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Poacher's Timing

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Prologue: One Week Ago

"Kim," she cried.

The response was not verbal, as Jackie would have expected. But a reply was felt, rather than understood: a sense of foreboding, a whisper of a danger that she could not quite comprehend.

"Kim," again, and suddenly she was there and not there all at once. Jackie looked to her meister, reaching out to the figure she now saw lying in front of her, clear as day. But when her hand came into her line of vision, she stopped.

She hadn't felt it before, but how could she have missed this? Hot, thick crimson running down her wrist and dripping from her fingertips- but she felt no pain.
Jackie looked at her hands in horror, a shiver running up her back as she saw her worst nightmare laid out before her. "Kim!" The name had risen to a shriek, and among the close confines of the otherwise quiet jungle (save for the stirring of creatures she neither needed nor wanted to meet) the sound was world shattering.
She fell to her knees beside the body of her partner, and she couldn't help the tears that dripped down her cheeks, splattering in the pool of blood rapidly spreading out from under Kim.

Jackie stroked Kim’s hair, soothing her with gentle words, even as one hand pressed down in a vain attempt to find source of the blood that was forced out with every heartbeat. Jackie pulled Kim’s head up and rested it on her own legs, the meister struggling to breathe.

Couldn't she heal herself? How had this happened? They had only been walking for a few minutes before Jackie turned to find herself alone. They hadn't even been in the jungle for more than an hour. If something had hurt her, how had she not heard?

The sickening scent of rotting fruit and festering flesh was all around, and when she turned her gaze away from her partner to try and find the source, she immediately wished she hadn’t. For on the ground was a knife. Had she hurt her partner? Had the girl done this to herself, in such a crude way? There was so much blood that Jackie could not pinpoint one source, and was forced to conclude that there were multiple ones.

And then, a flash of light and a crash of thunder. The sky was falling, the heavens cracking open and raining down upon the two. Jackie could have sworn that it was gems she saw hitting the ground with sickening cracks, but as she blinked, she saw the reflective objects were souls. She looked around, forgetting for a moment where she was and what was happening.

Jackie reached out with one bloodstained hand, palm up, as she looked to the frighteningly black sky above. She started as she realized that it was not just the sky that was dark, but her surroundings too. There was no light, except that from the souls that still fell around them.

As she watched, a soul glowing dimmer than the rest dropped right into her palm. A flash of recognition hit her like a bolt of lightning, and she wanted to scream from the anguish that overtook her senses. It was Kim’s. Kim, whose body lay in her lap and whose soul was cradled by shaking hands.

Jackie held the soul close to her chest with one hand, as she bent to closer examine her meister’s face. Kim was breathing, but only barely, and she felt another pang in her heart followed by a sharper stab of pain.

She looked down at her chest, startled to see the same knife blade that had been covered in her partner’s blood and lying on the jungle floor protruding from a slot between her ribs. She collapsed forward, hitting the ground face first.

Somewhere in the back of her mind, beyond the pain that threatened to claim her consciousness, she realized that the weight in her lap was gone. The soul in her hand and those that had been raining down had disappeared as well, and panic overtook her. Kim was gone, and Jackie no longer had any strength to even retake her feet.

She lay there in the mud, cheek pressed against cool moss, as her eyelids threatened to shut. The blood weeping from her wound made her mind grow addled, but her sense of desperation grew by the second: she had to find her partner. Kim hadn’t been dead, couldn’t have been dead, and their bond required that the weapon remain with her meister until the very end.

Jackie raised herself up on her hands, crying out as this caused the knife to shift and cut even deeper into soft, weeping flesh. She began to crawl toward a faint glimmer in the distance, not even caring as drops of something that caused her skin to smoke and burn began to rain down and sting any exposed flesh upon impact.

A pond, that’s what she’d seen. Some kind of lake, Jackie thought, as her hands met the shore and eventually entered the shallows of water. She pushed herself into the water, hoping to escape the acid that threatened to claim her sanity with each burning drop.

The cold water felt good on her skin, so good that she didn’t at first notice the icy hand that wrapped around her wrist and dragged her in further, a choking sound of surprise erupting from her.

She clawed at whatever was in reach with her left hand, be it the shore, rocks, or branches, but it was no use, for the grip was much stronger than her ruined body could fight. Her horror only increased as she felt her face submerge, and she could no longer see in the murky depths.

Jackie tried to hold her breath for as long as she could, but she quickly ran out of oxygen, faster than she would have thought. She coughed as her body fought to inhale, lungs already filled with blood taking in water as well.

Her eyes closed as a sense of overwhelming nothingness came over her. She was losing consciousness, she knew, but this didn’t seem particularly concerning. She would die here, die without her partner by her side, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. Jackie knew this.

But then, another hand. This one, warm and strong, closed around her left hand and pulling back toward the surface. The cold grip on her right wrist loosened, and she vaguely realized she was being rested on dry land on her side. She vomited water and blood, convulsing for several minutes, which caused the blade still embedded in her chest to twist.

Then there were hands on her, stroking her hair and running down her arms and back. She instinctively relaxed into the touch, recognizing the presence of someone very close to her. It was Kim, or at least it felt like the meister she had grown to know and care about.

She felt the pain draining away, and barely noticed the blade being slid out from between her ribs. Of course: her meister was a healer. Kim would never die the way Jackie had thought, and she’d never let her weapon go easily either. They’d be beautiful and young and alive forever, the way Jackie had always hoped.

She felt arms come around her, and then she was able to move her arms and embrace back. Kim was warm and nearly dry, Jackie chilled to the bone and soaked, the two girls looking for all intents and purposes like complete opposites of each other: almost like photo negatives.

The tears came again, soaking into the fabric of the meister’s shirt, but Kim didn’t seem to mind and only held her even tighter. Jackie heard herself vaguely, noticed she was sobbing, but didn’t have any mind to care.

“Kim, Kim,” she chanted over and over. “Kim,” but there was no reply.

“Kim,” Jackie whimpered now. “Kim,” just barely a whisper.

And then Nothing. Nothing.

It was a shrill high pitched keening that broke her heart and shattered any semblance of calm that brought her back to the Land of the Waking. It was Kim’s voice, she realized with sudden clarity as she registered the arms cradling her. Her head tilted back, seeking her partner’s expression. She followed Kim’s eyes up, and up, only to find herself confronting a creature of nightmares.

Teeth. Teeth, descending down on them. Jackie had no word for what she saw just above Kim’s head, but she didn’t need one to be terrified of the maw she was looking straight into. It was like a plant, but much too big and much too animated. And the smell emanating from it, the smell of rot and mold, was enough to assure her that this was really happening. Another scent also wafted to her, a sickly floral, but she didn’t even consider it.

She immediately jerked from her partner, throwing herself over Kim. There was no time to run, not even for transformation, just acts of desperation were left as grim possibilities. She knew what every weapon did: the meister comes first. If she could only prevent Kim from being hurt further, she would have at least not failed completely at her life’s duties.
It was useless though, a scorned attempt at protection, as both of them were engulfed whole by the venus fly trap that stood at least eight feet high. Both she and her partner were submerged in some vile liquid, even more painful than the acid rain from before had been. Jackie clenched her eyes shut reflexively, a useless gesture of self-preservation meant to save her optics. She was being digested, some part of her understood. This was the end for both of them.

She fought against it still, thrashing out until her head went under and continuing even then. She was no longer breathing but that somehow paled in importance, and she didn’t acknowledge how strange, how impossible it was that this wasn’t like drowning, this wasn’t like before.

Kim was fighting at her side, and she knew that this was better somehow. This was better than dying separately, or having her meister die first. But those thoughts ceased as weapon and meister were free falling through the air, having been suddenly spit out.

They landed in the lake again, the cold water shocking and chilling Jackie down to the bone. Desperately flailing in the ice cold water, the pair struggled toward shore. When Jackie finally pulled herself out, she turned her head to see her meister at her side and had to stifle a scream. Kim’s face; her features were all but destroyed. Her skin looked like charred wood, and as Jackie turned to face the water, she saw her reflection in the dim light and really did cry out.

She was disfigured as well, her hair burned away in places and her cheeks drooping horrifically. As she watched, crimson red ran from one eye, almost as if she was crying blood. Her skin was bleached white and her formerly midnight hair was rapidly deteriorating even further; her partner darkening in complexion and her hair seeming to sprout from the roots to spiral down around her shoulders.

She reached out for Kim and their hands interlaced as they waited for death to claim them.

There was no hope left, for she knew there was no healing whatever bizarre magic had been done. Jackie found herself praying. She prayed to be taken away, for this to end, for things to go back to the way they had been. There was no pain, not anymore, just a horrible emptiness, a feeling of something missing.

She wished this had never happened.

She wished they had never taken this assignment.

She wished that she had told Kim the truth, for surely this was her fault. Surely this had been caused by the lies that had built up over time: a white one, leading to grey, and darkening to red like the blood that dripped down her chin.

Chapter 1: Present

“Forty-two, forty-two, five-sixty-four,” Maka recited as she traced the numbers into the mirror as she done many, many times before. She and her constant companion stood in the Death Room side by side, close enough to touch, but far enough apart that the meister could only barely feel the heat radiating from her weapon’s skin.
Shinigami-sama appeared in the shimmering glass, cheerful as ever, which caused Maka to break into a smile of her own. Her heart beat just a little faster as the usual pre-mission excitement kicked in. She had just finished her newest book, and with nothing else to read and little to occupy her mind otherwise, she was more than willing to take advantage of an opportunity to grow even stronger.

For this was her goal, and she knew that if she reached out, her fingertips would just brush the surface. But that small contact with what was just beyond her reach was not enough for the two-star meister. She’d become three if it took her a lifetime; she’d achieve more than her mother and make Soul stronger than her father. There was no other choice.

“Good morning, Shinigami-sama,” she greeted, her hands held behind her back. The gruff, “Morning,” emanating from her weapon caused her eyes to flicker over to the offender, though Maka didn’t say anything. Soul had been the same for years and never seemed about to change, no matter what she did. She had long given up trying, and for good reason, too.

“Good morning, Maka, Soul,” was the quick return, as Shinigami-sama seemed to bounce in place. “I have something very important for you today.”

“What is it?” Maka asked, twice as interested as her partner, who was looking at anything but the being he was supposed to be watching.

“Do you remember the mission on the board from a few days ago, Capture?”

Maka nodded, instantly and earnestly. “Kim took it, didn’t she? I saw Jackie on her way out. But that was at least a week ago. They’re not back yet?”

“Precisely,” was Shinigami-sama’s reply, said in a voice much too enthusiastic for the information he was imparting. “It seems they’ve gone, ah, missing. I need you two to find them, and complete their mission. I’d ask someone else, but it seems like everyone’s busy today. Do you think you can do it?”

“Just leave it to us,” Maka replied affirmatively, her confident tones concealing the worry barely concealed. She could feel Soul’s eyes on her, reading her like an open book. Though his soul perception was severely limited, she knew there was absolutely no hiding from his all-knowing gaze. They’d spent much too much time together for that.

As they left the Death Room, Maka led the way with quick strides, her partner strolling leisurely behind her with his hands tucked in his pockets.

“How bad can it be?” Soul asked, obviously trying to diffuse Maka’s worry. “It’ll be no problem for a couple of pros like us. We’ve faced worse than anything that could possibly be out there, and Jackie and Kim probably just have a leak in their boat or something. In fact, they’re probably just waiting for someone to come pick them up. So quit it with that face, and let’s go already.”

She spun then, turning on him as her calm rapidly slipped away. “How can you say that, Soul? Kim is anything but weak, and what if something really bad happened? What are we going to do then? We need a plan first, we need to know more about this beast. If you’ll only give me time to research, and then-“

“You worry too much,” Soul said, cutting her off dismissively. “We can make a plan once we get there. And anyway, the flyer didn’t specify what kind of beast to begin with, so how can you find books about that specific one? You can’t prepare for every monster that’s ever existed, it would be stupid to even try.”

Maka’s mouth opened and then shut again as she bit back her retort. Soul was just so infuriating sometimes, especially when he was maybe-sorta-kinda right. Still, something about this whole assignment seemed so off, and she couldn’t shake the cold feeling that had come over her despite the warmth of the day.

“You win, Soul. You better be right,” she finally said, grudgingly accepting his reasoning. She wanted nothing more than for Jackie and Kim to be perfectly alright, but the realist attitude she’d gotten from her ever-levelheaded mother told her that this was incredibly unlikely to be the case. Maka was cautiously preparing herself for the worst, and also hoping for the best at the same time.

“Shouldn’t we go get supplies first?” she suggested, hoping he’d at least see the practicality of that idea. “We don’t know how long this is going to take, and if I remember correctly, it’s a deserted island in the middle of the ocean. There’s not going to be food, or water, or first aid kits, or clothes, or-“

And once again, she was cut off by her partner who simply scoffed. “What, you think this is going to take a strong guy like me more than a few hours to slice up some beast? We’ll just go and get it done and be back before dark. Hate to sound like that idiot Black Star, but really, lighten up a little, Maka.”

She made a small sound of frustration, realizing there was absolutely no reasoning with him. They had just eaten lunch, both of them were well-rested, and the island really was close enough to the coast that they could come back by that night providing nothing bad happened.

“Let’s just stop home before we head out. I won’t bring much, and I won’t even make you carry it. Come on, Soul, just give in already. I’m not going just like this, and you know it,” she told him, her mind firmly made up.

“Fine,” he conceded, following her out the front doors of Shibusen, his meister chattering all the way to their shared apartment.

Chapter 2: Present

“Well, this is seriously weird. Place gives me the creeps,” Soul remarked.

The weapon and meister pair were standing on the shore just bordering dense jungle, the two anchoring the boat they had come in with various rope configurations. They worked together, Maka biting at her lip as she concentrated. Soul stole a glance when he was sure she wasn’t looking, and almost chuckled aloud at how her brow furrowed.

“Me too, Soul,” his partner admitted. “But Kim and Jackie are in there somewhere since we already looked all around the outside of the island from the boat. We’ll have to go in, should I carry the stuff with us or leave it here?”

“Take it,” he said shortly, holding out a hand. “Gi’me one of the bags, I don’t want to hear you complain about how heavy it is the whole time.”

In truth, he just wanted to help her out, since he knew she’d have no peace of mind unless she had all her supplies on hand. But he regretted offering once he felt the weight of the bag he slung over his shoulder. He was sure that there had to bricks in it, or at least some kind of encyclopedia.

“The hell, Maka,” Soul grumbled under his breath, but adjusted weight against his back without further comment.

“Well, let’s go,” his meister said, and he obligingly followed a pace or two behind. “Be careful, and stay close,” Maka instructed, as he nodded in a way that said I know, I know, you’ve told me this a million times before.

Soul looked up at the imposing trees as they pushed their way into the foliage, bemoaning the absence of a path. They’d have to pick their way through the jungle painstakingly slowly, not even taking into account the likelihood of running into something on the opposite side of friendly in such a confined space.

“Just let me go first,” he said, reaching out to catch Maka’s hand as she batted away yet another vine that he knew would swing back to hit him in the face. “I’ll cut a path.”

His meister fell back, letting him move ahead of her. His arm transformed; he cut in wide swaths and cleared the way. He figured it was easier this way.

“Soul!” he heard, the exclamation causing him to turn his head.

“What?” the scythe asked in a voice just dripping with impatience.

“Can’t you do a better job with this?”

Soul frowned, looking at the vines his partner was struggling through. Surely he’d cut them shorter than that a second ago, but still he said, “Alright, no need to get your panties in a bunch.”

They continued forward for another twenty or thirty paces before Maka spoke again, this time to all out in genuine irritation.

“You missed all of this!” his meister accused, batting her way through a thick web he was certain he had cut down.

“No, I didn’t!” Soul retorted, stopping and turning to face her. “Something’s going on here. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t like it. So you and your tiny tits stop trying to blame this on me, alright? I’m doing my best.”

He regretted the words before they’d even left his lips, but he rued them even more when her hand came down on top of his head in a stinging blow. The dreaded Maka Chop, but at least the nearest book was still in his backpack and not embedded in his skull.

“Look,” he said, suddenly serious. She turned, and they realized together that the path Soul had cut was now gone. The jungle looked the same both in the direction they were going, and the one they’d come from. Maybe it was good they’d brought the supplies, since it looked like it would be a challenge to find their way out again. He wondered how this could be, but having seen lots of strange things in his lifetime already, he chose not to think about it too much. Trying to figure out what was going on would probably make his head explode, and anyway, his meister worried enough for both of them.

He turned back around and continued pushing his way through the foliage, paying no mind to Maka’s various grumbles and complaints behind him. It wasn’t until he heard a scream that he stopped mid-swipe, immediately alarmed and on guard.

Soul turned, but no one was behind him. He began to panic silently, eyes scanning for any trace of his meister. How could he possibly have lost her? What was the last thing she’d said, and how long ago? Unable to recall, he turned back to the way he’d been facing originally, only to shout when his eyes set upon the sight in front of him.

“Maka!”

How in the hell had she gotten in front? How the hell had he not noticed? How the hell could he possibly have hurt his meister?

But there was no denying what had happened, as crimson dripped from his scythe blade and his meister doubled over, falling to her knees.

“Maka! No, this isn’t, this can’t be,” he said frantically, trying in vain to hold together the ripped shreds of her rapidly red-soaked shirt and press it against the horizontal wound. It was five inches wide, and shallow, but it was enough to cause her to gasp for breath.

But it was Maka’s voice that brought him back, Maka’s voice sounding way too normal and just a bit too much irritated. And when he blinked, he was straddling one unhurt Maka and grasping at one perfectly intact shirt. She shoved him off, with a hard kick to his stomach for good measure.

“What’s your deal, Soul?” she asked angrily. “I tripped and instead of helping me up, you act like a complete pervert!”

“Maka, I-“ he winced, clutching his gut with one arm as the two of them stood.

“Whatever,” Maka said, though her tone conveyed that this was anything but whatever.

“I saw something,” he said through gritted teeth as they began to push through the forest again. “It was like madness came over me for a second. Something knows we’re here, Maka.”

Chapter 3: One Week Ago

“Jackie!” Kim yelled. “Jaqueline!”

She shook her friend and partner by the shoulders. The meister didn’t understand why her weapon was screaming and looking about frantically: she was right there, for heaven’s sake. It was like Jackie couldn’t even see her, and this both irritated and frightened Kim to no end.

“I’m right here.” And then they were on the ground, and Jackie was running her hands all over Kim and although it didn’t feel bad, it felt weird, and there was absolutely no reason for Jackie to be screaming. Terrified now, Kim watched her partner begin to cry, struggling to comprehend whatever horrors she must be seeing.

Kim tried to put her hands on the sides of Jackie’s head, hoping to heal whatever could possibly be causing this if it was, in fact, some sort of physical ailment. But Jackie slipped away from her grasp, just as the clouds that had been gathering since their arrival let loose, rain pouring down with ice- was that hail?- so hard Kim could barely see.
Jackie was still even as the storm raged, looking as if she were holding something delicate and important in her palm instead of a single pearly sphere like one of hundreds falling all around. Kim watched with wide eyes as her partner got closer and closer, the weapon now focused solely on Kim. She was sickened by the way her heart raced, and the way her attention dropped to the lips only inches from hers. This was not the time for thinking along those lines, not when her friend seemed to barely even know where she was or what she was doing.

Suddenly, Jackie collapsed on top of Kim, and her gasp struck Kim right through the heart. It had been a genuine sound of pain and fear, which terrified her more than she had thought possible. She wiggled out from underneath the taller girl, scrambling back a few paces when she was free.

To her horror, Jackie began to move toward the body of water. Kim grabbed desperately for her friend, but Jackie was too fast and too evasive to catch. Kim ran after her weapon, but was too late to stop her from plunging face first into a lake with who-knows-what in it.

“Jackie!” she screamed, thrusting out a hand and just barely catching the other girl’s wrist before she was submerged completely. Pulling as hard as she could, she was able to heave the now soaking wet weapon up onto the bank. Cradling her in her arms, Kim held her friend tight and poured as many healing wavelengths as she could into the girl.
“Come on, come on,” she muttered desperately. “Come back to me, straight laced.” The familiar golden hues appeared around her fingertips, and for a moment, she felt the stirrings of genuine hope. Her arms were firmly wrapped around her partner, and they only tightened when she felt Jackie weakly return her embrace.

Jackie was calling Kim’s name in a strange, mindless way, like she didn’t care for Kim’s reply, or even notice she was there. Kim looked down at her partner intently, realizing that her eyes had rolled back into her skull. The frigid water must have put her into a state of shock, Kim realized, and her body was shutting down in an attempt to return to equilibrium.

Maybe she’d been poisoned somehow, Kim thought as she stroked soft black strands, struck by something without Kim’s noticing. If so, the healing should have been more than enough considering Kim’s experience with toxin remedies. But when Jackie’s eyes opened and a blood curling scream emanated from her mouth, Kim bitterly thought that she’d failed her partner once more.

She turned to look, her own voice rose up to join the girl she held. A plant, no- a creature of some sort- was rearing its head up at them. And behind it a rose grew rapidly, petals unfurling and stem stretching for the overcast sky.

Jackie suddenly lunged out of Kim’s arms and threw herself between Kim and the monster, a sound of protest emanating from Kim as her weapon crouched to protect her. And even though she was sure she was not hallucinating, her last thought before the plant swallowed the two of them whole was still to wonder whether she was about to wake in her bed in the dorm.

It was even darker inside the plant, almost pitch black, and Kim struggled against the strangely strong flesh of the plant in an effort to rip her way free. It didn’t yield under her punches and kicks, and she desperately wished Jackie was in good enough shape to transform so they’d at least stand a chance.
It seemed that wasn’t necessary though, for they were both ejected almost as quickly as they had been taken in. Kim felt herself inhale water as she was submerged, and she kicked to the surface choking and spluttering. They’d been spat out into the lake; she swam hard for shore, unable to think of anything but self-preservation as her lungs and legs both cried out in pain.

When she arrived back on the muddy and rocky ground, she saw Jackie and immediately wanted to scream. Whatever liquid they had been exposed to was doing something to her friend, turning her beautiful ebony locks to white strings fragile as chalk and her healthy, flushed skin an unhealthy pallor. Kim raised a hand to her face, blinked, and then examined the skin more closely. It was darkening and wrinkling like paper tossed into a flame, and as she shook her head, she realized her hair was doing the same.
She turned to the lake, thinking that their only hope was to submerge themselves again in an effort to slow the effects, but suddenly a crack of lightning illuminated the surface enough for her to see their reflections. They looked normal in the lake, but when she glanced down, she saw that her skin was still marred.
Kim reached out to Jackie, grasping the hand the other girl had extended in a weak attempt at comfort. They sat there unmoving, maybe for minutes, maybe hours. Night fell, and with it, an eerie quiet.

A flash of light. Twin screams, matched in pitch and intensity. And then nothing, not a sign of weapon nor meister.

But the ground was now occupied by yet another rose and venus flytrap, both rapidly expanding.

Chapter 4

The witch called herself “Poacher,” and expected anyone who had the misfortune of coming across her to do the same. She was a hunter, after all; that was her life’s purpose. Every dawn she sought new prey, easy blood, with her wide field of vision, and every night she lay in wait for the next day to come.

It had been some time since she’d had the fortune of a visitor to her island domain. Time passed slowly in the depths of the jungle for a long-lived being, so it may have been merely days, or it may have been centuries since a human had graced the island with their presence.

And this time, it was not only one, but two younglings that landed on the sandy shore and headed up into the jungle. They appeared small to the being who stood as tall as the largest tree, looking down on them from above. Kim and Jackie, as they called each other, seemed little more than ants, or perhaps beetles crawling around on the jungle floor.
Camouflage magic served her well, for her goal was to remain unnoticed and lure in unsuspecting prey. Perhaps she had the lowly chameleon to thank for her unique skills, but the witch had also taught herself techniques outside of the skills she had developed naturally.

Once she had reached maturity and felt the pull of magic, she had immediately desired more than the running and hiding that came easiest to her. The solution became simple the first time an explorer landed on her shores, some time ago. She had captured him, and used him for entertainment until he finally succumbed to exhaustion or starvation or both. From then on, she planned for each new “guest” well in advance, seeing them approaching the island by water.

Her soul was concealed to even the most talented of meisters by the nature of her magic. She fed on reason, on logic and order, leaving behind only confusion and insanity. Over centuries she had learned to manipulate her wavelength even further, imbuing her very soul with madness and letting it trickle out so it would spread to the surrounding areas. From that point on, her only purpose was the hunt and her only motivation was the desire to kill.

So when two young women, clearly students of the Death Weapon Meister Academy, landed on her shores, she was determined to hunt them down. Surely two healthy-looking creatures could entertain her for a period of time, and both their bodies and souls would make a delicious meal once they finally went beyond human limits.
As she watched, her wavelength began to affect the girl with dark hair, but not her partner. Poacher had never seen such a phenomenon, for no one had been able to resist the madness so absolutely in all the years since she had made an effort to infuse her wavelength with as much as it could contain.

Looking on, she began to grow frustrated with this turn of events. It seemed as if more action would need to be taken before she could capture the light haired meister, and she loathed the idea of intervening directly. After all, her style as a hunter was to wait for the prey to come to her. She did not, on principle, rush out and attack. That was unwise, and went against the very nature of her magic.

Instead, she reached out to one of her most obedient servants, a venus flytrap that owed its consciousness to her. Inside its gullet was a poison that revealed the most basic nature of those who touched it. She saw, with barely contained glee, the large plant capture the two girls and coat them in its potent liquid.

A hiss emanated from Poacher as she watched the weapon and meister transform. The girl who had been called Jackie was lightening, showing the purity that ran deep throughout her. But the one known as Kim was rapidly turning much darker, revealing the internal contamination that could only be magic.

Another witch was a challenge she’d never dealt with before, and she was not sure how to proceed. Instead of continuing with her conquest, she transformed the two into reflections of their souls to be dealt with later. A rose and a venus flytrap stood where the girls had been within seconds, and Poacher felt a surge of satisfaction at the beauty they brought to the dark jungle around them.

It didn’t seem like much time had passed before she spotted another set of students approaching her island in a small boat. Poacher was somewhat confused by this turn of events, for there were often long stretches where she saw no one, so for this many to find their way to the island in so short a time was unusual.

She watched as the young man and woman entered the jungle, and waited for them to begin to show signs of the madness. The young man appeared to have been taken first, only to snap out of it suddenly. Poacher was immediately determined to catch the one she had heard called Soul, and knew instantly that he would get a special punishment when he was finally caught for managing to break free of the influence of her wavelength.

These two, she felt she could manage. Unlike the girls from the preceding days, the witch was certain they were an ordinary pair of weapon and meister. After all, it was easy to speak to their souls. If she could persuade them to come of their own free will, the hunt would be simple. She began to plant suggestions and flatteries within their subconscious, whispering the words she thought they wanted to hear most.

“Come to me,” she begged the boy with white hair, beseeching him with a sugared tone. “She can’t love you like I do. Isn’t that what you desire most, Soul? The love of another? I can see that longing deep within you. Perhaps you can help me, but I’d be more than delighted to help you. So handsome, so talented. It’s a shame you feel as if you’re not recognized. I would never treat you in that manner.”

“Maka, dear, sweet Maka,” Poacher began, shifting her focus. “You believe you’re the reasonable one of your friends, of the Academy even. You’ve worked hard to get where you are, and you’re proud of your accomplishments. Join me, and we’ll make this world great. Your ideas are brilliant, and could shake the very foundation of all that is known and established. I can help you become what you’ve always wanted to be: the very best meister that’s ever lived.”

Chapter 5: Present

A meister without a weapon was not entirely helpless, but certainly disadvantaged. Maka knew this, had known this since entering the Academy and pairing with Soul “Eater” Evans. She rarely had to fight without the scythe in her hands or at her side, so she was growing apprehensive as tusks of what appeared to be wild boars drew closer and closer.
She didn’t know how she had been separated from her partner, only that she had turned away for a second and he was gone. Maka thought perhaps he’d pushed forward not realizing that she wasn’t behind him, but then he ought to have heard her calling his name. It was as if the jungle had swallowed him whole, leaving behind no trace.
Maka yelled as her right foot connected with a beast’s snout with a solid impact, and she turned to hit one over the head that was trying to charge her from behind. The wave seemed endless, but the creatures were not particularly strong and clearly not used to pain by the way they whimpered at the slightest of blows.
All the while as she fought, she thought to herself that this was making her stronger. That the best meisters should be able to fight alone, just as many weapons could. That with each punch and kick she was proving herself, even though no one was watching.

A gentle breeze blew through her hair, chasing away some of the oppressive humidity of the jungle and giving her a moment’s respite from the heat. Maka paused to brush a strand of hair that had escaped from the others behind her ear, before whirling to face the beasts.

She blinked as her closed fist made contact with a soft underbelly and suddenly, there was only air. Where there had been a heavy creature that whined and roared, there was nothing. And on the ground, the dozens of boars that had lain there stunned moments ago had disappeared too, leaving behind only the matted vines that covered the jungle floor.

Maka looked around in confusion, before glancing back down at her wrist with a hiss of pain. The body of the creature was there, balanced on her hand and forcing joints to unnatural angles. She threw it off of her, sending it to join the unconscious bodies that had also reappeared. She thought perhaps she had just imagined their disappearance.
The onslaught did not cease for what felt like ages, although in reality Maka doubted that it lasted more than a few minutes. She was breathing hard, dripping with sweat, and sore by the time she collapsed on the ground within the ring of fallen creatures. The meister lay on her back as she caught her breath and relaxed her coiled muscles, looking up at the thick jungle canopy which only select rays of sunshine could penetrate.

She rose to her feet after what was probably less than half an hour of rest, turning in a circle. Maka and Soul had only walked in a straight line since they had entered the jungle, so she reasoned that if she hadn’t been turned around in the fight, she could just go back the way she had come in. Soul would be looking for her, surely. And although they hadn’t discussed a meeting place beforehand, she was sure he’d have the same idea: to return to the boat.

She realized that she had spent an indeterminate amount of time caught up with the beasts, and that Soul must be growing worried as well. They were rarely apart in day to day life, let alone a mission, and Maka thought that perhaps her absence left the same hole in him that his left in her.

Maka began the trek back in the direction she was reasonably sure was correct, wipping sweat from her brow. She felt as if the temperature was continually rising, and this was a major source of discomfort along with the fact that her body was complaining of muscle cramps in her arms, legs, and core.

She hadn’t been walking long when she thought she saw a flash of blonde hair out of the corner of her eye. Maka froze momentarily before chasing after it, scrambling over tree roots and jungle debris and nearly tripping several times in her hurry. She wondered if she and Soul, and possibly Kim and Jackie, were really the only people on the island. There could be others, and she was sure she had just seen one.

She ran, taking several turns before finally coming to a clearing. In the center stood a familiar figure, who appeared to be waiting with arms outstretched. Maka wanted to cry, she wanted to laugh, but she was too overwhelmed to react at all, and instead froze where she was.

“Mama,” she whispered, before running forward into the offered embrace. “Mama!” Maka cried out against the woman’s shoulder, wrapping her arms around the slender body and feeling arms come around her in return.

“My Maka,” the woman replied warmly, the smile evident in her voice even though Maka had her face firmly buried in the side of her neck. “You’ve grown up so well.”
“Mama, I’ve missed you! What are you doing here?” Maka asked, pulling back to look into the face she had missed so. But when she did so, she realized she’d made a grave mistake in the identity of the person she was embracing. How could she possibly have mistaken her deadbeat father for the mother she wanted more than nearly anything else in the world?

“Papa?” she asked uncertainly, struggling unsuccessfully to free herself from the tight wrap of his strong arms
.
“Yes, my darling little girl?” the doting death scythe replied, pressing her face into his chest and giggling like a schoolgirl.

Okay, Maka thought. This was getting too weird.

“Why?” she croaked out, unable to breathe in his crushing embrace. Why are you here, she had meant to ask, but incapable of getting the words out, she hoped the single question word would suffice.

“Because I love you, Maka!” came the useless answer, and Maka finally managed to wrench her way free.

But when she looked up in annoyance, the person in front of her had changed once again. Maka had to tilt her head back to see the face, or more accurately, the mask that awaited her.

“Shinigami-sama?” she asked in surprise, instinctively looking behind the figure for a mirror or some kind of reflective surface to explain his sudden appearance.
“Do you remember the mission on the board from a few days ago, Capture?” he asked, and Maka was silent as she processed the question and tried to decide on a response. Of course she did, she was completing it right then!

“It seems Jacqueline and Kim have gone, ah, missing,” he continued, as if she had already confirmed that she did, in fact, remember. “I need you two to find them, and complete their mission. I’d ask someone else, but it seems like everyone’s busy today. Do you think you can do it?”

“Just leave it to us,” she said automatically, before shaking her head in an effort to clear it.

“What is going on here?” she yelled in frustration, and then he was gone too, leaving her alone with nothing but a tree standing in the center of a clearing.
Maka huffed out a breath in frustration, before turning back in the direction she believed she had come from and trudging that way.

This time it seemed as if the jungle itself was fighting her, thorny vines swinging towards her face and her foot catching on every root on the ground, causing her to stumble and bring her arms up to shield her head. She felt the sharp points raking at her arms and a spike of pain that meant she had turned an ankle, but still she pushed forward. There was no other choice after all; she had to find Soul first and foremost.

It felt like only minutes but must have been hours before she pushed aside a curtain of jungle creepers to reveal the sun setting over a picturesque ocean view. She collapsed on the sand, panting. She reached for her bag, pulling out a bottle of water and guzzling down half of it before she could think better of saving it. Maka wasn’t sure why she hadn’t done so earlier, but perhaps it explained the stranger things she’d seen: after all, dehydration was dangerous and she should have been more careful.

She lay there catching her breath for an indeterminate amount of time, but when she rose, the sun had already sunk below the horizon. Maka walked along the shore for a few minutes before their boat came into view, and her heart felt heavy when she didn’t see a white haired figure standing or even sitting beside it.

She approached, checking the inside and outside for some kind of sign, a note or something, to indicate that Soul had been there. Finding nothing, she settled down in the bottom of the boat for the night. There was no use in going back into the jungle with darkness approaching rapidly, and she thought that perhaps it was best to wait. For all she knew, Soul was on his way and would be there in just a few more minutes. She couldn’t risk leaving and missing him all together.

Maka shivered, curling up to conserve body heat. The air was rapidly growing cool as night fell, and the sweat that had coated her limbs in the jungle heat to prevent overheating now left her chilled. Sheer exhaustion took her, causing her to fall asleep within minutes.

She dreamed fitfully of her partner. They were back in the Dark Room, the familiar ceiling of red and black seeming to loom over the two. The grand piano was there along with the other usual furnishings, but the little red demon wasn’t. She and Soul were dressed up as if for a party, her in a black dress and him in a suit that was tailored so well it took her breath away.

They were dancing, her arms around his neck and his hands on her waist. A scratchy phonograph played a kind of smooth jazz, and she smiled as their eyes met. He smiled too, revealing sharp, pointed teeth.

“What are we doing?” she asked out loud, though the question wasn’t the sort that required an answer.

“Dancing,” Soul replied with that shark toothed grin and a chuckle that made her stomach flutter as if it contained butterflies ready to burst out.

“I like it,” Maka decided, though of course she hadn’t meant to tell him that either. It was no secret that she enjoyed dancing with her partner, so it really hadn’t been necessary to reiterate.

“I know,” he replied, but there was no sarcasm, not even a trace of malice in his voice. He sounded soft, gentler than he sounded in life.

“We can’t stay like this,” she said, though she loathed to end such a nice dream. “I have to wake up. We’re on a mission.”

“I love you, Maka,” he said, as if he hadn’t heard her. He leaned in closer, and Maka could have sworn she felt his breath on her cheeks, flushed with embarrassment. “I love you.”
Her eyes shut, but the kiss her subconscious craved never came. For when she next opened her eyes, she was looking up at a clear blue sky and wishing she hadn’t had to wake up. Maka sat up in the boat and looked around, immediately discerning that Soul had not made his way back in the night.

Shaking off her dream she stood, the recollection already fading. It wasn’t the first dream she had had like that, so it was easy to dismiss as a silly product of an overactive imagination and not a sign of some deeper feelings. The only thing it had done was remind her once again of the close bond the weapon and meister shared, and solidified the desire to find her partner.

She pulled a granola bar from her pack while rummaging around, tore open the wrapper, and stuck the food in her mouth. She found a pen at the very bottom of the bag and scrawled a quick note on the silvery foil that said she was looking for him, and to wait here if he did happen to find his way to the boat. She left it under a rock in the bottom of the boat, before climbing out and heading back towards the jungle.
Maka wouldn’t be leaving without Soul, not a chance.

Chapter 6

Soul swore as he slashed through yet another set of vines, the blade of his scythe shearing cleanly through the stringy fibers. It had been an hour or so since he’d realized Maka was no longer behind him. He had immediately tried to retrace his path, but it was as if the plants of the jungle were growing as quickly as he could cut them. Soul had lost all sense of direction when he turned back to find his surroundings nearly identical every way he looked, and finally had to settle for picking an orientation and pushing forward. He’d never get anywhere standing still and struggling to decide, or so he reasoned.

It was some time before he spotted a break in the vegetation, and at this point he was breathing heavily and drenched in sweat. The jungle heat was heavy and oppressive, and Soul thought he could have wept with relief when he finally reached the shore of a lake. He had no more water left in the bottle in his pack, and was glad to find a place where he could sit, refill, and refresh. Although he didn’t know what bacteria could possibly be lurking in the water (Maka was the one who knew those things) he knelt, and against his better judgment held cupped hands to his lips and sipped.

Soul made a face; the water was certainly not clean, nor was it pleasant tasting. However, he thought it was better to chance it than to dehydrate completely. After all, if he got sick, that would pass. But in this unknown environment, to grow weak from lack of water where there was some was unacceptable. He leaned forward and splashed his face, cleaning dirt and salt from his skin. What he really wanted was to actually bathe, but he decided against it as his clothes would take forever to dry in the humidity and he was already taking risks by drinking from the lake.

He rose to his feet, shoes sinking slightly in the soft, muddy ground, and took in the area around him. Soul realized that he was standing in the shadow of something, seeing it on the ground before him. He looked up, and immediately stumbled back. He swore as his foot splashed into a puddle deeper than the rest, though his attention turned back to the things creating the shadow.

A venus fly trap stood just taller than him, pale green with a startlingly bright pink maw. At its side was a rose, deep red and just as large. They seemed to be leaning towards each other, as if invisible forces were pushing them from either side or perhaps drawing them together. The stem of the venus fly trap was thicker than that of the rose, but it appeared more vulnerable as the rose was protected by delicate looking thorns that were undoubtedly still razor sharp. On the shore, not far from the two was yet another venus fly trap, towering over both of them.

Soul slowly advanced toward the smaller of the two venus fly traps, and cautiously reached a hand out to the base. He carefully kept his limbs away from the mouth, knowing that it would snap shut the second anything came into contact with the small tendrils lining it. The surface felt warm and smooth, and although it appeared to be of the normal fibrous material expected of a plant, he thought that the texture resembled rough human flesh.

He was unsure how such a thing could exist, but it didn’t seem to hold any ill intent as the venus fly trap did not try to catch his hand even as he raised it to just over the mouth. Perhaps it wasn’t interested in humans, only insects? Soul decided to move on, thinking that nothing would come of studying the two plants further. He had begun to walk away when he heard a sucking sound, like a foot pulled up from mud.

Soul turned back towards the two plants, surprised to find the roots of the venus fly trap exposed and reaching for him. He reared back, his arm transforming into a scythe instinctively to protect himself. He slashed out, severing just one of the tendrils. An unmistakably human cry of pain and rage emanated from the venus fly trap, causing Soul to pause. He thought he knew the voice, even strained and distorted as it was. His mind raced as he tried to place the sound and remember who or what it belonged to, but he came up with nothing.

He turned his arm back to normal in an attempt to appear nonthreatening, and he moved slowly towards the rose. Soul reached a hand up and touched a single blood red petal, surprised at how warm it was. He closed his eyes, and noticed the beat pulsing under his fingers, almost like a heart would. The sound of rustling leaves caused his eyes to reopen, and he took a step back as he saw the rose shake as if trying to throw his touch off. He withdrew, holding both hands in the air by his shoulders as if a plant would recognize the body language of submission.

Something was seriously off about the two plants, even without considering their unusual size. One had nearly spoken, and both were clearly capable of movement. Soul gritted his teeth and transformed his right arm, slicing cleanly through the stems of both in one sweep. Immediately, twin screams filled the air with piercing anguish. A flash of light caused him to throw his left arm across his eyes in an effort to shield them, but he was still left momentarily blinded.

Blinking, his arm came down when he thought it was safe to do so. His vision returned little by little, until he could finally see and recognize the two girls lying before him in the mud. Kim Diehl and Jackie Dupré from the Death Weapon Meister Academy, his classmates from the EAT class and the pair he and Maka had been sent to find. Neither girl appeared to be bleeding or otherwise injured by the strike they had received despite obviously being unconscious.

He knelt beside the pink haired Kim, expecting the strong willed witch to come to first. He wasn’t wrong, for it was only a few minutes before she coughed and struggled to sit up, her eyes fluttering open. He helped her into an upright position, concerned red eyes meeting green ones.

“What happened?” Kim asked Soul, before looking from him to Jackie’s body. She immediately crawled over to her partner on her hands and knees, leaning down to examine her. It took a moment before Jackie awoke, but then she too sat up. All three of them stood, brushing off mud and who-knows-what-else.

“You tell me,” Soul replied once both of them turned their attention back to him. “You’ve been missing for a week!”

Kim’s eyes darkened as she thought, memories of a week ago flooding back. Jackie hallucinating, the plant monster swallowing them both, and then…

“I don’t know exactly,” she admitted, though she was clearly reluctant to say so. “But… thanks, I guess I owe you. How much do you want?”

As Kim spoke, Soul’s gaze darted over to Jackie, who hadn’t yet spoken. The lantern’s eyes were unfocused, and even though she appeared to be looking at him, it was if she couldn’t hear a word being said.

“Jacqueline?” he asked, ignoring Kim’s last question. Both Kim and Soul were now focused on Jackie, who was visibly trembling where she stood. As he watched, he saw a bead of sweat bloom on her forehead and fall down the side of her face.

“Straight-laced?” Kim asked sharply, and suddenly Jackie lunged for Soul, her hand blazing and smoke rising around her.

Soul leapt aside just in time to avoid being burned, his own hand becoming steel. “What the hell,” he ground out through his teeth, looking at Jackie as if she’d grown another head. The two weapons faced each other, one focused but obviously bewildered and the other unsteady and wavering.

Jackie darted back in for him again, and this time her flame licked at the edge of his shirt, causing him to swear as the fabric caught on fire. He beat at his side with the flat of his blade until it was extinguished, hissing as he felt the pain of developing blisters. It was a fairly minor burn, though it still hurt, and he was thankful it wasn’t worse.

Kim ran between her weapon and Soul, arms out. “Jackie!” she cried out, her voice seeming to shock the weapon, causing the dark haired girl to freeze in place.

“Kim?” Jackie’s lips formed the name of her meister, though no sound came out. She blinked, and in her eyes was a spark of life that was extinguished just as quickly as it had ignited. She ducked under Kim’s arm, moving faster than the meister could react, and threw herself at Soul.

Soul stumbled backward, Jackie’s whole weight against his front causing him to lose his footing and fall flat on his back. He struggled, lashing out with fully human hands and feet as Jackie’s nails tore at the exposed skin of his face and neck.

He rolled to the side, her body on top of his as they fought, punches and kicks flying as they tussled.

“Kim!” Soul grunted, a call for help. Obviously something had come over Jackie, and although she seemed determined to kill Soul, she had avoided her meister. If anyone had a chance of winning against the particularly talented lantern weapon, it had to be someone who Jackie would be unwilling to hurt.

Out of the corner of his eye he could see Kim standing frozen, taking in the scene in front of her as if in a dream. Soul groaned inwardly, because what would he do if he had to fight a witch and her crazed weapon without a meister? He had no chance of defeating them both, if he couldn’t even subdue the weapon alone.

“Kim!” he yelled again, his fist connecting solidly with Jackie’s jaw and causing her head to fly back. “I know Jackie’s your weapon, but you have to help me.” He was tiring quickly in the heat, but Jackie didn’t seem to be even though she was sweating just as much he was. Soul was unsure how long he could keep Jackie at bay, and she wasn’t even using her weapon powers! If she did in this close range, he’d be done for, and he knew it.

“Kim!” The third call for the pink haired girl seemed to rouse her into action, and Kim strode forward deliberately. Kim grabbed Jackie’s shoulder and forcibly pulled her off of Soul, throwing the dark haired girl to the ground. Kim’s face was visibly pained (she had never treated her weapon so roughly before) but it was clear the meister was finally understanding the severity of the situation.

“Thanks,” Soul muttered, getting to his feet and rubbing out an ache in his shoulder. He and Kim stood over Jackie who lay on her back on the ground stunned, her dark hair splayed out around her shoulders and making odd linear patterns against the mud. “What should we do?”

His question was met with a long silence from Kim, who was looking down at her partner with intense worry. The witch had transformed back to herself with no problem thanks to Soul, but it seemed as if Jackie was still not free from the madness that had consumed her the last time she and Kim had been conscious.

Kim took a couple of steps back and beckoned Soul closer so they could talk without Jackie overhearing, if she was, in fact, capable of understanding them at that moment. Jackie appeared to be out cold, but Kim did not want to take a chance. She stood with her back to Jackie, placing herself between the passed out weapon and Soul in case Jackie awoke and tried to attack again.

Soul and Kim spoke quickly, urgently, agreeing to restrain Jackie and take turns carrying her with them. They decided they needed to find Maka as quickly as possible and leave the island in the boat Maka and Soul had arrived in. Jackie’s health and all of their safety had to come before completing the mission, and they could always return once they had all recovered from this journey or another, better prepared team could be sent out instead.

So engrossed in making a plan, neither heard as Jackie crawled away silently into the jungle. She was long gone by the time Kim and Soul turned to look, swallowed up by the foliage.

Chapter 7

Kim and Soul stood slightly apart, neither of them speaking for a long moment. They both felt that they should have been watching, should have heard something, and should have been paying better attention, because now their friend had disappeared without a trace. It would be one thing if Jackie was entirely herself, but in her state of madness, wandering the jungle was nothing less than perilous. It didn’t help that she hadn’t taken had any provisions with her, because perhaps that would have bought Kim some peace of mind.

Both the meister and weapon had lost their partners and were desperate to get them back. When Kim had first realized that her partner was missing, she had searched the area frantically, tearing aside jungle foliage and looking everywhere she could think to. When Jackie was not in the immediate area, she reached out with her soul, seeking resonance. Kim was surprised to find her weapon’s soul nearby, yet she could not pinpoint the direction to take in order to reach it. It was if a stone wall had been built up between them, whispers of Jackie’s presence- but nothing more- slipping through cracks in the concrete.

“What now?” Kim asked, the carelessness of the words betrayed by the look of worry in her eyes. “We need to find Jacqueline and Maka. It’s not safe out here for anyone.”

“And how do you suggest we do that?” replied Soul dryly, though his brow was furrowed in consternation. “This jungle is growing as fast as we can take it down. We’ll never find them in here.”

The two were silent, Kim looking at Soul even as his gaze seemed to focus off into the distance at a piece of sky just barely peeking through the curtain of vines and leaves. She thought he might be searching for Maka’s soul, just as she had done minutes ago when looking for Jackie. She didn’t dare interrupt his concentration, hoping silently that he would have success in finding his partner. When he looked to her and shook his head slightly, she felt her heart sink.

Deciding not to ask if he too had felt the chilling sensation of having his partner’s soul walled off- because that had been a bad experience for her that she was unwilling to think about further- Kim instead sat cross legged on the mossy jungle floor to rest. “Do you have water?” she asked, and nodded in thanks when he passed her the bottle.

She took a sip of the mildly sour water, making a face and wiping her mouth with the back of one hand before taking another drink and swallowing the fluid down quickly. Although unpleasant, she recognized the threat of dehydration looming over the both of them. This made her worry even further about Jackie, as Soul had assured her Maka had supplies without her even asking.

Kim watched as Soul leaned against the rubbery trunk of a nearby tree, sticking his lip out slightly as he exhaled slowly. He looked just as sweaty and frustrated as she felt, and this reminded her not to take it out on him. They both just wanted to find their partners and go home, after all. Kim cleared her throat once, tilting her head back to find his eyes above her.

“There’s a witch on this island,” she said finally, because it had to be said. Kim couldn’t pretend she had no idea what was going on anymore, because she would have been lying. And although she normally had no problem with a fib here or there, if telling Soul would help her get her best friend back, then she’d spill her guts for all she was worth. She hadn’t been sure earlier, but after hearing Soul’s account of what had happened to him and Maka when they were discussing plans earlier, there were no doubts left in her mind. This was the work of one of her kind.

She watched as Soul’s face set into a mask of grim recognition, and she paused to let him process that information. Kim weighed the pros and cons of telling him her suspicions, before finally deciding it was best to come clean with all she knew and thought. Perhaps he’d have some insight and come to conclusions that she wouldn’t have reached on her own.

“It’s camouflage based,” Kim said finally, leaning back on her hands which she had placed on the ground behind her. “For hunting. The witch surrounds herself with madness in order to distract her ‘prey’ and then lets them run loose until their souls are free for claiming. I’ve only heard of it a few times- it’s a very ancient, very rare magic. I think it’s called… timing. As in time spent waiting and time of death.”

Soul’s eyes narrowed, and instantly Kim knew she’d have more explaining to do before Soul would understand. Perhaps it was a shame he wasn’t versed in magic, because it would be so much easier to just move on without having to tell him every little thing she knew. But she’d never wish powers on anyone ordinary; nothing ever good came of magic, of the call of the darkness, and Kim knew this first hand.

“But why aren’t we… you know…?” he asked, folding his arms across his chest even as one hand gestured flippantly. “I saw some weird stuff this afternoon, but not since.”
Kim shrugged slightly, her lip curling in disgust. “I’m a witch, dumbass. Of course it doesn’t affect me as much as an ordinary weapon or meister. I don’t know about you, though. Maybe your soul’s familiar with madness already, so it’s easier for you to resist, or something like that. Another thing: witches feed on reason and kindness. Everyone knows that Maka and Jackie are twice as good as we are; you can’t pretend it’s not true.”

Night was rapidly approaching, streaks of red appearing amongst the pale blue sky just barely visible above the jungle canopy. The sun was beginning to sink beneath the horizon, and as it did so, the oppressive heat drained away only to be replaced with a chill. Soul and Kim set about creating a sorry excuse for a camp some distance away from the lake, using the supplies Soul had in the pack he had been carrying. They had no shelter (only a blanket), a bottle of water, meager provisions, and a few of Maka’s books.
Kim spread the blanket on the mossy ground, smoothing down the corners absentmindedly. “We’ll have to share,” she said, reaching for one of Soul’s energy bars and tearing open the wrapper.

“W-what?” Soul asked, in a voice that was so uncool it brought a smirk to Kim’s lips. “No, I can just… go without. I’ll be fine.”

“Idiot, it’s not like I’m going to try anything,” Kim said, looking back over her shoulder at him. “Don’t flatter yourself.”

“Shut up,” he grumbled, but Kim watched as he laid down on his back before moving to join him.

They lay side by side silently for a few minutes, before Kim turned onto her side to face him. “Soul?” she asked.

“Yeah?” he replied, his eyes focused on the sky above him rather than on Kim.

“I’m going to move a little closer. Don’t get your panties in a twist.” Before he replied, she rolled inward taking the corner of the blanket with her so she could wrap herself in it. The air was cool, and being sweaty from earlier, she was beginning to grow uncomfortably cold. This new position left her almost right up against Soul, but she didn’t mind much. Like she had said to him earlier, she wasn’t interested.

“This okay?” she asked, though she didn’t really care for the answer. Hell could freeze over before she’d move, since his body heat along with the blanket was doing an excellent job of warming her up.

“Fine,” came the short answer. Both of them were now lying flat on their backs, and Kim had her eyes shut as she tried to relax.

Something about this sleeping arrangement felt wrong, and Kim thought she knew exactly what it was. She had shared beds and sleeping bags with Jackie time and time again, and lying beside someone else was more than a little bit unusual. She craved the unique feel of Jackie’s body against hers when they inevitably ended up curled up together, and the little snuffles her partner always made in her sleep. She wondered if Soul felt the same way, if he and Maka were often as close as she was to him just then.

“Look up,” Soul said, causing Kim to tilt her head back and open her eyes. She gasped quietly, amazed at the sight above her. Shooting stars, dozens of them, streaking across the night sky. As she watched, it seemed almost as if some were colliding. Kim imagined that they really were, that there were explosions taking place in the vast expanse of space.
“You’re supposed to make a wish, you know,” Kim informed him quietly. She paused before continuing, “I’ve never done it, though.”

“Alright,” Soul said, closing his eyes as he thought. Kim, studying his features, wondered what his wish was, but assumed it probably had to do with to their current situation. He was likely wishing to find Maka first thing tomorrow morning. She realized that she ought to wish for Jackie’s safety, but as she tried to call up the prayer to the heavens, the words felt so empty. No shooting star could guarantee that her partner was safe, and the anxiety of not knowing if Jackie was alright was driving Kim up a metaphorical wall.
They hadn’t been separated much since becoming partners, as they went everywhere and did everything together. So it was unusual to not feel the comfortable presence of Jackie’s soul nearby, and the fact that she didn’t know where her partner had gone only served to make her worry more than she would have if Jackie had only gone on vacation.
After several moments, Kim finally came up with a simple wish that encompassed all that she felt. Her lips moved silently, her eyes fixed on a particular shooting star growing just slightly brighter than the others. “I wish for Jackie.” She wanted her partner back, and she never wanted to be separated again.

She was unwilling to admit it, but the distance between them only served to intensify and confirm her feelings. Somewhere along the line their relationship had developed from just friends to something else, something that was not quite romantic but still more than partners. Meaningful touches, glances that lingered too long, these were all parts of their daily life. Kim craved more, but she was unsure whether it was all in her head, whether she was misinterpreting the signals she received from Jackie. She didn’t want to confess, fearing that Jackie would not feel the same way about her and then their partnership would be ruined. But at the same time, she knew that her weapon would likely never come forward with her feelings first regardless of how persistent Jackie had been when she originally wanted to be partners.

Kim drifted off to sleep slowly, images from memories of the times she and Jackie had spent together dancing in her mind. The first time they had met, the day Jackie found out about Kim’s powers, the moment they officially became partners, and the countless battles they’d fought side by side since then all flashed through her thoughts. It was comforting actually, to think of the good times and even the bad ones they’d spent together. She couldn’t wait to find her partner, and make even more memories.

She slept rather lightly, despite being exhausted from the day’s exertion. Kim didn’t think much of the sounds of Soul moving around restlessly that stirred her from her sleep occasionally, figuring he was just having trouble falling asleep. When he got up and she heard him walk some distance away, she didn’t open her eyes to look, instead opting to go back to sleep. This turned out to be a mistake, for when she opened her eyes the next morning, he was nowhere to be seen.

Chapter 8

Maka was stumbling blindly through the jungle, her hands batting at the swarm of insects surrounding her head and entire upper body. It was a cloud of small bugs she could barely see, but she could feel them inside her nose, her mouth, and over any exposed skin. And they were stinging her too, covering her in rapidly rising welts that were hot, painful, and horribly itchy.

She broke into a run, exclaiming as she tripped a few times and barely managed to keep her feet under her. Despite realizing the futility of the escape attempt, she kept running until she reached a barrier of foliage so thick she couldn’t push her way through. The second her hands came in contact with the vegetation however, the bites and the insects that had caused them both suddenly disappeared.

Maka bent over, breathing hard. She realized it had been another hallucination, and silently cursed herself for falling for it. It was getting harder and harder to tell what was real from what was not. The wild boars she had fought the day before had been imagined, and the appearances of her mother, father, and Shinigami-sama were certainly just visions. But she thought the snake she’d seen that morning could potentially have been real.

She straightened up, holding up a hand to shield her eyes from the light. Maka had reached a dead end to the jungle, as there was certainly no way she could continue forward without Soul’s blade to slice through the vines and dense growth.

This happened to be the third dead end she’d reached in what she estimated to be under an hour and she was growing frustrated. It was like the jungle itself was playing tricks on her by constantly changing its structure and rearranging itself.

All she wanted was to find Soul and get out, so she wondered why it had to be so hard. It wasn’t even as if she cared about the mission anymore- if they got it done in the process, great, but if they didn’t, they could come back better prepared. She loathed the idea of leaving without Kim and Jackie, but in this jungle, it was hard enough for two people to stay together, let alone four. All she could do was hope the other weapon and meister pair were alive and safe while she looked for her own partner.

Maka closed her eyes, and reached out with her soul again, extending her search as far as it could possibly go. She was looking for Soul, for the familiarity of her partner, and was determined not to give up until she could at the very least feel him even if he was not nearby. She inhaled sharply when she thought she felt something, and reached out with all her might.

Immediately she sensed something wrong as she faintly felt the resonance between them establish. His soul felt damaged, and as she probed at it even further, she immediately realized that her interference was not helping. His soul was being tugged away from her by someone who had enveloped it, and her grip was only causing strain on him. She felt a pang of horror as she realized his soul was stretching, perhaps even cracking as it tried to go to her but was held back by the other force.

She immediately backed away from his soul, cutting the weak link between them so as not to hurt her partner further. Maka was relieved to know that Soul was alive and nearby enough that she could feel him, but the presence of another she did not recognize touching and damaging his precious soul was enough to make her feel sick inside.

Maka turned around and trudged back the way she had come, reaching a small clearing in the dense jungle she wasn’t sure if she recognized. Picking a direction that she thought she hadn’t tried yet, she made her way forward.

She wasn’t sure how long it had been before she reached the largest clearing she’d seen since arriving on the island, but it couldn’t have been long because she couldn’t discern any movement from the sun. Two pillars extended past her view, so tall she could barely make out that they widened further up. They felt rather soft when she touched them, but it didn’t seem like it would be hard to climb with the help of tools.

Maka had actually brought two small knives to use when cutting ropes on the boat, just in case Soul was otherwise occupied. Taking them out of her pack, she dug them into the side of one of the columns and used them as handholds to shimmy her way up. It wasn’t too difficult for the athletic meister, though she was acutely aware of how careful she had to be. A fall from too high up could prove deadly, or at the very least seriously injure her. One hand at a time she slowly dragged herself up, not sure how high she’d have to go to get a good view of the island. That’s what she was seeking after all, the best vantage point.

She froze, hanging at least fifteen feet off the ground. She thought she heard voices. Craning her neck as if it would have any effect on the volume of the sound, Maka tried to listen. A muted murmur reached her ears, and then a higher pitched voice that sounded vaguely familiar. The two were followed by a shout, loud enough that she heard it clearly. It was Soul’s voice, she was sure of it. And he was somewhere above her.

Maka kept climbing, scrambling up even faster now that she had a goal to reach. As she climbed, she realized something odd about the surface. Not only was it soft, but it was warm and oozed a sticky viscous liquid when punctured. Further up, the two pillars had joined to form a single trunk, though out of the corner of her eyes Maka could see two other appendages hanging down with five smaller cylindrical features branching from each of them.

A shiver ran through her, almost causing her sweaty palms to slip. She realized that she was climbing up someone not something, the body of an immense creature. But still, she continued on after the short pause. What else was there to do, she wondered. Maka needed her partner, and he was so close that she could hear his voice and clearly feel his damaged soul crying out in tandem.

She reached what she thought was the neck of the creature and paused, taking a momentary break. Maka made the mistake of looking down, her eyes widening as she realized how high up she truly was. She could see the jungle canopy below her now, and the entire island when she turned her head to take it all in. Maka thought perhaps she had reached the center, because she could see the water surrounding her position on all sides.

A voice drifted down to her, the skin under her hands and feet vibrating in tandem. “What’s that?” asked the being. Maka saw a giant hand coming down to swat at her, but it paused as another voice called out.

“Probably just a bug,” came Soul’s familiar voice, drifting down to her like music to her ears. “It’ll go away if you leave it alone.”

Maka thought she heard a hint of warning in Soul’s voice, but disregarded it. No way would she be leaving him now that he was so close. She had come so far, and it would be such a waste, not to mention despicable, to abandon him now.

Suddenly, a laugh bellowed out from deep in the chest of the being. “So entertaining, Soul Evans. You remind me why I love humans; they’re so interesting, after all! But I’m afraid the ones who can’t be as obedient as my new servant Jacqueline have to go. Don’t worry, I’ll take good care of her soul until it’s time to devour it. You’ll be with her soon enough, I promise you that.”

The hand came down again in a sharp slap, Maka throwing her body to the side to avoid it. The creature hissed as its hand came in contact with its own skin, and immediately she knew that she had made it mad. She continued dodging the hits that rained down around her, but it was getting harder and harder to hold herself up while doing so.

“Why do you need her?” asked Soul, his voice raised. “Aren’t the two of us enough for you?”

“Of course not,” the creature crowed, a finger just missing crushing Maka’s torso by a hair. “I must have every human that comes to my island. It’s such a rare occurrence, after all. Once I finish with you two, I’ll hunt down the witch that dared to encroach on my land. She’s among the weakest of our kind, it shouldn’t be too hard.”

“What do you mean?” Soul asked, feigning innocence. Maka knew even as she was focusing on staying alive that he was trying to protect Kim as well. It was too late for Jackie who apparently was under the monster’s control, or Soul who was being held captive, and Maka was in a perilous situation herself. Their last hope was likely Kim, who had both the skills of a trained meister and the powers of a witch, and was still out in the jungle somewhere.

Suddenly Maka realized who, or rather what, she was dealing with. A witch, probably one very old and very skilled. She remembered the other witches she had encountered, Medusa Gorgon at the forefront of her memory. Even Blair, who had turned out to be a cat with a ridiculous amount of magical ability was not an easy opponent. A chill ran down her spine, and she nearly lost her grip as a sudden thought pierced through her mind.

The witch was playing with them, like toy dolls. If the creature had just wanted to kill the unarmed Maka, there could be thousands of magical ways she could have. But instead, she was allowing Maka to dodge physical attacks. The idea that her hope was an illusion too enraged Maka, and she scrambled up as quickly as she could while still avoiding the flailing hands.

She had reached the face of the creature, she realized as she climbed past the gaping mouth and over cheekbones. Looking up, she saw Soul reaching a hand out to her from the bars of some jail he had been placed in. It looked as if he were inside the pupil of the witch’s eye, and Maka lunged for his hand launching off the lower eyelash lined rim.
Maka felt them connect, the contact of his skin sending a jolt almost as potent as electricity through her. Her fingers closed around his wrist and his around hers, and she held on for dear life, now hanging just by this one hand. She closed her eyes, reaching her other hand up to grasp for either Soul’s other hand or one of the bars. Maka was putting her trust in her partner, knowing that he wouldn’t let her fall if he could help it. His other hand, warm and dry, caught her free hand and he pulled as hard as he could. Maka knew he was trying to bring her up to his level, so she could at least hook her feet in the bars so the risk of falling would decrease.

She did so when she had been pulled up high enough, and she opened her eyes to find them face to face. “Soul,” Maka breathed, clinging to the strangely warm and slippery bars. They almost resembled exposed muscle, or so the meister thought even as her attention was directed solely at her partner.

He started to say her name as well, but cut off with a shout of warning that Maka received too late to prevent herself from being knocked from her perch, plummeting down, down towards the ground at a frightening velocity.

Chapter 9

Kim had been walking in no particular direction, but when she heard a crash she ran toward the noise without sparing a thought to caution. She stopped in a clearing with two pillars, immediately spotting the source of the bang she had heard. Maka Albarn lay on the ground, motionless. It was clear she had fallen from some height, but the extent of her injuries remained unclear to Kim just by looking.

Kim reached the girl’s side, falling to her knees and rolling the other meister onto her back. She placed her hands on Maka’s torso, a warm glow surrounding them and enveloping the entire body of the girl. Kim bit her lip, face grim as she felt her powers flow to where they were needed most. Maka had several broken bones, some internal damage as well. Kim was certain Maka would live, but she doubted she’d be able to heal everything in one go. She focused on the internal organs, trying to stop any bleeding inside first and foremost. A broken arm or leg could be splinted after all, but a silently leaking vessel could kill Maka.

It was a matter of half an hour of healing, one of the most draining sessions Kim had ever conducted. She slumped down beside the still unconscious Maka, sitting cross legged with her head in her hands as she tried to breathe through a spell of dizziness. Magic took a lot out of her, especially if used in large quantities. Kim knew she hadn’t fixed some breaks in Maka’s bones, but everything life threatening had been addressed. If she had done more, Kim knew she would likely be out of commission for the day, a state they couldn’t afford in their current situation. They were still trapped on this godforsaken island, after all.

Kim raised her head a few moments later when she heard a weak cough, and immediately moved to help Maka sit up. “What happened?” she demanded, not unkindly.

“I fell,” Maka replied, seemingly automatically before she realized the obvious nature of the statement. “Kim, Jackie and Soul are up there. We have to go get them.”

“What do you mean?” snapped the pink haired witch in reply, running one hand through her short, sweat slicked hair. Kim believed the other meister, because where else on this island could they possibly be hidden? The jungle was dense, sure, but between her and Maka there can’t have been much they hadn’t combed through.

“This is the body of a witch,” Maka said, and Kim’s fingers froze hovering just above her forehead. “I think the beast you were meant to capture was this one all along.”

“I realized,” Kim replied shortly. “But your leg is broken in two places, and I couldn’t fix it. There’s no way you’re getting back up there.”

“Please, Kim,” Maka begged her friend, turning her head to look right into Kim’s eyes. “Just try. I have to do this.”

“Fine,” Kim conceded, placing one hand lightly over each break and ignoring Maka’s wince of pain. “Don’t move.”

She knew healing Maka entirely was a bad idea; using that much magic would leave Kim exhausted and vulnerable. But she couldn’t say no and leave her friend in pain. And she certainly wouldn’t be able to take on the witch alone, especially without a weapon.

“There,” Kim said finally, her voice conveying that she was slightly out of breath. “That should do it. Try standing.”

Maka got to her feet tentatively, and Kim could tell the girl surprised to feel no pain. She reached out a hand to Kim, who took it with a grudging nod and stood.

They were silent for a long moment, each girl considering the challenge that lay ahead of them.

“Well, you can’t just go up again,” Kim said, tilting her head back to look up the bloody path Maka had carved out in her climbing. “The same thing will happen, and I don’t have another healing in me. In fact, I don’t think I can do any magic at all. It would be dangerous, I could lose control of it or even kill myself.”

“I have to try,” Maka argued. “Soul’s up there, I saw him. And I heard Jackie’s voice. You don’t know how close they are.”

“I understand that,” Kim replied shortly, her patience quickly running thin. “But you need a better plan than that if you want to go home alive!”

The two girls glared silently at each other for a moment, both stubbornly refusing to budge. Finally Maka exhaled loudly, and practically stamped her foot. The unexpected reaction caused Kim to chuckle, and then Maka snorted, and suddenly the two girls were laughing hysterically at everything and nothing all at the same time.

“Okay, okay,” Kim said, wiping tears of mirth from the corners of her eyes. “Now that we’ve got that out of our systems, we can talk.”

The words were barely out of her mouth before Kim heard a strange whooshing sound close to her ear, instinctively causing her to duck. The air above her head seemed to heat up several degrees, and immediately she knew that her partner had just flown by in lantern form. This wouldn’t be a strange occurrence under normal circumstances, but as Jackie had just been held captive moments ago, it was surprising to see her so soon.

“Jacqueline!” Kim called, waving a hand and looking up at the demon weapon. It seemed that her partner hadn’t heard her, or perhaps had ignored the call of her name, because she flew towards Maka instead of either materializing in Kim’s hand or transforming back into human form.

“Dodge!” Kim yelled, watching helplessly as Maka tried to avoid jets of flame that were being shot at her sporadically. “Jackie, what the hell?”

Kim broke into a run, throwing herself between Maka and the demon weapon, hissing as heat crackled over her skin painfully. She spread her arms out wide, standing in front of Maka. Jackie hadn’t wanted to hurt Kim earlier, even though she had attacked Soul without a second thought. Kim was counting on this hesitation to give Maka time to escape.

Jackie seemed to be hesitating, floating in the air just higher than Kim’s head. She was nearly motionless, only bobbing up and down slightly to stay aloft.

Kim looked at the weapon, and of course the most irrational, most un-Kim like thing was the first sentiment that spilled out of her mouth. “I love you,” she said. “Come back to me, Straight Laced.” Immediately, her face flushed a bright scarlet. She wanted to blame the influence of the witch, but she knew in her heart that it was the truth. She just couldn’t believe she’d admitted her deepest secret aloud, and so easily at that.

This seemed to confuse Jackie, because she turned back into a human and teetered on her feet with a bewildered expression. Kim ran forward just as her partner collapsed, seemingly crumbling into herself. She caught Jackie before the girl hit the ground, easing her down slowly. Kim knelt beside her partner and ran her hands thick black locks matted with sweat and grime. Jackie’s eyes opened after a minute, and she smiled slowly at her partner.

“Kim,” Jackie said softly, as if she couldn’t quite believe what she was seeing. “Is this real?”

“Of course it is,” Kim replied. She almost felt like crying with relief, but was acutely aware of Maka watching. She had already embarrassed herself once, no way was she going to do it again.

“Did you just say…?” Jackie asked, and Kim nodded with a furious blush on her cheeks. “I,” and then her voice lowered to a whisper. “I feel the same way.”

“Get up,” Kim said, standing suddenly and extending a hand to help her partner up. “We have to get that idiot, Soul.”

“I think,” Maka said, speaking for the first time since Jackie had appeared before them. “I think the jungle might be connected to the witch’s life force. If we can just destroy it somehow, she may weaken or even die.”

“Makes sense,” Kim said after a moment of consideration. “It would explain why she never leaves the island for witch’s meetings and why the jungle has been trying to throw us out the whole time. It’s self-preservation.”

“I’ll climb back up,” Maka volunteered. “Distract her so she doesn’t go after me. I’ll get Soul, and don’t worry about catching us in the fire. We’ll be fine.”

“Alright,” Kim replied with a slow nod. “Just be careful.”

Jackie transformed, extending into her broomstick form. Kim climbed aboard, and they took off before Maka could say anything else. They flew just above the jungle canopy, spewing fire behind them and igniting the greenery which smoked before bursting into flame. It took several minutes, but finally they had covered the perimeter of the island. They watched as the wind caused the flames to spread, until Kim was sure the entire jungle would ignite.

An unearthly wailing seemed to rise up from the very ground, and Kim muttered a command to Jackie. They sped toward the body in the center of the island and Kim held on tightly to her partner as they began the vertical climb. They moved swiftly, so it was only a matter of minutes before they had reached the witch’s face. The skin of the giant being seemed to be wrinkling and darkening as if it were being charred along with the jungle below, and the heat radiating off of it was enough to cause Kim to wince as a blast of hot air hit her in the face.

“Set me down! There,” Kim said, and Jackie obliged, dropping her meister so Kim was standing beside Maka on the rim of the eye. It seemed that she and Soul were attempting to cut through the bars of his prison with little success.

“Jackie!” Kim called, and the lantern immediately appeared within her reach. Jackie sent a short blast of flame spiraling out, the fleshy bars shriveling and melting away to nothing under the heat.

Maka grabbed onto Soul’s hand and he transformed without her even asking so she could carry him in his lighter scythe form.

“Can you handle all of us?” Maka directed the question towards Jackie, who had elongated back into her form for transportation.

“Of course I can,” and Kim thought she could hear a smile in her partner’s voice. “Let’s get out of here. Climb on.”

Kim and Maka both got on board, Maka with one hand wrapped tightly around the broomstick and the other holding Soul securely. In no time they touched down beside Soul and Maka’s boat. Soul set about cutting the ropes that tied it to the shore, Kim and Jackie helped push the boat out into the water, and Maka set about loading the meager supplies they’d managed to keep with them (Soul still had his pack).

They sped back across the water, heading to the pickup point for the Academy. Maka pulled a small hand mirror from her bag, breathed on it to fog it up, and dialed Shinigami-sama.

“The mission was a success,” Maka reported, angling the mirror so Lord Death could see the entire group gathered in the boat. “We successfully defeated the witch, but another group is going to have to come in and collect the soul when the fire dies down.”

“Good, good!” came the reply, Shinigami-sama sounding proud as could be. “I knew you could do it! We’ll send someone from the Academy to come get you. Is anyone injured?”
“Soul is in bad shape,” Maka said, glancing towards her partner. “But we’re all alive and safe, and that’s what matters, right?”

“Of course. Now hurry back, children. You deserve rest after all you’ve been through.”

“Yes, Shinigami-sama!” the entire group chorused.