters away.
“Juni, Juli… what a pleasant surprise,” Vega said. His annoyed frown was hidden behind his mask and his voice was perfectly calm, almost happy sounding.
The two Dolls stared at Vega. These were Bison’s pets. His most favoured and trusted servants, aside from that one Doll that had gone missing a couple of months back. Although they were just Dolls, even Vega didn’t care to meet their soulless gaze for long. Bison had… done things to them.
“Lord Vega,” Juli said as she stepped forward. She was the taller of the two Dolls, with brown hair combed into long bangs that framed her face. She was also the more well-developed of the pair, a fact that her skin-tight Shadowloo uniform left in little doubt. “We have been ordered by Lord Bison to assist you. He felt the death of the other Dolls that had been placed under your command, and thought it best to send reinforcements.”
Vega chuckled. He just bet that Bison had ‘sent reinforcements’. Oh, these Dolls would obey him. But Bison must have suspected something. Why send more Dolls? Why not send someone like Balrog who was far more capable of fighting?
Because the Dolls were perfectly loyal. No. Vega had just been handed a pair of watchdogs. Bison must be suspicious. Well, there was no help for it.
“What are your orders, sir?” Juli said as she knelt in front of Vega. Her companion knelt as well.
“How did you find me here?”
“Juni tracked your signature, sir,” Juli informed him.
Vega looked at the other girl. She was shorter than Juli by about half a head, and had straw-blonde hair. She was less developed than her counterpart, but had a certain tomboyish appeal to her nonetheless. That was understandable. They were two of the later Doll series: Vega had screened the candidates for that series himself. The Doll stared up at him mechanically. Her eyes were empty. Not calm or controlled… just empty.
“Explain,” he said.
“Juni can acquire an individual’s chi signature,” Juli explained. “She can then trace their trail like a bloodhound. She simply acquired your trail at the location of the fight you participated in yesterday and followed you here.”
Vega chuckled. He turned and walked over to the raw spot in the centre of the lawn. He knelt next to it. “Juni, come here.”
“Acknowledged.” The Doll stood up and walked over to his location. She stopped and stood over him, looming robotically. Vega wanted to sigh, but resisted the urge. He had told Bison that not implanting a personality in her would make her terribly boring.
“Locate a chi signature that was here… sometime last night. It would have had to be strong. A person capable of carrying a large rock, say about my size, for an extended period of time.”
Juni stared down at the ground for a minute. Without seeming to change expression at all, she turned to him and spoke. “Signature acquired.”
“Can you follow it?”
“Then do so, at best speed.”
Ryouga sat down heavily and flexed his fingers. The thing wasn’t that heavy, but Nabiki had kept hounding him through the entire trip not to let it jostle in the slightest. He glanced at it. It looked simple enough: just a long katana, thrust halfway up its blade into a rock about half as big as he was.
He wasn’t sure he believed it was magic, much less that it granted wishes. But Nabiki’s eyes had lit up at seeing it. She had started chuckling and rubbing her hands together. She wanted it badly.
“So, now what?” Ryouga said.
“Heh. Now, Ryouga, we win,” Nabiki said. She walked over to his pack and began to retrieve the items she had stored there before they left last night. “Ukyou thinks she is very clever. She wants us to have a nice fight over this little wonder.” She pulled out a long scroll and unfurled it slightly. “Only one thousand, two hundred and five people left to go before we hit the magic number. Less than a week if we had left it where it was.” Nabiki turned to Ryouga and winked. “But unlike Ukyou, I am capable of lateral thinking.”
She gestured for Ryouga to help her pound some stakes into the ground. He shrugged and did so. Now they were really getting attention. The students of Todai, aka Tokyo University, the most prestigious school in Japan, were staring at the two people and the giant rock that had appeared in the middle of their school commons. Ryouga tried to ignore them as he worked.
Once he was finished, Nabiki attached some poles to the stakes and then unfurled a banner which she had him hold in place while she pinned it up. She stepped back to admire her handiwork. Ryouga shrugged and did so as well. The banner was now hanging just over the wishing sword, with the poles framing it for all to see.
“Test of Strength!” the banner read. And under that, in much larger kanji: “One MILLION yen to the first person to successfully pull the sword from the stone. Ten yen per try.”
“This will be over before noon,” Nabiki declared with a twinkle in her eye as the students began to whisper and move towards them.
“So this is it,” Kunikida whispered as he peered around the corner. Two aragami stood at the far end of the tunnel. They were tall, monstrous parodies of human shapes with too many eyes and long clawed limbs. He inched his head back and looked at his people.
They were all here. Ready to plunge into the heart of the enemy, right where Ukyou had told them it would be. Two points of a perfect equilateral triangle, with the sanctuary of Susano-oh lying in the exact centre of that triangle. There had been only two possible places it could be. They had guessed right on the first try.
So far, everything Ukyou had told them had been the truth.
He looked at Momiji. She was staring off through the walls of the musty, dark tunnel. Her face was lit up from underneath. Not by a flashlight, but by the soft blue glow of her mitama as it reacted in sympathy to whatever power lay dormant down that tunnel. Kunikida caught her eyes and she nodded.
He reached into his jacket and pulled out his pistol. He had never liked guns. The weight and the cold of them always made his skin crawl. He glanced around at the rest of his crew, making sure they were ready.
Koume was grinning. She held a rocket-propelled grenade launcher over her shoulder with one hand and a heavy machine gun slung under her other arm. She was wearing a backpack filled with ammunition. Ryoko was next to her. She slid back the top of her own pistol and let it lock back into place with a soft click. She frowned and looked up at Kunikida. Next to them, Yaegashi looked almost comically out of place. He had a rifle, but was holding it like he had never even seen one before. When Kunikida looked at him he gulped and adjusted his glasses with his free hand, but nodded.
Matsudaira was standing just down the corridor, her body half-concealed in shadows. Kunikida squinted as he looked at her. Was she on a cellphone? Yes, he could hear her voice just barely over the soft drip of water falling somewhere in the distance. The woman nodded once, then snapped her phone closed as she walked back into the light.
“What was that?” Kunikida whispered harshly.
Matsudaira blinked as she looked at him suddenly. She cleared her throat and answered in a soft whisper back. “I was… leaving a message. For my son.” She paused. “In case I don’t come back.”
Momiji smiled and patted the woman on the arm. Matsudaira looked down at Momiji, her expression perplexed. Kunikida sighed. He guessed he could understand the woman’s concern.
“Okay, everyone, on three…” He held up his gun. “And remember. Shoot for the mitamas. If you destroy them, you destroy the aragami.” Everyone nodded as he turned back to the corner.
The first sign that something was wrong was the people loitering outside the gate. Stout-looking men (and the occasional woman) milling about in a confused fashion. Normally, shrines in Japan were open to the public. The giant red arches that served as entryways did not even have doors. But someone had strung a rope covered in rice-paper wards across the entryway. A small sign hung from the rope.
“Due to technical difficulties, the shrine is closed for today. We apologise for any inconvenience.”
Ukyou only paused long enough to note the message before she leapt up and over the crowd. It wasn’t a long leap, but in her condition and carrying Hotaru’s weight it took a noticible effort. She landed on top of the tori arch and looked into the shrine proper.
It seemed like only yesterday she had been here. She and Aaron had found this place even before they had arrived in Nerima. They had snuck into the shrine in the dead of night a dozen times again after that. Always to check the roll. They watched as the countdown to the magic number continued, slowly but surely.
It should have been only another week. One week, and then the sword would have been hers. Then she and Aaron could have been two people, like they had been before. One more week…
Someone up there was laughing at her.
“Are you still there, Hotaru?”
The girl didn’t reply, but Aaron could feel her breath on the back of his neck. He could feel her aura. It was troubled and turbulent, filled with that strange deeper power that Aaron had begun to sense only recently. Hotaru was awake, he could tell that. He really wished they had been able to leave the girl behind.
It had all been going so well. They had rescued Hotaru. They had driven Vega off. In only a week… they would be cured. Ukyou was beginning to feel like a human being again. It had felt good to be the winner again. Not fighting for her own survival or living at the mercy of lost friends. Things had been looking so good…
Why hadn’t they seen this coming?
“Hold on tight for just a while longer,” she told the girl on her back. Hotaru didn’t reply, but her grip tightened just a little. Ukyou leapt into the courtyard. It was deserted. But the real action was behind the building. She dashed across the well-kept lawn and over the roof with only three hops.
She knew Ranma and Akira were there before she saw them. Aaron felt them. Them, and nothing else.
They landed and looked around. She almost dropped Hotaru. The yard was full of corpses. She heard Hotaru make a small mouse-like sound before going quiet. Ukyou kept her face calm as she looked at Ranma and Akira.
Ranma was standing next to the temple. He was staring at the ground. His hands were curled into fists. Akira was standing further out, in the middle of the lawn. She was crouched next to a bald spot in the grass and…
“The sword!” Ukyou gasped.
“Gone,” Akira said as she stood up.
“Vega?” Ukyou asked.
Akira shrugged. “He isn’t here.”
“Damn him!” Ranma roared. There was a crash as he lashed out, punching a hole a good three meters across in the wooden walls of the temple. “That bastard!” Ranma turned around and walked into the yard. “VEGA! You said you’d be here!” He raised his fists to the sky. “Come out and fight, you bastard! Isn’t that what you want?”
“Ranma, we have to look at this rationally…” Ukyou began.
“No!” he shouted back. “We find him. We kill him!”
Ukyou staggered back under the force of his words. She knelt down and let Hotaru climb off her back. Maybe he was right? Ukyou and Aaron could see where this was heading. They should have seen it all along.
Vega was not the kind of opponent who ran away. Not unless he planned on springing a trap. And Ran had been the one to take his picture. Ukyou should have seen that! She should have been prepared!
Ukyou grit her teeth. She clenched her eyes shut.
(…she looked down at Ran’s body and knew she was dead. She heard Hotaru gasp behind her. She knew Ran was dead and all she could do was stare and think…)
There was no way she could have known. There was no way she could have done anything. She had to believe that. She looked back up at Ranma. He was literally seething. His aura was burning with fire chi as his rage flooded through his body, eradicating all other emotion. Ranma would fight Vega. He would fight Vega and he would die, or he would kill the other man. That was what Ukyou had to concentrate on now.
“Why would he challenge us, and then not show up for the challenge?” Akira asked to the air. She, at least, sounded more reasonable than Ranma. Her aura was burning with anger too, but it had not filled her like it had him. Maybe Ukyou could talk sense into her.
“He wouldn’t,” Hotaru said suddenly. Everyone turned to look at her. She was sitting on the ground, staring absently at the grass as it blew by. “He’s a monster, and he’ll kill you all. He’ll kill you all because you saw his true face.” Hotaru sniffed and rubbed her nose. “He will wait for you to come to him and then he’ll kill you like he did that girl and like he did these men… like he’ll do to me.”
“Hotaru?” Aaron whispered.
“He showed me, just before you came…” She sniffled, and tears began to leak from the corner of her eyes. “His face. He’ll kill me one day, too. But first he’ll kill all of you. Just for being near me. Because of me. Because of what I am.” Hotaru looked up, her eyes searching each of them in turn. “Why? WHY?” She was really crying now, the tears coming down in steady streams. “What am I? What kind of monster am I that everything I touch dies? Why do monsters fight over me? WHY!?”
Ranma just turned away. Akira looked at Hotaru for a long time. Ukyou stepped forward and knelt next to the girl. “I’m sorry, Hotaru.”
“Sorry?” Hotaru clenched her hands into fists and scowled at Ukyou. “You’re sorry? For holding me here? For treating me like a… like a thing, just like him? What are you sorry for?”
“I’m sorry this all had to happen,” Ukyou said and reached down, but Hotaru flinched away from her grasp. Ukyou let her hand fall to her side. “Whether you believe me or not, I want to help you. I’m sorry I took you away from your father, but he is a bad man… a sick man, who needs help. I’m sorry that I have to take you with me now, but there is no one I can trust you with. Kyosuke is still in the hospital and I don’t know anyone else well enough to think they can protect you.”
“You’re going to him again,” Hotaru said as she pulled her knees to her chest. “You’re taking me right to him.”
“Yes,” Ukyou sighed. “And I’m sorry about that, too.” She stood up. “The world is harsh, Hotaru. I want to be a better person, to make this all just go away. But I can’t. All I can do is be who I am and do what I think is right.”
She turned and walked towards the place where the wishing sword had been. Aaron had sensed the aura almost as soon as he’d gotten here, but it had been driven from their mind. Now… now he knew what it meant. It was the Psychopower. It lingered in the air like noxious smoke and trailed off into the distance like a scar. He glanced in the direction the power had vanished.
It was too weak to be Bison.
It had to be too weak to be Bison.
“Vega went this way,” Ukyou said. “He either has the sword, or is chasing the person who does.” She turned and looked back at Ranma. “I won’t help you kill him, Ranma, but he can NOT get his hands on that sword. He has to be stopped.”
“You can follow him?” Akira asked.
“Are you okay, Yaegashi?”
“Don’t worry about me…” Yaegashi grit his teeth and clenched his hand over his shoulder. The blood seeped through his fingers and his face was pale, but his eyes were focused and clear behind the rims of his glasses. “I can still move. We have to hurry. They know we’re here.”
“He’s right…” Momiji gasped. The light was still shining from within the breast of her jacket, bathing her in an eerie blue glow. Her eyes had taken on a disturbing far-away look, and her voice seemed to be echoing slightly. “I can feel them coming. Many angry souls closing in on us…”
Kunikida nodded and gestured for everyone to start down the tunnel. He paused and grabbed Koume as she started moving.
“We need to stop them from following us more than we need to get out of here quickly,” he explained. The woman blinked at him, then a slow, happy grin spread across her face.
“I know just what you’re thinking, boss man,” she said slyly. She turned around and dropped her machine gun to the floor with a clatter. Using her now free hand, she levelled her RPG at the roof of the corridor dozens of meters down the stretch. Already Kunikida could hear the clatter and shuffle of the approaching aragami. “Fire in the hole!” Koume roared. Her red hair snapped back behind her as flames erupted from the back of her heavy weapon.
Kunikida shielded his eyes as the dust and smoke thrown up by the backblast temporarily blinded him. He could hear the low-pitched whine of the rocket as it flew down the subterranean tunnel. The explosion was almost anticlimactic, but the thunderous roar of the cave-in that followed was deafening. He stumbled and fell to his knees as the shock wave raced back down the length of the tunnel.
He looked up as the dust cleared. There must have been fifty tonnes of earth and rock blocking the path now. It should be enough.
“Good enough,” he barked. “Let’s go!”
Everyone nodded and started sprinting down the corridor. Yaegashi trailed slightly behind, but Koume fell back with him and began to urge him on… perhaps with slightly more insults and profanity than Kunikida would have used, but it got the job done. Momiji took the lead. In fact, it was hard to keep pace with her.
Her eyes kept staring straight ahead and she began to take turns and branches in the tunnels without pausing. Her feet were barely touching the floor as she sprinted. Kunikida didn’t like that. He didn’t like that at all.
Suddenly, as they turned a corner, there was a door in front of them. Less a door really, and more a sort of organic valve… like the kind found in a heart. It was dark purple, and pulsated in the light cast by the TAC’s lamps and Momiji’s radiance.
Everyone paused at the doorway… except Momiji. She walked straight up to it and the opening irised apart. Kunikida shouted for everyone to follow him as he charged off after her. He almost broke his neck when the doorway opened up a good two meters above the floor of the chamber beyond.
The landing was harsh, but almost-forgotten training saved him from a more vicious spill as he rolled with the impact. He grunted in pain. He could hear Ryoko calling out his name in concern. Looking up, he saw Momiji floating towards the floor. Her radiance had formed a bubble around her body now. Her eyes were staring at something only she could see.
“MOMIJI!” Kunikida roared as he climbed to his feet. He heard a grunt as Koume leapt down beside him. Momiji landed a few meters away… and as her feet touched the ground, the aura around her, and her far-away look, both vanished.
“What… what is this?” Momiji asked softly.
They were in a large circular room, like the inside of some alien flower. The green-purple walls pulsed slightly and glistened organically. The centre of the room was a raised dais, out of which grew a short slender stand like a weed. On top of this was a huge glowing blue seed: a mitama as large as a human baby. A baleful blue glow, almost too bright to look into, radiated from the mitama.
“Susano-oh,” Kunikida said breathlessly. He heard the other members of the TAC climbing down behind him. “Step away from it, Momiji!”
“R-right!” the girl gulped and ran back, placing herself behind Kunikida and Koume. Ryoko stepped in front of him, kneeling and levelling her pistol at the giant blue seed that was the incubator of a god.
“This is it?” Koume grinned. She pulled her RPG into place again. “Let’s not waste time then! I’ll blow that thing to kingdom come!”
“NO!” Matsudaira cried and pushed the barrel of her weapon into the air. “We have no idea what attacking it will do. The explosion could kill us all!”
“We don’t have time for this…” Koume began to bark back, but she was cut off as a wet, viscous noise alerted them all to a new arrival.
Kunikida turned his head slowly. He watched, stunned and unable to speak as the girl stepped from the opening that had grown in the wall. Kaede. She was dressed in long virgin white robes, and moved with an almost inhuman grace. Her short blue hair was exactly as he remembered it. Her face, so much like Momiji’s and yet so unlike that of her fraternal twin’s… it was smiling. She looked so happy and at peace.
“Father…” Kaede inclined her head slightly. She turned to Momiji. “Sister…” She looked at the others in turn. “Everyone. Welcome to my home.”
“Kaede…” Kunikida said, his voice cracking. He could feel the gun trembling in his hands.
“You are alive!” Ryoko called out.
“Very much so,” Kaede said with a stern nod. Her smile transformed into a dangerous frown. “Something I can’t promise the rest of you if you disturb this sacred place.”
“Oh yeah?” Koume stepped forward and swung her machine gun into place. “You and what army?”
“Koume, no!” so many people screamed at once that it was hard to tell exactly who had spoken.
“This army,” Kaede said as she raised her hand and snapped her fingers. “Did you really think that…” She trailed off and snapped her fingers again. “That I would…”
“What’s going on?” Ryoko whispered.
“I…” Kunikida had no idea.
A dark shadow appeared in the portal behind Kaede. Koume growled and levelled her firearm at it. Kaede smiled and turned her attention back to them.
“As I was saying…”
Everyone gasped as the creature stepped into the chamber. It was tall, almost three meters so. It was covered in pristine white and grey armour and looked like nothing so much as a sculpture of a human woman made out of the parts of a jet fighter. The creature looked down at all the humans in front of it and smiled. Then its eyes locked on the giant mitama in the centre of the room.
“Valkyrie has located the primary objective!” it roared.
“What?” Kaede spun in place, her robes flapping about her. Underneath, she was wearing some sort of strange outfit that Kunikida only caught a glimpse of. “Who are you?”
“She would be my servant,” a new voice said. A woman appeared, literally fading out of the shadows behind the giant mechanical woman. The newcomer had vibrant green hair done up in two large buns with small, thin locks dangling from them. She was dressed in a tight black dress cut low on her chest with a short skirt and strings that criss-crossed her otherwise bare arms and legs. Her vivid green eyes flashed in the blue glow of the chamber. “I’m sorry none of yours could make your summons. Valkyrie is very enthusiastic about her work, you see.”
“Who are you?” Kaede gasped. She was backing up towards the giant mitama.
“My name is Telulu,” the woman said imperiously. She glanced over and her eyes locked with Kunikida’s. “I want to thank you for leading me straight here, Daitetsu Kunikida. Without your help, it might well have taken me weeks of waiting to distract her bodyguard and set up just the right circumstances for my mission.”
“Your mission?” Kunikida asked, but there was a sour taste in his mouth. He began to raise his arm, trying to bring his gun to bear on the newcomer, but it felt like it was made of lead.
“Yes…” Telulu laughed into the back of her hand. “I’m afraid I can’t let this girl be the Kushinada anymore.” With a flick of her wrist, she gestured at Kaede and two long green vines snaked forth like whips from her wrists. Kaede gasped as they encircled her and snapped tight, trapping her arms and legs together. “There can only be one saviour!”
Kaede screamed. Black lightning was flashing from the vine whips, running along the length of her body as her back twisted in pain.
“Kaede!” Kunikida stepped forward. “Open fire!”
All further words were drowned out by the hail of gunfire. Every member of the TAC was firing, from the loud constant roar of Koume’s gun as it chewed through a long belt of bullets to the small, almost comical pops of Momiji’s little derringer. Telulu didn’t even move. She didn’t have to. The huge white-grey form of the mechanical monster landed on its knees between them and her and the lead bounced off it like rain drops.
Kunikida gestured frantically, signalling for Ryoko and Koume to try and flank the beast. He could easily see the horror show just beyond the giant metal creature. Telulu was reeling in Kaede like a fish. The girl was screaming, but her screams were lost under the roar of gunfire.
“Valkyrie is commencing suppression fire!” the mechanical woman cried. Her hands snapped up and her fingers locked forward. Bores opened on the ends of them. Kunikida gasped and dove to the ground. He could only hope everyone else did the same. The roar of the monster firing made the reports of their pitiful guns seem like firecrackers. He could hear bullets tearing into the wall and rock behind him, chewing it up and causing echoing explosions. Dust and debris began to rain down across the chamber.
Kunikida looked up. Telulu had dragged Kaede over to her and raised her hand. Something glittered from her fingers, some sort of device. She reached back, and then calmly shoved her hand straight into the screaming girl’s chest. “KAEDE!” Kunikida roared, but he couldn’t hear his own voice. He could only watch in horror as the woman drew back her hand, and instead of gore she was carrying a small floating crystal. It was pink and white, formed like a star, and glowed with an internal radiance unlike any Kunikida had ever seen before. The soft, warm light of it seemed to echo across something precious inside of him. He instantly knew that it was Kaede’s soul. He couldn’t tell how he knew, but the certainty was so sharp and acute that there was no doubting it.
“Kaede!” he cried again.
Heedless of the danger, he leapt to his feet and charged. He was firing. He realised dimly that he was out of ammunition, but he kept pulling the trigger as he screamed and ran. The green-haired witch turned to look at him. She smiled as she looked him straight in the eye. Then she pulled the crystal up to her face and… swallowed it. She licked her lips.
Momiji screamed, and the room was suddenly bathed in a brilliant blue glow. Everything faded into that blue light. Kunikida stumbled and fell to his knees. The world had gone silent. He blinked and the glow slowly receded from his eyes, leaving only dark spots that lingered until his vision cleared entirely.
Telulu was standing at the back of the chamber. Her head was thrown back in exultation, and in her hands she was carrying the glowing blue mitama that was the unborn god.
“Yes!” she declared to the sky. “Just as I suspected. The Kushinada effect was tied directly to her soul.” She looked down. “With the consumption of her heart crystal, I have become the new Princess Kushinada.”
“Kaede!” Kunikida yelled. “What did you do to her?”
Telulu gestured at the body lying at her feet. Kaede’s eyes stared into the sky. Unblinking. Unmoving. Her skin was pale.
“Do not grieve. I only gave her peace.”
“You monster!” Kunikida somehow flipped a cartridge from inside his jacket and reloaded with one motion. He was already aiming when Telulu pointed at him.
“Valkyrie, kill them all aside from the other Kushinada. Then bring her to me.”
“Valkyrie confirms the command!” the monster roared. It threw its body in front of Telulu again, and Kunikida’s bullets bounced harmlessly off its shell. He kept firing, roaring mindlessly. It wasn’t supposed to end like this! The machine-woman raised her hand and pointed it at him, her fingers locking into place for firing again. Kunikida could feel tears rolling down his cheeks.
Then a weight impacted with his side. He heard the ear-shattering whine of the monster’s miniguns as they opened up. He also heard a scream. The ground smashed into his side so hard the breath was knocked out of him and his gun was sent flying.
“Sir, are you alright?” Ryoko said from on top of him. But her voice was a pain-filled hiss. He glanced up and saw her looking down at him. Her face was drawn and pale. He saw blood drip down her arm. He could see that the back of her jacket had vanished and her entire back was a bloody ruin.
“Ryoko!” he shouted.
“Dammit!” Koume roared. “Fall down and go boom, bitch!” She had replaced her machine gun with her bazooka again. She gave a wild yell as the rocket blasted forth. It streamed in on Valkyrie in a short arc. The monster’s arm snapped up so fast Kunikida couldn’t see her move. The rocket crashed into the palm of her hand, and Kunikida saw the warhead breaking and deforming around her fingers before it mushroomed into a titanic explosion.
The blast didn’t even completely obscure the monster. It just grinned. Koume stared in shock. There was a snap as the fingers of the beast turned into guns again, pointed straight at Koume. He could see Telulu vanishing into the same portal that Kaede had entered through, still cradling her giant mitama. Ryoko had fallen unconscious in his arms.
“Valkyrie will kill the human!”
For a moment, everything did. All eyes turned to the far side of the room. Momiji was standing there. The wall behind her was a blasted ruin from where the creature’s initial assault had torn it apart. The dust and wind of the battle blew her long brown hair around her. She was staring straight at Valkyrie, and holding her derringer to her temple.
“Momiji, no!” Yaegashi shouted, but his voice cut off into a pained gasp. Valkyrie just blinked at her.
“If I pull this trigger,” Momiji said, and her voice was deadly calm, “then the power of the Kushinada will activate. All of the aragami will be sent back into stasis! Even Susano-oh!” Valkyrie paused. Obviously it was not the brightest of monsters, but even it could fathom that there was something wrong with that. “Unless you let everyone here live and leave right now, I’ll kill myself! Then your master won’t get her prize! The power of the Kushinada means nothing without Susano-oh and the aragami!”
Valkyrie stepped back. Then it slowly lowered its guns. “Valkyrie will report back for further orders!” A high-pitched roar filled the chamber as the jets on Valkyrie’s back ignited. It spun in place and bent forward before blasting out the still-open portal.
Momiji stood strong for a moment longer, then slumped to her knees. Her pistol tumbled from her suddenly nerveless fingers. Koume ran over to her. Kunikida looked back down at Ryoko. She was bleeding so badly… but the attack had not been deep. It looked worse at first glance than it did now. At least, he hoped it did.
“She needs a doctor!” he cried. “Matsudaira, get over here!”
Everyone looked up. Yaegashi was leaning against the wall. His shoulder was still bleeding, and a piece of debris had fallen on his leg, trapping him. Koume was holding the shivering Momiji. There was no sign of Matsudaira anywhere.
“Matsudaira!” Kunikida yelled again.
“Matsudaira?” Yaegashi added his own voice. “I haven’t seen her since…”
A cold chill ran up Kunikida’s spine. “Azusa? Matsudaira!” He looked around. But she was gone.
Ukyou sprinted across the rooftops of the university. Ranma and Akira were two steps behind her, Akira moving slightly more slowly since she was trying not to jostle the little girl she was carrying on her back. Ukyou tightened her grip on her staff. Her hands were slick with sweat. The heat was only growing worse as the day continued.
The university was packed today. Below them, thousands of students milled about. None of them looked up to see the three shadows flick across the roofs in the midday sun. The trail of the Psychopower was growing stronger. They were here, somewhere on campus.
She clenched her teeth. Too many people. Too many ways that people could get hurt.
Then Aaron felt it. It was like a beacon. It blazed with repressed power, hissing through his consciousness like a pressure cooker screaming in the dark. He pulled them to a halt and stared off to the side. He could feel a large concentration of life forces off in that direction, but nothing specific enough to pinpoint.
But the beacon… it was much like the power he had felt from Hotaru, Eudial and Pluto. Except it was different. It wasn’t as… alive. It simply was. Focused, held, bound…
“The wishing sword…” he said softly.
“What was that?” Akira asked as she landed. Ranma was standing there too, but he wasn’t looking at Ukyou. His eyes darted around what he could see of the school. Looking for Vega.
“This way!” Ukyou called and charged off in a new direction. Ranma followed her without question, but Akira paused before she leapt off.
They came to a large common area on the school grounds, and Ukyou saw the booth almost immediately. Her eyes focused in and saw Nabiki standing beneath a banner, collecting money as a line of students made their attempts to pull out the sword. A long line of students.
“Clever girl…” Ukyou muttered, leaping down and landing on the grass with a soft thump. Nabiki wasn’t going to relinquish the sword easily, and Ryouga was with her. He had been wearing cotton in his ears when Ukyou had watched him go last night, but now he appeared fine.
“Nabiki?” Ranma said as he landed.
“Come on,” Ukyou shouted. “She has no idea Vega is coming!”
“Coming?” Akira said sharply. “I don’t think he’s coming.”
Aaron cursed. He could feel it now. The power of the wishing sword had temporarily driven all other concerns from his mind. Stupid. Those kinds of mistakes could get people killed.
Ukyou turned and saw what Akira saw. Vega was standing on top of a flagpole. The rising sun standard of Japan snapped and flickered in the hot, dry wind beneath him.
She heard Ranma snarl as the boy spotted Vega. Ukyou wanted to shout, but it would do no good. Ranma was already charging. What students were unlucky enough to get in his way he jumped onto and over, sprinting across the heads and shoulders of the crowd like they were stepping stones. Akira placed Hotaru on the ground and ran after him.
Ukyou took a step forward, then looked back. Hotaru was standing on the grass, looking at her calmly. She hadn’t cried since her outburst at the temple.
Then Ukyou realised she had other problems. She whipped her head to the side as Aaron pinpointed two Psychopower signatures moving through the crowd towards him. He spotted feminine figures in black leotards with blonde and brown hair. He recognised them.
“Juni, Juli…” he said with a groan. Of course, Vega didn’t plan on making this a fair fight. Suddenly the two Dolls emerged from the crowd into the calm spot that had formed around Ukyou. The students still milled about, but they gave Ukyou and her two provocatively-clad enemies a wide berth. Their expressions were curious, but not worried. Not yet.
“Hotaru, stay behind me,” Ukyou said softly. Hotaru nodded and did as she was told. The Dolls watched this impassively.
In the distance, the students began shouting in panic. Aaron could feel the auras of his friends flaring. Juni and Juli stepped forward, mirroring each other’s movements. Then, Ukyou heard a god scream.
The world was a tunnel of darkness and pain, then it exploded into hot air and bright sunlight. Kusanagi flew across the street. A car was sent flying as his shoulder slammed into it. He screamed, but his voice cut off as he rammed into a telephone pole and came to an abrupt stop.
The thick concrete pole cracked and teetered ominously above him before tumbling lazily to the side. He could hear people screaming, but only barely over the ringing in his ears. The metallic taste of his own green blood filled his mouth.
An electric whine was his first warning. He was already leaping by the time the blue lightning flashed out, passing through the tunnel his body had plowed through the high rise. The mere passage of the blast was enough to shatter all the windows and send a hail of razor-sharp glass into the streets. The impact, as it struck where Kusanagi had been, created a blast so large it flung a parked bus half a block away.
Kusanagi gaped at the destruction below him as his leap carried him into the air. Then the side of the high-rise burst open in a geyser of dust and debris. Murakumo shot forth from the explosion like a bullet. His long blades flashed out and Kusanagi roared and brought up his own. He parried the attack, but just barely.
The force of the impact was enough to send him careening into the building opposite. The window he hit gave way without preamble and the desk he crashed through only slowed him down. The floor stopped him, but dented in the process. He groaned and stood up.
Office ladies and salarymen were screaming and fleeing from the room. He paid them no attention. He was staring out the window at Murakumo.
The man was floating over the street, framed perfectly by the window Kusanagi had blown through. That just wasn’t fair. Kusanagi couldn’t fly in his battle form! But Murakumo was just laughing as he floated lazily in the air. He had assumed his own battle form. It looked much like Kusanagi, with the same shoulder pads, spines on the back and deformed feet. But where Kusanagi had swept-back blades on his forearms, Murakumo had straight swords extending forward from his wrists, and a sort of organic gauntlet over his forearm. His eyes had become more inhuman: they were now completely black, with white specks where his pupils should be.
And on his chest were four mitamas, where Kusanagi had only three. Kusanagi could see all the others glowing on the man’s body. He had eight. Kusanagi had seven. One seed. How could there be such a difference between them because of just one seed?
“I know what you’re thinking,” Murakumo called out in his smug, disturbingly echoing voice. “But I am simply superior to you in every way. You are imperfect, incomplete. I will give you points for sheer stubbornness, however.”
“Shut up!” Kusanagi roared. He held up his arms, flexing his blades again. Parrying that last blow had shaved a nick out of them. “I’ll find a way to defeat you!”
“I don’t think so…” Murakumo said, almost sadly. “But I have no more time to waste with you. I-“
Murakumo cut off, his head snapping down and to the side. Kusanagi grinned, ready to start his attack while the man was distracted, then he felt it too.
He screamed. It was like a voice was roaring in his mind. A voice so huge and loud it blocked out all thought. And as quickly as it came, the feeling vanished.
Kusanagi came to his senses on his knees, his hands clenched over his ears. What on earth was that?
“Lord Susano-oh!” Murakumo shouted. Kusanagi raised his head and saw the man flash downward. He cursed and leapt forward, falling out of the twenty-story building without a care. The others had done something. Something big.
Kaede! Momiji! He prayed they were safe.
Ranma’s foot flashed out and the metal flagpole suddenly had a leg-sized hole cut straight through it. The pole toppled. He saw Vega flip gracefully from the top and fly toward the ground. Ranma spun in place, kicking out at the toppling pole and bouncing away. He leapt right past Akira and charged at his enemy.
The man was waiting for Ranma when he arrived. He moved with the same grace, the same speed as before. Ranma didn’t care. He cried out in wordless, unexpressable rage and did his damnedest to take Vega’s smirking head off his shoulders.
He ducked the blow. Ranma followed him, kicking and punching. Vega slid along the ground, kicking up gouts of dirt. Ranma flashed through them, his body striking out as quickly as he could.
All Ranma felt was the pumping of his heart. His breath felt acrid in his own mouth. He didn’t feel his wounds. He didn’t feel tired. He didn’t feel the pain. Any of the pain. He didn’t dare. Vega had to die.
Suddenly a foot connected with Ranma’s jaw. He grunted as he was thrown back. He focused through the pain. He pictured Ran in his mind. He pictured her dead eyes.
Ranma handsprung from the ground. He saw Vega land where he would have been. The assassin’s claw flashed through the air. It brushed so close to Ranma that the pressure of its passage tore a hole in Ranma’s shirt. Ranma was twisting even as the strike missed. His foot caught the ground and he shot forward.
Vega floated back, his chest unbearable millimeters from Ranma’s punch. The man laughed and snapped his hand back, trying to gut him. Ranma saw Vega’s foot sliding back. He was a bit off-balance. Ranma had to strike NOW.
He could have dodged the blow, but it would have wasted the opportunity. Instead he continued his twisting spin. The tips of Vega’s claws brushed up against his ribs rather than his gut and peeled off a shallow strip of flesh. Ranma continued spinning, his blood arcing out, and then drew all his momentum into a backhand blow.
Vega took it straight in the side. He gasped in pain and was sent flying. The grass rippled in his wake as Vega flew ten meters back before rolling to a stop. Ranma was already moving after him.
He didn’t feel the pain.
“Wonderful!” Vega laughed and leapt away. Ranma bounced up after him, but he couldn’t even get half of the other man’s height. Vega spun in place and bounced off the side of a building Ranma hadn’t even noticed was there, then flashed off again. Ranma growled and rolled into a ball, conserving momentum just enough to bring him to the wall of the same building. He copied Vega’s trick and was bounding after him.
Vega landed on the ground again. “This is the battle I was waiting for, Ranma Saotome! It appears I have truly discovered your motivation!”
“What?” Ranma roared. He fell on top of Vega but the man slipped out from under him. Ranma’s kick ripped a chunk out of the earth. He kicked back as Vega came in, thrusting at the boy’s heart. Ranma slipped to the side at the last instant, and turned that into an elbow strike. Vega somehow flipped up and over the blow.
“Come now, Ranma,” Vega said, laughing as he landed with a flourish. “Haven’t you guessed? Don’t you know the real reason she is dead?”
“Don’t you mention her, you monster!” Ranma roared. He charged in again, and his fist lashed out again and again and again. He just kept punching, pumping his arm as fast as he could. Vega fell back under the onslaught. It was all he could do to block the blows. But it didn’t shut him up.
“I didn’t care about her, Ranma Saotome,” the man said, his voice calm even as he struggled to weather the attacks. Ranma could feel the strength leaving his arm. He grit his teeth. Just a few more seconds! Just a few more and Vega’s guard would open! “But had I known that killing her would produce such a spectacular battle, I would have done so weeks ago!”
Ranma stopped. Vega slid back, his breathing fast and shallow. Ranma’s fist was still extended from its last strike. He couldn’t breathe. He wanted to, but couldn’t. His eyes were fixed on the end of his fist.
Ran had died… because… because that bastard…
His eyes drifted up and settled on Vega. The masked killer was chuckling. He held up his unclawed hand and gestured for his foe to continue the battle. Ranma’s eyes narrowed to slits. The world fell away. Suddenly there was nothing but a narrow red tunnel and the man that had to die at the end. He didn’t even hear his own wordless roar as he met Vega’s challenge.
Ranma was so fast! Akira sprinted to keep up, but he was flashing along the heads of the crowd. The students was scrambling and screaming as they tried to get out of his path or fell tumbling in his wake. Akira vaulted and slalomed through the chaos. There was no way she was going to catch up to him at this rate.
But Ranma needed her help. She grimaced and forced herself to move faster. The crowd was shifting and tumbling like molasses and she ran through it like a deer in a forest. Ranma couldn’t fight Vega alone. He couldn’t win.
And Vega had to die. He was a monster.
There was no other solution.
Akira heard her brother’s voice in the back of her mind. She heard him talking to her about his battles. She remembered the starry-eyed awe she had held for him back then. Then came the day when he hadn’t come home. When her parents had taken her to the hospital where her brother, her strong brother, her invincible big brother, had been lying unconscious on the bed, bandages wrapped around half his face.
He had won the fight. He always won the fight. Everyone Akira had asked confirmed that. Daigo Kazama had simply grown to possess a skill that seemed almost inhuman. He never lost a brawl, he never lost a battle. His reputation grew, and so too did the number of challengers who came looking for him. Then one of them had taken his eye. According to witnesses, Daigo had kept fighting after that, and put the boy through the side of the school. He had won the fight.
But after that, Daigo never told her stories anymore. When she asked, he just stared wordlessly and solemnly at her. Akira was just old enough to get into school herself then. She had even been in a few tussles. Like her brother, she had not lost. She couldn’t have lost. Daigo had looked down at her from his hospital bed and refused to tell her the story. He had told her that fighting was pointless. He had told her that all it brought was pain.
He still got into fights. He still won. He had proceeded through school, the unconquered champion. But he never talked to Akira about fighting anymore. Any requests about the subject only prompted a lecture on the evils of it, or a clumsy segue into another subject. The only thing they had been able to really talk about after that was motorcycles.
Daigo had never forbidden her from getting into fights. He had never said a word when he heard about her brief tussles at school. But the look of sadness in his remaining eye when he did was enough. The fights at school stopped for Akira, but not for her brother. He was trapped: trapped by his own invincible reputation and talent.
Akira still trained, but she hadn’t really fought for years, not until one day her brother vanished. Not until she had learned that only she could save him. Only she could fight for him. That had changed everything between them, somehow.
But now she heard Daigo’s voice. It was rough and calm, filled with brotherly affection and sadness. It wanted to know why she was doing this. It wanted to know why she had chosen to kill. Her brother, in all his fights, even in those that had tested his limits and cost him his eye, had never once taken a life. He had even beaten that urge out of all the boys at his school. Gedo High was notorious for its gang wars, but when they fought, everyone involved walked home.
Akira tried to block out the voice. Vega had to die because he was a monster. He had killed Ran! He had tortured her and butchered her like a pig! He was a wild animal that had to be put down!
Her heart, her rage, her mind, they all told her that this was the truth. Even if her brother’s eye would never look at her again, she knew she had to do this. Except…
Akira was just pulling free of the crowd, just watching as Ranma destroyed Vega’s perch when she heard the scream. She skidded to a stop as Ranma flashed past her, after his foe. Her eyes scanned back and she saw Ukyou.
The young woman was screaming and clutching her ears. She had fallen to her knees. Two girls in skin-tight black bodysuits were converging on her. The Dolls? No, these two looked slightly different. But they must have been more of Vega’s minions.
Akira stood, caught for a moment. Ranma needed her. But Ukyou was injured, and unaware of the two women about to attack her.
As the two Dolls grabbed Ukyou by the arms, Akira struck. She roared, spinning up in a violent roundhouse kick that pulled her body off the ground. Her foot caught the taller, brunette Doll right in the cheek. The Doll cried out and released Ukyou as she was sent flying. Akira touched down for a fraction of a second, then spun up with another roar and another roundhouse. The other Doll was also caught flat-footed and sent spinning off to land on the ground a few meters away.
“Ukyou? Are you okay?” Akira asked as she stepped in front of the fallen girl.
“I’m…” Ukyou looked up. “I’m fine. It was just… something powerful screaming through the energy of the city. But it’s over now.”
“Good,” Akira said with a brisk nod. “Get the hell away from here, then. I’ll deal with these two!”
The Dolls had kicked to their feet and noted Akira. They raised their hands and started closing in. She waited for them. She could handle them. She had defeated two of the other Dolls by herself with no real problem. These two didn’t even have any weapons or fancy tricks, just their fists. She could hear Ukyou backing off, and taking Hotaru with her.
The crowd was running screaming in all directions. There was plenty of room. Akira grinned, raised her gloved hand and gestured for the Dolls to make their move. They looked at each other and then flashed forward, high and low diving jump kicks. Akira roared and met them head on.
“What on earth is going on?” Ryouga shouted.
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” Nabiki snapped from beside him. “But it’s driving away all our business.” Ryouga glanced at her askance. She was frowning as the crowd scattered in all directions. Her beautiful eyes flicked across the area and finally latched onto one person. “Ukyou,” she hissed.
“Ukyou?” Ryouga followed her gaze. Yep, that was Ukyou alright. She was screaming and clutching her head as she fell to her knees. The little girl he had saved the other day was there behind her. He hadn’t gotten a chance to talk to her then: Nabiki had dragged him off before his deafness had worn off. There were two girls in almost indecently tight black bodysuits converging on Ukyou. But Ryouga’s attention was suddenly caught as he saw a flash of red spring by in the distance.
Ranma. He was fighting that creep Vega. He was moving faster than Ryouga had ever seen him move. He was snarling. Vega was just backing up, doing his best to deflect the boy’s blows.
“How did they all follow us?” Nabiki asked slowly.
“I don’t know…” Ryouga said. His fists curled and uncurled. He could feel the intensity of the fight from all the way over here. The air was filled with a dangerous power that he couldn’t pin down. A part of him wanted to join this fight.
“It was a rhetorical question,” Nabiki snapped. Then she sighed and rubbed her forehead. “Four to go. Just three more people, and then…” She shook her head. “Grab the stone. We’re getting out of here.”
He glanced at the fight again. However large the part of him that wanted to join in was, a far larger part knew it was Nabiki’s. His own desires didn’t matter in the face of his overwhelming debt to her. He nodded and reached for the stone.
“Ryouga, drop it,” Nabiki said.
“But you just told me…”
“Never mind what I said!” Nabiki sighed. “We have company.”
Ryouga released the stone and it settled to the ground with a clatter. He turned and saw Ukyou sprinting towards them. She was carrying Hotaru under her arm. He frowned. Nabiki gestured for him to step forward. Reluctantly, he did.
“You aren’t getting the sword,” Nabiki called out as Ukyou skidded to a halt a couple of meters away. Ukyou frowned, her black lotus eyes narrowing as she glanced at Nabiki. She put down Hotaru and rose up to her full height.
“Nabiki, I don’t think you know how important that sword is,” Ukyou said.
“Oh yes, I do,” Nabiki laughed. “But don’t insult me by trying to talk me out of this. Ryouga, if she tries anything… break her.”
Ryouga stepped between Nabiki and Ukyou. He cracked his knuckles. He really didn’t want to fight her. She was a girl, an injured girl. It wouldn’t be right. He would destroy her. “I don’t want to do this, Ukyou,” Ryouga growled. “But I will if I have to.”
“If all you want is your curse cured, I can do that for you too, Ryouga,” Ukyou said calmly. “But I need that sword. If I get it, I can… I can save things.”
Ryouga’s eyes narrowed. Of course, Ukyou didn’t know the truth. Nobody knew his shame. Nobody knew his undeniable karmic debt. Against that, what did a little curse matter? Turning into a pig with a touch of cold water was a better curse than he deserved.
“What kind of power does she have over you, Ryouga?” Ukyou said slowly, curiously.
“It doesn’t matter,” Nabiki said quickly. “Either back off now, or Ryouga will make you back off.”
“Nabiki, I don’t want to debate this…” Ukyou trailed off. Then she looked over her shoulder. “Akira!” she shouted in sudden concern.
Ryouga followed her gaze. He watched as the girl in the black motorcycle leathers staggered back as the taller brunette punched her. The smaller girl with the blonde hair suddenly materialised behind her like she had teleported. The two were striking and pummelling at Akira, bouncing her between their blows like a human tennis ball. Finally they backed off and launched a set of flying drop kicks that caught her torso like a vice. Akira screamed and slumped to the ground.
“Their auras…” Ukyou hissed. “Damn. Ryouga, look after Hotaru!” Then she was sprinting forward, her staff held out behind her. Ryouga looked at Nabiki. She was frowning at the fight. He glanced at Hotaru. The girl was looking not at that battle, but on the one taking place between Ranma and Vega across the commons.
Ryouga clenched his fist. He knew what Nabiki was going to say. He would order them to leave. But Ukyou would be little help in that fight. He closed his eyes. “Nabiki, look after the girl!”
“What?” Nabiki shouted, but Ryouga was roaring at the top of his lungs as he ran so he couldn’t hear what followed. He flicked his umbrella open and launched it with a flick of his wrist. Ukyou slid to the side as it passed through where she had been, its spinning shaft carving a furrow into the lawn.
The two black-clad girls noticed it and leapt away, both just clearing the top of the weapon. They landed with easy grace. Akira watched as the umbrella curved around her in a tight circle, the spinning edge of the bamboo coming within centimeters of her. But Ryouga’s aim had been true, and it didn’t touch her at all. He reached out and caught it as he ran on.
“Thank you,” Ukyou said as she skidded to a halt on one side of Akira. Ryouga came to a stop opposite her. He turned and faced the taller black-clad girl.
“I just… couldn’t sit back and watch,” he explained.
“The newcomer is unlisted,” the brunette said as she circled to join her companion.
“Evaluating combat power…” the shorter blonde said.
“Don’t let them touch each other!” Ukyou suddenly shouted. She stepped forward and swung her staff down, cutting between them. The girls cartwheeled in opposite directions. Ryouga frowned. He didn’t want to fight these girls. But they were bad guys. He could feel it. It was like the air around them was sick with darkness.
“Back off!” he shouted and stepped forward, swinging at the brunette. She slipped to the side of his attack, but just barely. Her knee pistoned up and caught him in the stomach. He grunted and backed up. He had felt that, but only a little. With a snarl he swatted at her with his other hand. She managed to just roll enough that what would have been a solid hit only nudged her, sending her flying into the ground.
“Warning, new combatant has structural reinforcement energy at 170,” the blonde said mechanically. Ryouga glanced back at her. She was dodging around as Ukyou thrust her staff. Ukyou was moving too slow to tag her. Akira was shaking her head and getting back to her feet.
“I already discovered that…” the brunette said simply. She rose to her feet, rubbing the cheek Ryouga had tagged her on. he turned to face her. He held up his umbrella, waiting for her to make the first move. “Designate primary target!” she shouted.
“Acknowledged,” the other replied.
Ryouga growled. He didn’t know what they were planning, but he had to prevent it. He dashed forward and the girl charged at him, moving low to the ground. He swung his umbrella up, hoping to catch her if she tried to jump over him.
His umbrella was about to connect with her chin. He grunted and tried to pull a bit of the blow. She was supposed to dodge! He didn’t want to take her head off! A split second before his blow connected, the girl seemed to blur and shift, the air around her rippling. Then she was gone. Ryouga’s eyes widened as his weapon swung up through empty air. Then the air blurred again and suddenly the girl was there, but running away from him now.
Ryouga blinked as he got a fantastic view of her behind before she plowed to a stop and spun to face him. But this was the blonde. Where had the brunette gone? He stood there, stunned, as the girl rose to her full height. She clenched her fists and crossed her arms.
“That surge of…” Ukyou said. “Ryouga! Get away from her!”
“What?” Ryouga cried back over his shoulder. But then he felt it.
It was a presence like nothing else he had ever felt. It was huge, powerful, and full of hate and malice. Ryouga had felt strong fighting spirits in his time, but nothing like this! It was like someone had ripped open a hole into hell.
Purple flames shot out from the blonde’s body. They focused and grew in front of her. Ryouga could only stare. He wanted to move. He wanted to do something, but he couldn’t. His mind had locked up. He felt like a man staring up at the sky and watching a rocket fall from the heavens. Out of the fire he heard a sudden burst of laughter. Loud, deep, malicious laughter. Following the laughter there was a face, then a whole body seemed to form out of the flames.
He was huge, almost seven feet tall. His body was a mass of muscles, clad in a red military outfit. A blue cape flapped in the air behind him. He was wearing a red cap with a skull and wings emblem on it, with the bill pulled down so his face was cast into shadow. Only his burning blue eyes and the flashing whites of his teeth were visible. Ryouga backed up a step. The power flowing from him was staggering. But Ryouga realised he could see right through him, like he was a ghost.
No, not a ghost. A projection.
“PSYCHO CRUSHER!” the man roared, and then he was flying towards Ryouga hands first. A huge shockwave of burning blue flames exploded out in front of him. Ryouga threw up his arms. He screamed as the flames washed over his body, but they only singed his flesh. Instead, they shot straight through his flesh and seemed to burn through his nerves. His brain exploded with pain; burning blue agony.
He felt somebody catch him. He blinked, trying to focus as the pain slowly faded. He could hear the person holding him grunting, then fling him to the side. He was about to protest the harsh treatment when he saw the blonde girl fly through the air where he had been, corkscrewing feet first. He watched Akira take the flying kick in the chest and she fell back.
Ryouga forced one hand down and began to prop himself up. His brain still hurt; all his nerves were on fire. He could see he hadn’t even taken so much as a singe from the assault… not that that helped any. But that overwhelming presence was gone. He forced himself to his feet.
“It will take more than that, to put me down…” he gasped.
He felt Ukyou land beside him. She was holding her shoulder, and her arm hung limply. She frowned as the blonde and brunette cartwheeled across the lawn. They landed next to each other and posed, both thrusting an arm at the sky so that their forearms crossed and formed an X. Akira rose to her feet, clutching her chest and moaning softly. The sound came out eerie and distorted as the helmet gave it a strange echo.
“Akira… back off,” Ukyou said suddenly.
“What?” Akira gasped.
“Go help Ranma,” she replied in a level tone.
“Not this time!” she growled back.
“I can handle this,” Ukyou said. “I’ve seen how they got so strong. I can beat them.”
“You’re injured!” Ryouga pointed out forcefully.
“Doesn’t matter,” Ukyou said. “But I need both of you away from here. What I’m going to do… I don’t think I can control it that well. It’ll hit everyone, friend and foe.”
Ryouga was about to argue, but then he heard Nabiki screaming.
Nabiki cursed as Ryouga ran forward. He obviously wasn’t listening to her. Then she sighed and covered her eyes. She should have expected as much. The whole reason Ryouga was so loyal was because he was such a naive idiot that he couldn’t let a girl be hurt. That was bound to come back and bite her in the proverbial ass sooner or later. She wiped some sweat from her brow and cursed again.
Nabiki looked down. The rugrat was standing now, staring after Ryouga. She looked concerned. To be fair, she wasn’t exactly a child. She looked to be on the cusp of puberty. Still, it was annoying to have to look after her. Not that Nabiki really cared.
“Hey, kid,” Nabiki said as she knelt down next to her. “Wanna do me a favour?” The girl looked at her. Her large purple eyes had a strange, mournful quality to them… Nabiki resisted the urge to grimace. The last thing she needed was to start feeling sorry for her. “Could you pull that sword there out of the stone for me?”
“Excuse me?” Hotaru said softly, obviously confused.
“Just give it a good yank,” Nabiki explained as she picked up the kid. She grunted at the effort. The brat was heavier than she looked. Hotaru glanced back at Nabiki, but shrugged and grabbed the hilt of the sword. She gave it a yank. Of course, nothing happened. But Nabiki put her down with a smile. Now, if only two more people could do that, then Nabiki could draw the wishing sword, and make all this stop happening. “Thanks.”
“Okay…” Hotaru said, still sounding confused. Then she gasped. Nabiki looked down at her. That hadn’t been a startled gasp, or a frightened gasp. It had been a happy gasp. Nabiki looked up. The battle was still going on. In fact, Ryouga was being propped up by that Akira girl as Ukyou was being battered around by one of Vega’s stooges. There was nothing to be happy about happening at that fight.
“Daddy…” the child said softly, her eyes suddenly brimming with tears. Then Nabiki realised Hotaru was looking behind her. She turned.
A man with white hair was walking towards her. He was smiling. His visible eye was wide and filled with glee. The other was hidden behind an elaborate symbol etched onto the lens of his glasses. He was wearing a long white labcoat which billowed behind him. The air was so hot and there was barely a breeze, yet his coat seemed to move with a life of its own. He had his hands in his pockets.
“Daddy!” Hotaru called again and started to step around Nabiki. She frowned, and some instinct made her reach out and grab Hotaru’s shoulder. The girl looked up at her in surprise, but Nabiki didn’t spare much attention for her. Her eyes were fixed on the man. There was something not right about him. Something in his smile and his eyes that sent off the creepy alert in the back of Nabiki’s mind.
Then it hit Nabiki. She had seen that kind of expression before. Jadeite had looked at Nabiki like that. That same smile, and the same flashing insane eyes.
The man pulled his hands from his pockets. He was holding a gun. Just a gun. Not even a large one. Nabiki froze. She heard Hotaru gasp. The man raised it, and fired.
Nabiki didn’t scream as the bullet tore through her shoulder. She didn’t scream as she tumbled to the ground. She was in too much shock. The ground hitting her snapped her out of that and the pain caught up all at once. But she still didn’t scream. She just moaned and lay on the ground. She reached up and clutched her shoulder.
The man stopped over her. He looked down at her and he was still smiling. The sun was behind his head now, but Nabiki could see his gleaming glasses and the flash of his teeth despite the shadows.
“Daddy!” Hotaru screamed, but she was no longer sounding relieved or happy. “Daddy, stop!”
“Back away, Hotaru,” the man said, his voice eerily calm.
“No, Daddy!” The girl ran up and grabbed his leg. “She isn’t one of the bad people! She isn’t the one who took me away from you!”
“It doesn’t matter,” the man explained. “I can’t let her live. She must die, or she’ll tell the others that I took you.” He glanced at the girl. “We’re going far away, Hotaru. Away from all this. I’ll hide you from them. They won’t stand between us again!” His voice had grown higher and higher pitched as he spoke, until it was a literal shriek.
“D-daddy…” Hotaru stared up at him. “No… you can’t do this… you’re not my father!”
“Of course I’m not,” the man said and turned his face back to Nabiki. She stared up into the barrel of his gun. “And you are not Hotaru Tomoe. You are a vessel. But I love you all the same. I will protect you, until the Messiah inside of you awakens to cleanse this awful world.”
Nabiki screamed. Her paralysis had worn off, and she screamed. The man’s smile only brightened, and he squeezed the trigger… and the end of his gun went flying away as a yellow and black blur streaked through where it had been. Nabiki stopped screaming. She turned her head to the side.
Ryouga was charging. His body was covered in a nova of green light, his hand still extended from his throw. His eyes were focused directly on the man. His lips were pulled back in a vicious snarl. Hotaru’s father was turning to face him, but he was far too slow.
Ryouga pulled his hands down to his side. The aura around him suddenly condensed, snapping into a flickering light behind his palms. He skidded to a halt, his feet tearing tracks in the ground. His hands started up.
“You bastard! I’ll kill you! SHISHI-“
“NO! Don’t kill him!”
Hotaru threw herself in front of her father, her arms extended to prevent any attack from getting past. Ryouga’s hands kept rising. He couldn’t stop it; Nabiki saw that. The energy of his attack, his depression, was too intense for him to hold it back. “-HOKO-” Ryouga lifted his arms, and kept lifting them. He pointed them skyward. “DAN!”
The blast exploded from his palms. It rose into the sky, hovered briefly like a balloon, and then fell. Ryouga had already leapt to the side, and his attack struck the earth. The ground heaved as the ball sunk into it. With a final puff and a sudden draft the energy dissipated, leaving a crater almost a meter deep.
Ryouga was getting to his feet. He looked at Hotaru, then at her father, then finally at Nabiki. His eyes fixed on Nabiki’s shoulder. Then his head swivelled to stare at the gun in the man’s hand, or the half of it that was still there.
“Move, Hotaru,” he said. He was beginning to glow with green light again.
“No!” Hotaru shouted back. “I won’t let you hurt him!”
“Hotaru, you said it yourself, he isn’t your father!” Nabiki said as she backed off.
“I… I didn’t mean it!” Hotaru was crying now. But there was something in the air around her. “I don’t care what he did! He’s my father!”
“That’s right…” the man said, cackling with the darkness still silhouetting his face. “If you want to hurt me, boy, you will have to go through this girl first.”
Nabiki was aghast. Couldn’t Hotaru see what the man was saying? Couldn’t she see what he was doing? He was using her as a shield. His own daughter!
“Get out of the way, Hotaru,” Ryouga repeated. His hands were clenched into fists, and the aura around him was pressing the grass around his feet flat against the earth.
But the man leaned down and cupped Hotaru’s face with one hand. He rubbed a tear from the side of her cheek. “Messiah…” he said softly. “I know this is a strain. But you must awaken. For one moment. Just one moment…” He began to laugh. “Just long enough to kill these fools! Just kill them, Messiah! Then we can be together!”
Hotaru’s eyes stared forward, and they filled with shock and horror. Nabiki felt herself sympathise. She hadn’t cared much about Ukyou’s explanation that the girl was a pawn in a game far bigger than her, but looking at her now, she couldn’t help but feel bad. How would Nabiki handle this? How could anyone handle the sudden brutal realisation that your father was a monster and was raising you to become a worse monster yet?
Akira lingered as Ryouga sprinted back towards Nabiki. Aaron could feel the power back there. More magic, if that was what the strange energy he could now sense was. Another of the Witches 5? Likely. Or maybe even Pluto and her lot. But Ukyou couldn’t afford to go help them now.
Ryouga would do the right thing. She had to trust him.
The Dolls were standing ready, waiting to see what happened. Aaron could see the Psychopower swirling around them. It laced through their bodies, connecting them together like a web. Pure power. Far more than any of the other Dolls had been capable of calling forth. They must have been reinforcing each other somehow like a catalyst, their shared power far greater than either could control alone.
It made them stronger than Akira. It made them perhaps even stronger than Ryouga. But that power would be their undoing. Ukyou frowned and clenched her fist. Her aura was still under control. Her focus was perfect. The heat of the day had vanished. The ground around her was covered in a thin layer of frost. She continued focusing her power, all of it, into her wind chakra. The temperature continued to drop.
“Akira, get out of here,” she asked again, her voice like the ice she was calling.
“Ukyou, I won’t abandon you…”
“If Ranma dies at Vega’s hands, none of this matters.” Ukyou said levelly. “Vega will kill us all, just for the sport of it. Go. Help him. Win!”
Akira glanced at Ukyou again, then at the Dolls. Aaron could feel the conflict in her aura. Her rage had not vanished.
“If not for me, then for Ran!” Ukyou shouted.
Akira looked at her again. Then she nodded and ran away. The Dolls watched her go impassively.
“Proceed with primary objective,” Juli said as she started forward. “Non-lethal attacks only.”
“Acknowledged,” Juni said mechanically.
Ukyou didn’t have to wait long. They were on her in a second. She flickered to the side, avoiding Juni’s initial kick and just barely ducking under Juli’s backhand. Ukyou continued like this, dodging as fast as she could, deflecting what attacks she couldn’t avoid with as little force as possible. Juni and Juli came in like twin infernos, their motions perfectly coordinated.
They were two halves of a whole. As one struck, the other moved to complement her perfectly. To avoid one attack was to set yourself up for the blow of the other. Their feints and strikes were synchronised to a level that no human could have hoped to achieve. Keeping ahead of them was like a game of chess, played out at the speed of sound where you had to stay fifteen moves ahead to even have a chance.
Yet Ukyou and Aaron were doing just that. Alone, neither of them would have been able to survive the assault. Aaron could feel their strikes coming, he could almost feel their intentions in their aura. Ukyou could focus and move faster than them. It took their entire concentration to do just that. If one had been forced to break their focus for even a microsecond, the battle would have been over. But they didn’t.
They didn’t struggle against each other. For a short time, they just let go and worked together. One feeding perfectly into the other, depending entirely on the other.
They retreated and retreated, always turning back slowly. The Dolls came at her. As the fight dragged on, they only intensified their attack. The power they shared flared and roared. Pure aggression, pure anger linked their bodies together. The Psychopower was nothing but unbridled passion. Ukyou continued backward, leaving a slowly closing spiral of frost in her wake.
They couldn’t doubt themselves now. They had never actually managed to pull off this move. They had twisted it once, using the Third Circle. They had practiced it over and over, but then they had abandoned it.
But now was not the time for doubt. They had to focus too sharply. Either it would work, or it wouldn’t.
“HIRYUU SHOTEN HA!”
The moment of truth. They stood in the centre of the spiral, their fist raised skyward. Juni and Juli were both leaping at her, from opposite sides. They couldn’t hope to dodge the attacks. The two Dolls had guessed their course, and had led them into this single unblockable strike. For a moment the air was still and heavy and hot.
Then the tornado came. It sprung from the earth, and Ukyou stood in the eye of the whirlwind. She could see why the Chinese had called this a dragon rising to heaven. It swirled and twisted around them with serpentine savagery. It roared; a deafening animal roar like an enraged beast. The power of it was primal.
Ukyou lowered her arms. Aaron could feel the Dolls above them now. Their auras were weak, fluttering on the verge of unconsciousness. The tornado had spat them out, almost a kilometer up. They would not much like the fall. But the storm lingered, still fed by the swirling ribbons of the Psychopower as the tornado leeched it from the earth and ejected it into the sky above.
The storm didn’t just fade, it flashed out of existence with a suddenness that was almost unnerving. Ukyou stood in the centre of the devastation, the one spot for almost ten meters that had not been torn or shredded by the savage winds.
She grinned, then fell to her knees. Her arm ached. Her body was on fire. She had pushed it too hard, too fast. She could feel blood seeping from several wounds that had reopened.
She wanted to rest. She needed to rest. She had defeated the Dolls, right? That had to be enough for one day, right?
But Aaron had felt something change. The aura of the wishing sword, the brilliant spike of unimaginable magical force. It had changed. It was no longer straining or twisting like a force penned up. It was humming cleanly through the air. It was free. No… it was READY.
Aaron didn’t know how he knew that. He just did. With a groan, Ukyou rose to her feet.
Vega ran along the side of the building, angling steadily upward. His sheer momentum and skill carried him higher and higher in defiance of all natural laws. Ranma rose with him. The boy was exceeding all his expectations. He matched Vega stride for stride, his strikes never stopping.
It was taking everything Vega had to keep ahead of him. Such a battle was something he had dreamed about for years.
Ranma made a small mistake: his fist went a fraction of a millimeter too far. Vega slipped to the side, through the suddenly appearing hole in Ranma’s defense, and slashed out with his claw. Again, the boy did not dodge. He simply leaned back, letting the tips of the blades brush across the flesh over his heart. The blood flew out. It was beautiful! Vega was struck by the poetry of it. And Ranma struck him.
The blow sent him through the wall. The concrete crumbled and exploded as Vega flew into the classroom. Pain burned in his chest from where Ranma’s fist had hit. His ribs ached. They had almost broken. Almost.
He landed gracefully, balancing on the back of a chair. Ranma came after him, down the gently sloped classroom on the tops of the desks. Vega flipped back, kicking the chair he was on into Ranma’s path. He just punched through it without stopping.
Vega rose through the cloud of splinters. The two were moving so fast that to them the debris was like a drifting mist. Vega’s fist lashed out, and Ranma blocked with his forearm. They exchanged five more blows, blocking and parrying each, before the wood settled to the floor.
Vega retreated again. He was breathing quickly. His heart was racing. He had never felt so challenged! He felt what might have been a tingle of fear, a small bit of doubt in the back of his mind. He might lose this fight.
He laughed and backflipped, easily outpacing Ranma’s attacks. The boy growled wordlessly and followed, somehow speeding up. But Vega matched his speed. He reached down, drawing on his reserves. Ranma’s foot drifted past Vega’s face, and Vega grabbed it with one hand. The other came up, and his claw sunk into the boy’s calf.
Ranma screamed. Vega grinned. He pulled his blade free, twisting it at the last second so that he tore a bloody chunk from the boy’s body. Ranma stumbled back, trying to balance on one leg. Vega slid forward, kicking the boy’s foot off the floor. He fell backward, his body crashing through a desk as he fell.
Vega leapt up, twisted, bounced from the ceiling. He dove claw-first towards the fallen boy. Ranma saw him and rolled to the side. The claw sunk into the floor. Vega laughed and slapped his palm against the ground. The floor cracked and he was pushed into the air again. His feet touched the ceiling and he pushed down, angling for Ranma’s new position. His foe rolled again, good leg kicking out and knocking a desk from his path. Vega only laughed again and did the same trick.
This time, as he descended, Ranma rose to meet him. He kicked to his feet and thrust his fist into the air, a strong uppercut. Vega realised that the blow was angled so that his own claw would just brush against the boy’s shoulder, but Ranma’s would catch him full in the face. Vega frowned and tried to change his trajectory, but the speed of his assault was too fast for even him to compensate.
Then Ranma’s leg betrayed him. He screamed as his wounded leg spasmed under him and he fell. Vega landed, his claw sunk into the ground a centimeter away from Ranma’s throat. He allowed the momentum to carry his legs down, and he rammed both knees into Ranma’s gut, curling him forward.
This time the impact was too much for the floor. It gave way around them, and in a shower of drywall and piping they fell to the next floor. Vega’s eyes widened as, even while they were falling, Ranma increased the arc of his folding body and brought his forehead into Vega’s.
There was a sharp crack, and Vega was sent flying back. He landed roughly, tumbling into a desk which shattered around him. With a groan of pain, he rose slowly to his feet. He shook his right hand, dislodging a fragment of wall that was still stuck to his claw. He could see Ranma rising across the room. His forehead was bleeding slightly from the cut the mask must have caused. But Vega grinned. The boy could barely stand.
He only realised he was standing with his back to the window when it exploded inward. Vega twisted in place and a black form crashed into him knee-first. He cried out, and was sent flying across the amphitheatre, careening down the sloping desks and into the chalkboard. It shattered, pieces raining around him.
He slapped his hands against the wall and kept from falling. His eyes narrowed at the black-clad figure standing on the top of the amphitheatre. Of course, Akira. How could Vega have forgotten about her? She had been part of the reason he had killed that girl. He chuckled.
“Welcome to the dance,” he greeted her.
“Shut up and die!” she roared and sprinted down the aisle of the classroom. Vega stepped away from the wall to meet her. Ranma was moving to join them, but he was hobbling on his bad leg.
Akira came in with a jumpkick. Vega caught her ankle and twisted it. She was sent spiralling towards the ground, landing on both palms. An instant later, she pushed off and came at him foot first. He ran backward, feet propelling him up the wall, and flipped gracefully over her attack. She hit the wall and kicked off. Vega spun to the side as she arced past him, fist extended.
His claw came up and caught her in the side. She cried out in pain as the metal easily sliced through the thick leather and the flesh beneath. But the cut wasn’t deep. Vega watched, amused, as she landed badly. She rolled and came up, clutching her side.
“That was pathetic,” Vega admonished. “You can do much better than that!”
“Damn you…” Akira hissed.
“Your fight’s with me!” Ranma roared. He grabbed the edge of a desk and flipped himself forward. He cartwheeled through the air and came down on Vega, axe-kicking with his good leg. Vega slid to the side and stabbed down, but Ranma deflected the blow with a chop to Vega’s wrist that sent a stinging flare of pain up his arm. Vega backed off, barely avoiding a follow-up punch.
“This one is much more entertaining,” Vega pointed out to Akira. “Your heart obviously isn’t in this as much as I thought it would be.” He chuckled. “Perhaps I will have to find what motivates you as well?”
“You won’t get the chance!” Akira retorted, and she charged.
Ryouga grit his teeth. His hands were levelled at the madman. He could feel the depression welling up inside him. It was like the earth was rising up and pulling down on his body with fingers of doubt and sorrow. Every time Ryouga caught a glance of the blood leaking from Nabiki’s shoulder, he wanted to scream. And he couldn’t stop glancing at her.
He had failed. He was supposed to protect her! He had promised to protect her! He had failed!
But Hotaru was between them. Her father was crouched behind her. He was holding her kindly, almost cradling her to his chest with a possessive hug. His lips were near her and he was whispering into her ears. Ryouga couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he could guess. Hotaru stood rigid in his grasp. Tears streamed down her cheeks. Every now and then, a red light flickered from behind her eyes.
That feeling on the back of his neck warned Ryouga that he was in danger. Something was happening to Hotaru, and if Ryouga didn’t do something he would be in danger. But he couldn’t fire. The Shishihokodan was too indiscriminate, too large to hit the madman cradling her and not Hotaru as well. She was small and frail, she would be hurt… maybe even killed.
“Professor Souichi Tomoe, you are under arrest!”
Ryouga started. He looked up. A woman was standing behind the madman. She was tall, older, with mussed-up black hair and wearing a grey and red jacket. She was holding a pistol to the back of the professor’s head. The man froze. Ryouga found her very familiar, but couldn’t place her.
“Who…?” the madman said slowly.
“Azusa Matsudaira,” the woman introduced herself. “I have full authority to arrest you, and will use this weapon if you force me to. Now, release the girl.”
“Matsudaira?” Nabiki asked. She had risen to her feet. Her face was contorted with pain, and she was using her good hand to prop herself against the top of the wishing sword’s stone. Then Ryouga remembered her: the nice scientist lady from the other day. He hadn’t recognised her without her labcoat.
“Sorry I’m late,” the woman said. “But I was taking care of some other business until recently.”
The madman looked up, and Ryouga allowed more of his aura to seep into the air. He made it clear without words how badly it would go if the man tried to do anything stupid. The professor slowly uncurled his arms from around Hotaru and rose them above his head. Ryouga stepped forward and grabbed Hotaru, pulling her to him.
She grunted, and the red light in the back of her eyes snuffed out suddenly. She began to hiccup and sob into Ryouga’s chest. His felt his depression melt away as he held her. What was his life and his failures compared to what she had gone through? His heart filled with a strange, comforting warmth, and he held her gently.
Tomoe turned and suddenly blinked as he got a good look at the woman holding him at gunpoint. “But you’re-“
“The person holding you captive!” Matsudaira pointed out sharply, cutting him off. The man paused at this, then began to chuckle softly, his body quaking a bit as he did.
“Of course, of course…” he said when his laughter receded for a moment.
“Ryouga,” Matsudaira addressed him. “I have him under control now. Why don’t you…” She trailed off, and Ryouga spun around.
A tornado roared in the centre of the commons. It stretched down from the sky like the finger of a god. Ryouga’s mouth gaped, but he saw that the cyclone was perfectly stationary. He took a step forward, and then there was a sudden gunshot.
He spun back around. The Professor had collapsed to the ground. He was staring at Matsudaira. His hand was clutching his chest. Blood welled up between his fingers. “W… how…” he said, his voice a choking, liquid gasp.
Matsudaira was just staring down at him, her expression impassive. Ryouga heard Hotaru gasp, and he gently grabbed her chin and turned her face away from the scene.
He was glad he did. As the man lay on the ground, he suddenly started spasming. Ryouga backed up as a bright light shot forth from his eye. The eye with the symbol on it, Ryouga realised a moment later. Matsudaira just stood calmly, looking at this without any visible reaction. The man spasmed again and coughed blood onto his lips. Then there was a flash of yellow as something shot forth from the madman’s eye. It was thin, like a vine with a large bulb on the end. The bulb had a parody of a human face painted on it, nothing more than a cyclopean eye in the shape of a star and a red half-circle for a mouth, with a black star on its forehead.
The thing shot up from the man’s body, then spun in the air before landing with a crash a few meters away. A huge cloud of dust arose from the landing, and Ryouga watched as a giant… thing climbed out of it. It was huge, almost two stories tall, and shaped like some giant alien flower mixed with an insect. It had a huge red bulbous body and pink petal-like things extending from the top to frame a head made of some sort of mottled green material. Two limbs of the same material stretched from its ‘neck’.
On the ground, the man the monster had come out of spasmed once more before he fell back. The symbol had vanished from his glasses, but now his eyes were glassy and stared lifelessly into the air. In the distance, the roar of the tornado suddenly became muted. It seemed to have shifted so it was now just hovering in the air somewhere. It also sounded different now… but Ryouga shook that out of his mind.
“Oh, Hotaru…” Ryouga moaned. He was still holding her face away, but his tone was enough to start her screaming. She kept yelling for her father, again and again.
“Why do you cry, child?” the thing said in a voice like madness incarnate. “All I did was discard that useless shell of a human body. I can find another. This changes nothing!”
“It changes everything, daimon Germatoid,” Matsudaira said as she turned to face the monster. The creature swung its stalk-like head to face her.
“And who are you?” it hissed. “I never authorised this!”
“No, I did it myself!” a new voice shouted over a sudden roar.
Suddenly Ryouga felt the heat in the air double and a powerful wind was blowing down. He shielded his eyes with his free hand, trying to keep his grip on Hotaru with the other. The roar sounded like like an engine, or a jet. When Ryouga looked up, he saw that his guess was not far off.
A huge woman made of white metal was floating in the air. From the small of her back two thrusters emerged that pushed hot air straight down into the ground, sending the grass billowing out in all directions. The metal woman had what looked like a cockpit emerging from her crotch. Another woman, this one clad in green and black with bright green hair in buns, sat on this cockpit. She was cradling a huge blue seed in her lap.
“Telulu!” the beast roared.
“Of course,” the woman said, laughing. “Germatoid, you have failed yet again. Your plan was foolish. Whereas I, on the other hand, have achieved in one day what you couldn’t in four years.” The woman smiled down at the seed in her hands. “Look at it! This soul is a heart crystal, as powerful if not more powerful than the Holy Grail! Not only that, it is alive! With my will, I can guide this unborn god and summon Pharaoh 90. There is no need for your Messiah, your plan… or for you.”
“Damn you, Telulu!” the creature roared and started forward. But the woman only pointed, and suddenly the metal woman reared back.
“Valkyrie is deploying missiles!”
Ryouga could only stare in shock as the woman’s breasts exploded from her chest, fell past Telulu – barely missing clipping her head – then reshaped into missiles and spun down into the beast. It roared impotently before the explosions blew it into pieces. Ryouga shielded himself as bits of the thing fell down across the area.
He watched as Matsudaira walked over to the centre of the blast pattern, where the creature had been standing. Ryouga caught a glance of a strange grey-ribbed egg near her foot before there was a sharp crack from her gun and the egg shattered. A wisp of black smoke emerged from the pieces, briefly formed into what could have been a face, and then vanished.
Ryouga backed up a step. He had no idea what was going on, but his instincts told him that he wasn’t finished here yet. The metal woman was descending to the earth. She set down and knelt to allow her passenger to disembark.
Telulu looked around, before her eyes settled on the wishing sword. “Is this the sword you told me about, Azuma?”
“Yes,” Matsudaira said, her voice cold. She walked towards the sword. Nabiki gasped as the woman shoved her roughly aside. “I can feel the magical energy inside of it as we speak.”
“It can grant any wish,” Telulu mused. Ryouga slowly put down Hotaru. She ran over and knelt over the body of her dead father. He ignored her pain. He started gathering his depression again. The metal creature slid to the side, placing herself between Ryouga and the green-haired woman.
Matsudaira reached out and gave the sword a good yank. She frowned and released it. “There appears to be no way to determine exactly how many tries it will take to get to one million. It could be one, or a thousand. We could take it back to the labs and…”
“One good try, then…” Telulu nodded and tried the sword once herself. She shook her head regretfully. “Forget it,” she said calmly. “It would be useful to have, but I’m more concerned with somebody using it against me. Just back away and I’ll have Valkyrie destroy it.”
“NO!” Nabiki shouted, but Telulu ignored her. The metal woman turned, taking her eyes off Ryouga.
He struck. With a roar, he leapt and punched, throwing all his strength and all his emotion into one blow. He didn’t care about holding back against this monster! “SHISHIHOKODAN!” he roared, and his fist exploded with green light just as it struck the metal woman. The blast caught Valkyrie in the side and sent her flying back. She struck the ground with enough force that her body carved a five–meter–long trench in the lawn before she came to a rest.
Ryouga landed and stepped in front of Nabiki. The two women looked at him and backed off. But Telulu was smiling. He turned to the side and watched as the creature slowly got to its feet. It wasn’t even scratched… and it looked mad.
Ryouga grit his teeth. That had been everything he had, literally. He didn’t think he could produce a blow much stronger than that. Maybe if he used the perfected Shishihokodan… but Nabiki and Hotaru were too close. And despite appearances, the thing seemed to be alive, so he doubted the Bakusai Tenketsu would work either. He heard a rustle behind him. Nabiki was moving, crawling towards the sword. She was grinning. Ryouga tore his eyes off her.
Aaron took in the scene with a sweep of his eyes as he ran. He noted the magical aura permeating Matsudaira. He noted the giant mitama in Telulu’s hands. He noted the huge daimon made out of a fighter jet squaring off against Ryouga. He noted the dead body of Souichi Tomoe and Hotaru kneeling over it, sobbing.
But he only noticed these things in passing. His full attention, Ukyou’s full attention, fixed on the sword. It was humming in their minds. It was like it was calling to them. Ukyou stretched out her hand.
Nabiki was pulling herself up the stone, her hands also reaching for it. She knew. She knew it had reached the magic number. Ukyou poured on the speed. She was faster than Nabiki. She could cross the five meters in the time it would take Nabiki to reach the hilt! She had to!
It was their salvation! No more dreams! No more lost memories! No more…
Ukyou’s hand snapped around the hilt and she smiled. Then she realised that Nabiki had grabbed it too.
They stared into each other’s eyes. Neither of them moved. Neither of them breathed. Aaron blanked his mind, blocking out his senses. They must have grabbed it at the same time.
But it didn’t matter. Nabiki’s eyes were filled with fear. She knew that Ukyou could take the sword from her. Tired and injured, Ukyou was still much stronger and faster than the short-haired girl. Sweat started to form on Nabiki’s brow as the seconds stretched out.
Ukyou could tear Nabiki’s hand off the hilt. Break it off if it came to that. Nothing could stop her from taking the sword. So what that Nabiki might have grabbed it the slightest moment earlier? So what that Aaron had felt it shifting up a little as his palm had settled on it? It wasn’t proof that she had gotten there first!
Even if it was…
Ukyou felt the power down inside of them. Quiet and alien and there for the taking. She NEEDED this sword… just like she needed a solution to the problem of the Dolls a few nights ago. It would be hers. The sword could belong to them if they just wanted it badly enough!
No more living as one person. They could defeat Telulu. They could bring Ran back to life. They could do anything.
Just… take it. That was all they had to do. Take it. It was theirs. It had called out to them! It was their Destiny!
Who was trying to convince who? They couldn’t tell anymore.
Ukyou closed her eyes. Aaron looked deep inside of them. The Third Circle, its power was there… quiet inside them. Would it bend the world to their will like this? Was that how it worked?
And what cost? A bit of strength in desperate times had cost them so much… how much would virtual omnipotence cost them?
Neither one of them could tell who slowly unlaced their fingers from the sword. They both stepped back. They both opened their eyes and watched as Nabiki, eyes flashing with rapture, slid the sword free. She was laughing.
Only then did Aaron see everyone else in the clearing again. They had all stopped, all except Hotaru, and looked at the confrontation over the sword in silence. Telulu’s face contorted in surprise and rage. Ryouga’s expression was unreadable.
“Valkyrie!” Telulu pointed. “Destroy…”
Ukyou flung a flour bomb at the daimon. It exploded and filled the hot air with a white cloud. The creature squawked. The flour wouldn’t delay it for long, but Ukyou didn’t need very long.
“Snap out of it, Nabiki,” Ukyou barked. “Or your victory will be very short-lived.” Nabiki nodded and turned, wincing but holding the sword aloft.
“I suggest you get out of here,” Nabiki said with a sneer. “I wouldn’t want to waste a wish on you, but I will blow your bodies to the four corners of the globe if you make me.” She chuckled. “Unless you think you can stop me before I say a few simple words, that is?”
Ukyou stepped around the stone, placing herself to one side of Nabiki. Ryouga stepped back and flanked her on the other side. They both let their auras go. They flashed and flared – Ukyou’s cold aura sapping the heat from the air, Ryouga’s heavy aura causing the grass around him to wilt.
Telulu frowned. “Very well,” she said. “Consider this a draw, then.” She gestured, and Valkyrie stepped forward as it rubbed the last of the flour from its eyes. The daimon glared at Ukyou before picking her mistress up. Matsudaira also reached up and climbed aboard. A moment later, the monster shot into the sky.
“As for you, Ukyou…” Nabiki said, trailing off.
“Save it, Nabiki,” Ukyou said with a sigh. “You win. Okay? I just want to go help my friends.” She let her aura die down, but slumped. She had been pushing her injured body too much. With the adrenaline no longer flowing, it was going to start catching up to her. Ukyou turned and looked at the university proper. Aaron could sense the battle now. He began to walk towards it.
They paused at the sound of Hotaru’s voice. They glanced back over their shoulder. The girl was walking towards them, absently wiping the tears from her eyes. Her face was now so cold and adult that it made a part of both of them want to cry. The girl stopped a hand’s breadth from them.
“You tried to tell me the truth, to warn me,” the girl said.
“Hotaru, I… don’t know what to say…”
“I hate you for that,” Hotaru said, her voice calm. “But I understand.” She reached up and touched Ukyou’s hand. Aaron gasped as he felt the magic inside her flash to life. For a moment, he thought she was attacking him, then he saw the white light spreading up their body and felt the warmth and strength returning to his limbs.
A moment later, Aaron blinked as the sparkles of Hotaru’s magic faded away. He raised his hand. His strength was back, his injuries were gone. Hotaru didn’t even look tired. He gazed down at her in wonderment.
“Go. Help your friends,” Hotaru urged. Ukyou didn’t need any more prompting.
The battle was not going well. Ranma was injured, the wound in his leg too deep and bleeding too badly to ignore. He could barely stand, and every moment more and more of his strength bled away.
Akira tried to make up for him. She tried to push herself, to fight at her full strength. She knew she was always able to fight better with her helmet on. The confidence always brimmed in her when she had that reflective sheen between her and the world. Even the sound of her own breath echoing in the enclosed space was familiar and comforting.
But it wasn’t enough. Vega was able to dance around her attacks. His claw slashed out playfully, tearing at her leathers and cutting lightly into the skin beneath. Not one of the attacks he inflicted on her were as bad as the one he had done to Ranma, but they were adding up.
It didn’t help that with how mobile Vega was, Akira was being forced to fight him virtually alone. The best she could do was pin him down for a few seconds while Ranma made his way to them and struck.
Vega leapt away from her suddenly and turned his gaze to the window. He shook his head. “Ah, I think this game has to end now,” he announced. Akira immediately leapt away, but he was too fast.
He snapped out one hand and forcibly yanked her hand away from her body, then sunk his claw into her gut. She screamed as the metal pierced her. It was pain worse than any she had felt. She had taken spills at a hundred kilometers per hour. She had been hit hard enough to crash through brick walls. None of that compared to this.
All she could do was gasp and grab at Vega’s wrist. He was staring into her faceplate. From this close, he could probably see through it and get a good look at her gasping, pale face. Akira could see nothing of his face behind his featureless white mask, except his eyes. His eyes were smiling.
He kicked her free of his claw and she stumbled across the room, clutching her gut. She collided with the wall and sat down hard. She couldn’t help thinking of her brother. ‘All fighting does is lead to more fighting. All it does is lead to pain.’ Maybe she should have listened.
She tried to rise to her feet, but the strength deserted her. She could feel her energy flowing out of her body. She tried to resist it, but the wound was deep and wide. He must have tagged an organ, something important. She struggled to rise again, but all she got for her efforts was a scream of pain as she bent forward.
She hadn’t been good enough.
“I can feel your friend Ukyou approaching,” Vega announced. He was standing in the centre of the room. Ranma was opposite him, slowly working his way forward. It was unclear who exactly Vega was addressing. “She’s moving at good speed. Perhaps she can be more of a challenge? Bison was so interested in her.” He laughed. “I think that, if I kill one of you… it will really get her in the spirit of the fight!”
“NO! You bastard!” Ranma leapt across the room. He punched at Vega, but the man sidestepped with ease and kicked Ranma to the floor. Ranma grunted as he landed, but rolled to his feet.
“Oh come now, Ranma Saotome,” Vega said with a slightly pitying smile. “Our fight was beautiful, but even you must see it is over. You’ve lost too much blood, and this young lady never really had her heart in it to begin with.” He raised his claw. “Maybe I’ll let you pick, Ranma Saotome? Which of you do you think killing will motivate Ukyou more? The girl, or you? Please tell me swiftly. We haven’t much time.”
Ranma stood silently. He looked down at his leg. He closed his eyes… and the anger seemed to drain out of his body. All the tension, all the energy seemed to seep down and out of him. When he opened his eyes, he was serene. His eyes were clear of hate and pain. He smiled.
“Me. If you want to kill somebody, kill me.”
“Ranm-!” Akira shouted, but cut off as she began coughing.
Vega chuckled. “Very well then.” The man raised his claw. “It was a beautiful battle. I shall cherish it always. Do not regret. You are simply slower, less experienced and less skilled than me. You are just no match for me!”
Vega thrust his claw right at Ranma’s heart. Akira winced – either in pain or anticipation, she wasn’t sure. But she blinked, and thus missed it.
When she opened her eyes, Ranma was standing with his hand outstretched. His fingers were laced between the blades of Vega’s claw, just touching the razor edges but not actually being cut. His hand was clasped firmly onto Vega’s. The man stared down at his hand in shock.
“I am today,” Ranma said simply.
He roared, and with a vicious twist pulled and broke Vega’s arm. Vega screamed in pain and the sound of the bone cracking echoed across the room. Ranma continued yelling, punching his other fist into Vega’s face. There was another crack as the man’s mask shattered into shards. Vega’s head snapped back, blood flying from his cut lip and nose. Ranma’s hand moved like a snake, darting to grab Vega’s ponytail. He yanked the man forward, even as he twisted the man’s shattered arm with his other hand.
Akira watched, unblinking, as Ranma buried Vega’s own claw in the man’s stomach.
His released his grip on the Spaniard. Vega stood there for a second, staring at Ranma in shock. His eyes blinked once, twice. With a groan he fell backward, toppling a chair as he crumpled. He coughed, blood flecking his lips. Akira tried to smile bitterly, at the pain she knew Vega must be feeling. But she could feel no real joy.
Ranma stood there, looking down at Vega. The man coughed again, and grabbed his claw with his good hand. It was still attached to the arm, which had been bent at an angle arms were not supposed to twist. Vega screamed as he began to drag the blades from his stomach one centimeter at a time.
Akira heard a gasp and turned her head slightly. She saw Ukyou standing in the window. She was covered in dirt and her clothes were tattered, but she looked healthier than Akira had ever seen her.
“Ranma…” Ukyou said, her voice barely above a breath.
“It’s over…” Ranma said, his voice calm. “I win.” He turned around, and began to stumble away.
“It… isn’t… over…” Vega croaked. He had pulled the claw from his gut and was climbing to his knees. “I’m still alive, Ranma Saotome…”
Ranma paused, but didn’t respond.
“Do you have it in you, Ranma?” Vega said, and laughed. His laughter turned into painful coughs. “You could have hit my heart. You aimed for it, but I saw you change your aim at the last second.” Ranma closed his eyes. “I don’t think you can. This wound… it isn’t bad.” Vega coughed. “A lesser man might die. But I will live!”
Akira stared at him. Ukyou knelt beside her suddenly, her hands probing the cut. Akira winced, but said nothing. Ukyou’s hand flickered out and touched her body in several places. The pain numbed. Not entirely, but Akira was grateful for what little the girl could do. Ukyou stood up and began to circle around behind Vega.
“Come now, Ranma Saotome,” the man coughed. “How can you call yourself a man? This fight isn’t over until one of us is dead!”
“I defeated you,” Ranma said. “I can do it again.” He frowned. “I won’t put you out of your misery. The shame of your defeat… that’s the worst possible revenge I could inflict on you!” His voice snapped sharply at the end.
Vega’s face twisted with anger. His bloody lips pulled back from his teeth. “You think this is over? I’ll be back!”
“Maybe,” Ranma said. “But not for a while. I’m better than you. Maybe not yet, but soon. I’ll defeat you again.”
Then Vega’s eyes narrowed. He smiled and coughed. “I never did tell you how she died. Did I tell you that she begged? Did I tell you I made her scream?” Ranma spun around, his eyes flashing, his fists clenching. “She would have given me anything, in the end. My claws can inflict quite ex-” He coughed. “Quite exquisite pain. She betrayed you all, in the end.” Ranma’s mouth worked soundlessly and he raised his fists. “She offered me everything… her knowledge, her bod-“
Two hands settled on both sides of Vega’s head and twisted sharply. There was a soft crack. The madman’s eyes went calm, then blank. His body slumped lifelessly to the floor. Ranma stared, his hands still balled into fists.
Ukyou looked down at her hands. Her black lotus eyes were calm.
Tethys had almost forgotten how cold it was. The walls of ice, the arctic howl outside, the darkness… they were just symptoms. The Dark Kingdom, or the pathetic dregs of it that huddled here in a pit under the uninhabitable wastes of the Earth, was a cold place. What warmth existed was what you stole from the beings around you.
She raised her hand and called forth her magic. The walls of the room changed: the satin curtains and the ostentatious ornaments vanished, to be replaced by bare ice. It was heady, having all this stolen power. She had to remember what had allowed her to get this far. She had to keep perspective. She gestured again, and the weaves of magic shaped the room once more. The room that had once been Beryl’s private chambers was now much different. A single desk of polished stone with a comfortable but simple chair sat in its centre. A stand next to it held the long black sceptre that had once been Beryl’s badge of office and, Tethys had learned through experimentation, a focus for much of her power. The walls were bare for now, but Tethys didn’t plan on them being so for long. She had already chosen a few of the more… intelligent youma for special missions. Subtle missions, to extract human technology and devices.
If she was going to fight a war, then she needed the right tools.
And the right people.
She slid around behind her desk and into her seat. With another gesture, she conjured a book into her hands. It was a book she had read before, otherwise the magic would not have been able to weave it for her, but that was not important. The very act was more practice. Beryl’s power was immense compared to what Tethys had commanded before, and the abilities it granted were intoxicating and made it easy to lose perspective. But she had to maintain tight control.
“We’re ready,” Tethys said aloud. Hayato was the only one who could hear her, and he could have heard her inner thoughts had she allowed him to. He sent her a feeling of encouragement. She frowned and put down the book. Once again she contemplated ejecting him from their union. But he had been useful. Without his plan, his honed sense of timing, she would never have been able to kill Beryl. She had almost expected him to grow sick at the thought of feeding on Beryl’s power, like he had whenever she drained a human. But he had been oddly quiet on the subject.
Tethys simply shook her head and tried to ignore the feelings he stirred in her. Instead, she waited until the appointed hour.
The three Dark Generals materialised together. Each was accompanied by the distinctive anima of their power, like a fingerprint in their magic. For Zoicite, the youngest and weakest of them, it was a swirl of rose petals. For Nephrite, the one she had allowed to pummel her into unconsciousness, it was a flickering light filled with star signs. He was looking particularly nervous. For Kunzite, the strongest and highest-ranking, it was a white glow that faded into darkness.
They all stood at attention, stiff and not looking anywhere but at her. Tethys resisted the urge to sigh.
“Have a seat,” she invited, and conjured some chairs behind them. It was a wasteful display of magic, but served to remind them of the power she now bore. They all obeyed her command.
“Te… my Queen… why have you summoned us here?” Kunzite spoke first. Tethys leaned forward on her desk, steepling her fingers in front of her face. It was times like this she regretted how her merger with Hayato had given her a face. It was much easier to hide your emotions when you had no expression to speak of.
“To talk about what happens next,” Tethys explained. “I thought it was time I had a talk with the people who are supposed to be in charge of my armies.”
“I’m glad you wanted to speak to us,” Nephrite said, his voice hiding his nervousness well. “But Queen Beryl always took audience in the throne chamber.”
“I’m not Beryl,” Tethys explained sharply. “I do things differently.” The general gulped. “Don’t worry, I have no intention of killing you for any of your actions in the past. I don’t like to waste valuable resources, and you three are my most powerful agents, for now.”
Kunzite glanced at Zoicite, who noticeably relaxed.
“That doesn’t mean I won’t kill you if I believe you are a threat to my plans, either through treachery or gross incompetence,” Tethys said into the silence. That had them all on edge again. “But I believe in giving you all a chance.” Actually, the plan had been Hayato’s suggestion… but she decided not to share that with these three. “I’m giving you all one month to prove yourselves to me.”
“Prove ourselves?” Kunzite said sharply.
“Yes.” Tethys nodded. “I’m going to be starting a whole new kind of war soon. I want you three to prove to me that you can follow the new order. Each of you must go out into the world and do something for me.” She stood up and looked down her nose at them. “I don’t really care what you do, but understand that your choices might well determine your ultimate fate.” She held up her hand, and Beryl’s sceptre levitated into her grasp. “I only have one order for you to follow during this assignment. There is a woman out there named Ukyou Kuonji. She is my enemy, and dangerous. I want you to avoid her. I want you to do nothing to her. I want you to not even go near her. She is to be left completely alone. Is that understood?”
“Yes, my queen,” the three said, standing up and bowing slightly.
“Then be gone…”
“Just one thing before we go, if I may?” Kunzite said, holding up a finger. The other two paused, halfway through the act of weaving their teleportation spells. Tethys nodded to the platinum-haired man. “You are still planning on freeing Metallia, are you not?”
“And if I am not?” Tethys asked.
“Metallia is not a force to be trifled with,” Kunzite told her evenly. “She is our god. She made us all what we are. Every youma, including you, are her children. Beryl herself would spend a great deal of time conferring with the Empress. But I have not heard a word about you visiting her crypt.”
“That’s because I haven’t been there,” Tethys responded.
“I see…” Kunzite bowed slightly. “Just because she is crippled, doesn’t mean she isn’t fearsome.”
“I believe you,” Tethys replied dryly. The man nodded and the three started up their teleportation again. Tethys halted them with a gesture.
“Kunzite, you said that Metallia made the youma?”
“We are magical constructs, are we not? We could have been designed any way she pleased.”
“And she chose to make us as we are?”
“I believe so.” Kunzite sounded unsure of himself. He obviously had no idea where she was going with this. “You would have to ask her.”
“Perhaps I will…” Tethys mused aloud. She waved them away and they vanished. Tethys sat down at her desk again. Metallia was her maker. She had known that, inside somewhere, all along. But something didn’t feel right. Hayato said it before she thought it, his silent voice echoing from the depths of her mind.
“If Metallia made you… did she simply forget the survival instinct? You can not deny that if I had not stepped in, you would have gladly drifted away into oblivion…”
And that was a question Tethys did not have the answer to.
Akane’s lungs were burning. Her arms felt heavier than the lead weights she wore. Sweat dripped down her cheeks. She steadied herself and raised her sword. The metal glinted in the sunlight and she adjusted her grip until the razor-sharp blade was pointed directly at Shampoo.
“Don’t insult me, Akane!” Shampoo roared as she charged forward. Her larger sword flashed and Akane screamed. Her own blade rang and almost shuddered from her grasp. She jerked her hands around, trying to keep her grip. She only realised that she had dropped her guard when Shampoo’s heel connected with her temple.
Akane blinked away the stars and blackness. She groaned and sat up, clutching her head.
“You okay?” Shampoo asked. She was standing over Akane, offering her a hand up. She took it gratefully.
“I think so…” Akane mused, then hissed as she probed gently at the bruise that was forming on the side of her head.
“You could have blocked that if you had not insisted on wearing those weights,” Shampoo said, in a slow and careful manner.
“That would defeat the entire point of this training.” Akane grinned. She held up her sword again.
“You…” Shampoo shook her head. “You should rest for today. I’m getting tired of beating you up.”
“But I think I was just getting the hang of it!” Akane insisted. “I have to learn how to use this sword…”
“I don’t see why…” Shampoo rested the back of her blade on her shoulder. “You aren’t even taking this training seriously.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean…” Shampoo frowned, obviously searching for the best way to phrase her thoughts in Japanese. “You hold back. A sword isn’t a defence weapon, Akane. It is meant for killing. You always wait for me to attack… you have to strike at me first!”
“Well…” Akane sighed. “Maybe if you hadn’t insisted we train with steel blades. I have some perfectly suitable bokken…”
“Bah!” Shampoo swung her sword down. The grass rippled in a wave in the wake of her swing. “If you want to train with a sword, train with a sword. If you want to train with a stick, get a dog.”
Akane lowered her weapon, letting the tip rest on the earth in front of her. “I’m not really training with a sword so I can kill people, Shampoo. I’m training so that I can have an edge in the fights against… well, zoanoids, youma, take your pick I guess.” She frowned and stared down the edge of the blade. “I never plan on using a steel blade against a human opponent. But if the monsters out there think I can cut their arms off, they might think twice before attacking somebody I’m protecting.”
“Huh.” Shampoo looked at Akane for a long moment. “You changed. Couple of days ago you were crying because we were chopping up zoanoids.”
Coming back to life does that to you, Akane failed to say. “I guess I have,” she agreed.
“It’s not like I… uh… how do you… unapprove?”
“Disapprove,” Akane corrected her gently. “Your Japanese has really improved since I first met you, Shampoo,” she added, mainly trying to make Shampoo feel better. Then again, it was considerably better, now that Akane really thought about it. Especially since Shampoo had still been using broken Japanese only yesterday.
“Akane, actually… about that-” Shampoo began, but cut off abruptly.
“Shampoo, over!” Pink yelled as she walked out of the treeline into the small clearing they were using. Akane was always amazed with how unhappy a person who only smiled could manage to look. Pink paused when she noticed Akane and gave her the evil eye. She just blinked and stared back. She never knew how to treat Pink.
“You should know better than to wander off, Shampoo,” Pink said sweetly. “That hotel Chris booked us into is absolutely dreadful. The bathroom is a mess and needs immediate cleaning. I suggest you get started immediately. Oh, and since there are no cleaning supplies, you will be using only your tongue, over.”
Shampoo’s eyes narrowed, but she looked like she wasn’t going to protest so Akane felt the need to step in. “Wait a minute,” she held up a hand. “What about all the towels and soap and stuff?”
“They all vanished. Mysteriously. In a fire.” Pink paused. “You’ll also have to clean the ashes of the fire out of the bathtub, Shampoo. Using only your tongue, over.” Pink’s smile widened.
“I don’t think so,” Akane said quickly. “Didn’t Chris specifically ask you two to leave Shampoo alone when she was training with me?”
“You don’t look like you’re training to me, over,” Pink replied skeptically.
“We is training still,” Shampoo said. “Shampoo just let Akane take break. Go away. Shampoo no stupid twin’s slave today.”
Pink glared at Akane, her smile twisting into a hate-filled grimace. Then she took a short breath and her expression became calm. “Fine, have your fun, but I’ll be waiting for you to return, servant.” Pink smiled. “And who knows what other problems might have turned up in the meantime for you to attend to, over?”
She waved jauntily and stepped back out of the clearing. Akane sighed and waited for the sounds of her passage to vanish before she spoke up again.
“I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “I think I just got you in more trouble.” Shampoo waved that off. “Well…” Akane chuckled. “At least we seem to be in the same boat. I think about the only person Pink dislikes more than you is me. At least, if the number of times she’s tried to poison me are any indication.”
“It’s because Chris likes you,” Shampoo pointed out. “Pink wants to be the only one he listens to.”
Akane shifted uncomfortably. Chris’ faith in her was one of those things that she didn’t like to think about. So, she didn’t. “Hey! Weren’t you just, uh… using really bad Japanese when you were talking with Pink?” Akane said, letting the first thing that came to mind shoot out.
“Yes.” Shampoo turned to look at Akane, her expression serious. “Akane, please don’t tell anyone else that I’m speaking better now.”
“Uh… why?” She blinked. Shouldn’t Shampoo be proud of how quickly her Japanese was advancing?
Shampoo turned away a bit, her sword held loosely in one hand. “Because they all think I am stupid. They think they know more than me.” She paused. “They think I don’t understand. And I didn’t. That is why I…” She struggled with the word for a moment. “Why I am trapped like this. But I learned that the people who keep secrets from others are the ones in charge. Now I don’t want anyone to know my secrets. If they think I am stupid, they think I have no secrets.”
Akane was taken aback by the bitter softness of Shampoo’s voice. The purple-haired girl had never sounded so… vulnerable before. Yes, that was it. It was the complete lack of confidence in Shampoo’s voice that was making her sound so different now.
“I think I understand…” Akane walked around Shampoo until she was back in the other girl’s line of sight. “I had a friend who once lied to me and kept things from me as well. I know how powerful having that kind of information can seem…” Akane hesitated. She also knew how dangerous keeping those kinds of secrets could be to a friendship. But who among their group could Shampoo really call a friend? Even her great-grandmother and her barely spoke. “I’m glad you trust me enough that you wanted to tell me,” she finally said, and smiled. “But then again, trusting each other is something friends do.”
Shampoo flushed a little and began to stammer. Akane just stood, smiling and waiting patiently for Shampoo to get whatever she had to say off her chest. It was obviously important, so Akane wanted to make sure the other girl felt satisfied.
“Akane, I can see why Chris trusts you so much. You’re nice. I use to think you were too nice. But, ever since the mountain…” Akane’s smile faltered slightly, but she resisted the urge to interrupt. “…I’ve seen that you are more than just nice. You are not that strong. You are not that smart. But you are a warrior. You really want to make things better, and you fight to make that happen. I respect that. I… want to have that kind of strength myself one day. I want to trust you.”
“Shampoo, all you have to do is ask,” Akane said with a friendly laugh. She took a few steps away, then snapped back into fighting posture with her sword. “Now, since you said you were just letting me take a break, and you already have enough secrets to carry around…”
Shampoo blinked, then she smiled when Akane let out a fierce battle cry and attacked her.
Rei pushed absently at her plate with her chopsticks. It wasn’t that the food wasn’t good. She had just lost most of her appetite lately. Her plate was only half-empty. She tried to work up the will to finish her food, but sighed and gave up.
Wordlessly she pushed her meal in front of Usagi. The girl didn’t even pause before she started devouring it. Rei wasn’t sure Usagi actually noticed. The girl was chatting amiably with everyone else at the table at once. Not that anyone was paying particular attention to what she was saying. Usagi just sort of filled the background with a happy kind of white noise that put everyone else at ease.
Like nothing had really happened.
Everyone was relaxed. Even the old woman, Cologne, was sitting on top of the table, happily smoking her pipe and looking for all the world like she had drifted off into a deep slumber. Rei guessed that everyone was just glad to finally be having a decent cooked meal for once. At least Ami had managed to confirm that the entire restaurant was zoanoid-free before they had entered.
Now Ami seemed more taken with the pair of little… things that Link had brought with her. They were small, about two hands tall, and looked disturbingly cute for creatures that Rei had personally seen tear a large rat apart in seconds. Things with claws and spines were not meant to be cute. Not only that, but there was something about them that set Rei’s nerves on edge. It was like there was an energy around them that Rei felt she should recognise, but that she couldn’t place her finger on.
“Are you certain you have those under control?” Ami asked softly.
“Yes, quite certain, over,” Link said with a happy little frown on her face. She was dangling scraps of meat from her fingers and making the mewling creatures leap and beg for them. The large blue seeds on the backs of the tiny monsters glistened in the dim light of the restaurant. “As we moved further away from Tokyo, I found it easier to get them to listen to me, over.”
“Listen to you?” Ami said, blinking. “You can actually talk to them?”
Link clucked at them (adding an ‘over’ to the end of it) and the two monsters immediately snapped their heads towards her, then they knelt submissively. “I can talk with pretty much any plant, but none of them understand as wonderfully as these, over.”
“As long as you keep them away from me,” Luna said primly. She was lounging as far away from the little creatures as the table would allow her to. Akane’s pet octopus was flopped down next to her, studiously ignoring everyone else as it ate its own meal with a pair of chopsticks. Rei preferred not to think about the octopus.
“Ah, is Luna a little scaredy cat?” Usagi said as she patted her cat roughly on the head. “I think they’re kind of cute.” Luna endured the treatment with a mechanical-looking smile.
Makoto seemed to be the only one not paying attention to Link’s little creations. Instead she was chuckling softly to herself and rubbing her knuckles as she stared at the slumbering Cologne. With a smirk she leaned back as far as her chair would let her, then snapped forward like a cracking whip, her fist practically blurring in the air as she attacked the old woman.
Cologne was on the other end of the table by the time Makoto’s fist reached the space she had been. Everyone paused to glance at her. She was still slumbering. There was even little puffs of smoke coming from the bowl of her pipe in perfect time with her deep, peaceful snores. Makoto blinked, then frowned. She stuck her tongue out and clenched her teeth around it as she reoriented on Cologne’s new position. Rei watched her miss three more times before Makoto threw her hands up in frustration.
“Is she even asleep?” Makoto asked sullenly.
“Probably,” Link noted shortly. “She’s an annoying old-ow! Over!”
Link rubbed her forehead as the chopstick tumbled down to the table. It landed between the two creatures, which had turned on Cologne and were now hissing like annoyed cats. The old woman’s eyes eased open just enough for Rei to see the whites of them, and she stared at the monsters. They began to whimper and ran around behind Link.
“You weren’t asleep!” Makoto accused.
“I never said I was,” Cologne replied, closing her eyes again.
“How am I supposed to hit you if you aren’t asleep?”
“Not my problem,” Cologne informed her. “You are the one who has to hit me if you desire my tutelage. I am not the one in pursuit of a new student.”
“This isn’t over, old tro-ow!” Makoto rubbed her own forehead, her expression eerily mirroring Link’s.
Rei stood up. She felt slightly ill. Everyone here was so happy. They were laughing and joking and enjoying themselves, just like they always did. Rei didn’t belong here. She just couldn’t work up the strength to laugh anymore.
She excused herself politely and started away from the table. She had vague plans of going back to the hotel. She had vague plans of going down and walking by the seashore. The city they were in was certainly beautiful. Maybe walking through it would help clear her head.
Perhaps just being away from the others for a while would do it. Two days journeying through the wilderness had forced her to constantly stay near Usagi and the others. It had forced her to hear them laugh and joke with each other as they slowly got over the anxiety of being separated from their families. It had forced her to watch them as they grew closer.
“Rei, wait up!”
She turned, surprised, as Usagi ran across the restaurant towards her. The girl banged her shin on someone’s chair and fell in a heap across the floor, but she looked up at Rei with only her normal irrepressible smile in place. Rei shook her head slowly and waited for Usagi to join her.
“Where are you going?” Usagi asked.
“For a walk. I need to clear my head,” Rei explained.
“Mind if I come with you? We haven’t had much of a chance to talk lately.” Usagi’s good cheer was something that you couldn’t just turn down. Even if Rei had wanted Usagi to leave her alone, the girl would have just kept pouring on the charm until all her defences crumbled under that incessant good will. Besides… maybe Rei did want to talk to Usagi.
“Sure,” she said and led the way out. It was much brighter outside. The air was warm, but the breeze off the ocean kept it comfortable. The people walked about on this beautiful summer day, their faces nothing but smiles. Rei didn’t walk long before Usagi began to talk.
“Rei, have you ever had dreams?”
“Uh… yes…” Rei said. That hadn’t been quite what she expected. She suspected that Usagi had noticed Rei’s… emotional absence lately and was cooking up some harebrained scheme to get her to feel better.
“I used to have these dreams…” Usagi said as she walked along the promenade. “Some ancient place was always in them. There was a handsome man, whose face I could never see very well. We were dancing together in a magnificent palace, and I knew he loved me…” Usagi looked down at the ground and smiled. It wasn’t her usual happy smile. This one was a deeper, more personal smile. It was the kind of smile that Usagi reserved for herself, Rei could tell.
“And…” Rei prompted the girl. As a priestess, Rei had been trained a great deal in dream interpretation. Mainly because as her powers grew, her dreams were supposed to subconsciously reflect the future. But Rei had never gotten anything useful out of them. Besides, all her dreams lately had been nothing but a garbled view of a figure on a plain and a muffled voice yelling at her and then… something bad happened, but she could never remember what.
“Well, last night I didn’t have the dream,” Usagi said, as if that explained everything.
“Okay… so?” Rei tried not to sound cross.
“It’s just… last night, I felt like something was missing.” Usagi’s face had become a soft frown. “I just… I felt like there was something I was supposed to have. And now… I feel like it’s gone.”
Rei paused. Then she shook her head. “Forget about it, Usagi.” She turned sharply. “It’s just a dream. They don’t mean anything.”
“But this felt really important!” Usagi protested.
“It wasn’t,” Rei snapped. “Listen… Usagi, I just would like to walk by myself for a little while. I just need time to deal with… with what happened, okay?”
Rei tried to mollify her tone, but Usagi still looked slightly hurt. But she nodded and walked away. Rei watched her leave and sighed to herself. There was no surer way to get Usagi to leave her alone than to raise the spectre of Rei’s grandfather. She allowed a sardonic smile to cross her face. If only that were the problem.
She gestured, and suddenly she felt the weight of her transformation wand settle into her palm. She looked down at the small red stick with its golden ‘Mars’ symbol for a long moment. She remembered watching Sailor Mercury and Sailor Jupiter raise their own, similar wands. She remembered the light of their power blasting out in thin, perfect lines as they lit up the cave they were hiding in. She remembered them offering their own power up to Sailor Moon when she needed it most.
She remembered how she had failed. She had stood there, her wand raised, and nothing had happened. She had wanted it to happen. She had needed it to happen. Yet, the power had never left her. Something had held her back.
And she knew what. She didn’t belong here.
Usagi, Makoto and Ami… they still believed. They had left their families, but they had not lost them. Rei had taken a step away from them, somehow. All she could hear while she had been trying to summon her power to aid Sailor Moon was her grandfather’s voice. She had heard him pleading with her. She had heard him asking her not to abandon him.
Of course, that had never happened.
Rei sent the wand back to whatever place it came from. She turned her eyes across the skyline of the small city. In the distance, a thin white tower on top of a hill loomed over it. Beyond it, a giant forest grew. Chris was up there now. He had insisted nobody come with him. He had warned them all against following him. Rei almost gave into a sudden, intense desire to ignore his warnings. But she shook her head clear.
Still, as she walked away towards the ocean, she could feel the shadow of the tower on her. This entire city, it felt so beautiful… almost cloyingly so. It was like she was being wrapped in its tender arms and somebody was whispering into her ear that she didn’t have to worry about all that anymore. But that was silly. Places weren’t like that.
Ranma stood on the street corner, looking down the row of middle-class homes. The sun was setting slowly, turning the sky into a brilliant cascade of purples and blues. The heat had finally broken, a cold wind blowing in off the sea as afternoon crept into night. Ranma looked down and held the tiny camera in his hands.
He had found it there… he had taken it without thinking.
He felt Ukyou walk up to him. She wanted him to feel her coming, her aura was much too strong. She was becoming like a whisper.
“Ranma, what are you doing here?” Ukyou asked. She looked concerned. To most people, she would have looked indifferent, maybe even callous. But Ranma had learned how to read her. He could see the emotions in her by the twitch of her lip or flicker of her pupils. New eyes, scars… none of that mattered. Ranma knew Ukyou… or had. He refused to meet her gaze.
“Where’s Hotaru?” Ranma changed the subject.
“Akira is looking after her,” Ukyou explained.
“Good,” Ranma nodded. “I still need to thank her. Both of them. But Hotaru especially…” He glanced down at his leg. His pants still had a hole in them. The blood had dried, leaving a maroon stain. He would have to get rid of them. Hotaru had touched him and healed him without a sound. Ranma hadn’t been able to thank her. He just hadn’t been able to say the words.
“Hotaru… is stronger than she has any right to be,” Ukyou said. “Losing someone like that, it just isn’t right.”
“Yeah,” Ranma said. Ukyou had somehow dragged the subject back to where she had wanted it. He shouldn’t have been surprised. She always managed to do that, to turn things around on him. He felt a flare of annoyance at her. But not his comfortable, hot annoyance. This feeling… it came from somewhere deeper.
“You know… all those pictures she took, and I don’t think I have a single picture of her.” Ranma tried to keep his emotions out of his voice as he flipped the camera into the air and let it settle in his hand.
Ukyou looked away. Her voice grew softer, warmer. But he could tell she had read the resentment in him. “Did you love her?”
“I don’t know,” Ranma replied after a second’s thought. “I think… I think I would have liked to find out, though.” He closed his eyes. Men didn’t cry. Men didn’t cry. He gritted his teeth behind his lips as his eyes burned.
“I’m sorry,” Ukyou said lamely.
Ranma almost exploded at her. But that wouldn’t have been right. Ukyou… she had just done what she thought was right. She couldn’t be blamed for Ran’s death. So why… why did he feel this sudden anger at her? It was like she had stolen something from him, but he didn’t know what. But he fought it down. He strangled it with his will. Ukyou was his friend. He liked her.
“What are you doing now, Ukyou?”
She seemed surprised by the question. She stepped back, and her dark eyes looked away. It was that strange far-off look that meant she was thinking hard, in one of those internal moments she had.
“I don’t know,” Ukyou admitted after a moment.
“You’re going to take care of Hotaru?” Ranma asked.
“Someone has to,” Ukyou said. “Telulu may say she isn’t interested in her, but…” Ukyou ran a hand through her bangs and sighed. “Plus Chronos and Shadowloo and a thousand other problems. Too many people want her for what she is.”
Ranma nodded. He turned to face Ukyou fully. He held the camera tightly, like a talisman. “I’m through drifting, Ukyou.” He looked down at the camera. “You can flow from problem to problem if you want. You can wait for evil to come to you… but I’m not.”
“Ranma…” Ukyou looked up at him, her eyes wide. He still didn’t meet her gaze. He wanted to… he just couldn’t.
“What’s the worst place now, Ukyou?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” Her voice was worried.
“The worst place on Earth.” He furrowed his brow. “Where are the worst monsters? The ones that make Vega look like a child. I want people I can kill, Ukyou.”
“Don’t say that, Ranma,” Ukyou said sharply. “You don’t really mean it. It’s the grief talking.”
“Maybe…” Ranma kept his eyes on the camera. He had made a promise. “But I have to start somewhere, and I want to start at the bottom and work my way up.”
“What if… what if I don’t tell you?” Ukyou’s reply was hesitant.
“I’ll find out on my own,” Ranma said sharply. He looked down at her. “I’m doing this for myself, Ukyou. I don’t really care about Japan. It isn’t my home. I’ve never really had a home. But I’m not going to stand here and wait for the bad guys to get around to me while more people like her die. Her, and Hotaru’s dad, and everyone else…” He trailed off and closed his eyes. The breeze was cool against his skin. “I need to start somewhere. The worse the better. Because I’m Ranma Saotome. I’ll find a way to win.”
Ukyou paused. “England.”
“England?” Ranma asked.
“It’s the place with the worst monsters.”
Ranma didn’t bother to ask how she knew. He knew better than to doubt Ukyou. He nodded.
“I’ll follow you,” she said after a moment.
“And Hotaru?” Ranma thought to ask.
“Getting her out of Japan is probably a good idea…” Ukyou said half-heartedly. “Honestly, I can’t think of anywhere that will be safe for her.”
He nodded again. “We leave tomorrow morning.” He turned and started down the street.
“You never answered my original question, Ranma,” Ukyou pointed out mildly.
“They deserve to know,” he explained.
“The police already told them,” Ukyou said. “They don’t need more grief, Ranma. They lost more than you did, if you can understand that. Maybe it’s best you leave them alone.”
“No, Ukyou,” he replied, shaking his head. “Ran would want this. She would want them to know, to know everything. Somebody has to tell her story.”
He took five more steps before Ukyou turned and walked away, fading into the twilight like a whisper. Ranma continued walking until he came to a simple door. He knocked. Eventually, a man with dark bags under his eyes opened it. He looked like he had seen hell. Maybe he had. Ranma took a deep breath.
“Mr. Hibiki, you don’t know me, but I knew your daughter…”
“If a chick cannot break out of its shell, it will die without ever being born.”
The man sat in the chair, staring out into the rain. A flash of lightning caused him to blink and shift slightly.
“We are the chick. The world is our egg.”
The bolt’s answering roll of thunder shook the entire mansion. The man wondered momentarily how long he had sat there, staring out into the rain without actually seeing it. An hour? A day? Then he remembered that it didn’t matter.
“If we don’t crack the world’s shell, we will die without truly being born.”
And yet something was keeping his attention from sliding back into the abyss of dark and twisting thought. What was it? Something was different. Something was wrong.
“Smash the world’s shell!”
The windowed door swung open smoothly, and the lightning illuminated the huge figure that stood there, who a moment ago had been nowhere to be seen.
“For the revolution of the world!” the figure said, echoing the words of the recording as if he had heard them a thousand times before. His voice sounded both smug and joyous. The man could do nothing but stare as the figure took a step into the room, water rolling off his coat to splash carelessly upon the carpet.
“Good evening, student council president,” the intruder said conversationally. He was clearly massive, both in height and musculature, wearing jeans and a black coat with a hood that hung low ever his face. His eyes couldn’t be seen, but the wide grin that shone from the shadow cast by the hood was almost predatorial. “I apologise for my rude interruption.”
The man in the chair merely stared for a moment. The intruder grinned at him.
His sword wasn’t within reach, so the man didn’t bother looking for it. Was this intruder a thief? But the way he’d echoed the recording…
“We are the chick. The world is our egg.”
The stranger appeared to have lost patience waiting for a response. “I won’t keep you long. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like to know where the dormitory room of Keiko Sonoda is.”
The man stared.
“…we will die without truly being born.”
“Come now,” the intruder said. “I’m sure you know where it is.”
The man in the chair pointed. What else was there to do?
“Many things are in that direction,” the stranger noted. “Where, precisely?”
“…of the world!” the recording broadcast into the following silence.
“It is… in the second building, the west dormitory. First floor, the third door from the right of the entranceway.” The man’s voice sounded dusty, disused, alien even to himself. How long since he had spoken to anyone? A week? Two? Ever since…
The stranger’s smile widened. “I thought you’d know. Thank you for your assistance, student council president. I’ll let you get back to talking to yourself now.”
“Smash the world’s shell!” The man in the chair’s voice, sounding strong and confident, emanated from the recorder, echoing throughout the room.
The intruder turned around, a few final splatters of water from his coat whipping onto the floor. He walked out, slid the door carefully shut, and looked back at the man in the chair.
Then he vanished.
No, not vanished. There was a movement, almost too fast for the man’s eyes to follow. But not quite. The man in the chair saw it, for the briefest of instants, just on the edge of vision, as the intruder shot upwards into the air, leaping higher, farther and faster than should have been possible, vanishing into the night.
“If a chick cannot break out of its shell, it will die without ever being born.”
The red-haired man spent another moment looking after the intruder. Then he stood up suddenly, moving over to the recorder, and sharply pushed a button, silencing it.
He needed to think.
The temple was quiet as the first stars began to emerge. Akira sat at the foot of the tall Buddha, her hands on top of one knee. Her helmet was beside her. Her undershirt and jacket were in the garbage; they had been too torn up to salvage. Ukyou had loaned her a shirt to wear.
How had she gotten here? How had a simple favour done for one boy – that, truthfully, Akira didn’t even like very much – gotten her here? The stars didn’t answer. Akira wished she could hit the open road; drive so fast that the feelings didn’t catch up with her. It hurt too much. All this fighting…
And for what?
Ukyou emerged from the darkness. She moved soundlessly across the courtyard to stand near Akira. Her face was covered in shadow.
“Inside, sleeping,” Akira explained. “How was Ranma?”
“As well as can be expected,” Ukyou explained. There was something in her tone, her posture, that Akira knew was important but couldn’t place. Ukyou was hard to read when she wanted to be.
“I don’t know what I would do if… if someone I loved…” Akira looked away from Ukyou, unable to look at her for a moment. Ukyou sighed and sat down as well, placing her back against the great Buddha. They sat together in silence for a long time. It was cold now, and Ukyou wasn’t exactly a bastion of warmth on the best of days. But Akira nevertheless felt warmer sitting here with her in the shadows than she had during the hot day.
“Ranma is leaving in the morning,” Ukyou said. “He’s leaving Japan. I’m going with him.”
“I…” Akira coughed and blinked. That had been sudden. “Wow. Where are you going?”
“To hell,” Ukyou said. “To fight demons.”
“You’re… speaking metaphorically… right?” Akira said shakily.
“I’m not so sure,” Ukyou mused aloud.
Akira lowered her head and ran her finger through the rocks that covered the courtyard. They made soft clicking sounds as she shifted them. “You really do love him.” She looked up at Ukyou’s face. “Even if it was actually hell… you would follow him there and back.”
Ukyou looked at Akira for a long time. Then she nodded. When she spoke, her voice was choked with emotion. “Yes.” She looked down at her hands.
“You did it for him…” Akira trailed off. She couldn’t express the feeling she had inside. She wasn’t entirely sure what it was. She just knew it meant something. She knew why Ukyou had done what she had done this morning. She just couldn’t explain it.
“Yes,” Ukyou repeated softly. “I’ll do anything for him.”
Akira looked down at the ground again.
“I’m not coming with you,” she pointed out.
“I know,” Ukyou said.
“I want to explain!” Akira shouted suddenly, spinning in place to face the other girl. Ukyou looked at her sharply and nodded towards the temple. Akira hushed her tone. “I don’t want you to think it’s because I’m a coward, or I don’t want to help.”
“It’s okay, Akira,” Ukyou stepped smoothly into a pause in her speech. “You have friends and family here.” She smiled wryly. “Plus, you’re not sure if you want to go anywhere with a monster.”
“No!” Akira hissed softly. “Ukyou, you aren’t a monster! That has nothing to do with this.”
“Doesn’t it?” Ukyou looked down at her hands. “What good am I? The one principle I said I would never break… and I don’t even have that to cling to anymore. No. You shouldn’t be around me, Akira. Everything I touch turns to ashes.” Akira opened her mouth, but Ukyou cut her off without even looking at her.
“Akira, before you try and defend me, let me tell you one thing.” Ukyou looked up at the stars. “This morning… when I was in that school, and I saw her body… when I looked down at it the first thing I thought, the VERY first thing, my immediate reaction…” Ukyou slowly trailed off. “My first reaction was relief.” She looked at Akira. “Relief that she wouldn’t be there to stand between Ranma and me, anymore.”
Akira clenched her fists. “You’re too hard on yourself, Ukyou.” The other girl blinked. “You can’t blame yourself for Ran’s death! You aren’t God! You can’t blame yourself for your feelings!” She kept talking, quickly. She hated talking. She was bad at it. She preferred to stay quiet. But she knew that if she stopped, that if she let Ukyou stop her, then she would never start again. Then it would be too late, because Ukyou would be gone. “And I know you did it all for him!” Akira said the words and they tasted sour in her mouth.
“You killed Vega… because someone had to. He was a rabid dog. You killed him for that reason… and Ranma wasn’t going to. Ranma would have killed… because… because…”
“Because Vega hurt him,” Ukyou finished.
“That doesn’t make it right, Akira.” Ukyou looked away, into the darkness. With her strange eyes, Akira wondered what she saw. “I… I really tried. I thought that if… that if I held on… that if I refused to give away just that last bit of me. That if I was true to my promise, that it wouldn’t be true.”
“What…” Akira knew that Ukyou wasn’t talking about Vega anymore. She realised that the other girl had come to a conclusion sometime today, sometime after all the violence and the terror. Something had changed in Ukyou, and not for the better. “Ukyou…”
“Go home, Akira.” She stood up, and helped Akira to her feet. She kept a hold on Akira’s hand even after they were both standing. Akira felt her cheeks flush for some reason. “I’m sorry I can’t be the girl you want me to be, Akira.”
“What?” Akira gasped.
Ukyou smiled enigmatically.
“What do you mean?” she said harshly. Ukyou released her hand and stepped back.
“I thought about it for a little bit, but it just isn’t in me,” Ukyou said. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” Akira wanted to shout, but controlled herself. Ukyou cocked her head to the side and rubbed her chin thoughtfully.
“You…” Ukyou shook her head. “It doesn’t matter. My mistake. I was leaping to conclusions again.” Akira blinked, not sure what that had all been about. “But you should be going home, it’s late.”
“I’ll…” Akira gulped. Why did this sound like more than a goodbye? A flicker of fear entered her chest. Her eyes widened slightly as Ukyou took a step back again. “I’ll come by to see you off…” she began.
“No need,” Ukyou replied crisply. “We’ll be gone by morning.”
Akira stepped forward until she was almost touching Ukyou. “Then one day, we will meet again.” Ukyou looked at Akira strangely. “We’re friends, Ukyou. I won’t let us lose that. One day, we’ll meet again. Promise?”
“I don’t make promises I can’t keep,” Ukyou replied softly.
“Then you’ll keep this one!” Akira insisted.
Ukyou didn’t smile. “No, Akira. I can’t promise you anything.”
Akira wanted to shout something, but couldn’t. Her tongue felt too big for her mouth. What had changed behind those icy black lotus eyes? But now Ukyou was turning away, entering the shrine. Akira waited until she was out of sight. Then she looked down at the gravel and up at the great Buddha.
“Then I’ll promise, Ukyou. I promise we’ll meet again.”
Keiko Sonoda was asleep, of course. Her hair had been let down from its trademark pigtails, floating around her head like a mousy-brown cloud. The blankets were dishevelled and her limbs flung out awkwardly: she wasn’t sleeping restfully, not surprising in this thunderstorm. For all that, she still seemed… elegant, somehow.
Chris wondered if that was some inner beauty the plain girl rarely displayed, or if it was a side-effect of being a resident of Ohtori Academy, where fairy-tale elegance covered everything like a fine glaze. Or perhaps it was just his own bias: after all, Keiko was his favourite character from Revolutionary Girl Utena. Perhaps it was all three.
He wouldn’t wake her up, of course. Keiko was a normal girl – by Utena standards – with normal problems – again, by Utena standards. She served a girl whom she despised, in order to be close to said girl’s brother, Touga, the object of Keiko’s desperate, doomed love.
It was impossible to overstate the importance of this love to her; it, in fact, defined much of how Keiko lived her life. And yet it was so very, very small. Chris smiled a bit to himself. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d had to deal with such a small, innocent problem as unrequited love.
No, Keiko was normal. Painfully so. Chris would not wake her up now. Most likely he’d never even speak to the girl. And that was obviously the kindest thing he could do for her. She didn’t deserve to be wrapped up in the sort of problems he had to deal with.
Turning away from the window he had been looking through, Chris focused on his real goal. Even in the rain, the Chairman’s Tower was impossible to miss. He’d seen the tall, pristinely white structure hours before he had reached the Ohtori grounds, towering at the centre of both the campus and the city surrounding it. He had been putting off going there.
Of course, he knew why. Akio Ohtori was dangerous. He might not be able to smash mountains like a zoalord, but he made Chris at least as nervous. Brilliant, ageless, cunning, manipulative, silken-tongued, and without the slightest shred of comprehensible humanity. He had been God, once, or so the Utena backstory would have it. He sought to reach that height again.
If he fought a zoalord, Chris could at least try to find bigger guns as backup, like Sailor Moon and her deus-ex-machina crystal. But Chris didn’t know of any character who could out-think Akio, or out-talk Akio, or had more experience than Akio, or would be able to out-manipulate him. It didn’t help that he wouldn’t trust any straight woman to be objective about the preternaturally (if not flat-out supernaturally) sexual being. And that was why Chris was on his own for this one. He was pretty sure he could handle it. Maybe.
But Akio knew the truth. Akio knew, to a greater extent than anyone else Chris had consulted, what something eternal was. The Third Circle. The power of miracles. Whatever you called it, Akio had once commanded it. Or at least it seemed more likely that he had than anyone else Chris could think of.
If it meant taking a risk like this in order to gain that information… well, Chris had promised never to kill anyone again. He was on borrowed time.
He glanced back through the window. Keiko had rolled over, clutching a pillow to herself. Was she dreaming of Touga? Probably. Chris smiled a bit. At least his appearing out of nowhere to ask Touga for her dormitory room and then leaping away had probably gotten Keiko the attention of her love. And, since Chris didn’t plan to pursue any further connection to her, hopefully she wouldn’t get any undue attention from higher up. That was the best he could do for his favourite character.
Well, aside from saving the world.
Chris began walking towards the Chairman’s Tower. Cologne had said the Third Circle would most likely trump everything else, and Chris lived, moved, and walked with the Third Circle… so if nothing else, Akio’s dear younger sister probably wouldn’t be able to turn him into a cow. Nor could they make him see whatever they wanted to. If nothing else, Chris could threaten to tear their whole damn little paradise down around their ears.
Or threaten to kill them. They didn’t know about his promise. If they even could be killed. Well, it wouldn’t come to that, anyway.
“Anthy, what is it doing?”
The witch opened her eyes, and a thousand blades skewered her. “He’s finished looking in the girl’s window. I believe he’s coming here, brother.”
“Nothing is having an effect on him. And nothing he is doing is directly affecting the projection, either.”
“Did it react to the wall?”
“No, he walked right through it. I don’t believe he noticed it.”
The witch watched as her brother fell silent, pensively staring at the wall of the planetarium room. A fire greater than any sun scorched her flesh and bones, and the witch wondered dully what her brother planned to do.
A long moment passed.
A doorbell rang.
“He’s here,” the witch said unnecessarily.
“Then I should go greet our guest.” Her brother rose smoothly to his feet and walked to the elevator. A moment later, the witch watched the door close, cutting off her sight of his face.
The witch was left alone with her thoughts.
She wondered if the creature that waited at the door of this tower was here to kill them. It was a tempting thought.
But she didn’t have hope in such a miracle happening.
How many millennia had it been since she’d last let herself have hope for release? She pondered that thought for a moment, as her bones were perforated by burrowing maggots, and realised that she didn’t really remember. She’d stopped keeping track of time long ago, come to think of it.
But she knew how long it had been since she had last encountered a being like the one below. That was easy to remember. Because this was the first time since her Betrayal.
If the creature hadn’t talked to Touga Kiryuu, she might not have noticed him until he had knocked upon their door. But the Kiryuu boy was one of the ones she had been told to keep an eye on, and the disturbance to the natural order of things had been like the quiver of a spider’s web. As of yet, the witch couldn’t tell what consequences that touch might have on the Kiryuu boy. But such things weren’t very important compared to the much larger problem that was rising up through the elevator shaft.
A cheerful chime announced their arrival. She stepped forward, smiling as acid ate through her skull, and noticed the creature look at her and flinch. Her brother noticed it too. “Why hello there!” the witch said brightly. “I’m afraid I don’t have anything prepared – it’s very late to be entertaining guests. And such a frightful night, too! Should I go make some tea?”
“No,” the creature said, having regained his composure but still not looking directly at her. “I don’t… rather, thank you, but no.”
“Perhaps you’d like to ease your burden for a time,” the witch’s brother invited, gesturing towards the couch.
The creature looked at her brother, as if expecting something else to be said. After a moment, he shrugged. “Why not?”
“An interesting question,” her brother quipped.
The creature laughed a bit to himself, and sat down, his muscular form squeezing awkwardly onto the cushions. “I apologise in advance for soaking your upholstery. As you said, it’s a nasty night out there.”
“All the more reason a host is obligated to offer shelter,” the witch’s brother noted, settling himself on the coach opposite the creature. The witch remained standing.
“As you said, it’s late, so I shouldn’t waste too much time with this,” the creature said. The witch saw her brother tense, though the signs would be invisible to anyone else. His smile never wavered, his eyes never blinked, his muscles didn’t even so much as twitch. But the witch heard the faintest pause in the beating of his heart, the pressure of his breath. Again, she wondered idly if they were about to die.
“You can call me Chris,” the creature said after a hesitant pause. “I guess from my reception that you noticed that I’m… unusual.”
And just like that, the moment passed. The witch wasn’t disappointed; after all, she’d never let herself hope. To his credit, her brother’s smile didn’t widen one iota.
This was no Prince.
She listened with mild interest to Chris’s story. It at least had the value of novelty. If the witch hadn’t long ago grown to hate stories, it might even have intrigued her.
“I see,” her brother said finally, when Chris reached the proper narrative stopping point. “So, if that is the situation, what brings you to this school?”
Chris leaned forward. Before, he had been hesitant, carefully choosing his words, obviously telling them only what he thought safe. Now, however, confidence radiated from him. Blank eyes and lack of pulse didn’t hide it. He expected a reaction to this statement. “Because I’m interested in what’s beyond the Rose Gate.”
Her brother, of course, didn’t disappoint the creature. He paused, leaned back, raised one eyebrow ever so slightly. “Ah. I’m afraid to say I’m not accepting any new Duellists at this time.”
Chris’s lip twisted. “That’s not what I’m here for, of course. I’m not interested in messing with your current game, Akio. You know about eternity. Miracles. The Third Circle. Whatever you call it, you’re closer to it than any other being around here. And I need to know what you know, if I’m to fix this situation.”
And so the verbal fencing began. The witch paid only passing attention, since the way it would go was clear from the first few sentences. The creature, while not entirely incompetent, obviously believed that as long as he kept whatever secrets were important to him, he had won. So her brother allowed him to win, probing enough to reassure Chris that he was interested, and otherwise simply let whatever information he wanted to divulge be extracted piece by piece.
“So you want me to tell you of miracles?” her brother said at one point, leaning against the couch and spreading an arm over the back of it.
“Yes,” Chris said. “What is the essential difference between them and what else exists? How can that barrier be crossed? Who could cross it?”
“The barrier cannot be crossed,” he replied. “The difference is like comparing the portrait of a rose to the jungles of Brazil.” He paused long enough to allow Chris an opportunity to ask something, then moved smoothly on when the dead creature did not. “You already know of the other two ways, if you call this the ‘Third’ Circle. I’m guessing the First Circle is the least of them, that which gives strength and life. The Second Circle, then, would be the slightly larger, the one that gives possibility. But do you know what they are?”
“Maybe. Explain what you mean, please.”
Her brother leaned forward, fixed the dead man with an intent gaze. “How do you think of time?”
Chris thought for a moment, then shrugged. “As an ongoing thing. A dimension that we partake in, but can’t truly alter.”
“A scientific explanation. Allow me to tell you a story, then. In the beginning, there was a small village. The people who lived in this village were industrious and good-hearted. They worked together, and over time their village grew. But one day, there was a child of this village who found that his place was no longer among them, and so he left to found his own village. And this happened many times, so that the valley was filled with villages.
“However, these villages, one and all, were essentially the same. They all were populated by decent, hard-working people. And although they never talked to people from other villages, and in many cases did not even realise the others were there, they all nonetheless lived within the same valley.
“Eventually, however, things change. A child was born who was neither decent, nor hard-working. He stole, and he begged, and refused to work, and otherwise made the lives of all those around him uncomfortable. And so he was forced to leave the valley, as there was no place for him there.
“Outside the valley, he founded a village of slothful, deceitful people. And their children grew up slothful and deceitful, and sometimes they left, to found new villages in the place outside the valley. Things continued thus with them, until eventually a child was born who was neither hard-working and decent, nor slothful and deceitful, and he could find a place with neither people.
“And so he moved beyond, and this continued for eternity, until humankind spread across the world. Millions of villages, none of which knew the others existed. And that is the story of time.”
As her brother paused, Chris nodded thoughtfully. “I follow you – time isn’t linear, alternate worlds, et cetera. But what does that mean?”
“Because there are people who live in the valley, who know how to call on their distant family and friends for help with the harvest. If they call their family from within the valley, that is the First Circle. If they contact the family they have from those who are outside the valley, that is the Second Circle; because after all, those who live outside the valley have a completely different way of doing things from those within.”
“And the Third Circle, then?”
“Therein lies the difference. There is no story about the Third Circle, for its story is not the story of the valley. Its story cannot exist at the same time as the story of the valley. Say, in our story, before the first person left the first village, a great plague fell upon them, and all the people died. And yet, the slothful and deceitful village continued to send off people to found all the other villages of the world. Can you see what is wrong with that?”
“If the first person never leaves the first village, the slothful and deceitful village doesn’t exist yet. It can’t send anyone anywhere,” Chris replied.
“And it certainly couldn’t send someone with medicine back to the first village to cure the plague. That is the story of the Third Circle.”
“Okay…” Chris said. “So, basically, the First Circle could be called the possible, if perhaps implausible. The Second is that which is impossible. The Third, then, is… the thing that isn’t only impossible, but also contradicts its own existence?”
“People use the word impossible too often, I find,” the witch’s brother said smoothly. “There is a student at this academy. I expect you know his name. He knows a great deal about quantum physics, and he will tell you that, in fact, it is quite possible for the impossible to happen. Instead, it is simply so unlikely that it never does.”
“Granted,” Chris replied. “But while I understand what you’re saying, I’m not sure how it relates to my situation.”
“Because thermodynamic miracles – as I understand they are called – could happen. They simply don’t. So while something such as, say, demons could just happen, something greater than that requires an outside agent. The barrier between the Second and Third Circles cannot be crossed… unless someone already has.”
“If it can’t be crossed, how did they cross it?” Chris asked dryly.
Her brother’s tone grew slightly chiding. “That personage could likely answer the question much more accurately than I, for reasons you have demonstrated yourself to be aware of.”
“And, of course, you would undoubtedly be very interested in whatever information I might gather about just who that personage might be, I’m guessing?”
“Is there, perhaps, something else other than information you might be looking for within my sanctuary?” the witch’s brother asked, raising an eyebrow.
Chris pursed his lips a moment, obviously thinking furiously. “Maybe. How safe is Ohtori?”
“It is as safe as those inside want it to be.”
“Not the clearest answer,” Chris countered.
“The correct one, however.”
“Well, there are no zoanoids here, so I’ll take that at face value. That being the case, and given that you’ll want me to pop back by occasionally, I was wondering if I could get you to look after some girls I’ve been shepherding.”
“Hostages?” her brother replied, his tone one of faint distaste.
Chris shook his head. “No, no. Heroes. But ones in over their head, who couldn’t stay in Tokyo.”
“Ah, heroes in over their heads. But then, isn’t that the state of any hero?”
Chris chuckled. “Probably. It’s not that they’re incapable. But they’re YOUNG. I promised I’d find a safer place for them to stay. If this place is a sanctuary as you say, it might fit.”
The witch’s brother shrugged. “The only rule I have ever insisted upon is that any child who lives at Ohtori Academy also attend Ohtori Academy.”
“Of course,” Chris said flatly. “However, let me be bluntly honest with you, Akio. I’m happy to work with you, but as I said, I know you. And before I let them in here, I’m going to tell them exactly what sort of school they’re walking into, and who runs it. In other words, they’ll be forewarned. And I’ll be keeping an eye on things, too.”
Her brother spread his hands in mock surrender. “Then I’ll give you my word, for whatever you feel that may be worth: I will never speak so much as a single untrue word to our new students.”
The dead creature sighed. “Well, that’ll do. And thank you for your help. I do appreciate it.” He stood up, and his eyes suddenly glanced at the witch before flicking away again. “As was said before, however, it’s late. I should leave you two and prepare to bring them in in the morning, I think.”
“I’m certain you’ll have entertaining stories for us when you return!” the witch said brightly.
Chris looked at her for a long moment, then looked away again. “Hopefully.”
The witch watched the blind, pathetically self-important creature leave with a blank, innocent smile. She hated him. But not, in the final measure, any more than she did anyone else.
Except that he had almost, for a moment, given her hope.
But she would forget that too, with time.
The door closed behind Chris, and he travelled down and away.
“An interesting turn of events, isn’t it, Anthy?”
She turned around. Her brother was still sitting on the couch. His shirt had come undone at some point. “If you say so, brother,” she said sweetly, her eyes boiling in their sockets.
“Come here, Anthy.”
The shutters of the planetarium slid closed.
Eudial must have sensed something was amiss the moment she stepped into the lab, because her body froze up like the proverbial rabbit in the shadow of the hawk. She twisted one way, and then the other, looking through the gloom and smoke for any signs of what could be there. But she didn’t see anything wrong, so she stepped forward anyway. The door closed behind her with the sound of finality.
She was still injured. Her arm was in a cast, and she was using a crutch to hobble along. Telulu sneered. A part of her wanted to strike down the little pest now. But the far more practical part of her avoided that line of thinking.
“Eudial, it’s good you returned so promptly,” Telulu said from beyond the safety of the mists. “I have a job for you.”
“Telulu?” Eudial asked slowly. She narrowed her eyes and gazed into the darkness. With one hand, she adjusted her glasses. Telulu’s sneer turned into a smile and she stepped out of the fog. “Where is the Professor?” Eudial asked as soon as she could see the other Witch clearly.
“He’s dead,” Telulu replied simply.
“What?” the other Witch gasped.
“I had no more need of him, or his pathetic failure of a plan,” Telulu informed her new assistant as she removed her glasses. She breathed on the lenses and carefully wiped them off on the edge of her labcoat. “I am in charge of the Deathbusters now.”
“You… you can’t be serious!”
“Oh, I am.” Telulu smiled and raised her fingers. With a single snap, the mist parted and the towering frame of Valkyrie stepped free of the shadows. The lights gleamed off her body with its sharp angles and dangerous curves. “You see, Professor Tomoe was blind. He couldn’t see the war coming. But I can. I am prepared.”
“Daimon…” Eudial said, eyeing the monster warily.
“Yes, one of the eggs you entrusted to me,” Telulu replied. “I must thank you. They have proven quite useful so far.”
“So...” Eudial’s eyes flashed as she glanced at Telulu. “Is this to be my end as well?”
“Far from it,” Telulu laughed haughtily. “Unlike you, I believe in converting enemies into my allies.” She snapped her fingers again.
Out of the mist stepped Azuma. She had discarded her human clothes, and was now wearing a sultrily-cut dress. In her hands was a large metal box.
“Pleased to meet you, Eudial,” the newest Witch said, bowing slightly. “I am Azuma. I will be working with you from now on.”
“A… convert?” Eudial glared at Telulu. “So, you think to take the place of the Professor now, is it?”
“I already have, Eudial,” she replied, her smile turning from amused to predatory in an instant. “Don’t you see? I have accomplished in one day what our former master could not in two years!” She raised her hands up high, fingers bent into claws as her head tilted back to stare into the dark, mist-shrouded ceiling. “I can feel it in my breast! The beating heart of a sleeping god! Enough power to destroy a nation! Enough power to reshape the world in our image!” Telulu began to laugh, her voice echoing eerily across the cavernous chamber. “Don’t you feel it, Eudial? The beacon that will summon Pharaoh 90 to this pathetic world? It is ours… and soon it will be active!”
“What are you talking about?” Eudial hissed.
Telulu looked down her nose at the red-haired woman. Her smile became mocking. “I told you: I found it. The god of this nation. It connects all the living things of this land. It reaches through the roots, you see. They stretch everywhere, a billion tiny channels through the earth. Drawing in the power around them, transferring it all. Through him, I shall harness the power of this planet. I shall open the path for Pharaoh 90. No need to struggle for the Holy Grail, or place our hopes in the hands of a little girl.”
“I don’t see any god,” Eudial replied softly.
“He’s in here,” Azuma explained. “This, my anti-aragami detection device, is a miracle of chemistry! With it, we can prevent the god’s servants from tracking down their master until it is too late.”
“That… looks like a simple lead box…” Eudial said, beads of sweat forming on her brow.
“Uh…” Azuma was also sweating. “It’s really more complex than that.”
“Valkyrie likes the anti-aragami detection device!” the daimon roared, her voice echoing across the room. Everyone turned to stare at the creature. She blinked and leaned down next to Azuma. “Valkyrie wonders if she said that correctly? Valkyrie was told to say that, right?” Azuma sweated some more.
“I’m so impressed by your little army…” Eudial said, snorting.
“You should be,” Telulu turned around. “Because you are a part of it.”
“What do you need me for?”
“My god is not yet awake.” Telulu held up her curled fingers towards the sky again. “He must have sustenance to gain his full strength. For that, I shall feed him the souls of his people.”
“Heart crystals?” Eudial asked.
“Of course,” Telulu glanced over her shoulder at her. “I want them. Take as many as you can. From the homeless, the dregs of society. Capture the souls of those people humanity will not miss. You are now the thing that lurks in the shadows to take them to hell. Take them all, and quickly. Quantity over quality is what I want.” She paused. “Just do it without attracting the wrong kinds of attention.”
“The wrong kinds of attention?” Eudial replied.
“Ask Azuma. She actually knows more about your new enemies then I do, for the moment,” Telulu said, chuckling. “Understand that I need your help in this, Eudial. Do a good job, and you will be rewarded with a place by my side when the Silence comes. Turn on me…”
Valkyrie roared and her fingers snapped forward, transforming into deadly weapons. “Valkyrie likes killing things!” it informed them all needlessly. Eudial swallowed.
“You should know that just because I’m going to be busy bringing about the end of the world, that doesn’t mean I won’t be keeping an eye on you,” Telulu shot over her shoulder just before walking into the darkness.
To Be Continued…
Epsilon: I suppose we have to say something about killing Ran.
Blade: Well, for the love of Dios, I hope Obsidian Fox is happy now. Fricking bloodthirsty reviewers.
Epsilon: Now, now, were it not for the readers comments, not nearly as many people would die as are going to.
Blade: For instance, next chapter we’re gonna kill eight or nine people! And we’re not talking second-stringers like Ran!
Epsilon: That’s right! Because next chapter is when we finally start crossing over into Elfen Lied!
Blade: Yeah, baby! Everyone’s gonna get killed and their limbs ripped off… but don’t worry! There’ll still be lots of comedy with Akane and her prosthetic limbs! Also, BANDO!
Epsilon: Bando and Yan!
Blade: One is a bloodthirsty mercenary working for a corporation that deals with genetically modified killing machines that also happen to be cute chicks!
Epsilon: The other is a smartass vampire with chips in his head!
Blade: Together, they fight crime!
Epsilon: Stay tuned for future chapters of the all-new Hybrid Theory!
Blade: “Hybrid Theory… FUCK YEAH!”
Epsilon: But before that, this boring crap with your character!
Blade: Damn straight… wait just a-
There was something wrong with the cottage. Even before it came into view, Chris could tell that. The traps they (and Pink and Link in particular) had been encountering so often up until that point were conspicuously absent in a large radius around the one-room shack. Even that, however suspicious, wouldn’t have Chris as certain as he was that something was wrong. It was the animals. They had not seen any of them, giant or mundane, for several minutes. Even the constant buzz of insects had faded, leaving them walking in complete silence.
Chris exchanged a glance with Cologne. She had obviously noticed something was very wrong as well. But for the moment, they stayed silent. Not much point in making a big deal until they knew more – warning Pink was just an invitation for her to loudly call out whatever dared threaten her, anyway.
Finally the trees broke, and he saw the dwelling. It looked the same, as far as his vague memories of the Shinnosuke story arc from the series told him. A run-down wooden structure, with a traditional ricepaper door and not much else in the way of notable characteristics.
His senses prickled, just as Cologne raised her staff sharply. “There is a great evil here,” the old woman hissed.
Hybrid Theory Chapter 17: Somewhere I Belong