Over the course of my many years (all four of them) working to quell the forces of decency and light in the name of the almighty dollar, I have learned to hate three things. These things, in no particular order, are: Cute, in all it's myriad forms (wow, watch my wordpower). Frankly, I'd never been into cute and I've never seen why anyone else ever would be. Then again, I wasn't into masochism either. Maybe the two were related. Destiny, in all the manners they sold it to you. To sum up my view on destiny, allow me to quote something I read on that enchanted quest to enhance my word-power. "Prophecy is useless, for if one can not change to future than it has no value for you, and if one can change to the future there is no guarantee that the prophecy is correct." The final one is getting screwed. No, get your mind out of the gutter. I like sex as much as the next man. Or at the very least I -did- when I was back in my actual body, and not this female curse I'd been trapped in for several months now. What I mean is the process of having my employers, my employees and...well, nearly everyone I have ever met stab me in the back. It's always happened, and, if you can forgive me for sounding a bit paranoid, it probably always will. Now, I'd been bushwhacked a LOT in my life. I'd been screwed over by everyone from human corporations to angelic rogues to extradimensional monsters of incomprehensible power. Never once, however, was I so thoroughly and completely screwed as I was about to be. ---------- Improfanfic Presents Magical Girl Hunters Part: 30 Masks and Shadows Original Concept By: Aaron Shattuck This Segment By: Aaron Peori ---------- ------------------------------------------------------ Warning: The following work of fiction contains scenes of graphic violence not suitable for small children, evangelical Christians or people named 'Stan'. No being was harmed during the making of this fanfic except the entire population of Beaver's Creek, Ontario, who were mercilessly slaughtered. Thank you. ------------------------------------------------------ As I slammed the cover of the magical tome Veracity had dug up for me, I cursed whoever had came up with the concept of "no rest for the wicked". Although I don't really consider myself wicked actually. I mean, all I did was stalk little girls and shot them and their loveable fuzzy pets in the heads with lots and lots of bullets, usually after watching them spin around naked. I mean, compared to some people out there, I was a regular saint. Still, the universe must have thought I qualified because I hadn't been able to sleep since I got a lift back to my apartment six hours ago. Yes a lift. Now, despite my current gender condition I am a man at heart, and as any man will tell you, our cars are very important to us. It had been one of the first things I had spent money on after high school, a very zen sort of thing. I never let anyone drive it unless my life was in immediate danger. Even then I tended to think twice. Still, I think this one counted as special circumstances, in that I realized that if I spent half the trip reading all the graffiti on the way back I was likely to end up in one of those accidents that made -Does this make sense? I can't tell due to lack of knowledge of precisely what's happening, but I suggest reading it over.- the six o'clock news. You know, the ones where the reporters coo and cluck over the carnage and snivel convincingly about the tragedy of wasted human lives while watching the ratings of their programs skyrocket as all those supposedly well-adjusted people tune in to watch. Made me think that someone could make a mint off my life story. It was that little witch Lovely Rhyme-and-Reason's fault I couldn't sleep. Every time I tried I'd get this irrepressible urge to read something, or count the number of tiles on the ceiling, or maybe even the number of stray threads on my blanket. Still, it was getting easier as time went on and I figured that at this rate I'd be able to sleep in maybe eight, twelve hours tops. This made me feel so much better about the situation, really it did. So when the knock came at my door I was more than happy to reply. It would give me something to do beside count the five-hundred and sixty five crumbs on my carpet. Still, I wasn't exactly in a rush. The recent problems with the demon that was possessing Itami's dead mother had made me even more paranoid than usual. So it was that when I checked to see who was there it was with a sawed off shotgun and a grenade in my pocket. I was relieved to see it was only Itami. The guy looked beat, and by that I mean even more tired than usual. On most days he had the look of a guy who had spent the last five days fasting, and the last ten without sleep. Somehow, today, he managed to look worse. Even back after the biggest brawls of our not-so-illustrious career he had always looked like he could just tough up and run a marathon right after. I remembered one time he had been in a hospital with more injuries than I could count (fifty-three, my recently altered brain informed me annoyingly) and he had gotten up and back on the job with barely two days rest. Seeing Itami stagger over to a chair and sit down heavily took some of the wind out of my sails. "What's wrong?" I said as I checked out the door and scanned both directions for signs of magical girls, the undead or perhaps IRS agents. "Gone," Itami breathed slowly in and out. It was only then that I caught sight of the sword he had under his trenchcoat, the one he had mistakenly exchanged with Queen Scarlet a few days back. Although you couldn't tell from the tone whether he was speaking about his pet puppy or a vicious case of crabs, I knew he meant something special. "What's gone?" I asked as I closed the door and ran a sweep around the apartment and windows for any potentially lethal oversights. There were none, but I don't know if that made me more or less nervous. "H," Itami grunted. I looked into his face but he was back to the 'what does this have to do with me?' mask again. I felt something inside me go cold at the simple not-quite word however. The thought that Sailor H might be... gone was one that evoked a whole load of mixed feelings in me. Sure she was a bitch and treated me like pond scum, but I'd always enjoyed seeing her bod... er, that is seeing her bond with Itami. Plus there was the residual kamen magic, the same stuff that let me feel when Aika was in danger and... Wait just a minute... if H had been in danger, why hadn't I felt it? I suppose it was possible that my lack of sleep and this nasty spell on me might have interfered, but still...it didn't make sense. "What do you mean gone?" I asked slowly. "Was... was your mother involved?" Itami gave me one of those indecipherable glances which either meant 'obviously' or 'no you pathetic moron'. Then he handed me a note. As I read it I began to understand how this could be much worse that having her die on us. It took me one nanosecond to figure out what it was about. I was intimately familiar with the subject matter, after all. Dear Itami, I've never been very good at good-byes... I'll refrain from reading the rest. It went on into great detail about how much she cared for him and all that but that he was just getting boring and she needed a few weeks to think things over. In other words, she dumped him. Probably the first person-aside from myself, I suppose-that Itami had ever cared for in his life and she'd dumped him. A pang of sympathetic loss clutched my chest. I knew all too well what having a love one leave you was like. Of course, I suppose you could say my ex leaving me was worse. At least H hadn't tried to kill him. I think. "Ouch," I muttered aloud, and sat next to my long time friend and partner. He grunted and looked out the window into the darkness. Reading Itami's expressions was a learned skill and I considered myself an expert so it was with some trepidation that I noted his lack of any movement. Even his breathing was coming slower than usual. This couldn't have come at a worse moment; we just didn't have time to track her down with his mother's corpse running loose. Damned if I knew what to do about it, however. I wasn't exactly up for the Nobel prize in compassion myself. I'd dealt with some of Itami's break-ups before. Oh he'd had more women than me, that was for sure. They were drawn to him like nails to a magnet. Still, none of them had ever meant anything to Itami, and I could tell that H had begun to grow on him. Maybe it was the fact that he felt responsible for her current instabilities, or that she was the only other person I knew of who had ever gotten a look beneath his mask. Either way, it was different from normal. Normally I'd just get him a beer and we'd watch the adult channel for a few hours. Somehow I felt that wasn't going to work in this case. So we both sat there in silence for hours on end. *** I called Veracity after the sun came up and checked on the office. No new messages or appointments had been scheduled, and everything was okay there. At least that was one less worry. I'd been doing some very hard thinking the past few hours and had finally come to a decision. Not that there was really any other decision I could come to in these circumstances. That should have been my first clue as to what was coming...but I'm getting ahead of myself. I had let Itami fall asleep; the guy needed it and I knew he'd object to my idea if I was forced to tell him abut it. I felt kinda rotten sneaking out behind his back and leaving him alone like that. But you cope. Coping - In modern society, the state of being that has replaced "living". Damn, if I ever found Lovely Rhyme-and-Reason I'd have to make sure to CF her entire neighborhood. I moved quickly through the streets. The headaches that came upon me had gotten noticeably less painful in the past few hours, so I felt no need to stop and read the graffiti. It still took me a few hours to reach the place because 1, this was a damn big city and 2, I was taking a very roundabout route to make sure I wasn't being trailed. I was headed to a certain building in downtown Tokyo, home of the head office of the Happy Tree Learning Center chain of preadolescent cram schools. You see, my plan was rather simple. Whoever this Akari Nazo person was, she had connections to magical powers. I would get her to banish the demon that was hounding Itami and myself in exchange for a promise not to hunt down and eviscerate Lovely Ryhme-and-Reason. The reason Itami would be mad at me was because it would probably mean I'd have to set up some sort of deal where we didn't hurt any of her girls. With that Ootaki freak and that dweeb Sato trying to move in on our business we might not be able to afford that. Getting rid of Manami and her 'guest' was more important in the long run, however. Of course, she wasn't expecting me till midnight, which explained why I was crawling up the air-conditioning ducts. Oh, I'm getting ahead of myself again, you'll have to excuse that. You see, the reason I was crawling up the air-conditioning ducts is that I came into view of the building and saw someone entering that I wasn't at all pleased to see. It was from a distance, but there was no mistaking that hair. Hair that ridiculous could be spotted miles away. Let me digress a bit here and explain that the reason Itami and I were so good at what we did was because we -weren't- flashy. We didn't really stand out in any way, we just blended into the crowd and moved along like two normal people. Weird normal people, but at least normal compared to most of the freaks we fought. Apparently Ootaki had never figured that out, since with his almost gravity-defying-palm-treetop style haircut he stood out in every possible way. When I saw him walking into the office, I might have dismissed it as a coincidence. If I suddenly went clinically braindead maybe, but anything is possible, I suppose. So I slipped around back and found my way to the fire escape. From there it was a quick bit of none-too-shabby acrobatics and I was up on the fire escape and heading up to the top floor. The address had included an office number, and if this building followed the same rules as every other office building in existence than the first one or two letters told you what floor the office was on. Still, running up the fire escape wasn't that inconspicuous so I tried a different tack. Looking around, I found one of those giant humming dripping boxes which all air-conditioned buildings had. I won't go into detail as to how I got the thing off the wall and safely onto the balcony of the fire-escape. Suffice it to say that after much heaving, grunting and sweating I was wedged inside the duct and making steady progress up the inside of the building. I counted out the number of floors I ascended by the amount of times the duct branched off horizontally. Progress was slow but easy, my only worry was that someone would complain about the lack of cool air too soon. Damn, don't you always think of those kinds of things long after you're already way past correcting for them? I came to the fourteenth floor and almost collapsed from exhaustion as I worked my way into the side passage. I couldn't afford to waste much time, however, as Ootaki would probably already be where I thought he was going and I needed to work fast. Checking the view through a nearby grate, I noted how the numbering system in the office worked. It was a simple matter of educated guesswork then, and in minutes I found myself above the proper office and looking down into a meeting in progress. I didn't like what I saw. Not that any of it was physically repugnant. In fact, if I were to assume that the woman behind the desk was Akari, then she was pretty hot. Especially considering I could see straight down her low-cut business suit. It was the two men across from her that had me worried. One was the aforementioned palm-tree head from before. The other I had seen only a few days ago, hoping that I'd seen the last of him when I'd thrown him to the wolves (or Princess Love, take your pick of descriptor). Well, at the very least I could hope he'd finished her off for me. "... an agreement gentlemen?" the woman I assumed was Akari spoke in an naggingly familiar voice. I tried to figure where I'd heard it before, without much success. It was like having something just out of reach, but I couldn't place it. From the sounds of things, I had wandered in on the tail end of the discussion. "I work alone," Sato crossed his arms and grinned impudently at the woman. "I'm not taking such a... low class assassin with me. Stealth and cunning shall confer on me my prey." "Wussa you be, stoopid?" Ootaki oozed in that dialogue of his which set my hair on end. "Youza not even be half the man I be." "Gentleman," Akari held up her hand and smiled disarmingly at them. They quieted down at the silent note of command in her posture. "I agreed to provide you funding, if and -only- if you work together. I need two Magical Girl Hunters, no less." "Fine," Sato pulled himself tall and tried his best too look imperious and dignified. "I will lower myself to work with him." "Youza not exactly a prize youself," Ootaki mumbled, "But I be needin' the moolah, comprend? No can set up a decent office in this town without the moolah." "I understand," she smiled at them again, then rose up in a manner which indicated they were dismissed. "If you will both head outside, my secretary shall give you all the data and forms that require signing." They mumbled more vague comments and walked out. Sato graciously let Ootaki out first, much to Ootaki's displeasure. With those two trying to work together to unseat us, I didn't know why Itami was so worried. Still, this didn't make one wick of sense. That note had been as anti-magical girl hunter as you could get, and here this Nazo person was endorsing a new team to hunt them down. "Are you sure you can trust them to do the job?" another all too familiar voice said from the shadows, sending a cold chill down my spine. I looked over and watched as a fourth person stepped out from behind a filing cabinet where even I hadn't noticed her. Yes her, as in Manami. As in my partner's dead mother. As in the dead mother that was possessed by a demon. "No," Akari purred as she sat down and cupped her hands over her mouth, "But I can control them. Unlike Daikoku and Kurasaka, these two won't accidentally succeed when they were meant to fail." Meant to fail? Fail at what? Manami grinned in a manner which was wholly not like her at all, but her voice didn't have that demonic timbre to it which would have meant she wasn't in control at the moment. This left two possibilities: either she was a real bitch, which I wouldn't put past her, or the demon was able to mimic her mannerisms exactly. The latter thought was not exactly something I wanted to contemplate. "What I meant was, could you trust them not to die?" she drummed her fingers on the top of the cabinet, a habit I had learned to hate when I'd went over to Itami's house in high school. "Kurasaka is very good at what he does. Rather too good...but that is your problem, is it not?" "My problems are no concern of yours," Akari hissed in that naggingly familiar manner. "You just live up to your part of the bargain and stop double-guessing my plans." The creature which was either my partner's undead mother or a demon in her body shrugged. "As long as you get me Itami-and I mean -all- of him-for my own personal control I don't care what you do. Once I'm no longer confined to the sword, however, I just want to make sure you have Kurasaka handled so he won't come after me." "She'll be busy enough defending her own life," Akari grinned. "Once I tip Yoi off to breaking the sword as a way of getting rid of you it will all be over. You just make sure to... infect him like I asked." "No problem." Manami grinned from ear to ear. It was even worse than her earlier expression. "Now get out of here," Akari snapped. "I have to make sure everything is set up for this evening's festivities. Make sure 'Scarlet' is where we need her to be." "I will," Manami bowed and stepped towards the shadows again, "I must say these 'puppets' of yours do wonders for the body." And with that she stepped in the shadows and was gone. I don't know how I knew she was gone; just something in my head told me that was the case. The first person to mention 'women's intuition' gets a bullet in the gut. All her guests having departed Akari gathered up the paperwork on her desk and took it over to the file folder. She then told her secretary through the intercom that she was on her way out for lunch since the office was, in her own words, "too damn hot" today. The secretary agreed and muttered some words with a vaguely envious cast to them before switching off the intercom. It was a few minutes later that I found myself alone above her office. I guess sometimes luck can work in your favor. I waited a few more minutes after she was gone before I even thought of trying to sneak my way in. Then it was a half-hour of meticulously examining the grate, the room and anything else I could see or touch for alarm wires or traps. I'd almost gotten myself vaporized the last time I snuck into someone's office via the air ducts. Satisfied that there were no mundane traps, I decided to go ahead. Still, that was no -mundane- traps so I proceeded with caution. My luck held out, meaning I didn't vaporize instantly upon setting foot on the floor. Still, that made sense. It wouldn't do to put a lot of magical traps or doodads in an office building in the middle of downtown. Someone would notice sooner or later, and most organizations which had access to magic wanted this fact to remain unnoticed for as long as was possible. The filing cabinet was locked, but I hadn't been a punk in high school for nothing. Using my proficient lockpicking skills I went ahead and unlocked it and was rooting around inside in no time. I glanced over the files on Ootaki and Sato first. Nothing much special inside them as far as I could tell; a bunch of numbers which looked vaguely like that crap some geek in High School had tried to push on me once, their last names, addresses and other miscellaneous data. The only notable thing in there was that they had some sort of arcane astrological charts under their pictures. I wasn't surprised when I looked past those and found the folders which contained information on my partner and me. They had the same general stuff, including the weird numbers and mystic garbage. I almost considered pocketing them but decided against it. This Akari struck me as meticulous, and she would notice the theft of the documents. One thing was unusual...as I put the papers away I noticed that the short bio on me had the details of my transformation. In the note she had referred to me as a Ms. That meant she was trying to sound dumber than she actually was... I put that trail of thought away and forced myself to rummage further into the cabinet. When I came upon the folder labeled "Plan: Daikoku" I muttered "jackpot" and opened it. Inside was a pretty damn detailed description of the family curse that Itami had related to me the other day. It was the extra information that intrigued me. I won't go into all the boring details, which thanks to the residuals of the magic I could go through pretty quickly, but it amounted to this. Apparently the demon was trapped inside the sword by the bargain, and could only influence the holder of the weapon. The weapon could only be destroyed by a member of the family, but only if they did so with their own blood or something like that. The problem was that this would release the demon into the host of the eldest living family member, making them its slave. I growled under my breath as I saw where this was headed. I checked further into the folder but time was running short. I skimmed through data on "youma taint" and other stuff concerning the demon's full powers. Then I noted that some more recent data added to the file said that the demon's influence on the 'R-type Simulacrum Unit' superseded the scientist's abilities to override, but that they didn't have to worry as it couldn't use its powers outside of the sword. I looked up at the clock and noticed that I'd already spent more time in here than I intended, so I slipped the files back and climbed as easily as I could back into the air conditioning duct. I didn't bother to wait around for Akari to show back up. I didn't need any more information. With my mind made up I scrabbled out of the air duct and made my way out of the building. It was time for some payback. This was going to feel good. *** I burst into the office and Itami was so startled by the bang that his dart almost missed the bull's-eye. Almost. He looked at me in that way he had which either meant 'die you betraying bastard' or 'I have gas' or possibly 'I am disappointed that you are not a Baywatch babe', I could never be sure. Veracity looked up from her television, it was playing one of those shows where they told the tales of rich attractive people whose major problems consisted of having too many opportunities to sleep with other rich attractive people. I walked over to our equipment locker and tore it open. "Morning," Itami grunted, and I could literally feel Veracity rolling her eyes. I tossed a sawed off shot-gun over my shoulder and he caught it with practiced ease. "Get ready," I said, "We are about to blow someone into next Tuesday." "Who?" Itami said and caught the Glock I threw to him as well. He was already snapping the weapons into the holster that had been sewn into the lining of his trenchcoat. Itami may want details, but he would follow my lead without question if I asked. "Miss Nazo," I said as I picked out three choice pistols from the selection and checked there ammo supply. "She's screwing with us." "How?" I turned to him as he tossed a dozen extra clips on a bandoleer at me. I caught them and began to secure the weaponry around my waist... making sure that it didn't chafe against my breasts. Taking the time out to do that did NOT improve my mood. "She and your old family friend seem to be playing it together," I said quickly, "And she has those two losers in her pocket ready to replace us." Itami said nothing, only raised an eyebrow as he took a few dozen shells out of the cupboard and stuffed them in his pocket. I turned back and plucked the winchester off the rack. I smiled and pumped it one-handed and grinned in a very satisfied way at the 'ka-chick' it made. Veracity looked on in excitement as we went through our pre 'kicking ass' preparations. "Well," she said, "Are you going to give details?" It was VERY tempting to say yes. Very, very tempting to let the whole story and all my speculations spill out. I didn't have the time to waste so I resisted it however. "No," I told her, "We're going to pick up Aika. You arm yourself and if anyone I don't like walks through that door, shoot them." "That a long list Yoi-san," Veracity said as she casually pulled a sub-automatic from her desk drawer. "Aika hasn't given the all clear yet, I feel the need to remind you." "I don't care," I said, "We need her firepower on this one." I paused, my hand on the door. "Veracity... uh, what's her address?" *** Thankfully it was midday still, so we didn't have to risk heading to Aika's house after all. Veracity gave us the name of her school, and we arrived just as the final period was beginning. Then we waited. No, we didn't wait for school to let out. I had a much more diabolical plan in mind. It had been almost four years since I'd last been inside a principals office, and I noticed that the general decor hadn't changed much in the past few years. It still contained the same mix of stuffy, boring educational posters and stuffy, boring pictures of stuffy boring looking family members smiling in a stuffy, boring fashion...if you get my drift. The couch was comfortable, which was rather a surprise actually. Most of the principal's offices I was familiar with (and I was familiar with a lot) were designed to be as uncomfortable as possible. Then again, this guy might be just the sort of sadist who would make his students stand while this comfortable green luxury sat only a few steps away. I pitied Aika. The guy behind the desk was the picture of your stereotypical school principal: nerdish, short, glasses and a sallow complexion. His name was Nagasi and he insisted that we call him "Nagasi-SAN" in the kind of tone one uses when you are the big fish in the small pond. I endured it, even if I considered blowing his head off a few times when he looked at me in that overbearing principal way. Aika walked in, looking confused. That was understandable, as it wasn't every day that an aunt and uncle you didn't even know you had called you to the principals office. When she saw me her face lit up and before I knew it we were embracing. And embracing. It was when I could feel their eyes on me that I knew maybe the embrace was a little bit too long and too... close to be entirely convincing. I cleared my throat, and Aika stepped away with a blush on her face. "She's very affectionate," I murmured uncertainly. "Indeed," Nagasi-SAN mumbled. "Well, may I ask why you called this meeting, Ms. Daikoku?" Itami gave me another irritated look. Hey, what was he blaming me for? I didn't like the concept any more than he did, but it was necessary for the moment. "We have to take Aika-chan out of school for the rest of the day," I told him calmly. "May I ask why?" he said in a voice almost too low to hear, "And why her parents aren't involved?" I smiled disarmingly. Time to lay on the schmooze. "Her parents are sick," I said and caught Aika's eye. She didn't react, but I knew I hadn't screwed up. "They caught a flu, that kind that was running around in Hong Kong, they wanted us to take her out of school and have her checked." His eyes widened and he paled a little. He'd heard of that particular flu, all right. He covered his mouth and nodded once or twice and indicated the exit. I smiled and walked out. I was rather proud of that plan. Sure it might blow up later but I'd cross that bridge when I came to it. "So what's the job?" Aika said once we were out in the hallway. "What makes you think I'm not just her for your sparkling wit?" I said slowly. She gave me one of -those- looks and I smirked. "Hit and run versus some bastards," I said, "We need your firepower." She nodded in a very intelligent manner for such a small kid. "What about Sailor H?" I snapped my gaze over to Itami and only noticed the tail end of the slight tightening of his eyes. "Unavailable," I said quietly, "Let's go, we're burning daylight." *** The plan was simple, but then simple usually worked. Since I didn't want to attract attention and also didn't want to risk the same way in twice, we snuck in the other way. That is, through the sewers. No, I didn't like it any more than you would. However, most office buildings had an underground lot now-a-days and almost all those lots had a storm drain. I won't go into the grisly details of the trip down there, suffice it to say when I got home I was going to enjoy a nice long shower. Itami didn't mind, and despite her expression Aika took it all in stride. She wisely decided not to change into her fuku quite yet, however, it was better to have something covering your legs down there. The drain was locked, but that was no problem. A silenced round from Itami's glock and the chain holding it in place was simply no longer. I went up first and scanned the garage. It was still almost an hour before work ended for the wage-slaves, so it was deserted. Aika followed up, with Itami taking the rear. We waited while she transformed and pulled one of those guns from wherever she stored them. It was easy enough to sneak up and cold-cock the guard at his station then cut the security wires. From there we ran up the stairs to the right floor and made our way out. The first clue was the fact that the entire floor was deserted, the second clue was that her office was deserted when we kicked the door in. I spat out several very colorful curses and was tempted to turn around and leave right then and there. Maybe it was the final residuals of that last curse laid on me but I stayed. This was because of the little TV-VCR set up in the middle of the office and the words "Play Me" written on a note attached to it. I spat out a few more choice curses which caused Aika to stare at me in wonder and actually made Itami raise an eyebrow. "Keep a look out," I told Pretty Deadly and walked over to the VCR. I half-expected it to blow, but that made no sense. If they had wanted to use a bomb then they would have rigged one to the door. I hit play and Akari's face appeared on the screen. "I'm very disappointed in you, Yoi," she said with a smile, "I had expected better of you. Did you really think I wouldn't notice your entrance route and put two and two together?" I didn't respond. It was a recording, it's not like it would have mattered. Still, there must have something more to this than just taunting us. I wanted to leave, wanted to leave very badly but my curiosity was getting the better of me. In hindsight I decided to remind Itami to pull me out next time I start doing something stupid like that. "Since you've no doubt already been through my files I have a few things I want to clear up for you," she smiled again, "I'm not your enemy Yoi. I don't want you dead, far from it. I want you as alive as I can get you. I want to make sure you stay alive." "Yay," I muttered, "It's just my friends you want dead..." Aika cast me a curious look at that but I just shook my head. I'd had time to fill her and Itami in on a bit on the way over, but not all of it. "Unfortunately," she sighed, "You didn't fall for this plan, that would have insured we could work together for a long time. Do you know how hard it was to set up events so that Itami lost his sword? But I move on from these things. Of course, since the plan is a bust I had to break the deal with our mutual friend. She might not be quite as forgiving. I suggest you look out..." It was then that the TV was split in two. I stepped back and raised the rifle in my hand as the sword was pulled free of the sparking wreckage. The sword which didn't so much glow as it seemed to snuff out the nearby light. Holding that sword was Manami. She did not look happy. "Hi mom," Itami said, and shot her in the chest. The body fell back, smacking into the wall with a wet thud. A spurt of red flew from the hole her son had so recently drilled into her and she began to slide down to the floor leaving a red slick on the wall. Aika stared in shock and I had to admit I was almost surprised myself. I knew Itami was cold, but this was a new level. "Well," Aika coughed in her glove, "I guess that's that..." "No," a voice said and we all turned to see the body rising easily from the ground. Great, immune to bullets, fan-freakin'-tastic! "I can't kill you Itami," the thing that had my partners mothers face spat, "But I can butcher your friends." This is the part were the hero and the villain traditionally exchange snappy banter and threaten each other with various forms of injury both imaginative and painful. Instead the three of us started firing. There are very few things in this world that can face down a wall of lead and I was hoping that if we did enough damage to her corpse than it would be useless to the demon. The hail of bullets rapidly filled the room with carnage as we blew the body into tiny chunks and with a few shots blasted the carcass through the wall behind her. It landed on the desk of the office behind this one with a sickening crunch. We waited. Well, not just that. I took the time to reload my winchester and Itami took the chance to reload his own. Whatever that gun Pretty Deadly was using now, it didn't seem to need reloading. I wasn't all that surprised when the body started to rise. Disappointed, yes, but not surprised. It was a pretty gruesome sight, seeing as how we'd blown off enough flesh on the face so we could see the perpetual skull grin beneath. I raised my rifle for one more volley and was shifting my feet to start running at the same time. That's when she changed. One second she was a bloody corpse, the next her body seemed to inflate. Bubbles burst out as if she were made of thousands of interconnected flesh-colored balloons. I couldn't help but watch as the bubble shrunk and resumed a human form. I didn't recognize it, but it sure wasn't Manami's face the thing wore now. "Scarlet," Itami informed me and reached back for the sword he had sheathed at his waist. Now that he reminded me I recognized the face and hair; it was the lack of a uniform that has thrown me off. She was still wearing the remains of the same clothes Manami had been in. Of course, those remains did nothing to cover her up, but for once this body came in handy as I found it easy to ignore that part. "Die!" Scarlet roared and attacked. I wasn't about to waist more ammo so I dived to the side and rolled down the hallway. Aika went the other way and came up firing but the demon-sword moved faster than my eye could follow and with a few sharp pings deflected the bullets. Itami was in there fast on the heels of Aika's attacks however and his sword cleaved off her left arm at the shoulder. She hissed and smashed the butt of the weapon into his jaw. He flew back and dropped like a sack of meat. I fired but she was still fast and she spun to deflect those bullets, too. Well, I should say reflect, not deflect as I felt one whiz past my temple and bury itself in the floor. I quickly decided that gun-play was not even a diversionary tactic anymore. She was closing fast and I had very few options, so I took the only one that made sense. I ran like hell. I could feel her, breathing down my neck and I got the impression she was playing with me. Waiting for just the right opportunity to slice out my legs from under me. That meant she was stupid. Stupid, I could handle. I turned a sharp right and ran into a large section of the floor filled with cubicles. She followed me, the demon-blade cleaving one of those watercolors as she turned the corner and sending out a liquid ripple onto the corner. I ducked and dived into one of the empty stalls and she stumbled past. I fired my shotgun at the corner of the wall and the thing blew apart, sections falling in all directions before they hit objects like desks and permanent walls and stopped. Once over the hurdle I dove for cover and slipped into another cubicle without her seeing me. The next few seconds were a nerve-wracking game of hide and go seek. Except that she tested all the possible hiding places with her sword, cutting down large sections of wall and desk in her effort to slice me in two. I had to act fast if I was going to get out of this alive. That's when she spun and saw an object flying towards her. She smirked and slashed out at the small sphere, intent on cleaving it in two. I didn't pause, I leapt from hiding and vaulted over the wall. The explosion stunned me and for a few precious moments I lost track of time. When I came too I was lying under the rubble and my ears were ringing something fierce. I kicked the wall sections off me and dove for the nearest cover, all the while my eyes searching frantically for my opponent. I found it, or what was left of it. The body had been splattered all over the interior of the room, with only the feet left standing on the floor. The sword lay in front of them. Aika stood in the doorway and gave me a thumbs up. I restrained myself from congratulating her. This was mainly because I felt like slapping her a good one there and then. Then the thing regenerated again. It was the same, except the balloons grew from its feet and formed into a vague humanoid shape before reverting back into another, all-too-familiar form. Lovely Rhyme-and-Reason. At least this time it was wearing some clothes... Aika raised her gun to fire but found the bullets from the... whatever it was, unable to get through the shield. The thing looked sort of stiff as it began to mechanically bend over and pick up the sword. Once the sword was in its hand it began to move much faster. Two and two became four in my head. "The sword!" I said, "Without the sword it can't control the body!" It was then that I realized that if Aika could hear me, so could it. It turned and smiled at me and began to raise it's hand. Oh man, not another 'learning can be fun' attack. Somehow I got the impression this thing could use the attacks of whatever body it turned itself into. I rolled right and into a hallway, right ahead of a stream of energy that would have made me a sucker for that sword of hers. Then the chase was on again, only this time I couldn't run straight as that left me open to attack. Damn it, why do these psychos always want to chase ME? It was on that note that another explosion threw me out the window. Threw me out the window of the thirtieth floor office. I dropped my gun and snapped out my hand in desperation... and somebody caught me. I breathed a sigh of relief until I looked up and saw exactly who had caught me. "Oh crap," I said softly. "That's right little girl," the thing inside the sword leered at me through Lovely Rhyme-and-Reason's face. She stuck the tip of it underneath my chin and I pulled back my head a bit... until I remembered I was dangling thirty stories up and I didn't want to unbalance her. "Stay back Itami," the thing said, "You too girl. Or I make sure he hits the ground in several pieces." "Bitch," Aika growled low and cold. I couldn't see them, but that was understandable given the fact that I was now below the lip of the window. "What do you want?" I said slowly. My arm was beginning to feel like it was on fire. Even if I got out of this one alive I was going to be hurting for a week. "I want freedom," it hissed. "You have not given that to me. Every time I almost got a hold on him, you would come and drag him out. With the others, I was content with the deal, but you're ruining it. So I want it all." "Not likely," I growled. She nicked my neck, drawing a bit of blood. Of course, that doesn't begin to describe it. I used to think I knew what the aura of that thing felt like. I was wrong. I think I blocked the memory of that pain out, later, but right then I was just screaming. When I got control of myself a few seconds later, the situation hadn't changed much. "What do you want me to do?" Itami was saying. "Cut yourself," the demon smiled at him. Which meant it wasn't looking at me. "And douse the sword in your blood then break it..." One of my spare guns was in my free hands instantly and I shoved the butt into the back of her head. Her eyes widened slightly as I cocked back the hammer. "Not going to happen." "You wouldn't," it growled, "You'd die too!" "I know." To tell you the truth, I have no idea what I was thinking right then and there. I really don't. It was just one of those things you do sometimes, without really understanding why. "YOI!" Aika yelled and I could hear her taking a nervous step forward. "You idiot, what are you doing?" "No idea," I replied. "Hope it works," I added lamely. The thing was growling and began to move the blade again. "I wouldn't," I said, "You nick me, this gun goes off, I fall and then Itami takes you down before you grow another new body. Then you never get a chance at him again." It was an impasse and we all knew it. Nobody was willing to give ground on this however. So it threatened to stay like this until the cops showed up or my arm gave out, whichever came first. I heard someone turn and begin running in the opposite direction. Aika gasped and shouted Itami's name once. The creature growled but I pushed the gun into her skull again. "Changes nothing," I noted, "Aika can kick the sword away from the body just as easy." Time passed. My arm felt like it was about to tear our of the socket. I wasn't sure how much longer I'd have the strength to hold the gun to her head. Leave it to Itami, to save my bacon. The window below me exploded to the sound of a gunshot and I realized his plan instantly. So did the sword, and it began to move. I moved first. The gunshot caused her body to tremble and spasm uncontrollably and her hand snapped open. I began to freefall, but not very far. Itami had flung down his own weapons and reached out with both hands to catch me. I snapped out my good arm and he caught it with practiced ease. Of course, I almost wrenched his arm out of the socket and nearly dragged him out of the window with me, but that wasn't about to make Itami change his expression, much less complain. He flung himself back and pulled me in. The floor above us exploded and I looked out to see the majority of Rhyme-and-Reason's body flying out over the city and descending down very rapidly. I sighed in relief when I saw that the sword hadn't been blown out with her. I turned and saw a great deal of people staring at Itami and I in shock. Great, just great. One thing after another. "Deadly!" I shouted, "Grab the sword and meet us at the hole!" Aika made strangled noises at the suggestion, but she knew as well as I did that we didn't have time to run back upstairs and grab it, then get out of here before the cops arrived and started asking some -very- pointed questions. *** I let out a low hum of pleasure as Veracity kneaded my shoulders with the hot cloth. It felt fantastic after nearly having them wrenched out in short order. I ignored the look that Aika was giving me; she hadn't been the one nearly killed tonight. I was allowed to make her jealous. Oh god, I'm starting to sound like someone in a relationship. Maybe I should have let it kill me after all. "I still don't get it," Aika scratched her head. She was back in her normal form now. "Can someone tell me what just happened?" "A lot," Itami summed it up nicely. She glared at him. I sighed softly. "I think it was all a set up..." I said slowly. "Ever since Ootaki showed up they've been setting this up, trying to remove Itami and I from the loop." "What do you mean?" "Ootaki was responsible for sending me to another dimension," I said, "While I was there they set things up so that Itami was convinced he lost his sword by accident. Then they send out a... thing... a clone I think." "From what you described," Veracity said softly as she continued to massage my poor muscles. "I would say a simulacrum. It's a minor magical construct... but it has the power to replicate the form and powers of anyone who has their blood injected into it." "It did say Simulacrum in that report," I nodded softly. "But whatever. They gave the sword to that, it took it over and came at us in the guise of Itami's mother. Then they send us on a chase after Rhyme-and-Reason, knowing full well we couldn't beat her so we'd have to come back. That allowed them to give us the invitation to meet with Nazo. She knew we would ask for the demon to be removed, and she would have told us how but it would have been what that demon wanted." "I don't get it though," Aika grumbled, "Why go through all that trouble? Why not just kill you?" "I don't know," I shrugged and cursed fluently as the pain in my shoulders flared. "Sit still Yoi-san," Veracity mumbled soothingly. "She wants you alive," Itami pointed out. "Yes," I said slowly, "But why?" "Ask her," Itami suggested. "I think we'll do just that," I nodded. "But first we get some help. Whoever this is has resources. Just one of those things almost got us, she could have more." "Quite correct," Veracity nodded. "She could use more of them to clone an army of Rhyme-and-Reasons or Queen Scarlets." "Then why hasn't she?" Itami pointed out. "A simulacrum must be made from a willing human who gives up their soul," Veracity pointed out, "That makes them rare, even if they are minor beings." "So who do we go to for help?" I looked at Itami and briefly considered raising the idea of H. I wasn't sure if he wanted to see her now however. Still, I had another idea. "Some people that owe us a few favors," I smirked, "Our little half-breed friends." END Author Postscript: I apologise both for the poor nature of this part and the lateness of it but I suffered from a massive case of writer's block when I tried to write it and everything I was writing just sounded wrong so I wanted to get a thrid party to help me re-work all the paragraphs. They didn't have time to do it all but what are you going to do huh? I wanted to do a LOT more in this fic, but I just didn't have the energy or time. I hadn't planned to finish off "Manami" so fast but I needed an ending to this piece and wanted to give the series another villian to focus on that could prove as moving as Ultra was. For those of you who can read between the lines you will see I tried to push some subtle things forward. Basically this chapter was meant to try and tie up all the loose ends of the last several (like six) chapters and give the storyline a purpose again. I hope I succeeded and I hope the next few authors will allow the concept of the villianous Akari develop a great deal more. I would like to thank Chris McNeil for his pre-reading skills, even if he didn't have time to actually write a chapter this week. I would alos like to thank Phillip Barkow and Mathew Campbell for being good sounding boards for ideas and for general encourgamnet. Finally I'd like to thank Stefan Gagne and Aaron Shattuck for both Improfanfic and Magical Girl Hunters respectively. Feel free to e-mail, post to the message board or otherwise prvide me with C&C in any manner you wish. Blatant flames will be ignored but anyone who has genuine problems with this fic (and there are many) please feel free to point them out. I can't get better if I don't know what to improve.