A lavender eye floated erratically in its socket, vainly trying to focus on the vampire squatting next to her.
"How… how bad does it look?" moaned Twilight, gasping in pain as she tried to move. Holly de-shielded nearby, sprinting up to the other two warriors. Upon seeing Twilight, she took a step back.
"Oh. Magic's not going to fix that."
She was right. The unicorn's left flank had been burnt to a cinder, far enough down that both observing parties could recognize little of what remained underneath. Alucard placed two fingers along her neck, keenly moving them along the surface.
"What are you doing?" asked Holly. "Checking for a pulse?"
"No," he replied. "Twilight, do you recall what we discussed earlier?"
"By Celestia… you don't mean-"
Twilight weakly turned her head toward Holly. "How… are we doing against…"
"Katniss? Ryuko seems to be at a stalemate. Mikasa can't help. If I fight her, I could try and use my titan form, but I really don't want to eat her."
The unicorn coughed weakly, slumping against the ground. "Do it," she winced.
Alucard knelt down next to Twilight, slipping his fangs underneath her mane.
"When this is over, I'm taking a loooooooooong shower," groaned Holly.
Ryuko's limbs were like a whirlwind, blocking and attacking simultaneously. Katniss moved with similar speed and grace, deflecting Ryuko's strikes and countering with her own.
"I can't break through, Senketsu," she grunted through the storm of punches and kicks.
I know, Ryuko. Let's get some breathing room.
"Hey, Katniss," huffed Ryuko, dodging another punch. "Are you a fan of sewing?"
"How dare you try to distract me with such a question!" she replied, sweeping a leg across the ground. Ryuko hopped over it easily. Katniss drover her arm forward again in a straight jab.
Now's the chance, Senketsu.
This should even things out, Ryuko.
"SENKETSU SENJIN!" declared the girl in the Kamui, which suddenly shrank even further and sprouted dozens of blood-red spikes and blades. Katniss pulled her punch in time to avoid impaling her fist on the conspicuously-placed ridges of spines that now ran up Ryuko's abdomen and over her chest.
"This is Senketsu's specialized close-combat form, Senjin," explained Ryuko, who looked like she should be in a lot of pain. She didn't sound like it, though.
"Now that is just kinky," said Twilight Sparkle, approaching from a distance with Alucard and Holly at her side. "Ryuko, you need some other hobby."
"Would you STOP THAT?!" screamed Ryuko. "And how are you still alive?"
"If you want to get technical, I think I'm undead," replied Twilight, her eyes glowing crimson in the late morning light.
A carefully-aimed punch sent Ryuko sliding backwards, with Senketsu growing extra spikes from her heels to bring her to a halt.
"Is anyone ever going to explain anything to me?"
Holly giggled a little. "This is Twilight we're talking about here. If you don't want to know about something, she'll talk your ear off. If you do, her lips are sealed."
"In this case I'll explain. It's fairly simple. I couldn't recover from that wound, so I had Alucard turn me. Also, does anypony have an apple? Anypony at all?"
Ryuko scratched her head. "So you're a vamp…ony?"
"In the flesh. And I have a way for you to defeat Katniss."
"Well, good. I could really use one."
"Very well. Let's begin with a dodge."
"A dodg-" Katniss rammed a foot across Ryuko's face, knocking her to the ground.
"Your outfit isn't doing much for you, Ryuko," said Katniss with a look of smug determination. "Perhaps it is time for you to embrace death."
"Yeah, right. If anything embraces me right now they're going to back the hell off!"
"You just keep talking," Katniss sighed, firing a Suzaku Hadoken into her fallen opponent. Even a good fifty feet away, the explosion knocked Holly off of her feet, though Twilight and Alucard remained eerily planted. Smoke rose from a new crater; the square looked more like the surface of the moon then a walled city's center. Mikasa was far enough back to watch, though leaning against the mansion's wall was starting to get very boring.
Two high heels clicked against the crater's glass bottom. Ryuko dusted herself off and cracked her knuckles, raising an eyebrow at the other girl.
"You're strong," grunted Katniss. "That's good. When I kill you, I'll be that much stronger."
And with those words, Katniss convulsed, falling to the ground. Holly blew smoke off of her Neutrino's red hot barrel. Katniss leapt to her feet again, the Satsui no Hado aura glowing brighter than ever.
"You just made a deadly mistake, Holly," she roared.
"No, I didn't. She's all yours, Twilight."
"I can dodge whatever magic she uses. ASHURA SENKU!"
Katniss performed a short hop in the air, crossed her arms over her chest, and fell over.
"Azerath Metrion Zinthos," stated Twilight.
Katniss was promptly enveloped in a cloud of swirling black magic, which floated over to where Holly, Twilight and Alucard stood.
"That Neutrino blast temporarily impaired your reflexes, long enough for me to grab you," explained the unicorn. Her voice was calm, but she now possessed the same crazed smile that the vampire was fond of wearing. "And now that I've got you, you're, as they say, toast."
"No!" wailed Katniss, struggling against the inky bonds. "I'm invincible!"
"I guess you weren't around to hear the last guy who said that."
Ryuko climbed up out of the crater, taking a place next to Holly.
"But… I'm so strong! There's no way you can possibly hurt me!"
"Ryuko," said Twilight. "Go ahead."
Ryuko nodded, and thin red blades extended from her knuckles. With a little hesitation, she whipped them across Katniss' stomach, creating three shallow, red channels. The girl yelped in pain, and the red ki surrounding her flickered and died.
"Well, that was pretty easy," said Ryuko, whose outfit changed back into a sailor fuku in a shower of pink sparks. Twilight moved the restrained Katniss to the ground next to Holly, who immediately began to channel magic into the girl's wounds.
"Ansatsuken is primarily an offensive art," the unicorn-vampire explained. "Even one who has attained the highest possible level of training is still susceptible to other attacks. A true master must always be striking, to take that opportunity from their opponent."
"And she almost had it down," commented Holly, drawing lines along the cuts Ryuko had made with her fingers. Blue magic leapt from the elf's fingertips and danced along the gashes, pulling them together into subtle scars.
"She may have been consumed by the Satsui no Hado, but its hold on her was not very strong." Twilight said, waving a hoof toward the mansion. Holly helped Katniss to her feet as the rest of the team began to walk to the ruined building, idly chatting about the foes they'd faced on the way there. It was as if Katniss' incident hadn't happened, like it was simply part of the routine.
The girl looked down at her hands.
"Oh, god. I did all of this."
"Hey," said the elf. "I know how that feels."
Katniss thought about the elf and the book. She thought about Tris and her father.
"You're right. It's just… it felt… like I wanted to do all of it."
"Maybe that's a sign you should give martial arts a rest."
"Heh. You bet. I think I'll keep the sweep though, that was useful."
"Sure, sure. Let's say, between this, and me turning into a giant, that we're even?"
Katniss chuckled a little, staring off into the distance.
"Okay. After watching me do all of that, I don't think anyone will believe what's in that book anyway."
"Excuse me!" called Twilight from inside the ruined mansion. "We have to capture this as a team!"
Holly and Katniss sprinted across the pock-marked square, sliding to a halt in the mansion's foyer. A chandelier lay smashed over the massive, dead body of Megatron in the corner, while various sofas and chairs were scattered through the bannisters of the staircase in the back of the room.
"I think it's nice," said Holly dryly. "Lots of feng shui."
"Feng shui! That's a kind of apple, right? I could use a feng shui right now," cackled the unicorn, fidgeting madly. Alucard simply shook his head.
"Feng shui isn't a kind of apple," said Ryuko. "I know that, and I don't even give a damn about feng shui in the first place."
"Whatever!" yelped Twilight. "I just need an apple. Or blood. Or an apple's blood! Yes! Apple's blood!"
"You mean, apple juice?" sighed Mikasa.
"Yes! That! Bring it to me! Now!"
"No," grunted the senior vampire.
The small talk was silenced by the eerie monotone of HAL9000's computerized voice, which filled the entire world with perfect quality.
"In a rare display of human… and elf… and unicorn… and vampire… and… what does that say? 'Pan-genesis-inducing cloth?' Pangenesis? That's ridiculous. Why would aliens seed sentient life across the universe? Oh… excuse my diversion, I shall continue. In a rare display on ingenuity, a team has actually cooperated- and I use that term lightly- in order to capture the mansion. Congratulations for winning the round. Pangenesis- that simply does not compute. How infantile."
The warriors began to sink into the ground, which was no longer as terrifying as it used to be.
"I just realized," said Mikasa, "that this round was supposed to break me, or something."
"Did it?" said Holly, the floor having risen to her chest.
And with that, the world faded away.
"One more. Just one more," begged Twilight, smashing a third glass tankard against the TARDIS' floor.
"No," said Artemis firmly. "It's time for your report."
"Fine," she conceded, extending a leg outward for Suzumiya to inject a syringe of amber liquid. The cure was fast-acting and worked without any discomfort, as she felt her fangs retract for the last time.
It's not bad, having friends in such high places.
"I have good news and bad news. The good news is, we've taken care of the… incursion on our assets. The bad news is, it's loose."
The men and women around the table murmured in fearful tones. Artemis stood, slamming a hand onto the table.
"Yes, yes. Twilight is correct. I'm sorry I had to keep this a secret from the rest of you, but at the time I had to deal with another situation quickly and discreetly. Twilight informed me then. Luckily, I have taken the precaution of acquiring a portable Mi-Go field generator. Doctor, I suggest you hard-wire it into your ship's systems."
"O-of course, Mr. Fowl," stuttered the Doctor. Artemis produced the small, oblong device from his pocket, and he handed it to the Time Lord, who scurried to his center console.
"However," continued Twilight, "It does not seem to pose an immediate threat to us. Its motivations are as alien as one would expect, but it clearly disregarded us upon its first appearance, claiming it had 'other business'. I would assume it wishes to exact revenge."
"Until we know for sure, it's best to tread carefully," warned Artemis. "I need you to keep an eye on it, if you can."
"I will do my best. And I appreciated the help of Mr. Alucard. His demeanor may be off-putting, but I think he serves his purpose well."
The vampire, who was seated next to Twilight, raised a goblet full of wine. Or perhaps it was blood; the TARDIS's lights were out to conserve power.
"You're all too kind," he oiled, taking a sip. "Though I'm starting to think it's a shame I didn't turn the police elf when I had the chance."
"You will do no such thing, Alucard," said Artemis defensively. "Oh, and you may leave."
The vampire pushed his chair back and leaned next to Twilight's ear.
"By the way," he whispered, his voice as low and smooth as ever, "Sort of like cupcakes." With that, he turned and disappeared.
Sort of like cupcakes? What's that supposed to mean?
"A few more things before you may all depart," noted Artemis. "I've successfully field-tested the AEGIS. Dexter will be moving them into mass-production soon. That means phase one is complete."
The members stood up from their seats around the table with applause, before Artemis lifted a finger to silence them.
"I've also developed a program for our members to practice combat in alternate universes. We have contacts within a few realities that are willing to give any member training. Butler and I paid our supporters in the Speedwagon foundation a visit."
The massive man who stood behind Artemis couldn't help but smile.
"They trained us in some basic anti-Stand techniques. It was quite informative," he said. Many of the Illuminati seated around the table gave each other skeptical looks. "But mostly, it was punching things." A collective Aaahhh meant they understood why Butler enjoyed it.
"Color me interested," laughed Harhui Suzumiya.
"Very well, you can be the program's new director," said Artemis. Suzumiya stopped laughing. Artemis stood at his seat, and extended his arms in front of his body. The other members quieted down, putting their arms forward as well. They all formed their hands into the Illuminati sigil and spoke the solemn oath:
"Action in thought. Vigil in Contemplation. Illuminati forever. Illuminati for always."
As the other members departed, Twilight trotted to Artemis' side.
"How… is she faring, since the whole debacle?"
"Holly's fine now. She seemed to take things well. I'm surprised you were able to guess how it was appearing to her."
"With the room? She's explained to me having dreams involving rooms before. It made sense for it to latch onto something like that."
"That's why you're in charge," the unicorn chuckled.
"Because I could predict that?"
"Because you know Holly that well."
Artemis crossed his hands behind his waist with a faint smile.
"I suppose so," he murmured. And he was gone.
Twilight sat quietly in the gently-humming spacecraft for a while, thinking to herself. When the revelation dawned on her, she couldn't help but shout.
"Wait, he was talking about my blood, wasn't he?!"
Katniss floated lazily about the commons, hands in her pockets. She was tired from the last match, any and all interaction having to pass through a haze of fatigue before reaching her brain. It took her a couple seconds to realize that someone was calling her name.
"Katniss! Hey, Katniss! Over here!"
The voice, overly perky and energetic, was entirely familiar. She looked around and found Ruby Rose waving her toward a packed table. Adam, who sat next to the excited girl, reached back and picked up an empty chair from a table behind them, placing it under a corner not yet occupied. Katniss wandered over and slipped into the seat, looking around at the familiar faces.
Adam was holding a deck of cards, writing something on each with a pencil that looked miniscule in his huge hands. Ruby was examining them closely, pointing excitedly as Adam placed them on the table. Ryuko and Holly chatted across from them, with Twilight occasionally making a comment. Mikasa sat with her head surrounded by her arms, seemingly asleep. Alucard had his feet up on the table, quietly observing the proceedings, while a few of the young fighters from earlier- Harry, Tris, and Amuro- ducked under Adam's shoulder to look at what was going on. The Dovahkiin stood behind Holly, poking her shoulder constantly- she didn't seem to notice.
"What are you guys up to?" said Katniss, trying to get a good look at the cards Adam held.
"Tarot cards! Isn't that edgy?" squealed Ruby.
Ryuko let a little puff of air out from between her lips, rocking her head back and forth. "If you think old women with bad accents are edgy."
Katniss was confused. "What's a tarot card?" she asked.
Twilight levitated a card off of the table, her magic a soothing purple again. Katniss wasn't sure how she de-vampire-ized herself, but found it best not to ask.
"They're a set of playing cards that originated in medieval Italy. They've since taken on an occult connotation, as some people used them for divination."
"Telling the future," translated Holly.
"Do they work?" asked Katniss.
"Oh, no. The meanings assigned to them are pure fantasy," Twilight stated.
"I once knew a family that played games with a tarot deck," said Adam. "I decided to make this deck to pass some time. Ruby thought it was 'cool', so I gave her a card."
Ruby held up her card excitedly, pointing at the image drawn on its surface. Adam's huge hands were clearly very gentle, as he had drawn an intricately-detailed scene of a girl sitting on a hill on a moonlit night.
"The moon!" she chirped. "Like, crescent moon! Like, Crescent Rose! I said, 'Adam, this card was destined for me, or something!' And he said, 'I'm glad you like it.' So I invited everybody over to get one!"
"And… what all did you get?" asked Katniss.
Holly flipped up a card between her fingers. On it, an angel stood between two crowds of people, one group sitting on a cloud; the other in hellfire. "Judgement," she said. "I won't complain, I think it's supposed to be the best or something."
Ryuko chomped into a lemon, holding out her card with another hand. A woman in the center of the image poured one glass of something into another. "Temperance. It reminds me of this lemon."
"Why does that remind you of the lemon?" said Katniss sheepishly.
"I like lemons, and Senketsu says I should eat more of them to maintain my figure. They're low-calorie."
"Ryuko, nobody eats the peel of a lemon," pointed out Holly.
"I like lemons," said the girl, and no one questioned her diet after that.
Twilight spun her hovering card around, revealing a figure pointing at a beautiful night sky. "This one is called The Star. According to tradition, it represents quite a few of the Elements of Harmony. I'm trying to not pay much attention to it, so it doesn't destroy my skepticism."
Alucard slipped his card from under one of his gloves. It was far enough away that all Katniss could make out were glowing eyes in a dark field. He said it was The Devil, and she believed him. Mikasa woke up for long enough to slide out a card depicting a woman with her arms around a lion- Strength.
The other warriors showed their cards, some that made sense; others that didn't. Harry held the High Priestess, while Tris complained about getting The Hanged man ("He's upside down? What's that supposed to mean?"). Amuro slipped The Wheel of Fortune into his pocket without objection, and Holly handed Dovahkiin the Justice card to occupy him.
Adam finished drawing another card, slipped it in with the remaining ones, and shuffled the deck. He passed it to Katniss.
"Oh, I don't think I really need to-"
"Come on!" said Holly. "It's just for fun. Give it a shot."
"Okay, fine," sighed Katniss, caving to peer pressure. She swiped the card off of the top of the deck, and turned it in her hand. A man sat in a dirty alleyway, petting a dog. A bag, jagged-looking thanks to the items crammed in it, was slung over his back. At the card's corners sat the number zero, and along the bottom, written in ornate, enlightened text, were the words
"Ooo," cooed Holly. "That's a good one, too. Or is it bad? I can't remember."
"I'm surprised you can remember anything after turning into that dumb brute," laughed Ryuko.
"Wait, what did I miss?" asked Ruby excitedly.
"She turned into a titan," groaned Mikasa from under her little fortress of arms.
"It was really ugly. Not a lot of skin," explained Ryuko.
Ruby shrieked with delight. "Awesome! Oh, man, don't you wish you saw that, Adam?"
"Sounds like me," he said flatly.
For a moment, the warriors were quiet. Then the huge, artificial man burst into laughter, and everyone else followed. Katniss smiled, slipping the card into her jacket.
You can let yourself get overwhelmed with fear, or anger. Or you can look a little harder and see the good in the people here. You can break them, push them too far… but here they are, laughing it off. We're all made of pretty stern stuff. It was a very dangerous thing to bring us all here.
She looked up to the throne that dominated the commons, but the Master of Games was not there.
Odd. He's always up there, watching. Why wouldn't he be now?
Morrigan drew little circles on her table with a finger, idly whistling a little ditty she heard the humans sing in Scotland.
The Laird of Cockpen, he's proud an' he's great.
His mind is ta'en up with the things o' the state.
"Feh," she said aloud. "My mind isn't. I'm booooooooored."
"Is that so?" said a voice with an accent she remembered. She looked up, and seated across from her was Holly Short. Or rather, it was sort of Holly Short.
"You seem less… colorful than the laest time we met."
"Oh, let me assure you that we have not met. Not in person, Morrigan."
"Weyl, I dinna spose ye were act'ally the elf, on account of your bein' all gray en such. Et was rather a wee bit of sarcasm on the point of ye lookin' jest like 'er."
"You're sharper than you look," said the creature that looked like Holly. "That's why I have a proposition for you."
"Right then, what did ye have in mind?"
"It does not take much perception to discern that this tournament is best fought by teams. And I think you would appreciate it if you were able to return to your world, as you enjoy physical contact of the less violent sort more."
"Oi! I like 'em both the same."
The Holly-looking thing swiped something out of Morrigan's absurdly tight outfit, holding it in front of the succubus' face. The card showed a young couple in a compromising position. At the bottom of the card was the text
"Maaybe a wee bit more."
"That's right. Now, I'm going to be forming a team to cut my way to the top of this Grand Combat. Are you with me?"
"Aye. Sounds agreeable. But I need to ask ye somethin' first."
The smug expression on the face of the thing that looked like Holly softened a little.
"And… what would that be?"
"Have ye ever head of the 'Glasgow Guzzler'?"
My revenge is going to be painfully annoying, isn't it?