Chapter 1: Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap/ Two Betrayals
PREVIOUSLY, IN PARADOX FIGHTERS: Holly is tasked with recording and sharing Katniss' story, apparently in order to seed dissent. The fighters are plunged into a deadly game of keep-away over the mysterious and powerful One Ring. While Katniss snags the ring, Holly is approached by a newcomer, Twilight Sparkle. The two locate Katniss only to find her corrupted by the ring. After tracking her down again, they team up with street fighter Ryu and the Survey Corps' brightest, Mikasa Ackerman. Together they confront the Master of Games' team… only to find that Katniss' father is in the Grand Combat- and he's not friendly. Katniss unlocks the power of residual magic and defeats her father, but forever loses any chance to reconcile with him. And it seems that Twilight may have an agenda of her own...
The common hall was empty, as it usually was in the longer stretches between rounds of combat. The only exception to this rule was the yellow-robed, kingly figure whose elevated seat rose high above the floor. The Master of Games lounged across his throne sideways, attempting to look, what was it that they called it? "Casual". He heard the footsteps from across the room, and saw the solitary man walk out from the endless hallway that branched into the warriors' various rooms.
The man was thin, but exceedingly muscular. His wild yellow hair was barely contained by his green headband, his greedy red eyes poking out from underneath the blond waves. His wardrobe was similarly garish, his ridiculously-short yellow jacket conflicting with various green baubles. He knelt in front of the throne.
"I received your message, my liege. Is it time?"
"Not yet," quipped the Master of Games. "I'm going to have another round first. Then we'll set it up. Are there any particular requests you have?"
"First, I'll need something devoid of sunlight."
"No need. I can simply make you immune to its effects."
"Excellent. My only other request is that you give me a nice, big space to work with. Preferably something with some building I could use as a base of operations."
The Master raised an eyebrow. "A base of operations?"
"I think you'll agree that previous techniques involving all-out attacks have failed. A large team on my side, and the ability to either seek out opponents or defend… this would give me a great deal of tactical flexibility."
"Hahaha! You are a clever one aren't you? Very well then. I'll see what I can do. Are you sure there won't be anything else?"
"Now that you mention it, having some ambient… obstacles would be useful as well."
"Keep them on their toes even before they run into you… You are a marked improvement over your predecessor," giggled the Master of Games. "I have just the thing in mind. We'll have one environment-savvy on our hands, but that shouldn't prove to be much of an obstacle to you."
"Nothing does," said the man, licking his lips. He turned and began to walk back to his room.
"Oh, Dio- before you go," called out the King in Yellow.
"Yes, my liege?"
"I just have to compliment you on the outfit again. Simply marvelous."
"Of course, my liege."
Twilight Sparkle saw Holly walk into the room among a crowd of power-armored space marines. She lifted a hoof and waved the elf over, indicating a seat next to her at the table. Holly changed direction and swept herself into the chair.
"This certainly is exciting," said the LEPrecon officer.
"What?" asked Twilight.
"Not being in a round, for once. How does it work?"
"Well, you sit here and watch. Not much to it."
"Hmm," hummed Holly, nodding. She began to drum her fingers on the table.
Twilight lifted the elf's hand just above the table. "Are you… all right?"
"I'm fine," quipped Holly. "I'm more concerned for Katniss. Didn't he say it was-"
"A two-versus-one match." Said the Dovahkiin, plopping himself down on the other side of the table. "Our little archer friend has certainly not won favor from the powers that be."
Holly massaged her forehead with her palm.
"Hello, there, Dovahkiin."
"A warm greeting to you as well, my favorite mer!" For a moment, he seemed puzzled. Then he stood and slammed his hand down on the table, causing Twilight to rear up and fall out of her seat.
"DID YOU EVER REALIZE THAT?" he bellowed excitedly.
Holly approached his enthusiasm with caution.
"'Mer' and 'mare' sound the same! Here is a mer," he chortled, indicating Holly. "Here is a mare!" he pointed at Twilight.
"Wow. That is impressive. You should write a poem about it," said the elf dryly.
"You know, I think I will!" he said, sitting back down. He began to mutter to himself.
"O'er the icy hills lived a mer, who each day did converse with her mare…"
Thankfully, his creative process was cut short by the lights dimming. A screen flickered into being on the far wall of the room, with no visible screen or projector. The fidelity was superb, far beyond the twelve-thousand-pixel HD displays found in most fairy cinemas.
"That's impressive," commented Holly.
The Master of Games' disembodied voice echoed through the hall, silencing the other discussions.
"Two versus one. Win condition: Defeat of opposing party. Round start."
The blank screen faded into the familiar profile of their friend, Katniss, stepping onto a deserted-looking street. She looked around nervously, and slipped her bow around her shoulder, marching off.
"I think she'll be fine," said Holly convincingly.
No, I don't, she thought.
Katniss kept her eyes peeled. The scenery could definitely hide her opponent well. The arena seemed to be some sort of ruined city, bomb craters dotting the worn streets, buildings reduced to pig-iron skeletons. Occasionally as Katniss would walk by, a girder would lose its purchase and clatter to the ground loudly, nearly scaring her out of her boots.
I need to get to higher ground. Seeing my opponents before they see me would cover my numbers disadvantage.
She assessed her immediate environment, and located the tallest building nearby- what looked like a 3-story office.
It's not much, but I have to start somewhere.
Katniss rushed toward the building and pressed herself against its front wall, quickly scanning for possible assailants. The coast was clear. She cautiously moved to the door and began to turn the handle, only for it to crumble into rust in her hands. She stepped back, steadied herself, and unleashed a powerful kick into the door's center. It buckled, moaned, and fell inward onto the floor, knocking dust into the air. Through the haze, she saw the narrow stairwell that snaked along the building's back wall.
Katniss advanced toward the stairwell, her left hand ready to slip her bow off of her shoulder. The steps were wooden, and nearly rotted through. She began her careful ascent, her foot more than once snapping through the thin wood.
These wouldn't be to code in District 12.
After what seemed like a half hour climbing the steps, Katniss reached the door that opened onto the roof. She placed her hand on the knob- this one seemed sturdier.
Okay. Here goes nothing.
She swung the door open, and behind it stood… the ruined skyline.
Katniss almost laughed. She stepped out onto the roof, shielding her eyes from the sun. She looked down over the edge of the building, to the empty, rusty streets below.
"Oh, god. It's clear."
"No, it's not," called a voice from behind her. She heard a footstep, and the door click shut. She spun, preparing to draw her bow. She was greeted by a leveled submachine gun. The boy on the other end of the weapon almost smirked. He had been standing along the wall, out of view from the door. His long, black bangs danced in the third-story air, his school uniform providing a sharp contrast to the heavy survival pack he had slung over his back.
"And who the hell are you?" asked Katniss, lowering her hands from her bow.
"I am Shuya Nanahara. I am your opponent."
"Now that was unexpected," said Twilight.
"No kidding," agreed Holly. "How is she going to get herself out of this one?"
Katniss raised her hands above her head.
"Okay, you've got me."
"Hold up, Everdeen. I'm not going to let you get away that easily."
The boy pulled a knife out of his pack, keeping the submachine gun steady with the other. He extended the knife out to his side, and dropped it. The metal blade clattered to the concrete roof and tumbled off of the building's edge. Shuya wiped a few bangs out of his face and tucked them behind an ear.
"I'm no more of a fan of this than you are, Everdeen. So we'll settle this like civilized humans, and not a bunch of bloodthirsty animals."
"I like where you're going with this, Nanahara," said Katniss, lowering her hands.
"Set down your weapons. We'll fight with our bare hands, to a knockout. Nobody has to die."
"I don't know," chuckled Katniss sarcastically. "Did you see what happened last time I fought with my hands?"
"I seriously doubt you can pull off that again."
Holly pondered this for a moment.
"Is he bluffing?" she asked her unicorn companion.
"I have no idea. I can't detect the Residual Magical Genesis Field if I'm not in the arena. I mean, I can tell visually if it's being used-"
"But… could he be right?"
"It was a one-in-a-million event. It takes some serious determination to convince the magic to work for you. If Katniss tried to pull it on anyone less threatening than her father, it would probably fail."
Katniss slipped her bow off her shoulder and set it on the ground gently. She laid her knife next to it, and placed her arrows between the two.
Holly was a little surprised. "Half of me expected her to not take up the bargain."
Twilight raised a hoof toward the screen. "Wait! What's she doing now?"
Katniss swung her jacket off, catching it by the sleeve. With a deft hand, she tied the sleeves into a belt around her waist. Her hands curled into fists, her right raised to chest height, her left guarding her midsection. She bent her legs slightly, keeping the muscles tense and ready to push off.
"I never knew she had martial arts training," said Twilight, bewildered.
Holly narrowed her eyebrows. "I didn't either. That stance… it looks familiar."
"I'm glad you took up my offer," said Shuya, flicking the safety on the gun on and tossing it to the ground.
"You won't be, soon enough," growled Katniss through gritted teeth.
The boy launched himself toward her at a sprint, leaping just feet in front of her to deliver a flying punch. Katniss ducked, and drove a fist into his gut. She followed through on the punch, sending him falling back toward the door. He tumbled backward, barely catching himself. He placed a hand on his stomach and groaned.
"Not bad," he said. "I didn't know you could do that."
Katniss returned to her stance, wringing out her striking hand. With her left, she raised two fingers, beckoning him to attack. Shuya obliged, rushing at her with a straight punch. Katniss crossed her arms, absorbing the blow. Shuya wound up and delivered another strike, and another, thrashing wildly. The girl merely leaned into the attacks, keeping her arms raised.
"Hmmm," said Twilight, staring intently at the screen. "This kid has next to no formal combat training. His form is sloppy, and his strikes don't seem very powerful. Why would he purposefully challenge Katniss in hand-to-hand combat when he has no advantage there?"
Holly seemed distracted, gazing into the distance. Twilight spoke clearer, louder.
"Why would he do that?"
"Huh? Oh, ah, no idea," said the elf, bringing her attention back on the fight.
Shuya's attacks were pathetic, barely bruising Katniss' arms as she deflected them.
Any moment now, he's going to slow down…
Shuya did not launch his next punch immediately, his eyes searching for a way to attack that would not get blocked. Unfortunately for him, this brief lapse into strategy was Katniss' chance. She leapt forward into the air, twisting herself at the waist. She tilted her extended leg so that it caught the momentum, swinging outward, straight toward Shuya's face.
"Shinrin-Kasai-Kyaku!" she shouted as her boot found its mark in the boy's cheek. Another twist of her waist, and her hammer-like foot struck again, sending teeth flying. Katniss dropped to the ground, and watched the boy stagger and crumple.
"By the Divines," said the Dovahkiin. "How can someone so small hit so hard? And with such grace?"
"Of course!" said Holly, snapping her fingers in mental jubilation. "Remember? That martial arts guy, Ryu- he said he would teach her some of his style!"
"That certainly explains her sudden command of the Japanese language," said the unicorn.
It also accounts for why I didn't see her after the end of the last round. Thought Holly. She must have been training in the martial arts sector… but why? Perhaps she's concerned about facing her father again…
Katniss approached her fallen opponent. Shuya Nanahara's mouth ran over with blood, and he attempted feebly to get up. He spat teeth before speaking.
"I didn't think you could do that… that's not what I had read," he gasped.
Katniss frowned. "What you had read?"
"I want you to know… that you have my sympathy. I know how it…" his voice trailed off. He closed his eyes, still breathing.
She crossed back over the roof and collected her weapons. She looked down at the unconscious boy, and placed his survival pack next to him, to give him a hand when he woke up.
"Shuya Nanahara. You fought bravely, even if it was futile. We all fight against odds we can't beat sometimes," she said solemnly, kissing her first three left fingers and holding them aloft.
"Sayonara," whispered Katniss, closing her not-eulogy. She slipped through the door and carefully descended the stairs, stepping back onto the street. She flicked her shoulder, her bow dropping into her hand, and walked on.
Holly shook her head subtly. The more she fights, the more she becomes the person she must have been before coming here. Broken enough not to care, jaded enough to not let anyone too close. I only hope that… thing was right. She needs a friend whether she thinks so or not.
"What he read," muttered Twilight. "What he read. What did he read? Was the Master of Games behind this?"
"Dunno," said the elf nonchalantly.
Katniss followed the street for an hour, scowling at the quickly-fading daylight. She knew being stuck outside in the dark was not an option, so she resolved to find her opponent or shelter, whichever turned up first. In an attempt to make sure it was the latter, she picked up the pace, barreling around the nearest street corner. The road was fairly wide, and at the end of the street sat a dilapidated warehouse. The roof was caved in and rusty, and the windows had all shattered- it was perfect for avoiding suspicion. Katniss broke out into a sprint toward the building. She was reaching for the handle when the air split with a gunshot. She felt the stinging wind of a bullet passing between her extended fingers, freezing her in place.
She turned her eyes, avoiding any large movements that could provoke another shot. To her left, down the street the warehouse was adjacent to, a figure approached- pistol extended in one hand. A dull grey hooded cloak concealed the identity of Katniss' second opponent.
"You missed," said Katniss softly.
"Say that again, and I'll put the next bullet where I meant to." It was a girl's voice, accented, familiar.
"I doubt that," said Katniss, drawing her hand back towards herself.
"No!" shouted Holly, jumping out of her seat.
Another shot rang out, the bullet clipping the asphalt and kicking up dust.
"Am I really that difficult of a target to hit?" called Katniss to her foe. Another shot, just over her head.
"I swear, you'll be more useful as a pencil when I-"
"Shut up," interrupted Katniss.
The cloaked girl lowered her gun. "What?"
"Cut the smack," hissed the girl with the bow. "I watched your form with the gun. You're not trembling. You're not making mistakes, you're trying to not shoot me. You can't do it."
"I'm not going to take this from some goddamned whiner!" shouted the girl, whipping off the cloak. Underneath, a simple black combat uniform, sleeves removed. Tattoos peeked out from under the heavy vest, and blonde hair swung back in a long, loose braid. She raised her gun again, leveling it on Katniss. This time, she noticed something was different. The girl's bow was drawn.
But where's the arr-
The projectile she was looking for dove between her middle and ring finger of her gun-wielding hand. She clenched her fist in pain, and as a result, pulled the trigger. Her injured hand and stunned mind could not prepare, and the recoil tossed the weapon out of her hand. It hit the ground with enough force to go off again, the bullet whizzing away harmlessly. The disarmed girl stared at her own hand in disbelief and pain.
Katniss lowered her bow, and began to advance toward the girl.
"I don't miss shots I mean to take."
"Stay back," said the girl, surprisingly calm. She fumbled in her cargo pants' pocket.
"What was your name again? Tris, right? Tris Prior." Katniss realized she was almost smiling, seeing the fear in the girl's eyes.
"Go to hell!" screamed Tris, flicking a throwing knife toward her.
Katniss watched the throw carefully. It was very accurate, and there was a lot of force behind it, but it was simply too telegraphed. She stepped to the left, the blade whistling past her.
"You're very strong," commented Katniss, ever closer to her prey. "I'm sure if you hit me you would stop me in my tracks. Why won't you?"
Tris staggered backward, dropping a second throwing knife she had drawn in vain.
"I… just… you're too much like… after all you've…"
Katniss stood over the girl now, who was sobbing audibly.
"What? What are you talking about?"
"You're like my friends… you're like me. Maybe worse… I can't just attack… I know why you were crying…"
"Wait, how do you know this?"
"I read it… in the book," whimpered Tris.
"What. Book?" asked Katniss. Tris heard something in the other girl's voice she did not want to hear. She was angry.
"Some people were passing it around. It was interesting to learn more about the people here, and I'm really sorry about-"
"Did I say I wanted people to know?" said Katniss, with the sort of calm that only comes from restraining rage.
"But I… I didn't…"
Katniss was silent. Her grip on her bow relaxed, and the weapon clattered to the ground.
Tris stumbled to her feet, apologizing profusely.
"Listen, I'm really sorry, I won't-"
Katniss' eyes rose to meet hers. They were not filled with forgiveness.
"Oh," squeaked Tris.
A fist hammered across her face, a thin stream of blood escaping her mouth. Tris barely had time to catch the second vicious strike in mid-throw. Even then, she had trouble holding it. Katniss' eyes were narrowed, her teeth gritted. She was beyond reason now. A swift kick caved Tris' stomach, knocking the wind out of her, and forcing her to let go of Katniss' punch- which now freely traveled into her nose. She heard it snap under the attack's force.
Katniss was breathing heavily, her fists wet with Tris' blood. Her mind just seconds ago was filled with questions. Why didn't she hit me? How does she know that? Where did she get the book? Who wrote it? Now, those things seemed to disappear. A single thought populated her brain: Kill her.
Tris struggled to keep herself standing. She laboriously moved her arms into a defensive stance, guarding her face from further attacks. She adjusted her footing, and began to watch her opponent's movements. I'm not going down that easily.
Katniss saw the girl move toward her. An arm swung forward in a hammer-fist move, a fast, if predictable attack. She crouched, letting the girl's straight arm fly over her. For a moment, Tris' chin was completely exposed. Katniss knew this was the opportunity to satisfy that ravenous thought. She released her breath slowly, methodically. She turned her focus to her target, planning the movements that would deliver the strike. She clenched her fist, tensed her legs. She was an explosive charge, a landmine. Tris had just stepped on the trigger.
Katniss leapt up with astounding force, the uppercut driving itself into Tris' gut. The blow knocked the wounded girl skyward, soaring on the rocket-propelled fist of her opponent.
Katniss flicked her waist, giving her uppercut a horizontal spin. Her fist, no longer inhibited by being embedded in the girl's body, travelled upward again, a gout of flame trailing in its wake.
The fist connected with the sternum, which fractured under the raw power. The air evacuated Tris' lungs.
The punch met its ultimate target, Tris' chin. Katniss felt the mandible snap, her hand breaking the jaw in one strike. Her foe fell away as the uppercut continued skyward, tumbling to the ground with a splat. Katniss lost altitude as well, barely catching herself on her feet. Her hand ached, she was pretty sure it was broken. She looked down at the body of the girl she barely knew, blood pooling underneath her head.
Why did I snap? What made me want to kill her like that? Of course, the book. I'll figure that out… but something else drove me that far. I shouldn't have just…
"Katniss Everdeen wins this round," declared the computerized voice of Deep Thought. "Though I must question the theatrics of calling out your attacks like that, very illogical."
Her legs slipped through the ground, and she closed her eyes.
Holly saw her friend rise up through the floor in the inverse of how she left the arena.
"Katniss!" she cried, rushing to her. "Are you all right?"
The girl looked down at her hand grimly. It did not hurt anymore.
Twilight sauntered toward the two.
"That last attack… I don't think that was a R.M.G.F. burst. I think that may have been a genuine ki attack," said the unicorn.
Katniss shifted her gaze away from her hand to the elf.
"Holly, you're the only person I've told."
Holly's eyes widened in fear.
"Look, I thought that, maybe it would stir up some sympathy. And it did! Did you listen to those people as you were beating them into a bloody pulp?"
"That doesn't matter. I don't need their sympathy. And I don't need your help."
With that, the girl turned and walked away. Holly could have sworn that she saw a tear in the girl's eye, but perhaps it was the light.
"Holly," said Twilight sternly.
"Great, are you going to chew me out, too? I feel like a dwarven teenager with a close shave."
"You just gave away not only your friend's strengths and weaknesses to anyone who desires to read them, but you also threw in her personal life as an added bonus!"
"When you put it that way-"
"Listen, Holly. You are no idiot. I have no doubt in my mind that you are fairly intelligent. Where did you come up with this asinine idea?"
Holly scratched her head nervously.
"It was… a whim. A whim I got with very little sleep."
"Something in your dreams, then?"
Holly almost gasped.
"No, it was-"
"Where did you get the book, Holly?"
The elf's eyes flitted back and forth, searching for an explanation she could not find. She shivered, twisted her back, stamped her foot, and screamed.
"THIS HORSE SAYS SHE'S THE STRONGEST IN THE WORLD! SHE'LL TAKE ALL COMERS!"
Instantly, a barrage of warriors surrounded Twilight, asking questions about her preferred fighting style, and whether she was a practitioner of classical or new-age sorcery. Holly slipped through their ranks, sprinting away.
This has gone too far, she thought. I need backup.
Chapter 2: Round Three/ To You, 2000 Years In The Future
Katniss punched the dummy again, striking it squarely in the abdomen.
The martial artists seemed to have bonded well. They were always complimenting each other's forms, demonstrating complex techniques, telling stories of their fabled battles. It was a bro-fest with more talk of honor, and less sugary beverages. Katniss didn't care. They were someone else to talk to, even if it was about how she had 'telegraphed that haymaker too much'.
"You telegraphed that haymaker too much," said Ryu, sitting on a bench nearby.
"Do you think I care?" growled Katniss, massaging her hand.
"You wanted me to teach you, didn't you?"
She rolled her eyes and attacked the dummy again.
"That anger of yours… you had better learn to manage it."
"Why? I fight better like that. When you're cornered, you survive by fighting your way out. It's instinct."
"In your last battle, while fighting your second opponent, did you notice anything about your attacks?"
Katniss stopped punching the dummy.
"Yeah. They were stronger. I don't think I normally hit like that."
"And did you feel anything unusual?"
"That Tris girl… I don't know what, but when she told me that she knew, she read my life story… I just wanted to kill her."
"Partially that could be attributed to the environment of the Grand Combat. When we're here to fight, and everyone comes back, fighting to kill becomes a less extreme act. But it feeds a dark part of your soul. You experienced the Satsui no Hado, the wave of the desire to kill. Ansatsuken was created to channel this desire to unlock ki attacks. You fight with almost animalistic instinct. This serves the Hado well. Unfortunately, it corrupts easily. You must learn to fight without anger, or that anger will consume you."
"Fine then," Katniss said. "But if I fight –him- again, I can make you no promises."
"Worry less about making promises to me. You will be the one that regrets what happens."
Katniss decided that she had listened to enough metaphysical mumbo-jumbo for one day. She stormed off toward her room. Ryu got up from the bench and examined the dummy. Under the soft surface, it was riddled with dents.
"That doesn't sound like a very practical art to me," said Kenshiro, sipping a glass of water. "Why use anger when ki can be channeled with purity or willpower?"
"Whatever happened to just punching people?" moaned Chuck, roundhouse kicking his own dummy.
Twilight ambled into her room, hopping on to her bed. Her guest was bound to arrive any minute now.
Holly Short… how far down that path have you walked? How much has it seeped into your soul, for you to simply obey like that? Are you too far gone to think about your friend? And have you also forgotten that there are those who care for you that aren't here?
A hissing sound filled the room, accentuated by a muffled scream and the sound of heavy wings flapping in the night.
"Ah," said Twilight, unfazed. "You've made it."
The man rose up through the floor, his body procedurally becoming tangible. He adjusted his hat, and slipped his gloved hands into his overcoat's pockets.
"This had better be good."
"I didn't want for it to come to this," said Twilight apologetically. "But I'm afraid things have gotten out of hand. We need to locate Holly in the next round. She needs… detox."
"And you came to me for that? I guarantee I will put her in far worse shape than whatever it is-"
"No, I came to you for a hired gun."
"I'm sorry to reduce you to that, Mr. Alucard."
"It could be worse. I am enjoying all of the killing there is to be had around here, but that won't keep me occupied forever. I'll get cabin fever like anyone else. I will help your operation here, if only for my own gain."
"I'm glad you're so upfront about it."
"When you're an immortal specter driven by bloodlust, you become quite frank. What does your blood taste like?"
"I'm not going to answer that."
Alicard found it wise to change the subject.
"Have you noticed, Ms. Sparkle," he said, gesturing to the air above him. "Those invisible chains? Binding us?"
"It is the second magical phenomena I have discovered in this Nexus. The Limit. From the dossier I was given, I assumed you were affected by it as well."
"Even I am not sure what I am still capable of. Do you think breaking it is possible?"
"Possible, not probable. Goodbye, Mr. Alucard," said Twilight, giving a courteous bow.
"I shall see you again soon," said the vampire, slipping into the floor again.
"Eyeuuuughhh," whimpered Twilight. "That guy gives me the creeps. But if the higher-ups say so…" She lay down on her bed, but decided she would not be sleeping for a while.
The darkness seemed to splatter around her, as if it was saliva in the mouth of some vast creature chewing her into pieces. Somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, Holly found the strength to speak.
"They… know," she mumbled.
"I KNOW THAT THEY KNOW."
"Well, what… are you going to do?"
"NOTHING. YOU DID AS I ASKED. THE BOOK STILL EXISTS. THE MEDDLER DID NOT REMOVE IT."
"But… it made Katniss… angry at me," said the elf, trying not to collapse against the terrible sound.
"You said… that it was our friendship… that would help…"
"THEN YOU HAD BETTER FIND A WAY TO FIX THAT."
"I am getting tired… of this. I don't want… to deal with you anymore."
"PATHETIC MORTAL. YOU CANNOT REMOVE MY PRESENCE FROM YOUR MIND. EVEN REDUCED TO A STATE LIKE THIS, I CANNOT BE ESCAPED."
Holly opened her eyes to find herself in her room again. She felt exhausted, but far worse was the feeling of self-betrayal.
I was supposed to be there for her. I wanted to help her. Now I've gone and ruined it. On her own, she'll get herself killed. Or will she? Nothing makes sense anymore.
"Miss Short. Please report to the common hall in five minutes."
"D'Arvit," she cursed, stuffing her head in her pillow.
The warriors began to flood the common hall, taking seats, clumping into their little groups. The Master of Games sat upon his throne, stroking his beard, chuckling to himself.
They thought they could be friends… heh. This round will prove to them that I am in control, and I can make this a very dangerous place indeed.
"Attention, my fine warriors! It is so good to see you all again! Except you, Benvolio."
"Thou art a KNAVE and a SCOUNDREL! I bite my thumb at thee!" cried an angry voice from the crowd.
"Anyway," the Master continued. "It's time to introduce the next round. This will be a team-based challenge, but this time you'll have to form alliances inside the arena. I'm thinking about making that standard. Any opinions?"
"Okay then! Your goal is to capture the mansion that lies at the center of the arena. However, doing so will not be so simple. The arena will be filled with an array of… wildlife to slow your progress. You will also have to contend with other teams that wish to prevent you from attaining your goal. You may now return to your rooms. The round will begin in ten minutes."
The fighters began to leave the room, scampering toward the hallways. The Master of Games reclined in his seat and turned to the screen as it appeared.
This should be quite the show.
Holly was used to the drill by now. She stepped through her room's door as if she was leaving for the commons, only for it to lead to the blank-white prep room. A platform, as white as everything else in the room, rose from the floor. On it lay her gear- a Neutrino 3000, her helmet, and pleasantly, a set of mechanical wings.
These should prove useful. Being stuck on the ground all the time sure can get annoying.
She tightened the strap on her helmet and buckled on the wings, snapping shut the clasp across her chest. She slipped the Neutrino into her leg holster and walked toward the far wall, which opened onto the arena.
It was an unusual scene, one Holly had not expected. By the Master of Games' description, she would have assumed the setting would be something modern, with the mansion placed in the center of a park, or perhaps on a private island. Instead, she stepped onto what looked like a bizarre combination of a medieval city and the architecture of the Renaissance, wrapped around the edges in shadow. The streets were cobblestone, but a tight, well-paved fit. The buildings were clearly European in design, with clay-brown shingled roofs, and seemed to be of a much more modern design than the streets. Holly turned around and found the source of the shadow- behind her, the door to her prep room having disappeared, was a massive wall. In fact, the entire city seemed to be surrounded by them. They were easily more than forty meters in height. They dominated the skyline, casting their dark forms over the extremities of the city they protected. Down the streets Holly could see no obvious trace of any form of mansion.
"This is going to be a long round, isn't it?" she said, to no one in particular.
She fired up her wings and began to circle the perimeter of the city at low altitude, looking for a street that might give her a fair line of sight to her goal. Across the rooftops, she saw flickers of light popping in the distance.
People are finding each other. The battles are beginning. Good thing I haven't-
A massive impact knocked her out of control, sending her spiraling toward the ground. Muscular limbs locked around her, pressing sharp steel to her neck. The street amplified the attack, cobblestone working in tandem with her foe. Her helmet's heads-up-display shattered into a crystalline mess. Holly wrenched her head around and flung her Neutrino up, squarely between the eyes of her attacker. Fight-or-flight was subdued by recognition, and the elf lowered her weapon. The girl did not move her swords.
"Mikasa?" strained Holly, short on breath thanks to the girl's crushing grip. Mikasa was silent, her eyes seemingly observing far away events. Holly had seen that look before, whenever Katniss stumbled over the name of the Master of Games, or whenever she strung an arrow. It was the look of a person being tossed into hell a second time.
The girl slowly uncoiled herself from the pin, but continued to keep a sword on Holly's throat.
"Why?" she hissed, pulling her scarf down from over her mouth.
"I don't know," said Holly desperately. "What are you talking about?"
"Why here?" elaborated the girl.
"Want to tell me where here is?"
Mikasa stood, sheathing her swords, and looking across the city. She gave a short sigh.
"This is Shinganshima. This was my world."
"Is that so?" said Holly, lifting herself off the ground. No sooner had she finished standing than she found another sword at her throat.
"I'm not letting you get away that easily. You're behind this somehow," said Mikasa with quite a bit of certainty.
Holly rolled her eyes. "I'm behind this? What makes you think that?"
"Because you are a small titan."
"For the last time, I'm an elf. Could you stop going on about that? I don't even know what a titan is."
Mikasa raised her sword and pointed above Holly's head.
"You really think you're going to get me with that one? The whole dramatic, 'look, it's right behind you' shtick?"
The girl drew her other sword, and sprinted in the opposite direction.
"Okay. I know where this is going. I'm going to save myself some time and skip the whole 'see, I'll look behind me and prove it's not there, holy crap it's there' bit. I'll just skip to the running."
Holly leapt forward and engaged her wings, jetting just out of reach as a huge hand tore a chunk out of the street where she once was. Holly spun and observed the creature as she landed on a nearby rooftop. The titan, as Mikasa had called it, resembled the mythical giants of yore. For the most part, it was human in shape, even though its proportions were ungainly. The bare body was covered in blemished peachy skin, but it seemed devoid of any of sort of reproductive organs. Its dull, searching eyes pointed to a distinct lack of intelligence as well as shame. Its head was covered in a mat of greasy-looking long blonde hair, and it wore a terrifyingly wide smile filled with pearly-white, flat teeth.
"That is exceedingly unsettling!" called Holly. The titan realized it had missed and located the elf. It began to advance toward her rooftop perch.
"Hey, Mikasa! Is there any way to, I don't know, kill this thing?" as Holly shouted she realized that she didn't know where the girl had gotten to. She looked around frantically, spotting the girl running toward the creature down an adjacent street. Holly caught the titan's motions out of the corner of her eye and jumped in time to avoid a swipe of its hand. She engaged her wings and picked up altitude, floating just out of the titan's reach.
What is she up to? thought the elf as she watched Mikasa dash at the creature.
Mikasa jumped into the air, and cables shot from the bulky machinery hung around her waist and embedded themselves in the buildings lining the street. She swung forward, propelled by some sort of vapor trail. As she reached the apex of her arc, the cables detached from the buildings and retracted into the device, flinging her at breakneck speed toward the titan. Its arm was still bent over the building that Holly had been standing on, exposing its broad back. Mikasa twisted in mid-air, and extended her swords. A chunk of flesh fell from the titan's neck, and it slumped over the building, steam rising from its limp body.
Holly flew to where Mikasa had landed, where she was surprised to find that the girl had survived such a fall. In fact, she seemed no worse for wear at all. She flicked the blades, shaking off the blood that coated them.
"Any particular reason for the neck-shot?" asked the elf.
"Only way to keep them down," said the girl, sheathing her swords.
"Okay, I get it. That's why they gave you that doohickey," Holly said, motioning toward the 3D Maneuver Gear.
"So… what's the plan then?"
"Plan? You think I'm just going to team up with you? I still think you're responsible for this."
"After that thing tried to kill me?"
"Maybe you could be useful as a distraction."
"Even if you know this place like the back of your hand, you're not going to be able to do this alone. Besides, we worked together before," persuaded the elf.
Mikasa gave her a venomous look.
"Follow me," she said, walking toward the walls.
"Where are we going?"
Chapter 3: Phantom Blood/ A Girl And Her Abomination
Megatron ducked under the low ceiling (rather, it was low for him) and sat on the ground of the lounge where the other members of his team had gathered. As usual, his team had been placed one step ahead of the others- namely, they were already in the mansion that they had been designated to capture. As he examined his comrades, he noticed that there seemed to be a lot more of them than last time. He recognized Nightmare, the Predator, the Xenomorph, and Mr. Everdeen. But there were three newcomers there as well. A girl in her adolescent years, wearing some semblance of a naval uniform, but in much darker colors than usual; a woman dressed in a business suit, eyeing the males of the group carefully; and a man with a bright yellow jacket with equally vivid hair, wearing a variety of green baubles. This man stood and greeted Megatron as he entered.
"Ah, the illustrious Megatron. I am pleased to make your acquaintance.'
"And to whom do I owe the pleasure?" said the Cybertronian, glad to have someone with any sense of courtesy around.
"I am Dio Brando. But you may simply call me Dio, for brevity's sake," oozed the man, giving a bow.
"Well, it will be excellent having you on my team. Now, to get down to business- the battle plan. If we stay here, we will not only remain safe from those wandering beasts, but we also guarantee that our opponents will be worn down, allowing us to-"
"That sounds excellent," said Dio, bowing before Megatron again. "But there is one problem with that strategy."
"And what would that be?"
"You're not giving orders anymore," said the man, who lifted his hand and snapped his fingers.
In a flash, the other warriors struck. Nightmare swung his sword, Soul Edge, and cleaved off Megatron's cannon arm. The sailor-uniformed girl drew a blade and removed his other arm. The Xenomorph leapt onto his chest and began to tear away the armor plate, shrieking madly. The Predator deployed its wrist blades and slashed at his legs, rendering them inoperable. The metal giant collapsed backward, helpless and incapable of transforming.
"Wh-What?" the Predacon grated, his vocal processor losing power. Dio sauntered up the Cybertronian's hulking, ruined body, and came to a stop standing over his head.
"The Master of Games was not pleased by your continued failure. As a result, I am now the head of this team. Nothing personal."
With that, Dio shoved his hand through Megatron's head, found a grip, and tore off his faceplate, the optics ripping off with it. He tossed it aside and jumped down to the robot's chest. He peeled back what was left of the armor and removed a small, glowing sphere.
"Ah, the spark chamber. His wretched little soul. Mr. Everdeen, would you care to do the honors?" he said, tossing it to Katniss' father. The man caught the sphere with ease, set it on the floor, and trampled it underfoot. The fragile metal shattered, and the light within faded.
"Well, now that that's all settled," said Dio, twisting the metal on the robot's chest plate. "We can do things the right way."
He then sat down, having folded Megatron's remaining chest plate armor into a seat, the massive robot's entire body becoming some sort of grandiose throne.
He pointed at the girl in the sailor fuku.
"You there. Ryuko Matoi, is that right?"
The girl nodded. She seemed to be grimacing.
"Not used to the control bud yet, are you? Don't worry. You'll find it a lot easier to follow orders soon enough. Anyway, I'd like to send you on a mission. I want you to head out there and keep an eye out for the girl with the bow, the elf with the gun, or the little purple unicorn. The next part is easy, dear, stop that frowning. When you see them, you kill them! You can do it, I'm sure."
The girl knelt in respect. "Yes, Lord Dio. It will be done." She turned and walked toward the foyer.
"Now, Nightmare, go check the cellar. See if they have any half-decent wines in here, preferably something Sangiovese. If they don't have any, don't bother."
"Of course, Lord Dio," said the demonic knight, stomping away.
Oh, Dio thought. It is good to be in charge.
Katniss' legs ached, her throat growing ragged from her heavy breaths. She couldn't just keep running forever. She looked back over her shoulder- the creature was still following her. Its face was like that of a child catching a glimpse of some new candy, somehow innocent and ruthlessly greedy. It extended another long, flabby arm toward her, forming its fingers into a fleshy cage. Katniss spun, backpedaled, and fired an arrow into its palm. It pulled its hand back in pain, never stopping its steady advance. Each stride covered thirty of hers. Capture seemed inevitable; the real question is what it would do once it got her. It couldn't be good.
"Uuuuuuuurrr," burbled the titan, plucking the arrow from its hand. A thin stream of steam jetted from the wound.
Katniss turned and started her sprint again, hoping to reach the end of the street and turn, perhaps adding a precious few yards between her and the giant. She began to near the intersection, when she felt footfalls. The giant chasing her certainly didn't have that kind of weight behind it.
A huge black hand reached out from the street ahead and grasped the corner of the building in front of Katniss. Even with the creature closing in behind her, she skidded to a halt.
As it turned out, the hand belonged to a massive beast, which swung itself onto the street. Its gargantuan black body was covered in dense fur and stone, and it wore some kind of ornately carved mask over where its face should be. Its left hand carried a similarly carved club, which it promptly drove into the ground, sending shattered cobblestone flying everywhere. Katniss ducked for cover, and the giant behind her took a few steps back.
The new, larger creature stepped forward, its titanic hooves crumbling the street beneath them. It towered over Katniss, regarding her silently. She lifted her bow, and fired at one of the creature's blue, carved-out eyes. The arrow bounced off, clattering to the ground in front of her.
"Aw, crap," she hissed aloud.
The massive club slowly arced skyward, its apogee far above the buildings lining the streets. Katniss turned, only to find the giant still there. Suprisingly, it also seemed fixated on the newcomer. She breathed an audible sigh of relief, and took off at a sprint, back the way she had come. She cleared the oblivious giant and was about to duck onto another nearby street to make her escape, when she heard an unfamiliar voice.
"Look out below!"
Katniss barely had time to jump backwards as the street exploded in front of her.
"AW, CRAP!" she shouted, dodging the debris.
Two warriors climbed out of the crater, waving the dust away. The first was a man, but unlike any Katniss had ever seen before. He stood eight feet tall, and was built like a statue. He was absurdly well-muscled, with broad shoulders and huge arms. His long, black hair trailed down his back, and soft blue eyes peered intently out from under his bangs. However, despite his Olympian build, the man's appearance was certainly not… ideal. His skin was a nearly-transparent yellow, often failing to cover his bulging muscle. It was stitched together, the sutures forming a patchwork pattern over his body. He seemed to be a bizarre contradiction, a combination of fitness and decay. He carried in his arms his companion.
It was a girl about Katniss' age, maybe younger, with chin-length brown hair. She wore a short, frilly black dress, long brown leggings, and seriously bulky combat boots. Draped over her back was a long, red hooded cloak. She hopped out of the man's arms and practically skipped to where Katniss was sitting.
"If you don't mind," she chirped. "We'll just, ah, deal with the big guys."
She reached behind her back and drew a large, chunky-looking firearm, painted in bright red. Instead of leveling it at one of the monsters, she tapped a button on the receiver, and the weapon began to unfold. An oversized sickle blade popped out of the end, and the barrel extended into a snath- the gun had become a massive scythe. She twirled the weapon like a baton before planting its spear-like tip into the ground. She looked back at her partner, still dusting himself off.
"You ready, Adam?"
"Then let's kick some giant tail!"
"I do not see a tail on either one, Ruby."
"It's an idiom. It means we beat the crap out of them."
"Ah. I see," said the huge man.
The girl addressed Katniss again.
"Just sit tight and stay clear of falling objects."
Katniss was still stunned from their sudden arrival.
Without warning, the girl gave the huge scythe a twirl, and a massive finger from the more human-looking giant fell to the ground, belching steam like a hot frying pan dunked in water.
It must have been reaching over here while they were talking, thought Katniss. The giant pulled back its hand and howled in pain, while the black minotaur-looking creature finally brought its club down, annihilating half of the buildings on the block in a single swing. The girl rushed forward, ducking under the wounded giant's arms and sprinting toward the larger creature. She spun the scythe until the blade's heel skidded along the ground, when she promptly pulled the rifle's trigger. The barrel, which composed the body of the scythe, must have still been functional in this state, as the crack of a high-velocity rifle round echoed off the buildings. The recoil sent the upside-down scythe and its carrier flying gracefully toward the huge, shaggy black creature.
The large man, who the girl had called Adam, set his sights on the flabby, childlike giant. He leapt forward, the force knocking a few cobblestones out of place. Within an instant he had tackled the creature with enough force to upset its balance and toss it onto its back. He slipped to its neck, and upon finding purchase, drove his huge fist through the creature's skin like a hole punch. He swung himself to the left, and punched another hole into the monstrous neck, and another, and another.
Ruby seemed to be dancing across the large creature, between using her gun-scythe's recoil to keep her airborne and using the blade to swing about like it was some sort of jungle gym. She landed on a narrow patch of rock on the beast's back that perhaps was once a platform of some sort. She snagged the creature's fur in one hand and swung herself upward, leaping onto its masked head. The creature bellowed and thrashed, but she remained stable. She planted the scythe's spear tip in the center of the beast's head, and fired. The recoil drove the point into the skull, and a geyser of black ichor streamed out.
"MUUUUUUUUHHHHHH," groaned the creature.
"What's that?" Ruby called. "Do it again? If you insist," she cackled, firing the weapon again and again. The creature stumbled forward and fell to the ground with uncanny, slow-motion grace. Its blue eyes faded away, reduced to nothing more than carvings in stone. The girl hopped from the colossus' head to the street, ambling toward her teammate.
Adam shoved his arm inside of the titan's throat, tearing away at visceral tissues. The giant still attempted to pull him off, but if it even brought a hand close to the man, a swift kick would knock the limb far away. He pulled himself even with his row of perforations, and placed his hands on either side of one of the holes. With a growl of effort, he began to separate the two sides, the titan's flesh snapping apart under the force of his powerful arms. With a final heave, the head tore itself from the neck, rolling backward limply. Adam leapt from the titan, drenched in steaming blood. He ran a hand over his face as if he was wiping away sweat, flicking hot circulatory fluid onto the ground.
"Wretched, vile, disgusting," he muttered, vainly trying to clean the blood off.
"You think that's bad?" chuckled Ruby, covered in what looked like oil.
Katniss ran toward the newcomers, making sure to stay far enough back in case either decided to turn on her, or try to wipe their respective giant's bodily fluids on her.
"That was amazing," she said, not sure that 'amazing' was necessarily the right word. "Who are you people?"
"My name is Ruby Rose," said the girl, poking her chest with her thumb. She then gestured toward her friend.
"And this is Adam Frankenstein."
"Just Adam, if you don't mind," said the huge, grotesque man. "That other name is dead to me."
"And just who are you?" giggled the girl, pointing at Katniss with a leveled scythe. Katniss did not appreciate this, and delicately pushed the weapon's blade away.
"I'm Katniss Everdeen. Are you guys planning on fighting me, or-"
"Nope!" chirped Ruby.
"In fact, we were looking for a third team member," said Adam. Katniss wasn't sure why they would need one, considering how easily they wiped the floor with those creatures without her help.
Ruby's eyes lit up.
"That's right!" she grinned, tossing her scythe into the air and catching it in its collapsed form. "What exactly is it that you do?"
Katniss held up her bow.
"Does this give you a hint?"
"I suppose we could use a more dedicated ranged combatant," said Adam, stroking his chin.
Ruby's mouth opened like some sort of floodgate, releasing a torrential commentary.
"Yeah I guess Crescent Rose isn't that great of a weapon at long range I mean the rounds have the velocity and the aerodynamics but they're so large caliber I can't hit anything and the recoil is just well you saw it it's crazy and it doesn't work for sniping all that well and if we're going to capture the mansion we need somebody to cover us at range and also how do you do that braid it's really cute?"
"What," said Katniss blankly.
"Wahoo!" yelped Ruby, leaping into the air. "We've got us a new team member! Now we'll be team R-A… how do you spell Katniss?"
"Oh, boy," Katniss muttered.
Chapter 4: Bring A Vampire To A Gunfight
It was getting unnerving, always hearing his footsteps behind her. Yes, of course, he was there to protect her, but by Celestia could they have picked someone else?
She held up a hoof, and the two stopped, hidden in the shadows of the narrow alleyway.
"Do you hear that?" Twilight asked.
Alucard cocked his head sideways, raising an eyebrow at the unicorn.
"Of course I do, Ms. Sparkle."
The unicorn listened, hearing the staccato of gunshots echo off of stone buildings ahead.
"Firefight," she whispered.
"I'd say about three shooters." Confirmed the vampire.
Twilight noticed a crackling bass note among the sharp chatter of firearms.
"And an energy weapon," she added.
Alucard drew the smaller of his two pistols, twirling it on a finger.
"Shall we… investigate?"
"Indeed," said Twilight.
The two crept out from the alley and followed the sound to a square. A wagon was flipped on its side in the center, and two warriors crouched behind it- the huge, power-armored soldier, John-117; and a girl Twilight recognized as the one Katniss had fought in the previous round. A bullet snapped through the air, passing through the cart to the left of John's head. The girl pulled back in fear.
The source of the shot came from a shop with a busted-out window across the street. A bulky-looking bald man ducked back underneath the sill.
"Just give up, SPARTAN!" shouted a female voice from inside the shop.
"Not until you do," replied the supersoldier in his gravelly baritone.
"No way, old man. You won't believe how long I've waited for this. I'm not blowing this opportunity."
"We'll see about that," said John-117, rising from behind the cart and snapping an assault rifle off of the magnetic clips along his back. He fired three tightly controlled bursts toward the shop window, and dropped back into cover.
"How many rounds have you got left?" asked Tris as the massive soldier took a seat again.
"One more clip. Then I'll be down to the sidearm."
"No. Clean out."
"We need to draw them out."
"I agree," said Alucard, phasing out of the ground in front of the cart. Tris popped up, leveled her pistol and was about to fire when Master Chief pulled her back down.
"What are you doing?" he barked.
"I was going to shoot him, what do you think?"
"Who's the new friend you've got out there, SPARTAN?" called the voice in the shop.
Master Chief stood and readied his assault rifle. He gave Alucard a nod.
"Why don't you come out and see?"
"You'll regret that! Heavy, suppressive fire!"
A minigun's barrel poked its way out of the window, spooling up to speed.
"I'll take care of this," said Alucard. John-117 ducked back behind the cart, grabbed Tris, and took off toward the street. Twilight waved them in her direction. They swooped behind a building on the corner of the square where the unicorn was peeking out from behind a wall.
"More rubble, less trouble!" barked the man behind the massive weapon.
"Alucard!" called Twilight. He tilted his hat forward, and drew his pistols.
The minigun erupted into life, ejecting more lead than the entire plumbing system of ancient Rome. The bullets formed a curtain of death, slicing Alucard into pieces. Limbs, severed from their body, collapsed to the ground in a bloody pile.
The Heavy Weapons Guy vaulted himself out of the shop window, examining the damage. He crossed the square to the soggy mess of clothing where Alucard had stood. A meaty hand landed on the broad-brimmed hat, and placed it on his own head.
"Not bad, puny cowboy-man," said the Russian, admiring the headgear.
"Looks like your reinforcements didn't work out so well, John," said the owner of the voice in the shop, stepping out into the open. Sunlight glittered over bronze power armor. The suit's broad, rounded shoulders gave way to a thin, sleek abdomen and tautly-curved greaves. Sections of the right arm's plating folded out, extending into a blaster that covered the manipulator. With her left arm she clicked a release behind her head and removed the helmet, long golden locks trailing out over the similarly gilded suit.
"So, what's she got against you?" asked Twilight to the supersoldier pressed against the wall next to her.
"It's a… complicated story."
The armored woman turned to her teammate.
"Well, what are you standing around for? Circle that way, I'll go around the other, and we'll surround them."
"Da, da. I am circling, okay?" the man hefted his large weapon and began to sidestep his way toward the edge of the square.
Tris spoke up.
"Well, what do you plan on doing?"
"Who, me?" said Twilight. "About what?"
"Your friend. They shot him to pieces."
"First of all," she replied, lifting a hoof. "He is an acquaintance."
The Heavy Weapons Guy was nearing the corner. Soon he would have a clear line of fire at his targets. He flicked the switch on his weapon's trigger, and the minigun's barrels began to wind up to speed. He chortled as he advanced, keeping the weapon stable and ready to fire.
"I hear someone building dia-"
A finger tapped his shoulder.
"And second," Twilight continued, "he is very difficult to put down."
The Heavy Weapons Guy turned, and found a terrifying amorphous mass of darkness, dog-like maws, and blinking, blood-red eyes. Near the center floated a pair of orange sunglasses.
"I would very much like my hat back," it said.
The Heavy Weapons Guy slowly set down his weapon, raised a shaking hand to his head, and lifted the hat off. A black tendril extended from the void and snatched the hat. The rest of the bloodstained clothes levitated off the ground and fluttered around the darkness, each piece closing over the mass at crucial points, forcing it into a humanoid outline. A glove formed over the dark tendril, and Alucard placed the hat back on his freshly-regenerated head.
"Thank you," he said with a degree of gratitude. "Now, did I interrupt you? Go on go back to what you were doing."
"No, I insist," said the vampire, a toothy grin spreading across his face.
The Heavy Weapons Guy watched the vampire carefully as he picked up his weapon. He squealed with fear as he began to turn.
"Go on," said the vampire, with an unhinged cackle. "Don't mind me."
"Nyet! I've had enough-" he turned back to find one of the vampire's pistols between his eyes.
"Were you saying something?" said Alucard.
"I… I…" The Heavy Weapons Guy reluctantly turned back again, stepping toward the corner once more. He looked down, and found the vampire's gloved hand protruding from his chest.
"Gaah," he said, collapsing. Alucard flicked the excess internal organs off of his hand, and drew his pistols, lining them up at the power-armored woman.
"Was all that really necessary?" asked John-117.
"Probably not," said Twilight. "But if it keeps him happy and shooting at the bad guys, I'm not too concerned."
The woman in the power armor did not seem too concerned, either. She casually toyed with a lock of her long, blonde hair.
"I was hoping someone would kill that idiot at some point. I honestly think he was bringing the team down."
"Bringing the team down?" said Alucard. "That's a very arrogant, dangerous thing to say."
"And why's that?" said the woman coolly.
"Because there's one less body for me to go through, before I get to you." A fang stuck out from under his grin.
"Ha! Ha ha ha! Oooh, that is RICH!" she cackled.
Alucard's smile shrank, if only a little.
"Listen, I've got to hand it to you," she laughed. "You're one tough customer. I saw you regenerate back there. That was pretty impressive. But I'm afraid you're not going to beat me. Not today."
Alucard licked his lips, eager for a challenge.
"Because I'm rescheduling. You guys seem to have another appointment," said the woman. With that, she performed a forward somersault, and her armor transformed her into a giant sphere. It revved in place, kicked up dust, and tore out of the square, with only one more comment.
"See you later, SPARTAN!" she called as she rolled away.
"Ms. Sparkle," said the vampire. "Permission to pursue?"
"No, Alucard. You've done enough for now. Good work."
Tris poked the unicorn on the haunches.
"Uh, Twilight? What did she mean by 'another appointment'?"
"I believe," said Alucard, "she was referring to her."
He pointed his gun in the opposite direction from where the power-armored woman had escaped. A girl leaned against a building's wall. She held a lemon, which she took a generous bite of, a little juice dripping onto her charcoal sailor fuku. She didn't bother looking up at the vampire aiming at her.
"That's it. I've had enough of sitting on the sidelines!" shouted Tris, barreling out from behind the wall. She rushed to Alucard's side, and aimed her own pistol at the girl.
"Wait, Tris! This is a bad-" John-117 cut the unicorn off mid-sentence.
"Eh, can't blame her," he said, rushing out to join the other two.
"Oh, you guys! You can't just- uaaaaagh!" growled Twilight, galloping out into the square next to her companions.
The mysterious girl took another bite of lemon, spitting peel on the ground. She let the fruit fall to the ground, and clapped in a mockingly slow tempo.
"Way to go. Way to go," she sneered. "You killed a fat guy with a big gun, and then you let Miss Ghost-of-the-Chozo over there get away. Con-gratu-lations, you are invincible."
"Enough smack talk," said Twilight firmly.
"Enough? Hah! Do you hear that, Senketsu? I'm being ordered around by a freakin' stuffed animal."
"I am not a stuffed animal," hissed Twilight.
"Oh, sure, and she's not a scene wannabe," she said, raising what looked like half of a pair of red scissors at Tris.
"This is how the Dauntless dress! You'll pay for insulting my faction."
"And you! Tin can!" she called, indicating John-117. "I'm pretty sure battle tanks don't need names."
The Master Chief's gravelly voice broke a little.
"I swear, you stop right now."
"Face it," she chuckled. "You're nothing more than a weapon. Why else would they keep you in the armor all the time? Well, maybe it's because you'd be worth less than NOTHING without it."
"Now you've done it!" the SPARTAN growled, raising his assault rifle.
"Say that one more time."
The girl feigned stupidity.
She slowly raised her right hand toward her left glove. From what Twilight could tell, there seemed to be a small bolt-action device on it, just along the wrist.
"You know!" shouted John.
"Oh, you mean, the truth? That you're nothing without you're armor?"
"EAT LEAD!" he screamed, jamming down the assault rifle's trigger. The weapon crackled like the world's largest bonfire, spitting embers of death toward the girl. She simply smiled, and pulled the bolt across her wrist.
A massive pulse of energy surrounded the girl, and she was veiled in bright light. The piercing brightness dissolved into pink sparkles, and then floated away. Several tiny, dented objects fell away from her, clinking as they bounced off the ground. A shocking transformation had occurred. The girl, except for now-glowing highlights, seemed unchanged. But her wardrobe…
"How can you even wear that?" said Tris in disbelief.
"To be completely honest," noted Twilight, "I've been wearing nothing this entire time, and no one has said anything about it."
"Yeah," said Tris, "But that is literally less than nothing."
While Tris, who had a peculiar way with words, was incorrect, her exaggeration was not too far from the truth. What had once been a moderately risqué bared-midriff sailor suit had now become… much less. The skirt had dissolved into almost nothing, the top had dissolved into almost nothing, and where the girl had been wearing a perfectly normal set of sneakers, a pair of impractically high-heeled boot-leggings now graced her legs. Perhaps most dramatically, her collar had extended out into a large, curved crest, the left blade of which seemed to feature a large, yellow eye-like design.
"Life fiber synchronize, Kamui Senketsu!" the girl announced, as two short bursts of steam from who-knows-where punctuated her statement.
"Does it hurt?" said Twilight carefully.
"What? No, it-"
"Do you… like… that it hurts?" finished the unicorn.
The girl was furious.
"Okay, NOW! Now that's enough! I am RYUKO MATOI! I am the STRONGEST of Lord Dio's warriors! That's right! The strongest!"
"Okay," said Twilight. "And what does-"
"AND I!" continued Ryuko, clearly not finished. "Will show YOU! The power of KAMUI SENKETSU!"
So that's what they're calling it these days, thought Twilight Sparkle.
"So, you're bulletproof," said John. "But I'm willing to bet that… whatever won't stop me from snapping your spine in two!"
The SPARTAN charged toward their new opponent, who casually spun the scissor blade in her hand as it expanded into a full-size, scissor-resembling sword. For a brief moment, the girl could be seen reading the blade for a strike. But almost before the attack could begin, it was over.
John-117 stumbled backward, barely able to steady himself. As he regained his footing, a chunk of his armor crashed to the ground.
"What… the-" he stammered.
Another piece fell with a loud clank, and then another, and another, until everything but his helmet and black bodysuit was in pieces on the ground. He sank to his knees in disbelief, futilely grasping at the shards of armor plate.
"Honestly, we may both be nothing without our armor," considered Ryuko. "But I've still got mine. Funny, isn't it?"
"Sure, that attack worked on him," said Tris. "But I haven't got any armor to lose!"
You can't be serious, thought Twilight.
Tris rushed toward the girl, converting her momentum into an axe kick. But before the attack could connect-
The Divergent was sent flying backward, her clothing parting from her as she tumbled from the sky.
"Ms. Sparkle, this is getting rather old," said Alucard.
"Agreed. If you would be so kind, commence level five release."
The vampire stepped forward, and was promptly sliced in half by Ryuko.
"You're next, stuffed animal," growled the girl.
Twilight shook her head.
"I think you've forgotten something," she lilted.
Ryuko remembered when she felt the arms of the regenerating vampire lock underneath hers in a full nelson hold. She screamed with rage, struggling against Alucard with all of her might.
"If she keeps this up, she might escape," strained Alucard.
"Don't worry. I think I have a solution," said Twilight, charging up her magic.
Ryuko twisted her body, snagging the hem of Alucard's coat. Using it as leverage, she spun herself in place, and kicked the vampire in his abdomen, neatly bisecting him.
"Now, I'm going to gut you and use you as a-"
"No," said Twilight. A magical sphere appeared on Ryuko's forehead. She convulsed in place, hissing madly.
"Ah, is this what's making you all touchy?" taunted the unicorn. She drew the object back toward her with as much power as she could muster. It tore itself loose with a spurt of blood. It was a small bud of flesh, with nasty-looking tentacles extending outward from it. Twilight trampled it underhoof, and instantly decided that she wanted to take a bath.
Ryuko fell forward, absorbing the brunt of the fall with her face. Twilight trotted to her travelling companion, who was just finishing regenerating.
"Well done, Mr. Alucard. With this incident alone you've proven your worth."
"I do my best, Ms. Sparkle."
The girl moaned, slowly picking herself up from the ground and cradling her head.
"Woah… that was a doozy," she muttered uneasily.
"It certainly was," confirmed Twilight.
Ryuko looked out at the fallen SPARTAN and the unclothed Tris, sheepishly scratching her hair.
"I guess I-"
"Yes you did." said Alucard.
"Come with us, Ryuko," said Twilight, who turned toward the street they had walked into the square on.
"You've got some explaining to do."
Chapter 5: Laird Of Oll Daemons
Mr. Everdeen slowly eased the arrow off of the bow's string, slipping it back into his quiver.
Dio won't be happy about that one.
He folded his legs, sitting quietly on the mansion's high, castle-like fortifications. Before him stretched a tangled mess of streets and buildings, with the occasional explosion erupting a few blocks away. It wasn't the safest place to be, but he wasn't too concerned. None of the teams were making much headway yet, though that his daughter and her companions had advanced the furthest was a source of a little pride. He heard soft footfalls behind him, and turned to face his team's leader.
"Lord Dio! I was about to inform you that-"
"No need, Mr. Everdeen. I know when I have lost a control bud. Matoi was a strong fighter, but I knew her good nature would get the better of her. With any luck, she'll lead them right to us."
"Rest assured, Mr. Everdeen. This is all going according to plan. Now, can I ask you a favor?"
"Well, of course," said the man, unsure what it would entail.
"I'm going to go on patrol. You will be in charge until I return."
"Are you sure, sir? Me?"
"Absolutely. I trust you more than any of the others. They're pawns, looking for something to smash. You've got some spirit. That's why you don't need a control bud. And I am more than capable of taking care of myself, so backup is unnecessary."
"Well, thank you sir. I will do my best."
"I'm sure you will," said the vampire, leaping over the ramparts.
Mr. Everdeen turned back to his perch, gazing over the roofs.
Well, this certainly is interesting.
"You do realize that we're not really making any progress toward the mansion, right?"
Mikasa gave Holly a cold look over her shoulder.
"Yes. This is something I have to do."
"Whatever," said Holly as the two crossed an intersection. She glanced left and right, and considered the comedy that she was not actually looking for traffic, but some angry cyborg or demon that would try and tear their heads off.
What I wouldn't give for a speeding Spud Emporium delivery truck to run me over…
"Okay, this is it," said the girl. In front of the two stood the remains of a cottage. A sizeable chunk of one of the walls sat in the center.
"That looks like a real bummer," noted Holly.
"The titans broke the wall in when I was just a kid. I guess you could say everything went downhill from there."
"Typical whole-family-gone thing, then?"
"Not really. Still lost my mother though. Second time."
"Never mind. My father was a scientist. He was doing research on titans. The majority of his work was left in the basement. If I can retrieve that information, when I win this thing I can go back with that knowledge. I could save a lot of lives."
"So in order for any of this little excursion to have any value at all, you have to win?"
"Hmph," grunted Holly as the two arrived at the ruined house's caved-in roof. The debris had fallen in such a way as to collapse the roof directly down on top of the foundations, leaving nothing that resembled a house at all. All that was left was a pile of rubble.
Mikasa carefully treaded toward the center of the mess, digging through shingles and straw insulation. With a heave, she pulled a plank aside.
"There. I think that's all the better I can do."
Holly examined the hole she had carved out. Underneath the wooden floorboards was a dark space, so she had clearly found the basement. But as she watched the girl attempt to lower herself through the opening, she felt her stomach churn with dread.
"Oh," said Mikasa, stuck thigh-deep in the rubble. "I'm not going to fit."
"Oh, fine," sighed Holly. "Never send a Mud Man to do a fairy's job."
Mikasa pulled herself out and snapped her 3DMG back on.
"Well, if you're going to do it… I'll stand guard. But be specific about what you see!"
"Yeah, yeah," said Holly, who lowered herself slowly and deliberately into the dark basement. She hung on to the plank that Mikasa had pulled aside and carefully observed her surroundings. There was no light except for the sliver that shone down from the opening she was clinging to. In the corner was a set of wooden stairs. With a methodically-timed swing, she tossed herself onto the top step, and slowly worked her way down to the floor.
"What do you see?" shouted the girl above.
"Nothing," reported the elf. "It's too dark."
Holly flicked a finger past her helmet's heads-up display switch. The small pane of glass lowered in front of her eyes.
"Night vision should help, though."
Holly paused for a moment.
Hmm. It should have recognized the vocal command. What's up with the lag?
She reached up and placed a finger on the display, only to find nothing but a sharp ridge of shattered plasti-glass.
"Well, isn't this wonderful," she groaned.
I guess I'll have to bring items toward the light individually and examine them there.
Holly began to walk toward the aperture when a sudden dull thud rippled through the ground. For a moment, she could hear a scream from Mikasa. Then, the precious beam of light was snuffed out by shifted debris.
"D'Arvit!" she cursed, rushing in the direction she had come from. Again, the earth moved. This time, more violently. The floor buckled, and Holly heard metal clatter to the floor behind her. To her left, the sound of wooden furniture snapping. She was suddenly pinned to the ground by a large, heavy object, its contents- which felt like papers, books, and metal devices- fell around her. She was blind and being attacked on all sides.
She shoved the furniture away furiously, hearing glass smash in the corner of the room. She pressed forward, eventually feeling the bottom of the stairs under her hand. Bracing her back against the wall, she loped up the flight until the precious ceiling could be felt on the back of her head. He pressed her hands against the boards and shoved, miraculously knocking a few aside. Holly pulled herself upward into the light, finding herself once more in the ruins of the house. Mikasa lay unconscious on the ground.
"What in Frond's name-"
The bright light caught Holly's attention. A massive, unnatural inferno blazed across the street. The flames shifted almost rhythmically, ebbing and flowing between colors Holly had no name for. The fire filled a shallow crater, licking the street where it was still intact. At the center of the fire stood a solitary figure.
"Your friend there didn't put up much of a fight, elf," said the figure. The voice was certainly female, and Holly detected a slight Scottish twang.
"And I assume you want me to give you a better run for your money?" replied Holly, placing a hand on her holstered Neutrino.
"Clever lass," said the figure, which raised a hand elegantly, and performed an extra-loud snap. The flames dissipated, and she climbed out of the crater to stand in front of her new opponent. It was a woman, absurdly curvaceous, unnaturally youthful, and with a wardrobe that seemed physically impossible. Long green hair flowed over her shoulders, neatly matching her glimmering emerald eyes. Unusually, a pair of batlike wings emerged from her lower back, and another, smaller set poked out from under her verdant locks like antennae.
"You've got something on your face," she observed.
Was I staring? I think I was staring, thought Holly as she lifted a hand to her face. Her fingers ran over some sharp fragments of glass imbedded in her cheeks, which was enough to temporarily distract her from the woman. She plucked them out quickly and returned her attention to the nigh-obscene beauty in front of her.
"If you're finding yourself attracted to me," she said, "I assure you that is normal. It happens to everyone."
"Oh, good… because I… you… wow," Holly mumbled, unable to control herself.
"But I made it clear that I'm here for a physical encounter of the less pleasant sort."
"R-Right! Yeah! A fight! That's what we're here for! Yes!"
"Though I doubt a pint-sized leprechaun is going to put up any semblance of a decent scuffle," she added.
"Hey! We in the Recon division take our job very seriously! And I'm not from Ireland, they owe us the accent!" Holly was slightly annoyed.
"How about I beat the tar out of you, and then we just skip the pot 'o gold and give me my wishes?"
"I don't think that's how it-" She had moved on to highly annoyed.
"Or perhaps you need to get sozzled before you can throw a proper punch?"
"I have better things to do with my time than take insults from a Scotch prostitute with an affinity for winged mammals," fumed Holly.
"How DARE ye insult the name of Morrigan Aensland, rightful laird of oll daemons! Fer suchlike an offense, I will personally smite ye as the shepherd slits the throat-"
"For Frond's sake," shouted Holly. "You were going to do that anyway!"
She fired three shots from her Neutrino, all of which were placed perfectly. Morrigan simply shrugged off the blasts, examining her nails.
"Is that gaen t'be most of ye routine?"
"Maaaybe," said Holly, in the process of plotting alternate strategies.
"Shadow Blade!" called Morrigan, driving an uppercut into the elf's chin. Without much weight to resist, Holly was knocked skyward. The succubus extended an arm toward the airborne elf, bracing it with her other.
"Soul Fist!" she shouted, which Holly began to understand meant that bodily harm was about to be inflicted. A bright, bat-shaped (Of course, she thought) ki blast fluttered away from Morrigan's extended hand with terrifying speed, exploding against Holly with concussive force. The elf arced even higher into the air, attempting to control her ascent as to keep a watchful eye on her opponent. She convinced herself this was to predict her next attack, though she wasn't entirely sure. She activated her mechanical wings, returning to stability by hovering in place.
"Neat trick, leprechaun. But ey've got the same wee card en meh sleeve."
The larger of her two sets of wings began to stretch and contort. Within the span of a second they had metamorphosed into two sleek intakes, equipped with cantilevered winglets and thrust-vectored outlets.
"Are those jet engi-"
"Yes," said Morrigan, suddenly at Holly's altitude. A sweeping kick sent the elf spiraling backward, recovering in time to evade another kick.
"Then I'm sorry to tell you that fairy wings are far more efficient than jet engines," snapped Holly, unleashing a barrage of rapid punches before turning and speeding away. Her wings buzzed furiously as she dove low over the rooftops. A telltale whine gave her notice as the succubus pulled up on her left.
"Aye, but these are demon jet engines," chuckled Morrigan.
Holly rolled to the right, peppering the demon with Neutrino fire. She managed to take the shots with only the slightest of flinches.
"D'Arvit, you just don't give up, do you?!"
Morrigan simply grinned. Holly checked her own flight path, veering to the right in time to dodge a church steeple. She heard the sickening impact as Morrigan collided with the structure. The stained glass shattered under the force, and the steeple itself developed a strong list.
There's no way that stopped her, thought Holly, cautiously hovering a fair distance from the church. True to form, the steeple exploded as the demon ripped through the other side, her jet engines sputtering and catching on maximum burn as she dove toward the elf again.
Holly resumed her flight, confident that she could run Morrigan into some other obstacle enough times to slow her down and make an escape. Until a Soul Fist bat flew past her nose and exploded. The elf was knocked out of control, and had nearly recovered when another hit her in the gut. She dropped hard onto the rooftop below, shattering shingles under the landing.
"Okay, good shot. But why don't you come down here and fight me mano-a-mano?"
Morrigan hovered above the rooftops across the street, her jets singeing the structures below her in the backwash.
"Normally I'd say no, elf. But this is jest too satisfyin'. Ey'd think feelin' up yer skull with my knuckles mey jest be more fun."
That's it. Take the bait.
Morrigan charged forward, her jets kicking into full burn, and was promptly snagged by the titan that had wandered down the street. It regarded her with the same dull eyes they regarded anything with, slowly drawing its new prize toward its gaping mouth.
"Looks like your charms have no effect on them, Morrigan," grunted the elf.
An evil grin spread across the succubus' face.
"But what about my missiles?"
Missiles? thought Holly, more than a little distraught.
Morrigan wiggled in the titan's grasp, working her way further into the creature's massive hand. The titan's hand was nearly to its mouth when a muffled thud and a dim light could be seen under the pallid, flabby skin. The titan instantly threw Morrigan to the ground, steam rising from a gory wound in its palm. Morrigan landed carefully, flexing the long, black tendrils that had replaced her jet engines. Each one was tipped with a distinct, conical section.
"Finishing Shower!" she screamed, and a volley of unnatural guided munitions launched themselves from the briar-like tangle extending from her back. The missiles tore chunks of flesh off of the titan's bones, caving in its head and ruining its limbs. Morrigan wiped her hands off as the giant tumbled onto a row of houses, laying still and smoldering. She returned her attention to Holly.
What had once been bat wings changed again, folding themselves over her left arm into what could best be described as an overly-long glove, long enough to snatch Holly from the rooftop and send her crashing to the street below. The glove collapsed back into wings, and Morrigan folded her arms over her chest.
"What a shame. I was having quite a wee bit of fun there. It's not often I get to exert myself like this," said the succubus with selective emphasis.
Holly lifted herself off of the ground, clutching her right arm. It was definitely broken, but her magic was already at work fixing it. From what she could tell, the bone had already set and was about halfway healed.
Guess I'm running hot. That's a good thing.
"Can I ask you a question?" strained the elf.
"Make it meaningful," oiled Morrigan.
"How are you at multitasking?"
"What a naughty thing to-"
Like oversized leaves, the wings floated lazily to the ground. Morrigan's eyes widened in fear and pain as she reached behind her waist to find bloody stubs where her multi-purpose appendages used to sit. Vaguely word-like noises escaped her mouth erratically as she stumbled to a sitting position. Mikasa flicked her blade, casting the blood onto the ground.
"Fancy meeting you here," said the elf dryly. She rotated and flexed her arm. All seemed functional.
"I came to about a couple seconds before you took off. It wasn't difficult following you."
"You know, I didn't find anything in the basement."
"It's okay, Holly. For all we know, it could have been a bunch of rubbish anyway."
"You cut off… mah bloody wings," moaned Morrigan.
"You broke my arm," replied Holly.
"And ruined my house. More," added Mikasa.
The succubus rose to her feet, her head lowered, glaring up at Holly through the veil of her emerald hair.
"To answer yer question, I'm bloody fantastic."
A pulse of light erupted from the wounded demon, briefly blinding her opponents. When it subsided, Holly and Mikasa noticed that there were now two succubi. The newcomer was nearly identical to Morrigan, though possessing much shorter hair and a much more realistically-shaped body. The only other visible difference between the two was that the new demon's attire was red.
"Oh, Morri! What did you do?!" she exclaimed, looking at Morrigan's wounds.
"I didn't do anything. They did," she replied, flailing an arm at Holly and then at Mikasa.
"You guuuys, you can't just go around hurting people like that! That's mean!" whined the second succubus innocently.
"You're kidding me, right?" said Holly to Morrigan.
"Hey! I'm no kid!" exclaimed the newcomer, stamping her foot. "I'm a young lady! I'm at least TEN YEARS OLD! Is that right, Morri?"
"This is why I don't let you out much, Lilith," grunted Morrigan.
Mikasa drew her second sword, performing a dramatic flourish with a roll of her wrist.
"Come on. I'll snip your wings, too."
"That's fine," chirped Lilith. "But no tagbacks!"
Lilith rushed at Mikasa, who ducked underneath a high punch and countered with a leg sweep. The younger succubus quickly became acquainted with the street, barely rolling out of the way to dodge a two-sword stab. She flipped to her feet.
"Silly me. I must have tripped on something back there."
Is it really possible for someone to be so stupid? Thought Mikasa, before getting punched through a window across the street. Lilith skipped over to her opponent, peeking through the shattered glass.
"Oh, I'm sorry! Do you think you broke anything?"
Holly sidestepped another Soul Fist, the energy-bat exploding harmlessly against a building behind her.
"Wow, Morrigan. You seem a little stressed," said Holly with more than a tinge of sarcasm.
"Aye. Y'don't s'pose it has anything to do with mah bloody wings bein' gone?!"
Holly swung her body in place, landing a roundhouse kick and staggering the succubus.
"I'm sensing a lot of pent-up aggression. We need to talk this through."
"Like hell we do!" snarled Morrigan, rolling into another Shadow Blade. Holly stepped backwards in time for the jumping uppercut to miss completely. Upon Morrigan's landing, the succubus was greeted by a nasty haymaker.
"Let's start with your childhood," suggested the elf.
Mikasa scrambled to her feet, stunning Lilith with a strike from her sword's grip. She followed up with a powerful gut kick, knocking the succubus back out into the open street. Lilith dusted herself off and smiled. The scout flicked the triggers on her swords, sending the 3D Maneuver Gear's anchors into the building across the street. Lilith knelt down by a cable, examining it closely.
"Oooh. What do these do?"
Mikasa ran forward and flicked another trigger, retracting herself toward the anchors. She extended her feet at the last second, pinning Lilith to the building's wall with an enhanced dropkick. She kicked away from the way and landed with an elegant flip, retracting the remaining cables. Lilith moaned softly.
"Thaaat's what they do."
Holly glimpsed Mikasa's brutal attack, and returned her focus to Morrigan.
"Looks like we're doing better," she noted. "Wouldn't have anything to do with summoning that friend of yours, would it?"
"Na! That'd be-"
Lilith crashed through the building across the street again, the roof caving in after taking so much damage. Mikasa charged back after her opponent, preparing to attack again.
"Ridiculous?" finished the Holly, shooting Morrigan in the face. The succubus hit the ground hard, wincing as she examined her new wound.
"That wouldn't have hurt you before," explained Holly. "But whatever you did to make Lilith has drained a lot of your power. In fact, I'm willing to bet you could have regenerated those wings if you didn't summon her."
"Ey… Ey was…"
"Afraid? That's what I figured. You hid your lack of self-confidence under a mask of bravado. If you had believed in yourself, and fought Mikasa and I alone, you might have won."
"Yeah, probably. Either that, or I'm just that good. But I'm betting on the latter."
Lilith popped out of the rubble, bruised and bleeding, and rushed to the side of Morrigan. In a flash of light, she disappeared, and only the first succubus remained. She stood, extending a hand.
"Well, then. It was an absolute pleasure fighting you. I only hope we meet again sometime, Miss…?"
"Short. Holly Short."
"Holly Short, I will not be so… gentle next time. I might even have to use the Glasgow Guzzl-"
Morrigan's sentence was cut off by her head exploding, which is generally quite the inconvenience for coherent speech. Her body fell limply to the ground. Holly, stunned, turned to face the shooter.
Orange sunglasses peered out underneath the shadow of a broad hat, a cruel smile shining through the darkness. A massive pistol held by a wiry gloved hand, attached to a flowing red coat.
"Send my regards to Maximoff," the man oozed.
Twilight Sparkle stepped out from behind the man, looking far sterner than she usually did.
"Holly," she said with restraint. "I need to have a word with you."
Mikasa sprinted to Holly's side, brandishing her swords.
"Hey! What are you trying to pull?"
The man reached into his coat and retrieved another pistol, aiming it squarely between Mikasa's eyes.
"Do not interfere," he warned, his voice retaining an eerie calm.
"Mikasa," said Holly, not letting her gaze waver from the red-clad man. "Run."
For a moment, she hesitated- but another second looking at the man's terrifying smile convinced her otherwise. She turned and swung away, disappearing into the next city block over. Holly quietly set down her weapon and raised her hands.
"Listen, Holly. I'm sorry to have to do this," said Twilight, trotting to the elf. "But you need help. I want you to help me, help you. Is that okay?"
"Spit it out, Twi. What are you playing at?"
"Not so fast. I'm going to explain what's going on right now first. This is Alucard," she said, tilting her head toward the red-coated man, whose pistols were now levelled at her.
"He's here to make sure I don't get hurt, and that you don't hurt yourself."
"Yes. So much safety with those hand-cannons around."
"Alucard is a vampire," explained Twilight. "Don't bother trying to attack him. You will not be successful."
The unicorn came to a stop next to Holly, kicking her Neutrino along the ground. A girl clad in a black sailor suit tossed the weapon into the air with her foot, catching it deftly in one hand.
"And that is Ryuko. She's here to make sure that Alucard doesn't get hurt."
"'S she a vampire, too?"
"No. Her uniform is."
The girl drew what appeared to be one half of a scissor from her pocket, twirling it as it expanded into an oversized blade. She rested the blunt end of the red hunk of metal on her shoulder, scowling at Holly.
"Now, to tell you what we're here for," continued Twilight. "I have to ask you what you saw in the room."
"The room?" said Holly, feeling unnaturally nervous. "What room?"
"You know very well, Holly. What did you see?"
How does she know?
"This is silly, Twilight. The only rooms I've seen were mine, and Katniss'. And the commons, if you want to count-"
"Stop lying, police elf," said Alucard. He seemed to really enjoy saying 'police elf'. Holly found it even more disturbing. She decided it was time to confess.
"It… it was dark. There was a voice. It sounded terrible. It felt terrible. I… I felt like I had heard it before."
"Holly, there are a few things I can't tell you. Not yet," said the unicorn grimly. "What I can tell you for certain is this: That room does not exist."
"But I walked into it myself. I was there."
"You're a cop, Holly. Have you ever dealt with a mail bomber?"
"What does that have to do with-"
"Why do they use thick envelopes?"
"…So you can't see what's inside. Or to keep poison contained. I still don't see what you're getting at."
"Holly. You're the envelope."
She still could not quite grasp what Twilight Sparkle was implying, but terror began to close in over her, swallowing her subconscious. The puddle of fear she had been standing in was becoming much deeper.
"I was trying to be vague to help you out. I'm afraid that when I tell you this, you're not going to feel well. When the Master of Games brought you here, he put something else inside of you. Something he wanted to keep safe, something he wanted to contain. He could've used anyone, really. But you're the one who picked it up."
Holly felt a sharp pain at the back of her head. Her ears were ringing, but not the usual, high-pitched whine. It was as if she was inside a multitude of church bells, sounding slowly, drawn out unnaturally. She fell to her knees, holding her head in agony.
"Once it started telling you to do things," said Twilight, "we had to step in. I need you to, for lack of a better term, be yourself. Why, I'll have to explain later. But for now, we need to get it out."
Holly had devolved to howling in pain, beating her fists bloody on the ground. Twilight gave a nod to both of her followers. Alucard phased into the ground, his arms slipping up around Holly's, pinning her to the ground. Ryuko snapped the bolt on her glove, and her outfit pulled itself taut around her, transforming into its battle mode.
"Now, all physiological changes undergone in the arenas are reverted after the round ends… so doing this, which should be permanent, is going to take a lot of magic. Bear with me, Holly."
Holly thrashed and struggled on the ground as the unicorn began to glow with an aura of lavender energy. The terrible sound in her head was changing. The chaos was forming itself into words. Since her mouth was too busy screaming in pain, only her subconscious was left to scream in fear at what it said.
Chapter 6: Doppelganger/ Universal Ninjutsu
With great effort, she opened her eyes. Her entire body felt sore and stiff.
Lactic acid. I was struggling for a while.
Twilight Sparkle and her allies stood over her. Twilight was looking particularly apologetic.
"Good to see that you're awake. I'm really sorry, Holly. You have to believe me," she whispered.
"Kind of too late to tell me I have to believe you," grunted the elf, rising to her feet.
"Are you… feeling all right?" asked Twilight.
"Better than I was. Just a little sick to my stomach."
"It'll probably go away," assured the unicorn.
"Well, now that… whatever that was is taken care of, I need to go."
"Need to go? Where?"
"I need to find Katniss. I need to apologize."
"Couldn't that wait until after the round?" said Alucard.
"No. I need to make sure she's okay, to make it up to her."
"Well, if you're going to go," said Ryuko, "you need to know about Dio."
"Dio? As in, the band, or the artist?"
"This Dio is a powerful vampire, and he's leading the Master's team. I was part of his new blood, he had me brainwashed. The other new-" Holly was raising her hand.
"…What?" sighed Ryuko.
"So, he's a vampire," Holly said, indicating Alucard, "Your sailor suit is a vampire, and this head honcho is a vampire? You know, you could have told me earlier, and I would have brought wooden stakes and garlic."
"While very interesting, I fail to find this relevant." Said Twilight, who motioned to Ryuko to continue.
"Anyway, you need to steer clear of him. He's incredibly strong, and can regenerate almost as fast as Alucard here. Plus, he can fire beams out of his eyes, and… well, I don't know what to call it. He can... make things happen. Just be careful."
"Okay, fine. I'll keep away from any vampires named Dio. Anything else?"
"Nothing as far as I know," said Twilight. "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Yes. I made a vow to take care of Katniss, and that's exactl… ugh…" she groaned, clutching her stomach.
While Twilight and Ryuko closed in to find out what was wrong with their friend, Alucard took a step back, drawing his pistols. Twilight gave him a bewildered look.
"What are you doing?"
"The smart thing," he said, taking aim at the elf.
Holly doubled over, heaving. Having watched many horror movies in her day, she was at least a little relieved that she was feeling what was distinctly reverse peristalsis, and not something gouging its way out of her. She vomited up a thin, black liquid, which pooled in the cracks of the cobblestone below her. Thankfully, it didn't taste like much of anything.
"Oh, gross," said Ryuko and Twilight nearly simultaneously. Alucard merely shifted his aim toward the puddle. Holly stared down at the stuff intently, until it zipped away, running along the spaces between the stones and forming itself into another puddle on the far side of the street.
"That's… not good," whispered Twilight.
The puddle slowly began to take shape, rising up off the ground. Two trickling streams formed themselves into supporting limbs, and as the top of the geyser got broader, another two formed manipulating devices. The top bubbled into a distinctly round shape, and slowly, the liquid stopped looking like liquid at all.
"Really not good," reiterated Twilight.
A small, gracile hand reached up and swept a lock of hair out of its wide, almond-shaped eyes. It then examined the hand for a while, wiggling the slender fingers, touching its dainty nose and small chin. It looked down at its body, craning its neck to get a better view.
"D'Arvit," cursed Holly. "It's me."
Indeed, the creature that now stood before them was a near facsimile of the LEPrecon officer, down to the haircut. Quite distinctly, it was devoid of any of the elf's lively fairy color. Its skin, its clothes and its hair were all a flat gray. Except for the eyes, which seemed to be a color beyond comprehension, constantly shifting between unrecognizable hues.
"How interesting," it said softly.
Alucard fired at the creature, with his typical accuracy. The creature merely raised a hand, and the bullet tumbled to the ground, flattened.
"I wouldn't do that again, if I were you."
Alucard slowly put his weapons away.
"Now, I could take any form I wanted," it said. "But this does have a certain novelty to it, doesn't it?"
"What in Frond's name are you?" asked Holly, keeping her voice low to avoid incurring her doppelganger's wrath.
"Come on, we went over this. I'm the bomb," it said in Twilight's voice.
"Twilight, you don't have a spell that can kill that thing, do you?" asked Ryuko, panicked.
"No… I-I don't."
"Relax," it said, walking away. "I'm not here for you anyway. I'm not here for any of you. My business is elsewhere."
And with those words, it vanished.
"Well, I'm feeling a lot better now," said Holly, who activated her wings and took off at maximum speed.
"What the hell just happened?" growled Ryuko.
Twilight scratched her mane with a hoof.
"I have no idea. But that's not the only thing."
Oh, great, thought Ryuko.
"Alucard, did you notice anything odd about Holly, even after… that?"
"The police elf did… smell odd."
"I was getting weird biometric readings as I was doing the spell, too. It's probably just some side effects of… that."
"Yes, let's leave it at that! Don't bother explaining to me!" screamed Ryuko.
"Ryuko, I know that negativity is providing you with some sort of emotional high, but I don't have time for such dramatics."
"Oh, one of these days…" she fumed as the group set off toward the center of town.
With a mighty slam, the jumpsuited young man hit the ground. This time, he didn't get back up. Adam walked back to his comrade, who sat against a building cleaning her weapon.
"Another one bites the dust!" chirped Ruby, loading another magazine into Crescent Rose.
Katniss vaulted herself over the roof and landed with a momentum-transferring roll, examining the body and removing a few arrows from the tattered jumpsuit.
"You know, you're not really much of a ninja if you wear such bright colors, and shout out the names of your attacks all of the time," Continued the girl, collapsing her weapon into its more compact form.
"Perhaps being a ninja is a more subjective concept," offered Adam. "Like a way of life."
"But if it was a way of life, why wouldn't everybody be ninjas?"
Katniss wiped off the arrows and slipped them back into her quiver.
"Because if everyone was a ninja, no one would be," she said flatly.
Ruby's eyes grew wide with amazement.
"Whoa. That's deep."
For a moment, the team stood silent, appreciating the profound wisdom on the concept of universal ninjutsu.
"We had better get moving," said Adam, breaking the quiet.
Ruby hopped to her feet.
"That's right. We're pretty close now, aren't we?"
"Adam, could you give me a boost back up?" asked Katniss. The huge man picked the girl up in one hand, lightly tossing her back onto the roof she had been perched on during the fight. Katniss found purchase on the shingles and pulled herself to her feet, examining the view from the rooftop. Only a block away stood the "mansion". It was quite the misnomer, as the sole governmental building was really more of a fortress. High ramparts rose over the other buildings, adorned by Spartan turrets. It didn't convey any sort of opulence at all, at least from the outside.
"Yes," she confirmed. "Very close."
"We brought Katniss on as a more technical member of the team," said Adam. "Since Ruby and I cover the 'brute-force' aspects of speed and power, I've developed a strategy that will allow us to capitalize on our individual strengths."
"I'm all ears," called Katniss, sitting on the rooftop's edge.
"The plan is very basic. If another team is occupying the mansion, which I have no doubt is the case, they will most likely have a majority of their forces defending the front gate. If Ruby and I attack there, we can probably draw out another section of their team. This would leave the interior lightly guarded at best. If you were to infiltrate by climbing over the ramparts, there would be little resistance for you to capture the building from the inside out."
"It sounds reasonable, I guess. Ruby, what do you think?"
"I just want a chance to use this new catchphrase I was working on," she replied.
"Then I think we're ready," said Katniss.
"Good. Then let us commence the operation." Adam swept Ruby into his arms and tossed her onto his shoulders. She wiggled her arms in an attempt to maintain balance.
"OK, then!" she giggled. "Let's go RAKE some leaves!"
Katniss gave her a blank stare. Adam turned his head to look at the girl perched on his back.
"I don't get it," he said softly.
"It's our team name! Ruby, Adam, and Katniss Everdeen! Because it's spelled with a 'K' and an 'E'! RAKE, like the garden-"
"I get it," said Katniss. "It's just not funny."
"It's not supposed to be funny," whined Ruby.
"It's not intimidating either."
"Fine. You come up with a better one."
Katniss shrugged and took off over the rooftops. The roofs were all packed so close together that it was almost child's play to dart along on top of them. She turned left, planning to circle toward the mansion's south side. She had noticed a small outer building to the structure that seemed to have been a late addition, an armory, perhaps. It was shorter than the ramparts it edged up against, but taller than the civilian buildings that surrounded it.
I guess I'm not that good with team names, either.
She leapt onto the next building and continued to pick up speed, launching from rooftop to rooftop, closing in on the armory. She was close. Three roofs, two, one. A narrow alley separated the building she stood on from the armory. It was a comparatively easy jump. Katniss took a few steps back, ran forward, and jumped upward, her fingers locking over the edge of the armory's roof.
Good. Now to swing myself up.
She rocked her legs to the left, and then to the right, her foot gaining purchase on the roof. Katniss pulled herself up, and rolled onto the roof of the armory. She was greeted by a high heel to the face. Instinctually, she contorted her body the other way- only to fall off the roof.
That was going just a little too well, wasn't it?
With a desperate grab, Katniss managed to snag the corner of a window to slow her descent. She let go and fell to her feet, wincing against the pain of impact. She slipped her bow into her hand and strung an arrow, scanning above for her attacker.
With a well-executed somersault, her assailant landed in front of her. It was an unusual amount of athleticism for someone dressed so formally. A well-tailored suit and medium-length skirt didn't seem at home on the battlefield. Neither did the small nametag that read "Janice Starling, CEO".
"A… businesswoman? What?" Katniss was a little bewildered.
"Sorry, do you have a problem with that?" she said. Katniss detected something off about her. She had the voice of an adult, but certainly looked a lot younger. Far too young, in fact.
Plastic surgeries? Probably.
"No, no problems. I've got no issues with killing whoever gets in my way. I just expected some sort of swordfighter, alien, or undead creature."
"Oh, don't worry, Katniss. I'm far worse than those." Her grin certainly was worrying.
"You know my name?"
"Of course. Lord Dio made sure we got ahold of some recommended reading."
Oh. Of course she has.
"Lord Dio… is he a friend of yours?"
"He's the leader of our team, yes. And if I recall correctly, he's beating the life out of your little buddies right now. If you ran, you could probably make it to them on time, to beg for mercy."
"But you won't let it be so easy, will you?"
"Oh, you're smart. Your father wasn't kidding about you."
Katniss felt her hands involuntarily clench around her weapons far more tightly than normal. She raised her bow at the woman.
"Hit a sore spot there? Excellent," she oiled, raising her hands into what seemed to be a poorly-formed karate stance.
She's clearly no martial artist, unless she's hustling.
Katniss released her grip on the arrow, the projectile ripping through the woman's thigh. She screamed like she had hardly felt pain before, falling to the ground and desperately trying to pull it out.
"Sorry, ma'am. I need to keep moving. Maybe you can crawl back to Lord Dio and tell him to get better team members. I'm not sure what he was thinking when he-"
The woman wasn't screaming anymore. In fact, she was now laughing, albeit through gritted teeth. She wrenched the arrow out of her leg and stood, with some effort.
"I was looking forward to fighting you, Everdeen," her smile unnerving for someone in such pain. Katniss took a cautious step back.
"I… I just put an arrow through your leg. Don't tell me that you're not human."
"Katniss, are you familiar with the story of the Fountain of Youth?"
"Yeah… did you find it or something?"
The woman's head jerked violently to one side, her gaze remaining fixed on the girl.
"Not quite. Of course, a real Fountain of Youth is just a fairy tale, but with a little ingenuity, you can derive similar results from nature."
"I don't like where this is going," whimpered Katniss.
"No, you don't." she confirmed, accentuated by more erratic movements. Something squelched, something else made stretching sounds.
"What… are you doing?"
"I find it very interesting," grunted the woman, as she tumbled onto the ground. She caught herself with her hands, heaving with every breath. "That you have had traumatic experiences…"
Katniss saw something shift under her clothing. The woman tossed away her suit jacket, and pulled her shirt off. Two huge, transparent wings erupted out of her back.
Her body writhed under the changes, her human skin rapidly swallowed by chitinous exoskeleton. Segments spread over her limbs as they thinned into clawed appendages. Mandibles clicked together below soulless compound eyes while antennae twitched back and forth, feeling and smelling and hearing simultaneously. The terror that had replaced the seemingly harmless woman was far more wasp than human. A comparatively delicate looking female torso was the only clue remaining as to what the creature had been, as some soft, pink flesh still peeked out from underneath the insect's armor. Four murderous-looking legs supported her weight, while the woman's arms hung limply at her sides, twisted into armored claws. A massive abdomen trailed behind the creature, tipped with a foot-long stinger.
Katniss found herself struggling to find words as her mind raced between fear and disgust, staggering backward down the alley. At first, she was relieved that it stayed still… until she felt a wall behind her back. The creature tilted its head, almost as if it was regarding a child asking it a stupid question.
Condescending… it thinks it is better than me. She's still in there somewhere, pulling the strings. It's not some dumb animal. I need to see what it can do before I can plan out a strategy.
Katniss strung another arrow, letting herself slip to the fight side of fight-or-flight. She fired, and as she expected, the tip could not pierce the thick, insectoid armor. The creature began to advance, its stilt-like legs scraping across the stones.
"Man, Janice, is it a bad day to be you," said Katniss quietly.
The creature stopped, and made a few clicking noises that Katniss interpreted as "Why?"
"Because if I can't shoot through that armor of yours, I'll just have to squish you," she finished, popping her knuckles and slipping her bow over her shoulder. She wrung out her arms and crossed them over her body, bouncing on her toes. Janice's wings buzzed to life, propelling the giant wasp down the alley. Katniss ducked under the creature as it slammed into the wall behind her, and flowed directly into a leg sweep, knocking the wasp's two left legs out from under it. She rolled to the right as the insect lost its footing, smacking into the alley's left wall.
If I keep this up, it'll practically kill itself.
The creature scrabbled for purchase to right itself, but its small, more-human arms weren't large enough to support the weight of its own lower body. Katniss took advantage of such vulnerability by placing a foot on its exposed thorax and shoving as hard as she could. The exoskeleton buckled underneath the force, and Janice let out a shrill wail that was all too human. Enraged, it swung its body to the right, managing to slip its legs back beneath itself.
Katniss ducked into the creature's blind spot, kneeling just next to its abdomen. Janice swung her head around, her compound eyes glittering in the dark. Katniss leapt into the air, swinging her foot outward.
Her heel gutted one of the glistening eyes, and the wasp raised a hand to its face as it howled in pain. Katniss slipped her bow back into her hand, notching an arrow into place. She aimed for the space between the creature's fingers, where she could get a shot into its nervous tissue. She levelled the bow, took a controlled breath, and felt something tear into her stomach. She looked down at the stinger impaling her.
"Oh," she gasped, and fell onto her back.
The wasp creature slowly advanced to her fallen foe, still holding her wounded eye. Katniss tried to get up, but it seemed that her arms and legs were frozen in place. For the wasted effort, she was rewarded by coughing up a thin stream of blood.
It paralyzed me. I can't get away.
The edges of her vision darkened as she watched Janice's segmented free arm reach toward her neck. Katniss let her eyes close, considering whether or not she was going to be eaten, or just mauled to death. She exhaled slowly, as her vision filled with fluttering blue sparks. At least she would see something pretty before she died.
Wait. Those aren't a hallucination.
The sparks congealed in a flash of blue light, and a young man suddenly stood between Katniss and the wasp. Janice scuttled backward in surprise. Similar to her pre-transformation, he was clothed in formal attire, with an exceptionally-well tailored black suit. He also donned a pair of dark, reflective sunglasses. The only thing about his outfit that seemed out of place was a silver cuff unceremoniously clipped over his suit's left arm.
"Excuse me, madam," he said with a lilt in his voice. Katniss thought the accent sounded familiar, almost like Holly's.
"I am afraid you will have to leave the girl alone."
Janice twisted her wounded, bleeding head in defiance.
"I think you'll find it in your best interest to cooperate, Starling." He tapped something on the cuff, and in another flash of blue sparks, a hulking bald man, dressed in similar garb, appeared behind him.
"Butler here has a dartgun equipped with a variety of serums prepared specifically for this situation. He has one that will turn you back into a human; this will cause you to die of blood loss from your wound. He has another that will turn you into something more awful, but the explosive growth of new tissue will leave you completely immobile."
Janice hissed angrily, fluttering her wings.
"If you would like to make things more difficult, he is also armed with three pistols, a garrote, two combat knives, a nunchaku, and a custom-built oversized Neutrino blaster. That's not counting the ways he can kill you with his bare hands, which I calculate to be exponentially more than a normal human thanks to all of those extra limbs."
The wasp rushed toward the duo, bending its abdomen ahead of it and brandishing the stinger as a battering ram. The young man sidestepped the attack, while his colossal servant threw an overhead punch powerful enough that it stopped the creature in its tracks when it connected with her chest. The exoskeleton snapped and buckled, thick yellow blood oozing from the ruined armor. Janice was stunned by the attack, clutching her new wound as she wailed in agony.
The huge man chained together a cannonade of strikes, each one smashing through the insect's armor and punctuated by a battle cry.
When he finished, Janice was a spiny, bloody mess. Her limbs twitched helplessly at her sides, their own armored skin now inhibiting their movement. Butler turned to his charge.
"If you please," said the young man. With what seemed like very little effort, Butler tore off Janice's head, tossing it aside. The two walked to Katniss' fallen body, kneeling at her side. The young man drew a small flashlight, shining it in the girl's eyes.
"Good. It hasn't gotten to her nervous system. Butler, inject her with the anti-venom. I'll apply the medkit."
Katniss felt something slip under the skin of her arm, and slowly feeling returned to her body. Unfortunately, the feeling was pain. She tensed up, struggling to sit up. The young man pushed her back down.
"Don't try anything yet," he said firmly. "You've still got quite the hole in your stomach."
He pressed something up against her wound, and the deep, gouging pain began to subside. Katniss caught a glimpse of blue sparks fluttering across her stomach.
"M...magic?" she stuttered.
"Yes. That's a fairy medkit. Concentrated warlock magic, stored in crystals with a crush-activated trigger. Looks like it's about done stitching you up."
Katniss cautiously placed a hand on the injury, finding only a scar left behind.
"A fairy medkit? Like-"
"Holly? Yes," he chuckled, removing his sunglasses and tucking them inside his jacket. One of his eyes was a pale blue, the other a bright hazel. Katniss had seen those eyes before.
"Nice to meet you, Katniss Everdeen. My name is Artemis Fowl." He extended a hand, and helped the girl to her feet.
"So… you know Holly?"
"That's right. Holly and I are good friends. And that's what I heard about you, too."
Katniss didn't really appreciate being talked to like a kid, but considering that he had just saved her life, she wasn't going to complain.
"Well, we were friends. She sort-of betrayed me. I'm not really sure you could say we're on the best of terms."
Artemis slipped his hands into his jacket pockets, shrugging.
"I know that this is all terribly familiar for you. Fighting for your life, in a world made to torment you. But it's not like that for everyone. Holly didn't live in a world like this, and people can do bad things under the pressure. I know it sounds selfish, but you need to forgive her."
"After what she did? I'm not sure."
"I'm sorry, Katniss, but I'm afraid that I have to go. You'll have to come to a decision on your own about that. Before I leave, I have to tell you something important."
"Okay," muttered Katniss, not really sure what to expect.
"One. Holly cannot know that you saw me here. Two. If you see someone that looks like Holly, and is not Holly, don't trust them."
With that, he tapped a button on the silver cuff, and both he and his bodyguard disappeared in a shower of sparks.
What the hell was that all about?
For a moment, she sat down in the alley, trying to puzzle it out. She looked over at the broken giant wasp remains, shuddering. For that man to be able to kill her so quickly…
Oh, crap. My team!
Katniss hopped to her feet, snagged the arrows she had fired off the ground, and took off in the opposite direction.
I just hope I can get there in time.
Chapter 7: The World
The Huntress' body gave out as it hit the wall, fractures rippling through the building's structure and her bones. Dio slipped his fingers under the skin of her neck, and her blood began to drain into his body. She weakly resisted, barely able to lift her head.
Dio chuckled heartily at Ruby's words, her blood halting in his veins. He removed his fingers from inside her neck and coiled them around the outside, throwing her at the ground.
"I'm the monster? Ha! I think it's safe to say we're all monsters here."
He pointed at Adam's unconscious, massive frame.
"He can talk all day about how he wants love and acceptance, but what is he? A serial killer, a science project gone wrong. And you! You kill creatures without discretion. Do you care about what they think and feel, before you slice them to pieces?"
He reached down and picked up Ruby's shattered body, throwing it into the air. With a flex of his muscular torso, two razor-sharp beams shot from his eyes, cutting two neat holes through the girl's chest. He caught her as she fell, blood splattering onto his hands. He licked his fingers off as he set her on the ground. Ruby coughed weakly.
"Let me tell you something, little girl. The only way to rid the world of monsters is to be one yourself. When fear is your ally, and dread is your weapon, no one can stand against you. And when no one can, you can create order. You can say who lives and dies, what is permitted, what is forbidden. Then, there will be only one monster. You."
He drew an ornately carved knife from his pocket, briefly twirled it in his fingers, and jammed it into her throat. He stood back to appreciate his work. Two fine corpses littering the front gate.
That's how you send a message!
Dio stopped admiring his work when he heard faint footfalls echo over the stone streets.
She's about here.
He nonchalantly ambled to the steps in front of the gate and sat down, twiddling his thumbs. The girl sprinted into the small square, halting suddenly at the sight of her vanquished friends. She stared at both for a while, exhaled quietly, and raised her left hand above her head, three middle fingers extended.
Dio laughed aloud, causing Katniss to jump.
"You really hadn't seen me? Come on! I'm wearing bright yellow!"
"You… killed them already."
"Of course I did. I trust you had a fun time with Miss Starling?"
"You're… 'Lord Dio'," she gasped.
"Please, call me 'Dio.' Honorifics are for underlings," he said, standing up and taking a short bow.
"And… you're about to kill me, too, aren't you?"
"Most certainly," he said with a grin. He reached into his pockets and pulled out two handfuls of knives. Katniss keenly observed the movements of the man's wrists and arms, watching for the telltale twitches that would indicate the direction of the throw. Even with a whole swarm of blades bearing down on her, Katniss dodged every one.
"That's interesting," mused Dio. "I'll have to try again."
The man began to pull another two bunches of knives from his pockets, when Katniss interrupted him.
"Why bother? I'll just dodge them again. And how many of those do you have?"
"I do things how I please," he cackled, running a knife through his hair. "The WORLD!"
Katniss was confused by the exclamation.
"That doesn't make any se-"
Suddenly, she was against the wall of a building across the street, her back aching. Knives, driven into the building like nails, pinned her by her clothing. She tugged her arm against her jacket sleeve, but to no avail.
"It's useless," said Dio, suddenly in front of her. He wrapped a hand around her chin, forcibly lifting her eyes to meet his.
"Also, I have a lot of knives."
Katniss spat in his face, and he moved his hand down along her jaw until it clenched around her neck. She felt a terrible new sensation as her skin split to let the vampire's fingers underneath, wiggling freely in her bloodstream. Sickening lumps travelled along his arm's veins as her every heartbeat now drove her blood into his body. The horrible pain began to ease, as did all sensations.
Dio watched her slowly stop struggling, her body incapable of summoning the strength to fight him.
This just seems too easy.
The sound of winding cables and skidding leather boots confirmed his theory. He removed his hand, Katniss slumping against her bladed restraints. Dio turned to face his new opponent, thrilled by the opportunity to drain another foe dry.
Two thin, razor-like swords crossed over one another, glittering in the sunlight. Mikasa scowled underneath her scarf, which trailed out in the wind like a cut on the air itself. Dio ran his eyes over the scout, observing her outfit and 3DMG.
Professional soldier, with some sort of mobility-enhancing device. That scar over her eye indicates some sort of traumatic experience, either on the battlefield or off. There's a ridiculous amount of carbon dioxide in her breath, so her metabolic rate has to be astounding. She's unnaturally fit.
"What did you do to Katniss?" demanded Mikasa, pointing a sword at the vampire.
"Not too much. She might even still be conscious."
"Katniss!" shouted Mikasa at her immobile friend. With some effort, she raised her head.
"What?" she groaned.
"It's Holly! Twilight and some tough-looking-"
"Everything's about Holly, isn't it?" she snapped, her weak voice surprisingly full of spite.
"But… I thought you two-"
"Were friends. I don't care how she's screwed up this time. She's getting what's coming to her."
"She is a bitter one, isn't she?" chuckled Dio, his hands on his waist.
Mikasa was shocked by Katniss' response, and more than a little annoyed by Dio's glib attitude.
"Whatever," she grunted, extending her swords behind her like two metal wings. "I'll just have to tear you apart, so I can get some decent answers from her."
"I just hope you can make this interesting," he laughed, feigning a yawn. "The last few have been terribly droll."
Mikasa clamped her fingers over the triggers, firing two anchors directly into Dio's abdomen. With another click, the spool mounted over her lower back reeled the cables in, sending the man flying towards her. At the last second, Mikasa jolted her swords ahead, and Dio was run cleanly through. He looked down at the swords, then up at the girl, and shook his head in disappointment.
"That is just pathetically useless," he said, his voice dripping with condescendence.
He reached down to his abdomen and placed a forefinger and a thumb on each of the blades. With a simple pinch, both snapped in half, to Mikasa's dismay. Dio dropped to the ground, and slowly pulled the blades out of his body. He brought one to his face as if he was examining it, and dramatically extended his tongue, licking a bloody patch clean. Katniss, slowly regaining her strength, couldn't help but vomit at the sight.
Dio tossed the shattered blades to the ground, cocking his head at Mikasa arrogantly. Mikasa found herself incapable of coherent speech, collapsing to her knees.
"You… you… you…"
"This is what we call 'checkmate'," he said, drawing a handful of knives. He twirled them around his fingers as the brutal stab wounds sealed themselves. With an even more deft maneuver, he slipped a knife between each pair of fingers, and prepared to send them flying at their target. Then the air crackled, and the knives fell from his smoking hand.
He turned the back of his hand toward him and observed the blistering burn, poking at it quizzically with his other hand. He repositioned his hand to where it was when it was hit, and tracked his eyes back until they fell upon the unshielding elf.
"I just call it 'check'," snapped Holly, firing a wall of blasts from her Neutrino. Each shot singed the skin off the vampire, who tumbled helplessly to the ground. Mikasa was surprised to see the elf back.
"Wait, what happened back there? I thought they were going to kill you."
"It's a very strange story," replied Holly. "And I don't think I want to jinx things by telling it. All you need to know is that I'm all right, and all Katniss needs to know is that the book thing is not my fault."
"As if," spat the girl, still pinned by the knives.
A lavender sphere of energy exploded with a zap, depositing Twilight Sparkle and a very burnt-looking Ryuko Matoi. Alucard rose from the ground nearby, and the trio sprinted to Holly's defense.
"She's telling the truth," explained Twilight. "There was something evil stored inside of her, that influenced her to share the book!"
Ryuko brushed a lock of singed hair off of her uniform.
"It gets weirder," she warned.
"The good news is the evil is gone now."
Mikasa scratched her head.
"You said that like there is also-"
"The bad news is it's loose. Somewhere."
"Of course," concluded Mikasa and Katniss simultaneously.
Holly ran to Katniss' side, tearing the knives from the wall. The girl fell to the ground with a perfect three-point landing.
"Okay, I'll forgive you," she grunted, standing. "But I still don't trust you."
Holly slipped her hands into her pockets, shrugging.
"That's a start, I guess."
Alucard fired a single round skyward, disrupting the quiet moment.
"Now that everyone's absolved, where's Dio?"
"What are you talking about?" chuckled Holly. "He's right over…"
A bloody yellow jacket lay empty on the ground. The gathered warriors drew their weapons, scanning the square for the man. They formed a circle, and slowly backed toward each other.
"Where could he have gone? It's not like he can turn invisible," whispered Holly.
"No, he can't," confirmed Ryuko. "My guess is as good as yours."
"How about here?" said Dio, standing behind their backs.
A shriek could be heard as the fighters pivoted on their heels to face him, readying their attacks. In an instant, the man was assaulted with magical blasts, arrows, massive silver slugs, energy rounds, and a flurry of slices. Dio simply stood, taking the abuse. After the last shot was fired, he slumped slightly, flattened bits of silver tumbling from bullet holes. He plucked each arrow out, snapping them in his hands, and every slice- no matter how deep- sealed itself in seconds.
"Heh. He he he he heh," he guffawed. "It's useless."
"We can't kill him!" shouted Mikasa.
"You don't say," seethed Twilight.
"I've got an idea," said Holly. "I need you all to stand back."
"What? That's just stupid," said Katniss.
Alucard lifted the girl by her torn jacket, carrying her back with the rest of her retreating team. They backed into a corner of the square, leaving Holly to face Dio alone.
"If the police elf wants to die, it's her choice."
"But this is insane!" cried the girl, thrashing to get free. She was surrounded by a lavender sphere of energy, restricting her movement.
"Katniss," whispered Twilight. "It's better for only one of us to be in danger in order to occupy him than all of us."
"Are… are you serious?"
Twilight tightened her magical grip on the girl.
Holly slipped her Neutrino into its holster, raising her arms into an angled, palms-down stance. She shifted her weight from one foot to the other, carefully observing the vampire.
"What are you doing?" asked Dio, observing the elf's footwork.
"It's clear we can't kill you from the outside. You heal too quickly."
She half-unzipped her uniform, her white undershirt peeking through the nano-machined suit.
"So what do you plan on doing? Undressing yourself won't do you any more good than all of those attacks back there."
"There are seven-hundred and two pressure points on the body, Dio. Each one is linked to an involuntary physical response. The Chinese, who were pretty clever for Mud Men, realized they could press different ones in different orders to relieve illness, and purify the soul."
"Good luck purifying my soul, elf."
Holly cracked a wicked smile, popping her knuckles loudly before continuing her lesson.
"But being Mud Men, it wasn't long before they figured out how to use the points to cause a lot of pain. Thus an entire school of martial arts was born. Hokuto Shin-Ken. The Holy Fist of Polaris."
Katniss struggled in her magical bonds, stopping briefly to question Twilight.
"Isn't that what Kenshiro uses?"
"It is. But I was under the impression that he did not share his secrets."
"Maybe she's bluffing," offered Mikasa.
Dio placed a palm on his forehead, laughing.
"Don't be foolish. Even Hamon, the Ripple of the Sun, cannot defeat me. And I thought that using such a martial art would require an astounding amount of ki."
A thin, slight hand drew an elegant line through the air, and halted two fingers up in front of Holly's face.
"Dio, how many people in their right mind would give you a lecture on how they're about to kill you? None."
He froze, his confident smile fading.
"Wait, you mean-"
"I've been using this time to channel my ki."
A soft ripple of energy caused her uniform above her belt to slip off her shoulders, swinging lightly behind her knees. She dragged a thumb past her nose, and lifted a finger to beckon the vampire to attack.
"There's no WAY," he grunted, swinging a fist toward her. Holly sidestepped the attack, leaning into an open-hand strike. Before Dio could react, she threw another punch. Her attacks began to run together, like an engine warming up. Each cylinder's own firing was soon drowned out by the sound of the whole, as the elf's small hands began to blur into an indistinguishable, rushing current of pain. The onlookers watched, captivated by the complex attack. The movements were so rapid and so precise that the punches themselves could not be seen; only the marks they left across Dio's helpless body.
And then, without warning, the afterimages condensed themselves into one- a single hand, driven straight into the center of Dio's chest. Holly drew her arm back, sweeping it into a dramatic pose, her entire body radiating heat like a mirage.
"Hokuto Hyakuretsu Ken!" she shouted, clearly out of breath.
Dio stumbled backward, blood trickling out of his mouth.
"In… ten seconds, you'll explode," Holly gasped. She managed to smile weakly, giving a thumbs-up to the rest of her team.
"Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two. One," she counted.
"THE WORLD!" cried the vampire, and suddenly things looked bleaker.
In an instant, he stood before the other fighters, who barely had enough time to draw their weapons to keep him at bay. Stretched between his extended arms was Holly, suspended by his grip at her shoulders. She was horribly bruised, and her legs hung at angles that they should not.
"D'Arvit," she choked. "What happened?"
Dio smiled again, licking his own blood from his lips.
"How many times do I have to tell you? All of this is futile."
"What did you do? Why didn't you explode?" shouted Katniss desperately, still locked in a magical barrier.
"Your friend here is no master of Hokuto Shinken. A fraudulent practitioner's attacks are about as effective as smacking someone around with a pillow. Furthermore, I physically shifted my pressure points to avoid her having any success."
"Guess I shouldn't have tried to do your thing, huh, Katniss?" said Holly weakly.
Dio stretched the elf's arms further, causing her to wail in agony.
"What you see here is the result of my Stand, The World. With it, I can stop time. That is why you have no hope of defeating me. Now, do you have any last words for your friends, elf?"
"I… uhn!... I'm sorry. For what I did, Katniss. When I see you again, I'll… I'll owe you one."
With that, Dio pulled one last time. Twilight and Ryuko averted their eyes. Mikasa and Alucard, no strangers to carnage, did not. Katniss would have looked away, but something awful inside of her wanted to watch, wanted a reason to be angry.
Flesh and bone resisted, and for their effort, were torn to shreds. Dio threw the armless ragdoll at the mansion's front gate with the other corpses, tossing the severed appendages away like a candy wrapper. For a brief moment, a few sparks of magic scattered over where her missing limbs used to be, but quickly realized that the task was simply too large for them. They gave up, and faded away.
Twilight Sparkle was simply overwhelmed. Not only had they lost Holly, but there was simply no way to counter an opponent who could control time. In her panic, she realized that she had released her hold on Katniss.
Where did she- oh, no.
Katniss stood in front of Dio, who regarded her the way a boy with a magnifying glass regards a hill of ants on a sunny day.
"What's the matter, dear? Lose a friend? Perhaps I can help you find her."
"Katniss! Get back! We need to get away!" cried Twilight.
The girl's head hung low, her eyes flitting back and forth between Holly's corpse and the man who had taken her life. She felt a stinging pain in her palms, realizing quickly that it was her own fingernails. She felt blood trickle out along her hands, dripping slowly onto the ground next to her fallen friend's. Her body was coiled like a spring with rage, but her voice did not betray her emotion as she spoke softly to the ground.
"You killed Adam," she whispered.
"Miss Sparkle," said Alucard quietly. "What is she doing?"
"I'm not sure…" she said, stepping backward. "But I think we should stay out of her way." Alucard gave a nod and moved back as well, with Ryuko following suit.
"You killed Ruby," continued Katniss, as a thin corona of red energy burst into flame around her. Small stones began to float out of the cracks in the street, pitching and dipping as if suspended in a strong wind. Dio summoned his Stand to his side, the ethereal being visible in the crimson cyclone of energy surrounding the girl. The World appeared as a huge mechanical man in ornate Egyptian fineries, lowering its muscular arms around Dio in defense.
"Whatever you're doing, you can't get through my stand. Just give up already," said the Stand's master, his voice betraying the massive hole in his confident demeanor.
"You killed Holly.Now I'm going to kill you," Katniss roared. She twisted her arms around one another, pressing the bottoms of her palms together as her fingers clawed the air.
"Of course!" shouted Twilight over the roar of the spirit energy swirling around Katniss. "It's an Ansatsuken move, the Wave Motion Fist! Ryu is an expert, he must have taught her this too!"
Ryuko jammed her scissor blade into the ground to prevent herself from flying off.
"Why didn't she do this before?!"
"Ansatsuken's potential depends on the user's desire to kill! She must have reached a breaking point!"
"YOU DON'T SAY," yelled Ryuko in reply.
"SUZAKU!" Katniss screamed, the ki congealing into a swirling sphere of fire in her hands.
Katniss shoved the sphere forward. It travelled with enough speed to nearly disappear before reappearing in front of Dio's Stand's crossed arms. Suddenly, the sphere expanded exponentially, erupting into a massive fireball. Twilight sheltered herself under a magical dome while Alucard simply slipped into the ground. Mikasa fired off her anchors, locking on to a nearby building. Ryuko braced herself against her weapon. The huge explosion enveloped half of the square, the blinding light erasing all that stood before it. Soon, the light itself was swallowed by a thick shroud of dark smoke.
She could not see anything, but she could feel soft earth underneath her knees. Katniss placed a hand on the ground and confirmed that it was warm loam, still smoking. Her vision faded back in, and she found herself along the bank of a massive depression, as if some huge hand had scooped the street up. Across the crater, the fortified walls of the mansion still stood. She lowered her eyes to the center of the indentation, and saw the man who had killed her friends, splayed across the ground. Katniss stood, and slid down the incline, placing a foot on his chest.
His body was entirely burned; not an inch of his once-bronze skin had not been charred black. He still moved, though, weakly rocking back and forth in place, attempting to move limbs that no longer had functional muscle.
"My Stand," he rasped. "It went through… my Stand." He coughed out a cloud of ash that must have been his lungs as his body caved in under Katniss' boot. A satisfying crunch indicated the loss of what were his ribs.
"See if I care," said Katniss, who crawled back out of the crater. Her allies unbraced themselves, wiping debris from their faces.
"What the hell was that, Everdeen?" whispered Ryuko in disbelief.
"I'm… not sure. I just wanted to kill him so bad, …I let that desire take over."
Twilight pulled a burnt chunk out of her mane, and spoke solemnly.
"That may have saved the day for now, but the Satsui No Hado is not to be toyed with. I spoke with Ryu about how it worked in the last round we had together. It's possible to completely lose yourself in it. You've got to be more careful."
"He killed Holly. What was I supposed to do? Let him get away with it?"
The debate was broken up by an all-too familiar voice from the crater.
"That would be a start," croaked Dio, rising from his own ashes. Burnt tissue flaked off of the vampire as he stood, and already one could see pinpricks of pink skin underneath. He limped out of the crater, stumbling onto the front gate of the mansion.
"Mr. Everdeen!" he yelled, his vocal chords still far from healed. "Launch Nineball!"
"Damn. He is with them again," cursed Katniss.
Her father did not appear, but Dio was answered by something smashing through the mansion's fortified eastern wall. In a mess of thrusters and sparks, the Armored Core skidded to a halt in front of Dio, lowering its weapons at the group.
"ORDERS?" a loudspeaker grated.
"Kill them," coughed Dio.
The red robot pointed a massive beam rifle directly at Katniss.
"TARGETS VERIFIED. COMMENCING HOSTILITIES."
Katniss was very abruptly knocked off of her feet by Ryuko, whose clothing had suddenly become much… less. An arm locked around Katniss' midsection, and a blast of energy from Ryuko's outfit's back carried the two aloft. Milliseconds later, the Karasawa rifle turned the place they were standing into glass. They landed on the rooftop of a nearby building, where Mikasa joined them, and Alucard and Twilight warped in.
"How are we supposed to fight that?" cried Katniss.
The huge machine lowered the long barrel of a grenade launcher over its shoulder.
"I don't know," said Twilight, her analytical strategy failing her.
"I say we fall back," asserted Mikasa, who leapt from the roof, swinging away. The rest followed.
Chapter 8: Domestic Disturbances/ Roar
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."
Chapter 9: Fighting Chance
"Mikasa. Titan expert. Explain. Now," said Twilight, carefully examining the dilation of Holly's pupils. They had dragged the elf down a block or two before they could find a house that wasn't ruined to operate on Holly, who had very quickly realized that she was conscious- It was safe to say that all of the team members were now incredibly well-versed in Gnommish swear words. However, by the time they had arrived at a house, Holly simply slipped out of the fleshy mass. She still was not able to move, but her recovery was progressing rapidly. Perhaps most interestingly, she had regained her lost arms.
Mikasa gave one last careful glance out the window before pulling the shutters closed and walking to the table they had set the elf on for observation.
"This was my hometown," she explained. "When I met up with Holly I wanted to go and investigate the ruins of my house. My father was a scientist who studied Titans, and at some point had figured them out entirely, or something. He had experimented on my brother, Eren, and gave him the power to become a Titan through injury. While Holly was in his lab, we were attacked by… what was her name? All I can remember is that she was very, very beautiful… that hair, those eyes…"
"I think it was Morrigan, her name," remembered Holly wistfully.
Twilight cleared her throat. "Skip that part."
"Oh, right. Sorry. When she attacked she created a shockwave that must have knocked things over in the basement. The only conclusion I can come to is that there must have been more of whatever my father used to grant Eren his power, and that Holly accidentally stumbled into it."
Holly lifted one of her hands to her face, opening and closing it. "Makes sense. But how exactly did I turn into that thing?"
"The easiest way to trigger it is through injury. When Dio tore your arms off, you must have not been dead, just in shock… If at some point you became conscious, that's when it probably happened. Apparently having a goal in mind helps, and if at some level you wanted to get back to us, that was probably sufficient."
"So you're telling me… you guys left me for dead?"
"To be fair, you really looked dead," said Ryuko.
"You're not helping," growled Twilight. "Dio sent Nineball, the robot that you… ate… after us. We didn't have time to recover you."
"By the way, police elf. Here's this." Alucard tossed her Neutrino blaster onto the table. Holly picked it up, and gave Twilight the evil eye.
"You could save my gun…"
"I didn't do it, it was him!" said Twilight, pointing a hoof at the vampire. Holly shifted her angry gaze to him.
"Like they said. You looked dead."
Holly sighed, slipping her uniform back over her shoulders and zipping it closed. She sat on the table, drumming her fingers against the worn wooden surface.
"How about the titan? What did it look like?" asked the elf, bored.
"Really, really ugly. Not enough skin." Said Katniss frankly.
"It probably has something to do with her size in comparison with the titan body. It was at least thirteen meters," said Mikasa. "Though I'd wait on transforming again. You're too tired right now, and the titan could form irregularly."
"Wait, again? You mean I can do that… again?"
Mikasa looked a little stunned. "Well, of course."
"It won't work after this round though. Whatever got in your system to allow you to do that will be purged, no doubt," said Twilight.
"But, I could do it again! Do you realize how much help that would be in storming the mansion? It'd be a piece of cake!"
"It would certainly help." Twilight said, sitting down on her haunches. "But there would still be a few obstacles. First and foremost, can you even control the titan?"
Holly shrugged. "I don't know. Mikasa, can I even control the titan?"
"In this case, I'm not sure. It takes an immense amount of willpower to do what you intend to in the titan body, and you've only used it once. And I don't know if we could stop you if you went out of control- you could regenerate too fast for us to cut you free."
"It's a risk I'm willing to take, if it's enough to kill Dio," said Holly.
"You can't just assume that throwing something bigger at him will let you win," Twilight pointed out.
"Holly's right," said Katniss. "When I hit Dio with the fireball, he couldn't use his time-stop. If Holly can wear him down for long enough, he won't be able to stop time. And none of his attacks would really work on such a large target."
Twilight sighed, opening the door and peeking up and down the street.
"This will be the second asinine plan I agreed to today."
Mr. Everdeen sprinted down the stairs, skidding to a halt on his knees in front of the dead robot Dio was using as a throne. He wiped the sweat off of his brow with a sleeve.
"They're coming, sir. And the elf is back with them, as we expected. But how?"
"It doesn't matter. Nothing can stand against the power of The World."
"With all due respect, sir, I don't think that's going to be enough to stop them. There's six of them, and five of us. Starling's dead, and Matoi went turncoat… Are you really sure you can hold your own against them?"
"Mr. Everdeen, relax. Only your daughter was able to injure me last time, and I doubt she has the fortitude to use such an attack again. With The World at one hundred percent, defeating them will be simple."
"One hundred percent, sir?"
"That's right. I only used a fraction of its power in that battle."
"I still don't know. I feel that putting all our eggs in one basket is a dangerous thing to do."
"I understand. But there is a reason that I am in charge, and he-" Dio rapped his fingers along Megatron's armor plate- "is not."
"All right. If you're that sure, there's no sense in arguing. I'm heading back to my post."
"If they get within five hundred meters, I expect to see you down here again," called Dio after him. Mr. Everdeen nodded in affirmation as he walked back up the steps to his fortified perch. The sun was beginning to crest over the walls, flooding the ruined streets with light. He saw in the distance the miniscule figures of other fighters, all still warring with each other- the distraction of each other too great to pursue the goal. Even as far away as she was, his daughter stood out. Her team flanking her and the elf, careful eyes sweeping their surroundings, determined. Katniss' hands hovered over her bow at all times, her face wearing the grimace that seemed burned-on.
Why don't you understand? I'm doing this for you. I don't want you to frown anymore.
He sat down, drawing an arrow and twirling it in his fingers.
I couldn't care less for that Dio. But he's my best shot for winning this thing. A necessary evil. That's it. I'll stick with that.
Chapter 10: Showdown/ Checkmate
"This is it, then," said Holly, folding her arms across her chest as she came to a halt, the mansion looming ahead in the morning light.
You know, you never really get an appreciation for arms until you lose them. They're brilliant.
"So, what kind of strategy are we going to use?" asked Ryuko. "Are you going to distract them out here with the titan, and we sneak in?"
"The only person they had guarding the rear is dead," said Katniss. "That could work."
Holly laughed, shaking her head. "Guys, I can turn into a giant. I'm going to punch a hole through the front door, grab that Dio lowlife, and wipe the floor with him. You guys can do whatever."
Twilight begged to differ. "Holly. I have to disagree. If you're going to show off, you need at least some theatrics."
"That's not what I thought you were going to say at all," said the elf, smiling. "What did you have in mind?"
"My loyal warriors," said Dio, pacing in front of his assembled team. "The first team to reach our gates lies just outside. I'm sure you're familiar with at least three of them, considering they're THE ONES WHO KEEP ON KILLING YOU."
The Yautja growled indignantly, but a sharp glance from Dio shut it up.
"Today, we will reverse that trend. Time itself is at my command, and with you by my side, no enemy can stand against us. Now, we're going to go through that front door, spread out, and pick your targets wisely. We attack on my signal. Ready?"
The collection of monsters and Mr. Everdeen nodded.
"Let's go!" shouted Dio, and the team streamed out the door, forming a line in front of the gate.
"Lord Dio," called Nightmare. "I thought we were to 'pick our targets'. How can we do this with one opponent?"
Indeed, only one figure stood in the square. Holly sat in the baked clay in the center of the crater Katniss' hadoken had created.
"I see you've kept the décor fresh, Dio."
"You miserable wretch," hissed the vampire. "How do you still live?"
"That's a question I'd like to ask you," she said, and addressed the resident sniper. "Mr. Everdeen, I hear Katniss tore him apart without her bow. Is that really the kind of weakling you take orders from?"
"That's enough, elf. THE WORLD!"
Something kicked up dust alongside Dio, and he began to walk down into the crater.
"C'mon," taunted Holly, hopping to her feet and throwing a few punches at the air. "Make this interesting, this time."
"I don't care what art you use. Your fists are useless against me."
"Should we attack?" shouted Nightmare from the top of the crater.
"No, no," replied Dio, turning to the knight. "Hold on one-" A punch blasted across his cheek, and he spun in place until the triumphantly-beaming Holly was in his sights.
"Your move," she chuckled.
Dio exhaled slowly, and something invisible punched its way up into Holly's gut, forcing the air out of her violently. She was suspended off the ground by whatever it was, balanced on an invisible pillar of pain.
"What…in…Frond's…" she gasped.
"My Stand, The World, can do more than stop time. As a ghostly manifestation of my will, it can strike with unnatural speed and power!"
Slowly, the thing that had punched Holly faded into the realm of visibility. It looked like a muscular, broadly-built man, wearing some sort of ancient Egyptian headdress. Bulky-looking tubes ran under its arms like suspenders, and a gaudy belt adorned its waist. Its left fist was currently buried in Holly's abdomen.
"Now, let its strength be the last thing you see, before I kill you again!" screamed Dio, as the Stand pulled its arm back and unleashed a hurricane of punches, its huge fists shattering the elf's bones as Dio accentuated each strike.
"MUDAMUDAMUDAMUDAMUDAMUDAMUDAMUDAMUDAMUDA!" he cackled as his stand beat Holly into a pulp. As soon as the final punch landed, The World spread its arms to its sides, as if it was about to give the air a hug.
"THE WORLD!" shouted Dio again, and a ripple of energy swept out of the Stand, inverting the color of all in its wake and halting the movements of Dio's men. Holly was stunned as she froze in midair.
He's stopped time… but this time, I can see it.
"Time has stopped," confirmed Dio, rummaging in his pockets. "And now, I will allow you to see your own demise!"
He drew two handfuls of his knives, and flung them with terrifying speed toward the airborne elf. As the knives' trajectory neared Holly, they slowed down, as if they had passed from the air into a gelatin dessert. The tips of the knives halted inches from Holly's body, glittering ominously in the unnatural lighting. Dio walked over to the elf, snatching a knife out of the air, and spinning it around his finger.
"Time will now flow again," he said quietly, and the bizarre colors retracted back into his stand, which disappeared. The knives then snapped back into action, turning Holly into a pincushion. She fell to the ground, which drove some of the blades in further. She groaned in pain, and slowly staggered to her feet. A poorly-coordinated hand pulled a knife out, and began to move to another.
"What's the matter, elf? Want more?"
"Guh… revenge… is gonna feel… really good, Dio..!" coughed Holly, as she removed a second knife. A thin trail of steam flowed out of the tear in her uniform. "Really… good."
"You have the audacity to keep living?" Dio spat, rushing to the elf. He grabbed her by the neck and lifted her into the air, shaking her violently. "Fine. I'll suck you dry, so you stay dead!" Dio felt something tapping the bottom of the arm he was using to hold her aloft. He looked down and found the elf slowly raising her own knife-impaled arm in defense, feebly swinging it in what was meant to be an attack.
"How futile," he guffawed.
Holly managed to grin through her pain.
A greenish-yellow lightning bolt cracked through the sky, though whether it descended to Holly or whether it rose from her was unclear. A shockwave knocked Dio's warriors off their feet and sent them flying into nearby buildings. It blasted the atmosphere into a super-heated haze as sinew shot out of the elf's stab wounds, congealing into a solid mass around her. It expanded at near the speed of sound, mimicking Holly's form on a grand scale. Less than a second had passed between Holly's words and the formation of a titanic fist that propelled the stunned vampire backward, up, out of the crater, past the front gate, and through the fortified wall of the mansion, embedding him in the far side of the foyer. Skin formed over choice parts of the expanding mass, as huge legs sent the newly forming head into the clouds. With a burst of steam, Holly roared in triumph; for now that she could look down upon the world, it was hers to destroy.
From the buildings behind the freshly-formed giant rose the two swordfighters, brandishing their blades. Mikasa and Ryuko landed in unison, each one locating the temporarily-stunned members of Dio's team.
"I fought Nightmare last time," said Mikasa. "You can take him now."
"Sounds fair," replied Ryuko, who performed a flourish with her blade as it extended to its full length. Senketsu's booster fired up to full power as she rocketed toward the knight. Mikasa identified the Xenomorph peeling itself off of a wall. With a flick of her swords' triggers, her 3DMG locked onto the building, and she sailed off.
The Predator dusted itself off and rose to its feet. The elf had a nasty trick there, but it would take more than a little explosion to put down a Yautja warrior.
"Excuse me," said a voice from behind.
The Predator turned and fluidly drove its wrist blades into the man's chest, his blood matching the color of his long coat. The man calmly reached down, pulled the wrist blades out, and drew a humongous pistol, polished like a piece of fine silverware. He grinned, pearly white fangs shining in the shadows of his broad hat.
"Do you have a moment to speak about Jesus Christ?"
The oversized fist opened, and snagged Dio by the leg. Holly ripped him out of the mansion and threw him across the block, his limp body skipping off of rooftops like a stone over calm water. She growled with satisfaction and took off after him, eager to torment him more. Mr. Everdeen picked himself up and realized there was no one defending the mansion. He bolted for the new entrance, ducking through the ruins of the foyer. The stairs had been destroyed by the recentremodeling of Holly Short.
Damn. I can't get up for a better vantage point. Not here. If I cut back further, there is another staircase. Maybe I can get there.
He banked down a hallway, passing door after door. He slipped through the kitchen, vaulting over wooden tables, hung a left, and almost ran into the ballroom door.
Isn't the other staircase across from the ballroom? Isn't that what Starling said?
He kicked open the door, the serene openness of the delicately-laid wood floors doing little to calm his nerves. The fact that his daughter was standing in the middle of the room didn't help much either.
"K-Katniss? What are you doing-"
"What do you think? I'm here to fight you, and capture this mansion. I came in from the roof. I tried to get in this way before, but that bug-lady stopped me. Did you know there's an armory back there? That just seems silly."
Mr. Everdeen smiled. "Heheheh. Those dances can't get too exciting, can they?"
Katniss returned the smile, chuckling a little. "They can probably only have those slow, boring ones…"
The two sighed wistfully.
"Gosh," said Katniss. "It's just like old times."
"It can be again, you know. Just let me win."
Katniss' smile disappeared. "No. I know you think you want what's best for me, but you're wrong. I lived my life. I know how it turned out. Would I change some things? Yes. But would I trade it for what you want?" She became silent for a moment, pondering life with her father. She imagined never going to the Games, never losing her sister. She imagined Rue killed in cold blood, with no one to mourn her. She imagined Coin's slow and careful chipping away at Panem, eager to gain control and commit atrocities in the name of justice.
"I… I'm not sure," she concluded.
"Katniss, you don't need to be sure. I'm sure. I'm sure I want you to live the life I wanted you and your sister to. One without pain or fear. You'll grow up healthy and not hungry, and you'll become a fine, respectable woman. Maybe you'll marry some nice boy, like that Hawthorne kid from down the way-"
"Listen to yourself! This isn't about me, it's about you! It's what you want! And Gale is a psychopath!"
"…Really? He seemed like such a nice kid."
"Well, maybe I'm exaggerating a little, but- hey, you're changing the subject!"
"This isn't going anywhere," he said, drawing his knife. "I'm not going to be able to get through that thick skull of yours with words."
"I'm sorry, Dad," she whispered, slipping her bow off of her shoulder. She curled her hands into fists and she assumed her fighting stance. "This is going to hurt."
Dio placed one hand on the wall behind him for balance, and used the other to snap his neck back into place. He looked around, certain he had no idea where he was. It was some alley, but how far he was from the mansion, he could not ascertain. But he could already hear Holly's footsteps pounding closer.
So that was how she came back to life? He thought, summoning his Stand to his side. She turned into some sort of crazy giant? How did she do that? I don't remember her being able to do that.
Shingles crashing into the alley announced Holly's arrival, her hand covering the roof of the building ahead of him. She peered down into the narrow passage, a child jubilant to have found back a favorite toy. Unlike a child, her response to finding the toy was to punch it. Her fist was halfway through its descent before Dio could shout "THE WORLD!"
He sprinted from the alley and onto the time-frozen street, running straight past the titan's legs. He unfroze time and watched the massive hand obliterate the entire alleyway with the shockwave, driving into the ground like an oversized piledriver. The impact was powerful enough to splinter her arm bones through the skin, but they soon slipped back under, the wounds sealing shut.
Titans can regenerate. She has healing magic. Put them together and she heals faster than I do.
Holly turned her huge, shaggy head to locate her quarry.
WHERE DID HE GO? HE'S NOT THERE.
She caught a glimpse of the man's bright-yellow pants fleeing down the street, and leapt back to her feet. The resulting earthquake caused the man to trip briefly, but he soon caught himself and continued running.
THERE YOU ARE, DIO. KILL DIO. CRUSH DIO, Holly thought. This is weird. It's so hard to… think. But I really do want to SMASH DIO.
As fast as his legs could carry him, they were not enough to escape Holly's massive, agile titan form. He heard the air being pushed out of the way from another strike, and he yelped for his stand again. With time frozen, he turned to see her outstretched hand nearly on top of him, fingers splayed.
She would have squashed me. Like a bug. I, the great Dio, reduced to an insect.
He sprinted further ahead, and let time flow once more. Her hand tore into the street, ripping itself to shreds. In a burst of hot steam, the hand reconstituted, and Holly continued her pursuit.
"GHAAAAAAAAAAAARuuuuuuh," Holly gurgled, raising a foot to stomp on the vampire. He dodged just before the street was liquefied under the force of her leg. He turned and tossed a spread of knives, which harmlessly stuck themselves in her exposed flesh. Holly stared down at Dio, and made a series of successive grunts that might have been laughter. She kicked her submerged foot forward, tearing a trench through the street before it surfaced in a kick that sent Dio flying back toward the mansion.
Dio's Stand caught him, stabilizing his flight pattern. He glided to a soft landing on a roof.
I need to get back, he thought, looking back at the building, its once-proud fortifications in ruins. A shadow passed over the building, and Dio instinctively used The World, leaping back to dodge another attack. The negative colors dissolved, and Holly's arm sliced the building in half. Dio stood only inches from where it had passed, tearing through two stories of the stone building like butter.
Every time he does that, he's moving a shorter distance, Holly thought. Makes it easier to SMASH, CRUSH- no, no! Think! He's wearing out. It's more difficult for him to stop time. Eventually he won't be able to anymore. That's when I can SMASH DIO. EAT DIO. Wait, what? No no no! Bad titan!
Alucard pulled the spear-like weapon out of his arm, tossing it to the ground next to the Predator's smart throwing stars, net gun, and plasma caster.
"Are you out of options yet?"
The Predator kept a wary eye on the vampire as it rummaged through its utility pouches. It was concerned to find there was nothing left. It feigned fumbling for a little while longer, and as soon as it saw Alucard move, it drove its wristblades through his sunglasses.
"Hmm," said the vampire. "I wonder why you did that. It didn't work last time."
With a simple flick of his wrist, Alucard severed the Predator's attacking arm from the gauntlet back, and yanked the blades out of his face. He dropped them with the rest of the alien's weapons, and snatched the broken frames of his sunglasses off of the ground. He set them on his regenerating nose. The Predator grabbed at the place its forearm used to be, desperately trying to stop the bleeding by clenching a claw over the glowing-green stump.
"If you'd like, I can take the other one. Then they'll match, and you'll be completely disarmed."
Even through the lifeless mask, Alucard could sense the Yautja's disdain.
"I never really was good at jokes," he said, and shot a hole through its chest.
Too easy. I had better go check on the other two.
Ryuko lifted her Scissor Blade, blocking another strike from Soul Edge with one hand.
"How do you possess such strength, wench?" growled Nightmare, attempting to put more pressure on his sword.
She used her free hand to pluck one of her Kamui's suspenders idly.
"Senketsu and I have a special bond. With his Life Fibers and my willpower, nothing can stop us!"
"But how can you glean power from your clothing, when you wear so little?! Voldo was more modestly dressed!"
Ryuko rolled her eyes, and kicked Nightmare into a building across the street.
"I have no idea what you're talking about. But I'm getting tired of people poking fun of Senketsu. Have you seen what some of the people around here are wearing?" she asked as she vaulted over a chunk of blown-out wall into what must have been a living room, prior to Nightmare's arrival.
"You… still… look like a-"
A gust of wind ripped through the house in the wake of the inconceivably- fast attack, blasting the room into silence. Nightmare's armor split down the middle, crumbling to pieces. Strangely, it was completely vacant.
"That's surprisingly more awkward than it normally is," Ryuko muttered.
Perhaps we've just gotten too used to slicing clothes off of people, said Senketsu.
She turned to walk away, and smacked into Alucard's chest.
"Jeez," she said, recoiling. "You want to start giving people some warning before you teleport behind them?"
"I see you took care of Nightmare," lilted Alucard with his perpetual grin.
"Sure did. How's Mikasa doing?"
"Annoyed," said Mikasa, landing outside of the house. Something had worn through her swords, as they were reduced to rusted-looking ribbons. "That was my last set of blades." She flicked a switch and the ruined blades fell to the ground.
"And how about Twilight?"
"She said she was checking on Holly's progress. She'll warp back soon," said Alucard.
"And Katniss is-"
"Inside, fighting her father," confirmed the vampire.
"I say we stay as far away from that as possible," said Mikasa. "Last time that happened, things got messy."
Chapter 11: Surge Of Murderous Intent/ Check
Another punch flew past, a quick dodge sending it whistling away. Katniss snapped a hand around the outstretched arm and rolled backwards, sending her father flying across the room with two swift feet to the chest.
"Had enough, old man?" she called, with more than a touch of spite.
He picked himself up with a grunt. "Damn. What the hell have you been doing, kid?"
Mr. Everdeen charged again, leaning into a shoulder block. Katniss ducked and nailed him in the gut with a fiery Shohiken uppercut. The sound of her father falling to the ground was almost rhythmic by this point.
"If I can't convince you that you're wrong, Dad, I'm just going to have to kill you every time you get in my way. So I've been training."
"Listen to yourself! You don't sound like any daughter of mine. You're more of a monster than those blowhards in the Capitol."
"SHUT UP! SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!" screamed Katniss. "This isn't MY fault! It's YOURS. If YOU didn't show up in this goddamn thing, I wouldn't have to do this!"
The red aura of the Satsui no Hado exploded out of her, curling into wicked flames. Her father stepped back in fear, bracing himself for the imminent attack.
"What have you done? Katniss?! Listen to me!"
Katniss raised a fist, the energy swirling around in a caricature of her motion.
"You say you're my father," she said. "But I don't care who you are. Prove to me that you are worthy."
Katniss slammed her raised arm back to the ground with an open palm, and a massive shockwave rippled out through the floor, uprooting the floorboards and sending her father flying into a wall. Before he had a chance to fall to the ground, she ripped him from the wall and shoved him back onto the floor.
"Prepare yourself for death," she hissed, collecting ki in her hands.
"Katniss! Stop it! What are you doing?"
"Finishing this," she said, bringing her open hands together in front of her. "HADOKEN!"
Her father tossed himself aside, the fireball barely missing his chest. It instead clipped his leg, and exploded into burning ghostly flames, which seared the skin and disappeared without a trace. He pulled himself to his feet, unsteady on his newly-injured leg. He threw a punch, which Katniss intercepted with an open hand. Her fingers clenched around his fist, the very touch of the dark energy swirling around her causing pain.
The world around Mr. Everdeen dissolved, and all that remained was agony. His daughter disappeared, but his body was surrounded by the pain of millions of strikes. They ripped through his body and straight to his soul, unlike any punch or kick. He felt his life fading, and rushed toward death, a blessed escape from this terrible new hell.
Katniss turned away from the man who claimed to be her father, leaving his corpse behind her. The Satsui no Hado ebbed and swelled, its energy etching a flickering kanji onto her jacket- messatsu. Katniss could not see it, nor did she understand that strange language that she was compelled to scream as she attacked. But she could feel it permeate her being.
My entire life has been nothing but destruction. Now, I have become one with that force, and it is mine to command.
The unicorn materialized with a flash in front of the other fighters, who were passing around one of Alucard's pistols' bullets.
"So, it's made of solid silver," said Mikasa, rotating the heavy, grey lump slowly.
Ryuko snatched it from her, reading the writing along the bottom of the casing. "From melted crosses? Out of actual churches? That's pretty metal."
"Guys?" said Twilight, gaining their attention. "Holly's about back. We're going to need to make sure that she finishes Dio- we don't need him regenerating again. Where's Katniss?"
"She went back to fight her dad," explained Ryuko. "Say, why does she get another person from her universe?"
"That's a long story," said Twilight, her tone serious. "But we need to make sure she's all right. Bad things happen when those two fight." She was going to elaborate for the girl when a distant sound made one of her ears twitch in attention.
"What is that?" she said, looking around for the source.
"Sounds like an electric pencil sharpener," said Alucard.
"What are you guys even hearing?" wondered Ryuko, cupping a hand around her ear.
"There, there it is," whispered Mikasa.
It was a gritty whine, very much like an electric pencil sharpener indeed. The listeners quickly identified the sound's creator, a very-battered looking, gaudily-clad vampire, flailing through the air.
"WreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeGAAAAAH," screamed Dio, colliding with what remained of the mansion's fortifications before falling to the ground with a splat. The warriors drew their weapons, ready for Dio to use his Stand at any moment to strike. With great effort, he picked himself up, teetered dangerously on his broken legs, and fell back down.
"Shouldn't he be regenerating?" asked Ryuko, lowering her Scissor Blade.
Twilight nodded. "He certainly did before."
"How typical," mused Alucard.
"What? What's typical?" said Twilight.
"Did you notice the bodies nearby when we fought him the first time? They were shriveled- he had just sucked them dry. With all of that fresh blood, his regeneration was enhanced. That's the only way he was capable of such healing. But as a lesser vampire, without a constant supply of blood, his abilities are hampered," he explained. "I have long since transcended such restrictions."
"Well, good for you!" sneered Ryuko.
A few thuds were all the more warning they received before Holly smashed through a row of houses into the square, roaring furiously. The team took a few steps back from his body, allowing the elf titan to stomp him into the ground a few times. She then plucked him out of the crater by his legs, and slammed him into the cobblestones repeatedly, growling with joy.
The god-robed girl again had concerns. "Isn't this overkill?"
"Maybe not," thought Twilight aloud. "Remember when Katniss shot him with a hadoken? Afterward, he couldn't use his Stand. If it takes any effort at all to use that power, it would probably be impossible for him to do it while taking a beating like this."
"So she's actually preventing him from using that ability for our sake, right?"
"Oh no," said the unicorn with a smile. "She's just in a bloodlust-induced rage right now."
"Ah," said Ryuko, who took another step back.
Twilight called up to the titan, using gentle tones to prevent any sort of provocation. "Holly? Could you bring Dio down here for a moment? It'll be quick, I promise."
Reluctantly, Holly stopped smacking the scenery with the vampire's limp body, and placed him on the ground.
"…uhn… I… can't…" he grunted.
"Regenerate?" said Twilight.
"Believe it. Beaten… by a bunch of little girls… and a half-rate vampire."
"By my calculations, Alucard is far more powerful than you. Your ability to stop time gives you a slight edge in battle, but you don't seem to have that anymore."
"Also, I can be a little girl, too," noted Alucard. Twilight gave him a disapproving look.
The unicorn cleared her throat and continued. "Now you have only one soldier left, and I think Katniss has probably taken care of him by now."
"But… I'm DIO… I'm invincible…!"
"Holly, go ahead."
The titan, which had been doing its best to not interrupt, lashed out greedily, snatching Dio by an arm and dangling him in front of her face.
"Ghurrr," Holly burbled, opened her mouth, and dropped him in.
"Oh-" stammered Ryuko. "She's really going to-"
With a shower of blood, Holly's teeth tore Dio to pieces, shredding flesh and breaking bone. Through the titan's lack of lips, the vampire's limbs could be seen as they were dismembered individually, and at one point his head rolled between the teeth, popping like a pomegranate seed. A heavy swallow later, and the sickening display was over. Holly ran an arm over her mouth, failing to wipe away any of the mess. Then, with a spasmodic jolt, the titan whipped an arm behind her back, digging her fingers under the skin. With another spasm, it ripped away the nape of its neck, and fell to the ground. The fighters rushed over to the chunk of titan flesh, working quickly to recover their friend.
"Ooooh, I think I'm going to be sick," said Holly's head as it was pulled from the steaming mass.
"Hopefully it won't spawn some sort of cosmic evil this time," muttered Twilight. It didn't. The elf pulled herself out of the disintegrating piece of titan meat, the left-over strands evaporating off of her body. She shivered, clenching her arms around her body.
"That… was not pleasant. At all."
"You seemed to be enjoying yourself," scoffed the unicorn, wiping a rivulet of Dio's blood off of her face.
"Believe me, I wasn't the one enjoying anything. Mostly." Holly looked around the ruined square feverishly, then turned back to Twilight. "Where'd Katniss go?"
"I just told them. She went back in the mansion to fight-" an explosion from within the mansion interrupted her. The foyer, which had been open to the air since Holly transformed, was now filled with a plume of smoke and dust. Something red glowed behind the dark, flowing sheet.
"ARE YOU WORTHY?" growled Katniss' voice from within the smoke.
Holly sighed audibly. "That poor girl. I should start investing in her losing it."
"That energy," whispered Twilight, staring into the swirling black fumes. "It's the Satsui no Hado. Someone so new to the art couldn't have tapped into it with this kind of power, not yet."
"Not unless that magic-genesis-absolute-territory field happened again," said Holly giving the unicorn a sideways glance. Twilight cursed under her breath again, which was still hilarious.
Katniss stepped out of the haze, surrounded by the fiery evil ki. Her hair and her jacket- tied arm-over-arm around her waist- tossed back and forth in the air, suspended by the raw power of the energy.
"Katniss. You don't need to do this," warned a stern Twilight.
"Fighting is my life. I do need to do this," Katniss hissed through gritted teeth.
"I want you to take a few deep breaths and calm do-" a fireball exploded against the unicorn mid-sentence, tossing her across the square. Alucard, in some unnatural display of compassion, took off after Twilight's falling body.
"Who's next?" said Katniss, feverishly glancing at the remaining girls. Mikasa, not usually one to run from a fight, dropped her blade-less swords' trigger-grips, letting them fall to her sides. She crossed her hands behind her head and took a few steps back.
Ryuko chuckled. "I've still got my sword." She extended an open hand toward Katniss and waved her on.
"Prove to me your worth," Katniss spat, slowly advancing. "And fight me without your weapon."
"If you say so," smiled Ryuko, who drove the tip of the Scissor Blade into the ground nearby.
Ryuko. That's putting us at a distinct disadvantage.
"Relax, Senketsu. We'll just change form if we have to."
I guess so. Be careful.
Katniss leapt toward Ryuko, extending an open hand upward in mid-air. Ryuko knew that a palm strike certainly wouldn't hit her at that trajectory, so she was probably aiming for the ground. She kicked off the ground backwards, sailing up as Katniss landed, creating a brutal shockwave along the ground. Now that her opponent was grounded, Ryuko could make her move. The booster on the back of her Kamui flared to life, propelling her toward Katniss.
"I'll call this the STOP-MAKING-FUN-OF-HOW-SENKETSU-LOOKS-PUUUUUUNCH!" she screamed, diving toward her target fist-first. Katniss looked up, and began to rise to her feet when the attack knocked a hole through the street.
"That got her, for sure," grunted Ryuko. But as the dust cleared, she noticed there was no unconscious girl at her feet, or anywhere. In fact, Katniss stood just in front of her, arms crossed, with a disappointed scowl on her face.
"Hmph," Katniss muttered, shaking her head.
Ryuko spun on a heel, sending a foot flying toward the super-charged girl. "HE-AND-I-ARE-FRIENDS-AND-YOU-CAN'T-CHANGE-THAT-KIIIIIIIIIIICK!" Again, the strike should have connected with Katniss, but the instant before, she was gone.
"Ryuko!" called Holly from the sidelines. "Twilight's not here! She can't hear you!"
"THAT"S WHAT YOU'RE GOING TO GIVE ME ADVICE ON?" yelled Ryuko before being blasted back by a hadoken. She flew into the side of a house, leaving a sizeable dent in the stone wall. Ryuko grimaced and pulled her limbs out of their self-dug trenches.
"How are you doing, Senketsu?"
Fine, Ryuko. This is more annoying than anything.
Holly watched the battle carefully, analyzing Katniss' moves in case she would have to be the one to stop the crazed girl. The elf looked across the square to where Twilight had fallen, and decided that she and Alucard might need some assistance. She focused her magic into rapid back-and-forth movement, vibrating out of the visible spectrum, and hustled toward the unicorn.
I'm sorry Katniss. I thought I was helping you through this. Why are you still so desperate to win, to sink to this?
Chapter 12: Putting Things To Rest/ The Star/ The Fool/ The Lovers
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?