Dio stumbled through the gate, collapsing on the floor of the foyer as a burnt, bloody pulp. Mr. Everdeen whisked himself down the stairs, sliding to his master's side.
"What happened to you?"
"Your little girl has been doing some training," he wheezed. He shakily extended a hand, which Katniss' father took and held carefully. His kindness was repaid with the vampire's fingers slipping under his skin, draining his blood into the wounded mess before him. Dio stopped short of doing any damage, having garnered enough to complete his healing in some time. He weakly pulled himself into a sitting position.
A little stunned, Mr. Everdeen continued. "…Training?"
"Yes. Ansatsuken, I think. We can use that."
"You get her angry, Mr. Everdeen. Really angry. While that may power up her abilities, it loosens her morals. See where I'm going?"
"Are you suggesting that we-"
The thin, yellowish glass of the windows shattered, and woolen insulation from the rafters tumbled down, and heralding such happenings was the trumpet of an explosion. The furniture danced in place, and the walls developed thin, spider-webs of cracks.
"What was that?" hissed Dio.
"I don't know. How would I know?"
"Go check it out. I'm staying in for a few hours."
Dio slowly lifted himself to his feet and limped to his makeshift throne, nestling himself between the sharp metal panels of the dead Megatron.
That was certainly impressive, to be able to destroy my stand, even if only for a moment. I can already feel that it has returned. I'll have to take that into account if they make it back here again. And what a shame, too, I'm down to the same sorry bunch I had before. Starling is dead, Matoi's gone turncoat… That leaves the Xenomorph, the Predator, Nightmare, and Mr. Everdeen. Perhaps I can make this work... And I liked that Starling lady. Such cruelty!
Mr. Everdeen burst back through the doors, his face pale with shock and fear.
"I think you're going to want to see this," he whispered.
With all of the cupboards and shelves, the small kitchen was not the ideal place for all of them to stay. However, it did offer a few windows, which allowed them a few moments' notice if they saw Nineball approaching. A titan, almost as threatening, waddled past, dragging its disproportionately long arms behind it.
"That's the third one to pass by," said Mikasa grimly. "Soon they'll get our scent, and we'll have to move again." She slipped back underneath the window, next to Katniss. Her braid hung lifelessly over her leg as she buried her head in her knees.
"Are you… okay?" asked Twilight from across the room. The unicorn sat on her haunches, idly polishing Alucard's weapons as he observed.
"No," mumbled Katniss. She dragged a sleeve over her cheeks, wiping them dry, for a moment.
"I'm sorry. That guy would have worked through all of us, one by one. You did your best, and you at least stopped him."
"But he's still alive. Holly isn't."
"I know. But that's the sad reality of this place. She'll be back when the round is over."
"I know… I just… and it sounds weird, but I don't feel safe without her here. She was always there for me. No offense to you… I just didn't really trust anyone else. And then she went and ruined things, and just when I thought we could get along…" A few sobs squeezed their way out.
"I understand how it feels to be on your own, without a friend to help you," said Twilight softly.
"But… aren't you always talking about 'friendship this' and 'friendship that'?"
Twilight gave Katniss a small smile. "Yes. Because I learned that everyone needs friends. Katniss, your problem is that you've never had anyone you could really trust, not in your world. You get here, and everything is all wrong, and Holly proved that you could count on her. But now she isn't here, and you won't let anyone else get close. But we're here to help you, okay?"
"Whatever," she sighed.
"Hey, they're telling the truth," Ryuko confirmed. She pointed a thumb at her uniform. "Senketsu here was my only friend, but even he couldn't save me from Dio. But thanks to Twi and Allie- can I call you Allie?"
"Thanks to Twi and Alucard, I was able to get free. It was the nicest thing anyone's done for me at this Grand Combat. I figure if anyone goes to the trouble to offer you friendship here, you darned well take it."
"What about you, Mikasa?" asked Twilight, looking for more positive input.
"I will cut through everyone that gets in the way of me getting back to Eren. Everyone."
The warriors sat silently as the shadows lengthened, the sun beginning to sink below the horizon.
Twilight nudged Alucard, who knelt down next to the unicorn and collected his weapons. "Do you think we did the right thing?" she whispered, quiet enough to be inaudible to the others.
"There really is no right or wrong, Miss Sparkle."
"But… couldn't we have done something? Couldn't you have… turned her?"
"Miss Sparkle, she wasn't conscious. I couldn't have asked her for permission."
"But it would be undone at the end of the round. It's not like she would have lived her whole life as a vampire."
"First, I would not hold any bets on that. My bites are stronger than most magic that gets tossed around in here. Second, have you seen what happens when an elf becomes a vampire?"
"No. I saw a Pegasus vampire once, though. What happens?"
"I have no idea. But it couldn't be pretty. Even in that delightful little uniform of hers."
"You're hopeless," muttered Twilight aloud, attracting a few stares.
Another titan stomped down the road outside. Mikasa raised a finger to her lips.
"That's four. Why are they all over here?" Her eyes darted nervously back out the window.
"Because we are?" muttered Katniss.
"Because something's chasing them here," said Twilight.
"Nineball?" the Scout groaned.
"Nineball," she confirmed, rising to her hooves.
"Then let's get the hell out of here, cut down these bozos, and keep running!" grunted Ryuko as she stood. "Eventually the robot will get bogged down by the titans and we'll be able to assault the mansion again!"
"We can't just do that," murmured Twilight. "Dio is still alive. We can't beat him, and that's not counting whoever he's got backing him up."
"And that still doesn't guarantee that Nineball could not get free, return, and attack us in the middle of said assault," mused Alucard.
"So how 'bout we kill the titans out there, and when Nineball shows up, we throw everything at 'em? If we make a stand and kill it here, it's one less thing to worry about." Ryuko spun her scissor blade eagerly.
Mikasa nodded slowly. "Then we can skirt around the edges of town, avoiding detection…"
"Dio will get impatient and send another team member, like Ms. Starling," said Katniss, catching on. "Until there aren't any left."
"… then we sneak in, fry Dio again, and we tear him apart while he's down. We carry away the pieces, or we get Alucard to eat them or something." Twilight found herself bobbing her head in approval. "It might work."
"It will be a battle of attrition. Losses will be high," warned Alucard, his voice unnervingly greedy when discussing losses and eating.
"It's either that, or we stay here and get eaten by titans, or blasted by the robot. Personally, I'd like to go down fightin'," growled Ryuko.
"Fine," said Twilight, with a hint of uncertainty. "Let's do it."
The house's door took flight, landing in the middle of the street under the force of Mikasa's foot. The team flowed onto the thoroughfare, raising their weapons at the amassed Titans. One turned a shaggy head to the ant-like fighters below, its eyes widening inquisitively.
"Miss me?" said Mikasa, drawing a line over her neck with a sword. The titan began to reach down, and the team sprung into action. Alucard slammed fresh magazines into his pistols, and Katniss strung two arrows at once. She gave the vampire a succinct nod, and the two simultaneously targeted separate titans. Within an instant, both titans' eyes were reduced to vapor. Ryuko rushed ahead of the ranged fighters, ripping her glove's bolt across her wrist.
"Let's chop them fine, Senketsu!"
Agreed, Senketsu whispered.
Her blood seeped into the outfit, imbuing its life-fibers with power. The kamui stretched itself tightly over her body, assuming its standard combat form.
"LIFE FIBER SYNCHRONIZE, KAMUI SENKETSU!" she announced, tossing her scissor blade into the air and catching it full-sized. A vent on the outfit's back vented hot pink energy, and Ryuko sailed to the titan's eye level. A flick of the wrist severed the massive nose cleanly, which slipped off of the giant's face and smacked into the ground. Ryuko landed on the creature's shoulder, its skin shimmering with heat. With its other arm, it reached for its wounded face, having now lost both eyes and nose.
"Senketsu, are you thinking what I'm thinking?"
Of course. A coup de grace is in order.
She extended the Scissor blade behind her, as the oversized finger-guard folded down to double the length of the hilt. She placed an extra hand on the grip to stabilize the weapon as the blade extended outward, the tip splitting. An extra segment of blade flipped out, and the split tip locked back into place. The sword was now longer than Ryuko was tall, red as blood from pommel to tip.
"SCISSOR BLADE, DECAPITATION MODE!"
Literally, for once.
With a lightning- fast swing, the titan's head was neatly separated from its shoulders. It tumbled down, crushing the house in which the team had sat not two minutes prior. With a deft backflip, Ryuko descended from the creature, itself fast approaching the ground. She observed Mikasa perform a spinning slash to the back of her titan's neck, the giant faceplanting into the houses across the street unceremoniously.
"Two down," confirmed Twilight. "Two to go."
The other two titans were further down the street, their dull eyes conveying little shock at the loss of their comrades. They slowly began to move toward the little morsels, rolls of marbled pink skin bouncing slowly in the wake of each step. The ranged fighters prepared two more salvoes, aiming their weapons for the vulnerable eyes. The titans looked down, then up, and then took a step back.
"Don't tell me," said Twilight, turning. As she had feared, behind them stood the Armored Core Nineball, its beam rifle leveled on the closest titan's chest. With a sharp whine, the titan fell in a haze of purple plasma. A short burst of missiles rose from the robot and splattered the second titan into something the consistency of chili con carne.
"Those missiles are too fast. We can't run from those," said Alucard. "Or rather, you can't," he corrected.
"Do you want to do anything about them?" grunted Twilight sarcastically.
"I don't think I can. My weapons will be ineffective against its armor, and I can't access my higher-power forms. You know that." Twilight swore under her breath, which everyone agreed sounded very silly.
"Okay. Ryuko, Mikasa, give it a shot." The girls gave their affirmatives and took to the air, their swords trailing behind them. Though their movements were blurs, repeated clanging noises indicated that they were not meeting much success. Mikasa fell back to the ground, her razor-like blades shattered to the hilt. With a flick of its bulky, mechanical arm, Nineball flung Ryuko into the ruins of the houses crushed by the titans it had helped slay.
"Time for Plan B. Katniss, your father hates you."
"What? No he doesn't."
"No, he really does. Told me himself."
Katniss shook her head in frustration. "What are you talking about? I mean, I know he's evil but he certainly doesn't hate me." Twilight stamped a hoof.
"All right, getting you angry is not working. Anyone else have any ideas?"
"No," moaned Ryuko, pulling herself out of the rubble.
Nineball shifted its footing, its grenade launcher folding down over its shoulder as anchors locked its legs in place.
"This is it then, huh?" whispered Katniss, slipping her bow over her shoulder. "Damn."
"I don't think so," said Alucard, pointing a gloved finger at the Armored Core's grenade launcher barrel. It was elevated far above their heads, hanging like some hammer that would drop to crush them. But it did not drop.
"Titans," noted Mikasa, and she was right. Behind them, barreling down the street, were three more of the giants. They loped madly on their arms almost as much as their feet… which some of them seemed to be lacking. In fact, all of them seemed to be wounded in one way or another. One was missing an arm, another a leg, and the final one seemed to have broken its jaw. Vapor poured off of them like a tea kettle in the snow.
With lethal accuracy, Nineball placed an explosive round through each of the wounded giants, their bodies popping like balloons against the high-powered weapons. More heavy footfalls could be heard echoing across the shattered buildings. The robot kept its weapon trained down the street.
"Let's make another break for it," asserted Twilight, and the team dove past Nineball down the street. They slipped behind a chunk of displaced cottage and peered over the edge, still looking for a weakness of Nineball's to exploit. Titans began to stream down the avenue, leaping over the steaming bodies of their brethren. With a grinding chunk-chunk-chunk the grenade cannon tore through all of them, as more flowed toward the robot.
Katniss' eyes were wide with fear. "There's so many. Why?" The fighters briefly ducked back under their cover to dodge an oversized severed hand.
"Same reason there were so many before," grunted Mikasa. "Something's driving them here. Scaring them." The street was now devoid of living titans- no new ones poured in to replace their fallen kin. Yet the steady beat of something large still pumped through the ground like a pulse.
"And it's coming here, now?" moaned Ryuko. "Great. Just great."
Nineball must have also sensed whatever was approaching, as it took the time to reload its grenade cannon. A massive empty magazine tumbled out of the weapon, falling among the corpses of the titans the shells had destroyed. Automatically, another magazine slipped down into the receiver. The Armored Core unlocked its legs, shifted its weight, and locked them in place again, training the barrel of its grenade cannon forward. After a few more moments of footsteps, that which the titans had feared arrived. A shadow looming behind the screen of vapor from the fallen titans gave the fighters a glimpse of its form.
"What is it?" said Katniss, hunkered behind the stone slab. "I'm not going to look. Is it Amuro? Or that Shinji kid?"
"I don't think so," said Twilight. "It's too small to be Shinji's EVA and it's not built like a Gundam at all."
Mikasa agreed. "Those movements… look at it shifting in place. It's breathing. It's alive."
The living thing stepped through the steam, swinging something at its side in front of it. A titan, its head hanging at an unhealthy angle. A hand was wrapped around its neck. Nineball fired its cannon, and the meat shield evaporated, leaving the creature in plain sight.
"Oh, no," gasped Mikasa. "It's…"
"It's what? What is it?!" demanded Twilight.
The creature tossed aside the head of the titan it had helped Nineball slay, since it wasn't very useful as a shield without a body.
"It's a titan," she explained. "But… it's different."
The titan certainly was not like the others that had fallen before it. Where other titans appeared mostly human, this one deviated in terrifying manners. Its skin seemed incomplete, as several parts of its body had none at all, leaving raw muscle exposed to the air. The heat from the titan's flesh caused trails of steam to jet out from among the bundles of muscle fiber, giving the illusion that it was burning alive. Instead of a hideously unfit, baby-fat physique, it was lean, and toned. Its thin arms and legs were accentuated by the exposed tendons barely holding back the quivering flesh underneath that they directed. Its head was covered by a wild mess of brown hair, which almost seemed red thanks to reflections from the sanguine hues of its body. Long, pointed ears flopped back and forth in the breeze while huge, but angrily narrowed eyes peered out from underneath its shaggy locks. Its mouth had no luxury of lips, with gleaming tombstone-teeth permanently fixed in a death grin. Unlike the uniform teeth of the other titans, it did seem to possess four canines, though these did little to bring it any closer to humanity.
"You don't say," grunted Ryuko.
Nineball fired again, and the titan sidestepped the shot with ridiculous speed. The explosive round flew harmlessly over the rooftops, giving a report as it detonated futilely against the distant walls. The robot retracted its grenade launcher and tried its missiles, firing a guided salvo at the titan. This time, the titan did not move, and the missiles tore through its body easily, the explosions ripping away its exposed muscle. And as quickly as the creature's body had been destroyed, it rebuilt itself. While bits of roasted titan flesh still twirled in the air, the holes punched through its frame re-sealed themselves, looking no worse for wear.
"It regenerates faster than you, Alucard," noted Twilight to the vampire. He gave a shrug.
Nineball came to the conclusion that such weapons would not work, and quickly ditched its shoulder-mounted armaments for those it carried in its hands. Its wrist-mounted laser sword crackled to life, a vibrant sliver of purple energy. The titan bellowed, and charged headlong toward the Armored Core. Nineball took a step backward, and performed a lightning-fast swing with its sword. A thin line appeared along the titan's torso, and pressurized steam burst out from the wound like a broken water main. Right on cue, the cut disappeared, and the titan continued its attack. With a tackle, it knocked Nineball to the ground, the robot's armor grinding against the cobblestones in a shower of sparks. The observing warriors made sure to hop to the other side of the stone slab, keeping it between them and the giant opponents.
Nineball raised its sword arm again, but the titan grabbed the limb and snapped it at the joint, causing the wrist to fall limply backward, its sword melting a swath of street before flickering off. The titan almost seemed pleased, until it realized that the robot's beam rifle was pressed against its stomach. With three quick pulses, the weapon cut a hole cleanly through the titan's abdomen, provoking a scream from the giant- the wound did not seem to be healing so quickly. With some effort, the titan brought its face next to the robot's camera-housing head, its eyes filled with the same greed that shone through the eyes of other titans. Its jaw dislocated, and it wrapped its teeth around the Armored Core's head, tearing it from its shoulders.
"It… ate its head!" squealed Katniss, having chosen to watch the proceedings at the wrong time.
"No, it just bit it off," corrected Mikasa.
The titan crunched on the robot's head unit a few times before spitting it onto the ground, and proceeded to snatch the pulse rifle out of the stunned Armored Core's hand. It placed the barrel on the robot's torso and returned the favor. The last shot was fired as the sun finally decided to set, hiding the oversized corpses lining the ruined street with darkness. The titan sluggishly collapsed over Nineball's lifeless body, and its raw flesh began to deteriorate into steam.
"What's happening to it?" asked Twilight.
"Titans are only active during the day," explained Mikasa. "It's too tired without sunlight to regenerate, so it's dying. And now we'll be able to find out."
"Find out what?" said Twilight, annoyed that Mikasa seemed worse at answering questions than creating them. The girl stood and swung over to the titan's limp, decaying body, landing on its upper back. With a few quick slices, she cut out a massive slice of flesh, and began to drag it into the middle of the street. The other fighters gathered around the steaming gore.
"This isn't really explaining things," said Ryuko.
Katniss poked at the hot flesh, pulling her hand back in pain. "What are we supposed to do with this?"
Mikasa rolled her eyes, and jammed a hand into the mass, tearing out a bundle of muscle. She directed a finger down into the space she had created, and the warriors looked in. Katniss covered her mouth in shock.
"Oh… my… God..."
A mouth was drawing ragged breaths underneath hair plastered down with moisture. Mikasa swept a few strands away, and a glazed-over eye slowly rolled down to face them. It shakily passed over each face, and then looked down at the quivering flesh it was embedded in.
"D'Arvit. I am having the weirdest dream right now."