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The Mirror's Mistake

Chapter Text

Pan had just finished drying a teacup and was thinking of the best way to get it into the overhead cupboard when Chi-Chi screamed, went rigid, and dropped the plate she’d been washing.

Pan dove, caught the rim of the plate on two fingers. It wobbled and then fell into her hand. She set the dish on the counter.

“Did you feel that?” Chi-Chi asked.

“I still do, Grandma,” Pan said. “West of here, somewhere between the mountain path and Fortuneteller Baba’s place.”

“It’s someone who knows how to mask their ki, then, because I can’t anymore.”

Scooping the plate and cup from the counter, Pan got a knee up on the sink and climbed to the cupboard. It was still a bit of a reach to open it. Her phone almost fell out of her pocket. Should have just flown, she thought. When she jumped back down, she found Chi-Chi had crossed the whole round room, passed the table still dotted with crumbs, and stood at the window, pulling back the curtains. Sunlight fell across her black eyes; eyes, Pan was constantly told, she had inherited.

“I doubt you’ll be able to see anything with Mt. Paozu in the way,” Pan said. Still, she looked outside the window, too. A lot of grass sprouted around the wall, which led to old Grandpa Gohan’s hut, and after that, yup: an obscuring wall of mountainside. “I’ll have to go down and see what it is.”

Pan hadn’t taken one step to the door when Chi-Chi grabbed her by the shoulder. There was a lot of strength in that hand. That, too, Pan had inherited; that and more.

“One of the others should do it.”

“I’m the closest. Krillin and Eighteen are at Kame House and everyone else is in West City. If there’s trouble, I’m the only one who could get there in time to do anything.”

Chi-Chi relaxed her grip on Pan’s sleeve, but not by much. “The last time your grandfather walked out that door, he didn’t come back.”

Pan gently pried her grandmother’s fingers loose. She patted her hand. A moment later Pan was at the door.

She turned back long enough to say one thing.

“I’ll come back, grandma. I promise.”

And then she took to the air, unaware just how difficult keeping that promise was about to get.

Chapter Text

A serpentine river encircled a small town on the outskirts of King Wonton’s territory, and at first, Pan suspected the blunted ki signature was coming from somewhere inside it. The longer she followed the river, however, the closer she got; no. Its source lay somewhere in the surrounding plain. A building by the river, well beyond the sparse housing and farms.

The Panther-Fang Academy.

Pan landed a ways down the path, kicking up a cloud of dust on impact. She straightened her bandanna. This was her first time visiting the school in person, but she recognized it from Grandpa’s stories. Pale yellow plaster offset its wooden façade, punctuated by woven bamboo windows. A sign hanging between the roof and transom spelled out the academy name in bold red letters.

Nothing appeared to notice her presence. Good. She’d landed far enough away and masked her own energy. She didn’t yet know what she was hiding it from, though, as nothing seemed to be happening here at all. It was only barely afternoon, with the sun almost overhead. There should be students in blue uniforms outside, practicing forms, doing chores, stopping for a quick lunch, but Pan saw and heard nothing but dead air and silence.

Pan dared to give the building a light energy-poke. Something was alive in there, but what? Was it the students? If not, where were they?

She did hear something as she walked up the dusty road to the academy: a low hum. The closer she got to the school, the louder and more droning it became; and that noise, she recognized. It came from the bushes around the porch.

Oh! Bees!

Pan dashed the rest of the way and leaned over one of the bushes. There, crawling the red flowers, a group of bees, their stripy bodies wriggling as they collected pollen. She bit back a giggle. These hives must be a new addition, because Grandpa hadn’t mentioned them, and he knew she loved bees.

There’d be time to visit them later, though. Right now, she had to find out where everyone had gone, if they were safe. She walked into the academy with an old nursery song about bees in rosebushes running through her head.

Unfortunately, opening the door did nothing to allay her concern. The sun fell through the muntins onto the floor of a building that looked just as deserted on the inside as it had on the outside. It wasn’t enough to brighten the twilight-dim of the old track lighting, which probably hadn’t been up to code since there was a code. There were two doors, one in each corner. Where did those lead? Maybe everyone was crammed back there?

Pan was so intent on reaching them, and so creeped out by everything that led up to them, the first punch almost connected. It came from her immediate right, in a recess blocked by the open door, from a signature so faint it blended with the beehives outside. She heard the rush of air over knuckles at just the right moment and stepped back, letting the student who’d thrown it sail past her and into the right wall. She gave him an extra chop to the back for momentum.

This had exactly the effect Pan had suspected it would: four more students peeled from the walls and tried to surround her.

The first one, a sour-faced boy with cropped hair, didn’t get a chance to move. She hit him with an uppercut that connected to his stomach and then his chest, with just enough time to pull away from a punch aimed by the second at her back. That left her open for the third, though; and with no room to blast him without risking hurting him (or the academy, for that matter), she had to take the hit full-force. It smarted. She countered, spinning into the blow, and it sent him flying, even with her holding back.

The fourth man dropped into a stance. It was familiar enough to nag, but Pan couldn’t immediately place it. He shifted right, then to the left. Where had she seen that before? It wasn’t the Panther-Fang’s signature Cyclone.

He popped his arm and threw his head back, and Pan groaned. Not the Panther Cyclone indeed.

“All right, you guys,” She said, pushing the guy out of the way face-first. “Come out from wherever you’re hiding and put your hands up.”

There was a rustle of cloth, a hasty whispered conversation from the back of the academy, and a deep voice asked,

“Pan?”

The doors burst open and three men bounded out of them, right to the center of the dojo floor. They were very strange men: one tall and stringy, one short and round, and the third, posed dramatically between them, muscled and generally ogre-shaped. They wore matching red space suits, but even without them, it would’ve been obvious they weren’t local to planet Earth. Their faces were as blue as the academy uniform.

“Donpara, Sonpara, and Bonpara,” Pan sighed. At least Chi-Chi… and, Pan admitted, she herself … had been worried for nothing.

“You’re not supposed to be here!” said Bonpara, the ogre-y man in the middle. “What are you doing, busting in on us like this?”

“Well,” Pan said. “It just so happened I thought I should investigate that huge spike in energy you let off when you decided to put everyone in the academy under your mind control and force them to boogie. Since I’ve already established that’s what you’re doing here, I’d really love to know why.”

“You don’t get it!” said Donpara, the tall and narrow one. “You can’t be in here!”

“We’ll throw you out if we have to!” added Sonpara, the short one.

“You will?” Pan asked, crossing her arms.

It’s no bluff, Sonpara thought. You remember how she and that family of hers used those giant Mouma worms for macramé lacing.

Maybe if you go straight at her and I hit her from the side, she’ll be so distracted Bonpara can sneak up behind her, Donpara thought.

I know you can use telepathy, Pan thought right back at them. I can hear every word you aren’t saying.

“Well played,” Bonpara said. “I guess you’ve got us beat. Now, have we got a beat for you.”

He reached to a button on his suit.

Before he could press it, Pan was across the room and smacking his hand away.

“Save yourself the effort,” She said. “The Parapara Boogie only works if the target stands still and listens long enough for the music to take effect, and unlike your thralls here, I know not to. Turning that on isn’t going to get you anything but a scrap. Maybe I’m misreading the situation, but it sounds like that’s something you’re trying to avoid. Why not answer my question instead?”

 “If we agree to talk outside, will you leave? I’m serious. It isn’t safe here.”

Bonpara seemed absolutely convinced of this, and the other two must have agreed, because all three of them looked deadly serious. Deadly serious was not an expression Pan was used to seeing on their faces.

“Are you going to let the students go first?” She asked.

The whole class had formed a line and began to dip right, then left, adding flourishes with looks of confused terror on their faces.

“When you’ve left the building,” Bonpara said.

Pan sighed again, deeper this time. “Fine. Just so long as it happens. But this had better be good.”

“Define ‘good,’” Sonpara said. “Never mind, this isn’t it. The news we bring is bad by any standards.”

So Pan followed the Para Brothers outside to hear it. As she closed the door behind her, she heard a series of thuds and sighs of relief as a class of martial-artists-turned-dance-students finally got to sit down for the first time in who knew how long.

ooo

A bee flitted past the door and landed on a flower. Pan stooped to give it a closer look. It was small, fuzzy, and yellow, and the sun seemed to glint in its eyes as it clambered over the edge of the petal.

Donpara screamed.

Pan jolted, wondering if whatever tragedy they so feared had come to pass. But he was just staring at the back of her.

“Pan, you… you’ve got a… I was just about to say how little you’d changed in the last ten years, so little I was afraid maybe getting trapped in Luud’s energy-collection device had stunted your growth…”

“Oh, thanks a lot!” Pan put her hands on her hips. Then she realized what must have startled him. “You’re talking about my tail.”

“How’d you get a tail?”

“I’m a Saiyan. You know that.”

“But you didn’t have one before.”

“We cut them off at birth these days to, er…” Pan bared her teeth and swiped the air, “…minimize certain risks. But when I started having issues my training wasn’t resolving, Auntie Bulma grew mine back to see if it would help. Never mind my tail. Are you going to tell me what this is all about?”

“We need to get further away,” Bonpara said.

“We can walk through the new garden, then,” Pan said. “I’d like to see the beehives.”

“Walk? When you hear what we’ve got to say, you’ll run.”

Still, when Pan drifted into the hedges, the brothers fell in around her, almost as if guarding her from ambush.

“As you’re all too aware,” Donpara said, “We weren’t always on the right side of the galactic legal system. You might have even called us mercenaries.”

“I thought you gave that up,” Pan said.

 “That doesn’t mean we don’t have access to some of our old channels, and the tunes they’ve been playing lately will chill your blood.” Bonpara seized Pan by the shoulders. “Someone’s after you, girl. Someone with a lot of money they aren’t shy about spreading around the back alleys of Imecka.”

“Don Kee money?” Pan asked.

 “Planet Trade Organization money. They’re offering half their territories’ GDP to anyone who can bring you in alive.”

Sonpara shuddered. “They never showed a whole lot of interest in our ‘backwater’ corner of the galaxy, but even we know the Planet Trade Organization means the Cold family, and when the Cold family says they want you alive, it means they don’t trust anyone but themselves to kill you painfully enough.”

The buzzing around the roses hushed. Pan now stood at the intersection of a cross of bushes and a stack of pastel boxes, absorbing the information that someone in the space mafia had put a bona fide bounty on her head.

“Oh,” She said. “I guess that isn’t really surprising.”

The brothers’ jaws dropped so low, Pan thought she might have to pick them up and snap them back into place.

“Didn’t you know?” She explained. “My grandpa killed the Colds’ youngest son, Frieza. Not on purpose, not really. Frieza challenged him to a duel to the death. Grandpa won and gave Frieza chance after chance to back out of the ‘death’ part, but he kept getting back up until there wasn’t anything left of him to scrape off the ground. This isn’t the first time they’ve come after us over that.”

It wasn’t a long walk until they’d left the academy and even the outermost hives behind them. The river wasn’t far off now.

“Not surprised, she says,” Bonpara said finally.

“Disappointed, though,” Pan said. “To hear they’re hiring mercenaries. No offense to your past selves, but I was hoping I’d get to fight one of the Colds. I missed my last chance, back when the gates of Hell opened. Frieza challenged Grandpa to a posthumous rematch and I almost got to go with him. But then the Red Ribbon Army came back from the grave and attacked the city, so I had to stay and route them.”

“The whole army?” Sonpara asked.

“I tell you, Pan comes from one weird family,” Donpara said. “I’m glad I’m related to you guys and not them. We thought she was gonna be scared, and instead, she’s excited.”

“Aw, come on,” Pan said. “Can I help it if I wanted to meet the nut who wouldn’t take ‘you lose’ for an answer? Besides, there’s still one part of your story that doesn’t make any sense. How did all this lead to you attacking the Panther-Fang Academy?”

The three looked back at the academy, which was at this point just as squarish dot. The hives and the garden, too, were tiny and distant.

Why do I still hear buzzing? Pan thought.

“Like we said, we’ve got our sources, and they were telling us something from up there…” Bonpara jerked his head towards the sky, “…landed here a few days ago, infiltrated the school, and has been staking your place from here. No doubt, it’s someone after that bounty, posing as a student to avoid suspicion.”

“We don’t know which student, though,” Donpara cut in. “And don’t ask why we didn’t just look for recent enrollments, because that’s the first thing we tried. Computer says there hasn’t been anyone new on Sky Dragon’s books for a good three months. Whoever it is, they knew well enough to falsify the records, or stay off them in the first place.”

“That left us only one course of action,” Sonpara said.

All three simultaneously said,

“We had to thrash the whole lot of them!”

“The way we see it, we still owe you big for what happened back on Luud.”

“Guys, that wasn’t…” Pan said.

Bonpara held up one hand. “That’s why we weren’t gonna bother you with this. We were just gonna come here, do what we had to, and leave without you ever having to know about it. That was the plan.”

“Y-you,” Pan said, “You weren’t going to dance those students until they…”

“No, nothing like that! We were just going to dance them onto the ship and dump them off on, say, Nutts, or Polaris, or that one moon of Jupiter… you know, somewhere they wouldn’t be able to leave. That’s all.”

“That’s all,” Pan said. “I’m touched you were so worried about me, but you can’t kidnap a dojo full of people because one of them might be a mercenary. Some of them are just kids. How do you think their moms would feel? Besides, your sources said it was someone at the academy, but did they specifically say it was a student? It could be the delivery man or the janitor. The universe is such a funny place, I wouldn’t rule out the janitor’s mop.”

All three brothers looked at the ground.

“We… didn’t think of that.”

“So you’ll back off now, right?” Pan asked.

There was another huddle and more whispering.

“We’ll back off,” Bonpara agreed.

“Good,” Pan said. “Since that’s settled, if you’re still worried about me, you can escort me back to Mt. Paozu. The thirty-fourth World Martial Arts Tournament is next month. Are you going to be in the neighborhood that long? You can watch it, or if you want, you can register and fight yourself. There are prizes if you place.”

“Oh, we couldn’t possibly,” Donpara said. “Okay, you talked us right into it.”

“It’s this way. Just follow… huh?”

Pan held her hand in front of her face. There was a blotch on the back of it, just above her wrist. She had only a second to recognize it before the pain shot through every finger, fierce as if something pushed jagged chunks of ice through her veins. She screamed and shook her hand.

The blotch flew away and landed on a stick protruding from the riverbed.

“What’s wrong?” Bonpara asked.

“A bee stung me.” Pan shook her hand, but that only made the throbbing worse. “What’s it doing this far from the hives?”

She took a closer look at the bee on the stick. It curled up on its back, feet wrapping around itself. It must have broken its stinger off in her hand; that would explain why it still hurt so much. It didn’t explain why this bee was twice as large as the others she’d been watching, or why instead of a yellow and black jacket, its fur was a bruised and dirty shade of purple…

“I don’t feel so good,” Pan said.

She stumbled one step, then another, and on the third she knew she was going down.

Bonpara tried to catch her.

The problem was, by the time he got to her, there was no one to catch.

ooo

Pan slammed into cold stone. Whether the layer of frost atop it or the jagged edges, she reflexively pushed away from it, onto her knees.

Not only was her stung hand still red and blistering, a thin ribbon of smoke rose from the welt above her wrist. She’d been right about the stinger. Its needle-tip protruded from her skin.

Still moving faster than she was thinking, Pan squeezed the welt between her thumb and forefinger. The pain flared so bad she thought she’d black out, but she fought back the starry cloud of unconsciousness. The stinger shot from her hand, taking the smoke and the bulk of the agony with it. It hit the floor with a clink like glass. It looked like glass, too. Not just any glass. A shard of mirror glass.

Pan fell against the nearest wall, polished marble, and cradled her hand in relief.

Slowly she became aware of a presence. It was distant, but definitely living and very, very powerful. Even if it hadn’t been, she’d have known it wasn’t the Para Brothers or the Panther-Fang students, as it didn’t feel quite… perhaps ‘human’ wasn’t the best word, as Pan wasn’t quite human. Familiar. That was it. This life-force felt like nothing she’d ever encountered. Touching it felt like reaching blindfolded into what you’d thought was a basket of grapes and coming up with a handful of slugs instead.

Definitely not Bonpara, and as long as it was there, she didn’t dare call out to him. There wasn’t much point anyway. He wasn’t going to answer. She was nowhere near King Wonton’s territory.

Where was she, then?

Deciding there was only one way to find out, she pushed her ki down as far as it would go and stood.

She’d been crammed into a rocky alcove in a fusty cave of some kind. There was light enough to see the round, untouched wall she faced; it came from a lantern somewhere behind her. The polished thing she fell against was the back of a small obelisk. She thought she saw a path beyond it, so she circled around to its front.

In spite of her vow to be quiet, she couldn’t hold back a gasp.

The front of the obelisk bore a carved picture, and it was not a nice one. Crowds and battlements of distorted proportion surrounded a figure lashed to a pole, wreathed in flame. Though he’d been drawn crudely, and with horns and a tail Pan thought might be symbolic, there was no ambiguity about his age. That was a child burning at the stake.

Pan groped her pocket for her phone. Maybe she could get a call through…

Nothing. It switched on, but she couldn’t call out. She put the phone back and turned away. She might not know the iconography, but Pan recognized a tombstone when she saw one, and she wasn’t hanging around a graveyard with its tepid graveyard silence.

Turning the corner, she found leaving would be more of a challenge than she’d planned. She stood in one of many branching hallways, crosshatched with tombstones and cobwebs, lit with rows of lanterns that emitted sparse light and absolutely no heat. The effect was as colorless and two-dimensional as an old photograph.

Pan remembered her father, Gohan, explaining that catacombs could run as deep as wells and as broad as cities. A wrong turn here could mean death. She wiped tears away with her forearm. She hated herself for crying and tried to stop, and that only made her cry harder.

Beyond all this death, she felt the hum of that peculiar life-force. Suddenly, it wasn’t so unwelcoming after all.

She let it lead her through the twists of the grave-maze, and was not disappointed. At last, she saw a square of color: the vivid, even, but unmistakable blue of sky.

Unfortunately, it came with howling and a blast of frigid air that tossed her hair even from the back of the hall. She looked down at her gray sweats, cut off just above the knee, and her grandpa’s gi top, cut off at the sleeves, and wondered how long she was going to hold up.

She’d found outside, all right, and the weather was terrible.

 

Chapter Text

For the most part, the surrounding territory made Pan’s trek more difficult. It stretched to the horizon like the uneven waves of disturbed water, strangled with bristle-plants she could only by convention call flowers and punctuated with stone (her mind spat out the word “moorland;” thanks again, dad), and it offered no impediment to the sheets of dagger-wind tearing low through the sky and, subsequently, right through her. The thin layer of ice collecting on every rock and patch of dirt threatened to throw her, the bristle-plants scratched her exposed calves, and the even blue sky that swallowed it all darkened by the moment, making flying impractical. It turned out there was an advantage to the relentless flatness of the place, though, and that was that Pan could see the makeshift camp from some ways off.

It was a ring of tents, two small and two large, all an insulated fleshy material Pan hoped was plastic. She could feel inhabitants. A pair of warriors somewhere in the skill-ballpark of her old friends Tien and Yamcha knelt by a metal cylinder she guessed was a furnace, trying to get it to run. Inside one of the tents lingered a much more imposing presence; probably their leader. Were they friendly? Were they really only as powerful as they felt, or were they suppressing reserves like Pan was? It was best to assume they were, but…

“No choice but to risk it,” She muttered. With no phone and not a single landmark to point her back towards home, these warriors might be her only chance at getting her bearings.

Pan pulled out her phone as she approached, hands forward in a gesture she hoped would look nonthreatening without being too submissive.

“Excuse me,” She said.

The warrior stooping by the machine was so startled he fell directly on his butt. The other didn’t lose as much composure, but he was just as startled.

And what a strange duo they were! Thick tendrils grew from their heads in place of hair, each one prehensile like a catfish whisker, and red; but they were red all over. Their open mouths bore unusually long and sharp incisors. They were dressed even worse for this kind of weather than Pan was, since the both of them were sporting what looked like strategically-placed strips of black leather held together with fish nets. They had more weapons than clothes. Each was outfitted with a scouter, an array of spears and blades strapped to various limbs, and a backpack-like rig attached to an arm cannon strapped to their wrist.

“I don’t mean any harm,” Pan said. “I’m lost. I was hoping you could give me directions.”

The one still standing leaned to the one who’d fallen and tapped his scouter. “Are you getting the numbers I’m getting?”

The one on his butt confirmed with his scouter. “That’s a Saiyan, Ash.”

“Can’t be, Smulder,” The one called Ash replied. “The Saiyans is all dead.”

“She’s giving me a reading of zero. And didn’t you see where she came from? There’s nothing that way but the Cold burial grounds.” Smulder paused, letting the silence build up for emphasis. “She’s a ghost.”

“I’m standing right here,” Pan said. “And I’m not a ghost. I just can’t get anybody on my phone.”

They reflected on that.

“She doesn’t know she’s dead,” Smulder said. “Do you think she went up with Planet Vegeta and never realized what happened?”

“If she’s buried with them, she’d have to have died before that, back when they were still allies proper. Damn it, why isn’t Gelata back yet? I bet you anything she’d know how to get rid of a ghost.”

The leader’s tent snapped open. Out stepped a catfish-man a head taller than Ash and Smulder and a whole lot rougher. A scar led from his chin to an eyepatch over his left eye, and that wasn’t the only chunk of meat he was missing. His ki billowed like a backdraft of flame, and Pan instinctively fell into a disguised fighting stance; he would be trouble even if he wasn’t hiding anything.

Officer Gelata,” he said, “Is reconnoitering on my orders and does not need to be distracted by your clownish superstitions. You look at that girl and you see a ghost? Bah! Do you know what I see?” He narrowed his good eye. “A trespasser, and a suspicious one at that, skulking around the palace grounds.”

“I’m not skulking, either! I’m just lost! You can’t tell me nobody ever gets lost around here, wherever here is!” Pan waved her hands. “I’m not even carrying any weapons.”

The leader turned his attention from his men to her, but the glare remained just as withering. “Don’t think I’m as stupid as they are. The scouters are broken. As a Saiyan, you are a weapon. Ash, Smulder, kill her… but beware. It will take both of you.”

“But…”

“Now.”

“Yes, Captain Ember,” Smulder said.

Kill me? Did I hear that right? Who are these guys?

Smulder fired up his cannon and pulled the trigger.

Pan released her energy- still not all of it, not until she had a better gauge on this captain of theirs- but enough to throw Smulder once again from his feet and knock his shot into the sky. Ash lined up and fired; Pan batted the beam away and, using Instant Transmission, yanked the cannon from his arm and broke it in half.

That’s where she made her first mistake.

Normally it would have been a sound move. Ash was wide open, and the quicker she could put him out of the fight, the more attention she had to pay to the true threat here: Captain Ember. So she punched Ash. Unfortunately, she punched him with her bee-stung hand, and while it had gone numb, as soon as she thrust it into his abdomen pain exploded from her fingertips to her elbow. She cried out and doubled over, and that gave Ash time to pull his spear.

She took one blow, harder than she expected. Ash aimed another. He blurred. The tip of his spear came into focus. Pan remembered a move her mother used in the ring, and while it was a risk… kicks usually were in a street fight… it was one she had to take. She jumped, kneeing Ash exactly where she’d punched him, and then in the chin. By the time she landed, he was slamming hard onto his back, unconscious.

Captain Ember furiously tapped his gauntlet and yelled into it. “I don’t care where you are, officer, you get your chitinous ass down here now! We have a situation!”

He has a situation?” Pan said, as Smulder lunged at her from behind, trying to choke her with his spear. She managed to backhand him- ouch! The skin still ached- but it was enough to squeeze her other arm under the spear, and the next time he threw himself into her, she used his own momentum to hurl him over her shoulder.

She straightened just in time to see Captain Ember taking aim at her, and not with his gun. She could feel energy building in his hands.

No time to dodge; she could only hope to overpower him. She drew her own hands back, concentrating as much as she could as quickly as she could, and fired.

“Firedrake Bite!”

“Kamehameha!”

The brilliant red of his attack hit her Kamehameha in a shower of sparks. The impact shook Pan to her core; the stone beneath her heels crumbled to gravel.

She wasn’t sure if she’d win. Ember’s red energy inched closer to her. She gritted her teeth and pushed back, though, and he began to lose a little ground. She released more of her reserves and he lost a lot of ground, and the Firedrake attack dispersed as the Kamehameha plowed through it, and through the white-hot glare she could see the exact moment Ember realized he’d lost.

So Pan also saw Captain Ember grab Smulder by his spear-harness and pull him into the attack’s path, using him as a shield. The Kamehameha struck Smulder head-on. Ember tossed his smoky body aside like an old coat.

“What are you doing?” Pan yelled. “That was a dirty move!”

“Saiyans do take their art seriously,” Captain Ember said. “And on top of that, you’re one of those alphas that run even more aggressive than average. That’s why my men couldn’t even take you down two-to-one. The thing is, I’m not here to play-fight or have a pissing contest with you, kid. I’ve got one job here. I keep Asphodel City peaceful at any cost. If the price is you, that’s too damn bad for you.”

Captain Ember crossed his hands at the wrist and bowed his head.

Now what’s he up to? Pan thought.

Waiting to find out was her second mistake.

Just as Pan began to suspect the answer was ‘stalling for time until that officer he’d called arrived,’ she did notice a change. That sluggy energy, the one she’d felt instantly upon arriving, the one she’d followed out of the catacombs… it was oozing closer to her. Not just from one direction, but from all directions. That’s how it felt, too: oozing. The hair on her arms and the back of her neck stood on end.

Captain Ember flicked his wrists. “Red Wave Paralysis!”

Nothing happened. Pan looked left and right, waiting to see if something would. Had Ember’s attack failed? Her fingers began to tingle. It wasn’t painful, but the kind of vibration that came with a mild electrical current. It spread from her fingers, uncomfortable but still technically painless, speeding to a rattle, bringing a cloud of dizziness with it when it reached her head.

She didn’t fall.

She just couldn’t move. At all. Not so much as an inch.

“What did you just do?” ...was what Pan wanted to say, but she couldn’t speak, either.

Captain Ember dropped his hands to his sides. He looked drained and glassy-eyed, almost as if he had a hangover. But he also looked triumphant.

Don’t panic, Pan thought. There has to be a way out of this.

A scene came to Pan, a memory of one of the last times she’d seen her Grandpa. They’d been fighting one of the invading dragons, Oceanus, by the seaside, and to Pan she’d looked invincible. Nothing, not ki, not fists, appeared to even touch her. But it turned out the key word had been ‘appeared.’ She wasn’t invincible at all, Grandpa explained; every time they struck at her, she’d spin so fast the force would deflect the attack. It was by watching the water displaced by Oceanus’s spinning that he’d discovered her secret, enabling Pan to vault her and strike her unprotected head.

Do what Grandpa did. Look for a weak link in the attack. If this Red Wave Paralysis can be done, it can be undone.

Captain Ember approached her. He stopped to pick up Smulder’s spear.

Pan tried to ignore him creeping towards her. Obviously that’s some kind of local environmental life-force, and he knows how to manipulate it. That’s not some mysterious technique. It’s the same idea behind a Spirit Bomb. I’ve seen Grandpa use a Spirit Bomb.

It must have taken something out of Ember to use it, too. He staggered as he walked. Sweat beaded on his face.

She also tried to ignore he’d gotten close enough for her to see that. Can I use a Spirit Bomb? Grandpa always raised is hands. I can’t move mine. Ember didn’t raise his, though, so maybe if I just feel for it the way he did…

Ember raised the spear.

Got it!

That was her final mistake.

Pan felt that energy closing in again, but this time, it was responding to her summons. Eagerly, too; as if there was a mind behind it that had been waiting just for her. Overhead, the indigo of the sky drew fast to violet, and the color stood out bolder than night, brilliant as silk. It wanted to make contact with her, and she wanted to make contact with it, too. It was like hearing the distant call of an old friend-

And then hell.

That energy, so welcoming before, snapped around her with the force of a bear trap and the malice of gnashing teeth. Screaming filled her head and she didn’t know if it was hers or Ember’s or the life-force’s or some soup of all three, but it was an explosion behind her eyes. She was being stretched to bits from the inside-out, and it made the bee-sting she thought was so awful feel like a pinprick.

This time Pan did hit the ground, and she didn’t get back up.

At least Captain Ember hit it with her, and neither did he.

Vaguely, Pan heard footsteps landing beside her, and then a voice, this one coherent, a woman shouting, “Captain! Captain!

But that was too much to make sense of right now. It made her head ache even more. With no other recourse and not caring what came next as long as it meant an end to this feeling, Pan dug for unconsciousness and found it.

ooo

Pan expected she’d wake up in a dungeon. She’d been picturing a grimy room with stone walls and water dripping from a single window, like in a video game, or a sterile metal box with slabs for beds, like the Tuffle prison grandpa Goku had been thrown in on M-2. She had not planned on waking up in a hole that looked very much like the scraped-out belly of a giant snake, nor had she counted on being shackled with something that looked and felt like its phlegm, but that’s where she was: lashed between two of the burnished brown “ribs” veining the waxy muscle “walls” with viscous ropes of what could only be described as snot. It was alive and pliant and resisted her attempts to break it.

She wasn’t alone in that tunnel.

She’d also expected Ember or someone like him would be around to gloat, but the thing that trundled down the hall was not the same kind of creature. It stood taller than any of Ember’s men. Spurs and exposed muscle knotted its bulky frame. Its head was like a dragon’s put on backwards, extending over its shoulders and down its back with a flat snout in front pitted with what could have been eyes or nostrils, Pan didn’t know. She didn’t know if it was a guard, a guard dog, or mobile security camera. She only knew she didn’t want it seeing her awake. She pretended she still slept as it passed her.

It paused, looked her over (she could feel its gaze), and continued on its way. A long and lashing tail wove down the dark tunnel behind it like a thing with its own mind.

No matter what it was, its presence meant powering up was out of the question. Pan couldn’t release her reserves without bringing the bony pseudo-dragon down on her head. With that off the table, how was she going to escape? If her phone was working, she could call for help, but it wasn’t; nor could she reach it with her hands tied; and that was assuming Ember hadn’t figured out what it was and confiscated it, which he most certainly had. He was evil, not completely empty-headed.

Wait a minute.

Pan would have kicked herself if she weren’t glued to the wall. How empty-headed was she? She didn’t have a phone, but that didn’t leave her without contacts.

Closing her eyes to what little light the tunnel possessed, she concentrated as hard as she could.

Bonpara, can you hear me?

Silence filled the hole with such oppressive weight she wished for that dripping window to break up the monotony.

Just when she thought it wouldn’t work, she heard three simultaneous screams. Oh. There they were.

Pan! Bonpara thought. You’re alive!

For now, anyway, she thought back.

All three Para Brothers burst into audible tears. You vanished into thin air! We jumped in the ship and scoured the area. When we couldn’t find you, we thought that bug had dissolved you. Who would have thought the Colds would send a bee as an assassin?

I’m not assassinated, and I haven’t seen any Colds, Pan thought. At least, not any live ones. I woke up in some tomb of theirs, but I got out. Now I’ve been thrown into a dungeon by the local police and I still don’t know why, or which is worse. The tomb was in the middle of moorland. The dungeon is a man-made tunnel somewhere beneath a place I heard them call Asphodel City. I was put here by humanoid men with catfish whiskers for hair and I’m guarded by something that looks like a dragon’s skeleton. Does your computer have any matches for either the city or the life-forms?

I’ll ask, Bonpara thought.

The next thing Pan heard was the computer’s simulated feminine voice running through her head.

“The Colds’ ancestral crypt is indeed located on the borders of the City-State Asphodel, the capital and center of government on the planet Ketchyn. Ketchyn is best known for its harsh environment and its living atmosphere, the Prismasphere. Life-forms identified as Sutova guardsmen and a third-tier Reizomorph, most likely of the Arcosian variety.”

Sutova? Pan thought. Reizomorph?

The catfish guys are the Sutova and the dragon-skeleton is the Reizomorph. At least that’s the pictures the computer’s showing us. Maybe I can send them to you, Bonpara thought.

From whatever ether telepathy traveled through, Pan received a mental image of a digital display. It showed her a generic figure of a man who looked and dressed like Ember, labeled SUTOVA. There were four figures labeled REIZOMORPH:  the first was a slivery humanoid alien, the second the doppelgänger of the dragon patrolling Pan’s cell, the third a giant with horns and a tail. The fourth looked just like the boy carved on that gravestone. So the horns and tail hadn’t been symbolic.

There are different kinds, Pan thought.

No, different forms. Computer says they change shape to conserve power. Those little first-tier forms require the least energy to run, Bonpara read. But they’re also the weakest, so if they’re cornered, they morph into one of the others.

So my guard’s only in his third form and would still have one stronger to go if I managed to overpower him. That’s one more option off the table, Pan thought. What’s this about a living atmosphere?

The Prismasphere. Bonpara thought. Ketchyn is a moon anchored to a geologically dead planet and the Prismasphere is a blanket of pure energy that wraps around it and keeps everything on it alive.

So that’s the gummy slug energy I feel every time I step outside. Pan had trouble matching that hostile planetary life force that had tricked and almost killed her to the computer’s benevolent description. How far is Ketchyn from Earth?

Bonpara hesitated. You’re in the East Quadrant. The southernmost edge of it, too.

Seriously? I’ve never been outside the North Quadrant before. It’s kind of cool.

Are you still roped to the wall and guarded by a dragon?

Yes.

Then what’s so cool about it? Bonpara yelled so loud Pan instinctively wanted to cover her ears, but even if she’d been able to move her hands, it wouldn’t have done any good, since his voice was coming from inside her head. You’re a week away from Earth, even for a ship with warp drive. Computer says Sutova and Reizomorphs eat their captives, and they both think you taste better if they torture you first. Sutova prefer to flay you alive while the Reizomorphs bat you around like a cat with a mouse and rip a chunk off here and there…

You are NOT HELPING! Pan head-yelled back.

My point is that if we blasted off right now, we might get there in time to pick up some leftovers.

Pan reflected on that. Her chances were dwindling by the second. She closed her eyes again as her Reizomorph guard stalked past a second time, again pausing to look her over. Maybe he was wondering what sauce to marinade her in. Maybe he was still deciding when he returned to his rounds. She didn’t want to be leftovers.

I’ll see if I can come to you, Pan thought. All three of you power up as much as you can.

On the bridge of the ship?

Now that I have some idea what direction you’re in, if you make your ki signatures strong enough, I might be able to sense you from here, and then I could teleport to you with Instant Transmission.

Pan waited for Bonpara to tell the others, then reached out to them.

The closest sources of energy glowed like dozens of little lamps switching on; the guard patrolling the tunnels up ahead, more guards milling around chambers or standing at attention outside them, people above, and above even them, the life-force she now knew was the Prismasphere. She stretched beyond it and thought she felt something familiar…

Pan jumped.

She blipped out of the guts-tunnel and into the Teleportation Zone. So far so good. That was as far as good lasted, though. The Prismasphere crashed into her whole body like a balled-up fist and knocked her right back out of it. She hit a wall full-force. Unfortunately, it was the far wall of the tunnel she’d started in, and it left its grainy imprint on the side of her face. Fortunately, the wall-snot hadn’t teleported with her. It flailed for her but didn’t have the reach to ensnare her again.

I don’t see you, Bonpara said. So that didn’t work.

Apparently I can’t teleport through the Prismasphere, Pan thought. But it worked well enough. I got out of those shackles. She heard steps. I think the guard’s coming back, though, and unless I can knock him out in one blow, he’ll transform and call for backup.

What are you going to do? Bonpara asked.

What’s it sound like? I’m going to run!

So she ran. Pan hoped she’d see stairs or at least a laundry chute, but he further she went down the tunnel, the more featureless she found it. There were tiny lights in the walls and the occasional turn or room, but nothing that looked like a way up. The monotony was so unbroken she wondered how the guards found their way around the place. Yet again she had to navigate by ki.

She felt another she recognized. Captain Ember’s.

He may have tried to kill her, but deep down, Pan was relieved he’d survived her blind attack and hoped the others had, too. He still felt like he was in bad shape, though. His pulse was faint as a whisper.

Hugging the wall, Pan crept in his direction.

Down a dark passage, at the corner of a dead end, Pan found the room where Ember hid. She’d thought he’d still be unconscious, so she was shocked to see he was not only sitting upright, he was – through some effort, if his pained face was anything to go by- holding a conversation with a Reizomorph woman.

She didn’t look like the guard Pan fled. She had curved horns like an ox, a more defined face, and wore a waxy blue cuirass and grieves that clung to her indigo skin so tightly it was difficult to tell where the armor ended and the woman began.

Something far more interesting lay behind her: a staircase, the first Pan had seen, and what she suspected might well be the only way out of the tunnels.

“It is, of course, heartening to see you up and about, Captain,” the woman said. Pan knew that voice. It was the last thing she heard before she collapsed. That must be Officer Gelata. “But I question the wisdom of taking my report in your present condition. You’ve suffered at least a class-two backlash, and without proper rest, your ability to retain information may be compromised…”

“You follow your orders and let me sort myself out, Officer.”

“As you request. I’ve analyzed the curse found on the prisoner’s hand. I’m afraid identifying it is beyond me. The method of delivery was undoubtedly a Red Sentry, but the curse itself is a single-use one-way matter projector I’ve never seen before. If I had to guess, I’d say it was Indigo. I must admit, it’s a clever way to smuggle objects… or lifeforms… through the Prismasphere’s defenses.”

“So there’s no chance she did that to herself,” Ember said.

“None whatsoever. Judging by its half-life, I doubt she arrived in the area any sooner than we did.”

“Where did she arrive from, dammit?” Ember asked.

“Hard to say, sir. There were so few survivors after Frieza blew up Planet Vegeta, they’re understandably reticent. It’s impossible to keep track of them or know if there’s anywhere in particular they congregate. Who knows where she was when that trap was triggered.” Gelata rubbed her hands together. The chitin plates clicked. “How fortunate that it did! A live Saiyan. I could study her long-term. There’s only so much to be gleaned from her ancestors’ mangled corpses.”

“No, you can’t. We don’t need the public knowing she’s down here. I told you how Ash and Smulder reacted to her, and those were my men; what do you think the fools outside the castle gates will make of her? I wanted to destroy her and be done with it, but if she was brought here, it might be more prudent to keep her alive and wait to see who comes looking for her.”

“I completely understand,” Gelata said. “May I remove the cursed skin for in-depth analysis? I could destroy it when I’m finished…”

“No. Do what it takes to find out what she knows, but no samples, no experiments, and don’t taste anything.”

Pan decided it was time to leave. Being held prisoner and used as bait sounded marginally better than being tortured and cooked for dinner, but given the choice, she would rather not do either. The dead end was still a dead end, though, and Gelata would be strolling out that door any minute. With no time to think of anything more elaborate, Pan jumped and clung to the ceiling.

It was like plunging into black fog. The lights were low to the floor and didn’t touch the tunnel’s ceiling. That turned out to be beneficial, as just as Gelata opened the door to leave, the Reizomorph guard rushed to it, so close to Pan she could feel the wind from his elongated head passing inches beneath her. Soon Ember yelled,

“What do you mean, she’s escaped?”

“I’m not exaggerating when I say I’d only passed her a minute previous and she’d still been unconscious,” The guard said. “The next thing I knew she disappeared from my scouter and…”

Ember interrupted, “She can’t have gotten that far, then!” and ran out the door. Gelata followed him, and the guard reluctantly brought up the rear.

Pan waited to see if they or anyone else would come back this way before dropping to the floor. Ember had left the door to that room he’d been inside wide-open.

I found some stairs, Pan thought. I’m going to have to break our telepathic link. I’ll need all my concentration to get out of here without getting caught. I’ll contact you again when I’m somewhere safe. Or at least safer. The way things are going, I may have to settle for safer.

Bonpara replied. We’re on our way to Ketchyn. We’ll be waiting to hear from you.

One more thing. Tell grandma… Pan didn’t know how to say this, because she didn’t know what to say. She couldn’t leave her grandmother wondering what happened to her for a minimum of a week… Chi-Chi might not be able to take another heartbreak like grandpa… but what could she tell her that wouldn’t end up worrying her more? She finally decided on, tell grandma I meant what I said. I’m coming back.

The inside of Pan’s head snapped like a rubber band. Silence followed.

She didn’t like feeling so alone in this place.

She dashed into the room, towards the stairs. She’d have time to worry about that when she escaped, but she had to escape first.

 

Chapter Text

Two Sutova guards passed a cupboard that looked like a pink milkweed pod, chatting. They reached the end of the hall and turned the corner. The cupboard clicked open and Pan crawled to the floor. She slipped down the hall.

She’d assumed the dungeons were scary and depressing because, duh, dungeons. She was surprised to find that the above-ground half of the palace- for Pan was sure she was in a palace- looked exactly like the below-ground she’d left, except the bones were polished to a yellow gleam and carved and the flesh was healthier, so they looked more like the inside of a fresh corpse than a rotten one. She’d also assumed she need only get above-ground to find a window and fly out, but so far she’d climbed two stories and had seen nothing of the sort.

Pan skidded to a halt as she felt a ki signature coming her way. She bolted back the way she came.

“…must have dropped it somewhere around here.”

Great! The two guards were coming back! It was far too well-lit up here to use the ceiling trick. They’d see her from a mile away.

Pan spotted a door and used it. She closed it as silently behind her as she could, holding the prickly round knob so it wouldn’t click and hoping it didn’t surprise her by doing something doorknobs weren’t supposed to, like scream or bite her fingers.

Neither of those things happened so she leaned against it and sighed. When was this strangeness going to be over?

She examined the room she’d walked into and decided the answer was not yet, apparently. It had familiar enough shape that she could identify it as a bedroom, but the bed looked like a sac for spider eggs and filled with bedding that looked like spider webs. More cottony strings hung from the ceiling and brushed the mirror of a black dresser. Pan approached it. Her reflection grew as she drew closer to the glass.

Atop the dresser, beside a soup tureen, there sat a row of dolls.

They were all Sutova girls, draped in differently-arranged gauze and varieties of accessories she didn’t recognize, bony rods and loops and metal boxes. Pan picked up the largest, an orange doll with a blank and ambiguous smile.

“Do you like them?”

Pan looked up from the doll and saw a petite Sutova woman behind her in the mirror. She would have been the doll’s double but not for the life in those smoky red eyes. She looked like royalty. At least, there was something in her bearing, the turn of her shoulders and the tilt of her head, and her formal attire. Although “formal” this case it meant the fishnets were silvery, the scraps white and lacy, and the tendrils atop her head piled into something like a twist.

“I’m scared of dolls,” Pan said, too shocked to lie. She hadn’t felt the woman approach at all. Had she finally found a Ketchian who knew how to mask her ki… and if so, just how strong was she, that she bothered?

The woman laughed. It sounded like wind chimes. “I’m sorry to have caused you distress.”

“I didn’t mean they weren’t pretty,” Pan said, putting the doll back down and, fearing she’d never be able to prop it up the way it had been, opting instead to lay it across the dresser. “I only… is this your room? I didn’t mean to barge in. I’m looking for the way out, and this isn’t it, so I’ll just be on my way.”

“You don’t have to leave,” She said. “I’m not offended. They do have rather vacant faces, don’t they?”

There was a window on the wall, a sliver of one with yellow sky behind it, but maybe it was big enough to slip through. Pan couldn’t trust this woman just because she was acting nice. Even if she wasn’t faking, Pan was still being hunted by the palace guard and couldn’t afford the precious seconds this conversation was costing her.

“I was just about to have breakfast,” She continued, gesturing to the tureen. “It’s terrible being stuck in this tower, marched out for decoration, having to eat my meals by myself. I’d love it if you could stay for a bite.”

…said the spider to the fly. Seriously, the place was draped in webs. How much more threatening did it have to be?

Still, whatever she was cooking in that pot did smell good, and Pan hadn’t eaten since lunchtime yesterday.

Pan’s internal struggle came to an end with the heavy knock on the door. It was Captain Ember, and he didn’t wait for the Sutova woman to open it; he and Officer Gelata threw it open with enough force to splinter the bone.

So, the window, then.

Pan stepped backwards without taking her eyes off her enemies. At least she could fly now. There was no point in suppressing her ki. One good spring and she’d be out. How many of them could fly, and how well? Could they follow her?

The regal woman stepped between her and Ember. “What is the meaning of this?”

“We’re here for that girl, Princess Incendria, and I wouldn’t get too close to her if I were you. I know she doesn’t look dangerous, but she killed one of my men when she resisted arrest…”

Pan reversed that step and punched the wall. It cracked. “You liar! You did that yourself. I was trying my best to keep everyone alive.”

“…and for your safety and the safety of everyone in the palace, she needs to be returned to the dungeons. If you won’t hand her over willingly, I’ll…”

Incendria uncoiled a tendril from her “twist” and smacked Ember across the face with it. “You’ll what, Captain? Force your way into the quarters of the Princess of Asphodel? I’m sure my brother would love to hear about that.”

Pan dropped her fist to her side. Plaster dusted her knuckles and trailed down to the floor in grains. “If Captain Ember wants a rematch, I’m up for it.”

“I told you before I wasn’t playing games with you,” Ember said.

Pan pointed to the dolls on the dresser. “But we can’t do it here. We’d break everything. Like this, it would totally break. And this thing.”

Next to the doll was what looked like a ceramic flower, shiny bone over gold quartz. She picked it up.

“I have no idea what it is. I probably already broke it and don’t even know it, so I’m going to put it down now, next to the soup dish.” Steam rose from the pot; fragrant steam, heavy with spices. Noodles swam in the broth. The soup looked as good as it smelled.

“You haven’t broken a thing,” Incendria said. She held up a bowl that looked like a clamshell. “Does this mean you’re staying?”

Ember made to cross the threshold again. “Did you hear a word I’ve said? That isn’t your… your pet to feed and dress up. She’s a professional warrior and she must be dealt with by professional warriors.”

“I thought I qualified,” Incendria said. “I also thought the barbaric dark ages where we arrested children for show were several hundred years behind us.”

Gelata flinched as if she’d been slapped.

“But since you’ve arrested her, I pardon her.” Incendria waved her hand.

“You don’t even know her,” Ember said.

“What’s your name?” Incendria asked.

“Son Pan,” She said. “And I’m twenty.”

“There you go. Now I know her, and I’ve pardoned her. If you dispute my judgment you can take it up with King Sulfuri. In the meantime, you have no further business here, and I trust you can find your way back down your rabbit hole without an escort.” Incendria dished out a bowl of noodles and thrust it into Pan’s hands.

Pan held her bowl. The ceramic burned. It was nothing compared to the flame in Ember’s visible eye; if looks could kill, she’d be charcoal.

Gelata tugged his arm. “There’s nothing we can do, Captain. It’s the Princess’s call.”

In fury, Ember backed away from the threshold.

“This isn’t over,” He said.

“Fine by me. I’m not kidding about that rematch.” Pan punctuated it by shoving a bite of noodles into her mouth. They were tasty; sweet, and meaty on the outside, but with an inner crunch like tempura.

“By the way,” Ember said over his shoulder. “You’re eating Bludwald rat intestines stuffed with marinated naif-beetle shells.”

Pan looked at the bowl and the “noodles” still dangling from her chopsticks.

“There’s no point in asking for the recipe, then,” She said. “I’d never be able to get those ingredients back home.”

Ember growled and slammed the door behind him.

Once he was gone, Incendria laughed so hard she almost doubled over.

If anything, Pan trusted Incendria less after that scene. Who took a stranger’s word over an advisor’s, and why? She had to be up to something. Not to mention Pan did trust Captain Ember to mean it when he said he hadn’t given up on dragging her back to that dungeon.

But she couldn’t help it. She laughed, too. Incendria’s was just that contagious.

ooo

Pan sunk beneath the cloud of bubbles and scrubbed the remnants of shackle-grime from her hair. She came back up with a splash, leaned back on the tub. The fizzy soap called her back to sleep.

She knew she couldn’t listen. She was still inside a palace where the Captain of the Guard wanted her dead, and she knew somewhere outside it, the Cold family did, too. She still didn’t know which of its surviving members had trapped her here or when and how they’d strike. A hot bath wasn’t going to solve any of those problems.

It was the best stop-gap of all time, though.

She remained alert enough to turn when the door opened, but it was only Incendria with an armful of clothes.

“Where’s Grandpa’s gi?” Pan asked.

“I haven’t thrown any of your things away- I’ve brought that communication device Ember took from you and set it on the dresser- but your clothes need washed. Besides, they’ll draw too much attention. We need something that won’t look out of place in these halls.”

That was why Pan was here and not outside. She’d been on track to continue her way out the window once her meal was finished. Incendria had asked her not to, pointing out the castle was in the middle of a city that hadn’t seen a Saiyan since the late King Vegeta had visited as prince, and would have divisive but equally dangerous opinions about what a new one meant. Pan might not have been convinced by Incendria alone, but since she’d overheard Ember and Gelata discussing the same thing, there might be some truth to it.

Even so, she was slightly terrified of what Incendria might bring her. So far she’d seen nothing but leather thongs and crab-shell bikinis in these halls, and even if she managed to squeeze into one of those outfits without blushing, the air was still frostbitten and liable to leave her face blue instead of red.

“Fortunately, the city has a sizeable Brenchian population. I sent one of the scullery maids to them and she found this. It should fit.”

The garment Incendria unrolled was, to Pan’s relief, whole and practical, a peach-colored calf-length coat with long embroidered sleeves and matching wide pants. It looked warmer than her gi, and just as easy to move in.

“That’s what you are, by the way, if anyone asks: Brenchian. As long as you keep that tail of yours wrapped around your waist, this overcoat should hide it, and you’ll look the part convincingly enough. It’s not like anyone’s expecting to find a disguised Saiyan among them.”

Oh, if only that were true, Pan thought. She said, “Thank you.”

Incendria left, and Pan dried off and pulled on the outfit in a hurry, mostly to save her feet from the cold floor.

She stretched as she returned to the spider web room, where Incendria said, “Perfect fit.”

“It is. I was worried the sleeves and the coattails would be in the way, but it moves like it was made for this. That’s another one I owe you.” Pan tried a few moves to confirm it, but Incendria still didn’t look pleased. “What?”

“What’s your favorite color?”

“Gray or red, depending on when you ask.”

Incendria flicked her wrist. “Green Wave Chameleon.”

Pan froze as the Prismasphere energy enveloped her. She didn’t know how to fend off that bear trap, should it close around her again. It didn’t, though; all she felt was a tickle. She held her arm out, and behold, her formerly-pink sleeve was now gray with red embroidery.

“Amazing!” Pan said. “How do you do that?”

Incendria winked. “Magic.”

“I’m serious. Do you know why I’m on Ketchyn?”

“I suppose you’re going to tell me you really are a vicious criminal.”

“No, but I’m on some vicious criminals’ naughty list. I know they brought me here, I just don’t know why, or why now, and I definitely don’t know what to do if they attack me with that.” Pan thumbed out the window at the sky, hovering cloudlessly somewhere between yellow and yellow-green. “When I tried to fight off Ember’s paralysis, something happened. Something really… painful.”

“A backlash,” Incendria said.

“That’s what Gelata called it. What’s it mean?”

“Do you really want to know? Then follow me.” Incendria scooped up the ivory rod from the dresser, the one Pan hadn’t broken. “From what I’ve seen of you, you’ll understand it better if I show you.”

This was still no time for Pan to drop her guard, and she didn’t completely, but now that she wasn’t expending so much energy feeling for ki signatures and hunting for hiding places, she noticed figures carved in the bone-pillars. She hadn’t looked at them closely enough to see that before. Occasionally she found a colorful mural stretched between them. Little things like a discarded cup left on a table or fingerprints dotting the fly-wing glass; the castle was lived in after all.

As they arrived on the first floor, something else struck Pan. She and Incendria had been passed in the halls several times by guards in uniform, by servants, by what she assumed were other nobles.

Every one of them had been Sutova. Underground, she’d seen an even number of Sutova and Reizomorphs, but once she’d hit the surface, the latter vanished completely – so completely she didn’t even see any depicted in the carvings or paintings.

“Strange,” She said.

“What is?”

“The last Reizomorph I saw was Officer Gelata, and she chased me up here.”

Incendria shrugged. “What’s strange about that? Ah. Here we are.”

Incendria opened a set out double doors to a room that, even with the fleshy construction materials, Pan recognized instantly. The smooth plank floor, the mats and training dummies, an entire wall concealed behind a floor-to-ceiling mirror…

“You’ve got a dojo here,” Pan said.

“And we couldn’t have reached it at a better time. Watch this.”

Incendria held up the strange rod. Had Incendria been serious after all? Was that a magic wand? No; she gripped it between both fingers and it flared, and when she spun it yellow-green light shot from its sides, extending the small cylinder into a full-length staff.

“A power pole,” Pan said. “My grandpa used to have one of those. His wasn’t crystalline, though.”

“Mine’s tuned to the Prismasphere, just as the Prismasphere is tuned to me,” Incendria said. “Now watch.”

Pan didn’t have to spend long wondering what she was supposed to be watching for. The yellow-green light pulsed once, twice; the green darkened, spread, and swallowed the yellow.

“Most planets have a sun and moon dictating their cycles; days, months, years. Ketchyn was little more than a chunk of cold rock and a dusting of megaregolith when we landed here, so the first Sutova colonists banded together and created the Prismasphere with their own life forces to render it habitable. We are the Prismasphere, and the Prismasphere is us,” Incendria said. “It has its own phases. We call them waves. The earliest is the red wave, but you missed that, and the orange dawn; you just saw it shift from the mid-morning yellow wave to the early-afternoon green wave. Next will come blue and then indigo, and then… well, everyone stays inside after that. Now, come at me.”

“Wait, what?”

“You needn’t worry about harming me. I’m not as delicate as I look.”

“Yeah, but… neither am I.” It wasn’t that Pan didn’t want to comply, she just had yet to glean anything about Incendria’s battle capabilities. The woman had a martial arts poker face. Was Pan aiming for Mama Videl or Uncle Vegeta?

Pan decided to start between the two in the hopes Incendria wouldn’t be injured if it were the former or insulted if it were the latter. She struck open-handed, mid-chest. It was the sort of move she’d use in a competitive tournament.

“Green Wave Deflection,” Incendria said.

This time, Pan was ready for the feeling of the Prismasphere gathering like a cloud. When it thickened into invisible mist, though, that was something new; and she lost momentum as she traveled through it. The edge of Pan’s hand struck something and it wasn’t Incendria. It was an invisible barrier hovering three inches before her chest.

Incendria thrust with the pole. Pan spun and the light passed harmlessly over her shoulder. How could she follow up, though?

“Masenko!”

Pan fired, but the small beam hit the barrier and dissolved. Obviously, the answer was “not that way.” What could Pan get through the barrier Incendria had woven?

Wait, that staff of Incendria’s. One end of it, the one Incendria held, was already on her side of the barrier. Maybe Pan couldn’t get through, but…

This time, when Incendria brought the pole down, Pan grabbed the end of it and thrust it back to its owner. Incendria deflected it and the tip smacked the floor.

Incendria glanced down at the crack it made, and so did Pan. It didn’t look like much, but the both of them could read its controlled fingers like a book.

Incendria could bring this building down if she wanted, Pan thought.

“Well done,” Incendria said, and Pan could tell she’d reached the same conclusion about her. “I didn’t expect you to spot my weakness that quickly. That said, it’s a weakness I deliberately introduced. I wanted you to understand your shield is only good so long as you don’t reach outside of it. Now that you know, let’s get you making your own shield.”

“Wait,” Pan said. “The last time I tried to use this…”

“Did you notice anything,” Incendria asked, “From when I changed the color of your clothes and what I did just now?”

Pan thought. “The shield felt stronger. But it’s a more powerful technique, so it makes sense it would.”

“Really?” Incendria tilted her head. “Blue Wave Razor Rain!”

White-hot ki pooled and erupted into razor-wire like strings. Pan darted through the sharp lines of ki, slipped through the final beams of the barrage.

Forget the building. Incendria could wipe the city off the face of Ketchyn if she wanted.

“Dear me! I expected at least one of them to connect. It’s been far too long since I’ve sparred with one of your kind. I’d forgotten how tough you are,” Incendria said. “But never mind. Did that feel as strong as the shield?”

“No,” Pan said, surprised to find that was true. “The ki was fainter, even though the attack was more powerful. It’s because the colors match, isn’t it? Because it’s green outside and you used a green technique.”

“Indeed,” Incendria said. “There are seven waves of the Prismasphere, and each one has its own related techniques. While there are exceptions like Red Wave Paralysis, which works on the body but in an offensive manner, and green wave deflection, which summons ki to form a shield, the simplest way to remember it is that red to yellow techniques heal and are used for defense, while green to indigo hurt and used for attack.”

“So instead of white and black magic, you’ve got red and blue,” Pan joked.

“I have no idea what that means, but the point is, while you can use any technique at any time, if you use it while its corresponding Prismatic wave crests, it will be both more powerful and easier to pull off. You see, you aren’t actually creating it. It already exists in the Prismasphere, and you’re summoning it. It’s only logical that if you call it when it’s closer, it’ll have an easier time getting to you. Now, let me show you once more, and then you can try it yourself.”

“Like I tried to say before, I’m still not sure I’m ready for this,” Pan said. “The last time I tried to summon the Prismasphere, something jumped out of it and attacked me. And I’m not sure if I’m misunderstanding this, or miscounting, but first you said there are seven waves of the Prismasphere, but then you only said there were six…”

“There are seven waves. Six of them are useable. The last wave… that’s the Violet Wave. Or in the vernacular, the Vile Wave. That’s what ‘jumped out and attacked you,’ as you put it.”

“Why?”

 “Remember when I told you the Prismasphere is the collective ki of the inhabitants of this world?” Incendria leaned on her staff. “All worlds, all people have… toxicity, I suppose… inside them. The Vile Wave is ours. Every cruelty, every shred of malice, every injustice and every outrage, it all ends up trapped in the Vile Wave. And it’s always looking for a way out. The Vile Wave crests after indigo has passed. It lasts from midnight until dawn, and as it flows, it seeks channels of escape. Merely being out and unprotected during those hours brings with it a risk of hallucination. Attempt to summon and it will find you and try to tear its way out through you. The more inexperienced the summoner, the greater the danger. The indigo wave was half over when you tried your first summon, so a backlash was almost inevitable.”

“And that’s… all it does?” Pan asked.

“Oh, according to legend, it can do any ridiculous thing the other waves can’t, from spinning gold of grass to raising the dead. That’s relegated to legend, though. The only thing any living summoner has ever proved it can do is snap their mind, break their will, and kill them.”

“How do I stop it from getting me again?” Pan asked.

“Stay indoors at night. Don’t use the Prismasphere when the Vile Wave is cresting unless you absolutely have to,” Incendria said.

“And if I absolutely have to?”

“Drop the thread as soon as you feel the Vile Wave heading for you. You won’t want to. It has a siren call. You’ll have to force yourself not to listen. But at least,” Incendria’s voice brightened, “There’s no chance of that happening this time of day. Now watch me again. Green Wave Deflection.”

Though it may have been meant to soothe her fears, Incendria’s speech only made Pan more reluctant to reach out to the Prismasphere. She wondered if it was like a horse or wolf that could feel her fear. She tried to choke that fear down and pay attention to Incendria’s barrier, how she’d pulled it from the atmosphere, how she’d woven it into a shell.

“Green Wave Deflection,” Pan said, trying to do the same thing.

She did manage to form a barrier. It just wasn’t around her. It was halfway between this room and the hall, and it split the mirror from top to bottom.

“It wasn’t supposed to do that, was it?” Pan asked.

“Try again,” Incendria said, still grinning.

Bothered or not, Incendria was right. If Pan wanted a fighting chance of surviving Ketchyn long enough to leave it, she had to learn at least this technique. Otherwise, the next time she was attacked, she might not wake up in a dungeon. She might not wake up at all.

With that thought, and a heavy sigh, Pan resigned herself to spending the next few hours groping for slimy space ki. She was normally excited about learning new techniques, but this was the first new technique that left her feeling like she was going to need to jump right back into the bathtub once she left the dojo.

ooo

When Pan understood she was about to spend her second night on this strange world, a new worry began to gnaw at her. On top of her fears for her family back home, and her fears of the shadowy forces after her on Ketchyn, there was something else, something more immediate… something already building in the back of her head.

Incendria had assigned Pan a room identical to her own in all but size (it even had the spider web trimming and the dolls) and the type of window; this one was a casement with a windowsill set deep enough into the wall to double as a chair. From this side, it was impossible to estimate how big Asphodel City was. She couldn’t see anything but rooftops, and they tended to look like sides of beef and crab shells, which threw off her sense of perspective.

Pan crawled out the window and hovered to the roof. It also looked like a side of beef. It wasn’t squishy, though, and with the proper clothes the cold wind felt refreshing. The sky had turned a shade of blue that was almost earthlike. It was comfortable enough.

Hey, Bonpara, she thought. Are you there?

It’s a relief to hear from you again, Bonpara thought. Did you make it out of that castle?

I made it out of the dungeon. I’m still in the castle. It’s not as dire as it sounds, though; it turns out the princess is on my side. How’s grandma? How did she take the news I was going to be late?

We don’t know. We were afraid to tell her in person. We left her a note and ran.

Pan didn’t want Chi-Chi to worry. She knew she would, of course. That’s what her grandmother did. But that didn’t mean she liked the idea, and now, with nothing but a mysterious note promising her Pan was safe and would be back as soon as possible; would that make things worse? It had to be better than nothing.

Is everything all right? You sound… distant, Bonpara asked.

I have a headache, that’s all, Pan thought. I’m trying to take my mind off it. Maybe I could send you a picture of the city. It looks about the size of South Capital.

There was too much city to take in a single glance, and though she’d been all over the North Quadrant, Pan had never seen anything exactly like it. It looked less like buildings and more like a crowd of giant creatures in various states of skinning and shelling standing in uneven rows around a network of terra-cotta streets, with crowds of smaller creatures in turns milling around them. Red and meaty awnings here, scumbled shell there, eyeball windows and heart-flesh doors. The strangeness made the one normal thing Pan saw, the tents of an open market, stand out.

There, on one of the tables, sat the thing Pan needed. If this planet had a sun, it would surely be casting a ray of light directly upon it. It was tantalizingly close to the palace, too. It would be such a small matter to sneak out and retrieve it.

Gotta go again, guys, Pan thought. Don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong. I just have to buy myself a, er, souvenir.

You sure this is the time to be shopping? Still, Bonpara broke the telepathic link just the same.

Pan descended straight from the roof to the grass below. Of course this wasn’t the time to be shopping. She respected the severity of her situation and the foolishness of leaving the safety of the palace. But this was an emergency.

Good thing her rooftop view had given Pan a decent mental map of Asphodel City’s layout, because once she hit the streets, flying wasn’t an option. Nobody else was doing it. Besides, walking turned out to be more fun. She got to see the carved-meat and sea-monster houses up close. The crowds mostly ignored her. She got an occasional sidelong glance of curiosity or mild hostility, but most travelers were content to look squarely at their own feet.

She finally reached the table. A green Brenchian shopkeeper with a pointed black goatee leaned in a chair behind it, resting his feet on the edge. He must have spent a lot of time in that position, because he hopped out without falling or knocking the chair over.

It was only as she approached that Pan thought of another potential obstacle.

“Do you take gammets here?” She asked. Most of the planets she’d visited were just fine with Zeni, but then, most of the planets she’d visited had some limited amount of contact with Earth. She didn’t know about this Quadrant.

“I’ll take as many as you’re willing to hand over,” He said, his speech lightly accented. Pan liked it. It was something familiar. “Although I’m guessing you mean you want something in return for them.”

“Coffee.” Pan said, pointing at the bag. “How much?”

He laughed. “I see you just got here. Tricky to price, that stuff. The natives and immigrants who’ve gone native aren’t fond of it. They prefer their Nightwater. Visitors can’t go without it. So while on the supply side, it’s an import, on the demand side, it’s not one that moves particularly quickly. How about you give me, oh, say, fifty for it?”

“You’ve got a deal,” Pan said, counting out the money. It was all she could do not to pounce on the bag. Instead, she politely waited for the shopkeeper to wrap it up, arms at her sides.

Something tugged Pan’s wrist.

Standing about to her knee was a little Reizomorph… boy? Girl? She couldn’t tell. It was armored up like a tiny knight. It looked up at her with giant crimson eyes. It wrung its tail between its hands.

Cute!

“Hey, there,” Pan said. “Where’s your mom and dad?”

It just kept staring at her, wringing its tail. The shopkeeper backed away, suddenly nervous.

“Did you get lost?” Pan asked.

It bobbed its head ‘yes.’

Pan scanned the crowds. She didn’t see the child’s parents or anything like a guard. “Back home, they always told me if you got lost, you should stay right where you are. That way you and your parents won’t keep getting further away from each other. Not that I ever listened.”

Something pricked Pan’s finger, and when she looked down, she found it was the child; it had bitten down on her index finger and was sucking her blood with a face that could only be called contemplative.

It pulled her finger out of its mouth. “You got hurt.”

“It’s just a sting,” Pan said. Come to think of it, punching with that hand had hurt like hellfire. Being bitten on the same spot should feel like an explosion. Instead, her hand seemed to ache less. It felt functional.

“What’s that orange thing on your head?”

Pan ran her unbitten hand over her head. “This is my lucky bandanna. I travel the galaxy and I get into a lot of scrapes, but as long as I’m wearing this, I always find a way out.”

It gave her another thoughtful stare. “You’re a nice lady.”

Finally, a woman pushed her way through the crowds and swept the child into her arms. “Tundra, what did I tell you about wandering away from me? I’m so terribly sorry, sir, miss. He’s to stay out of the tents. I’ve told him a thousand times if I’ve told him once.”

“No harm done,” Pan said. “I’m just glad you spotted us. It’s busy here today.”

The woman clutched the boy as if she didn’t trust Pan not to scoop him up and run. “We’ll just be going. I apologize again for the intrusion.”

“Bye-bye,” Said the boy, waving over his mother’s shoulder as she carried him away.

Pan waved, too.

She turned back to the shopkeeper for her coffee. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve before he handed it to her.

“Scary,” He said. “You handled them better than I expected. Too many visitors are so frightened, they scream for the guards, and you didn’t hear this from me, but in this part of town the guards might be worse. It’s always best to deal with it yourself if you can. Still, I’d wash your hands before you drink this. There’s no telling where the grub’s mouth was before he put it on you.”

Pan had no idea what that meant, and she knew she had to pretend she did, so she didn’t respond at all. She excused herself quickly and bolted back to the castle with her coffee tucked under her arm. Overhead, the blue sky pulsed and rippled indigo.

Travel became quicker. That wasn’t a good thing. The once-impenetrable crowds were thinning, and empty streets made for faster walking. Clearly, Pan wasn’t alone in wanting to be behind a closed and locked door when the indigo wave solidified.

 

Chapter Text

As midnight approached, the thrumming of the Prismasphere quickened to a heartbeat’s pace. Starlessness and a depth like potent wine filled the space beyond the windowpane, casting its violet light over everything below, darkening the reds and brightening the whites. A scrap of paper rolled halfway across one before sailing into an alley. It was a landscape for ghosts to walk.

Or maybe Pan was just tired. The empty streets below had to be the most benign thing she’d seen since she’d gotten here. Predictably, drinking coffee before bedtime had left her without a headache but also wide awake. It didn’t help Saiyans could go days without sleep if they felt threatened, and Pan felt threatened. The teeth of the Vile Wave bear trap grazed the back of her neck even through the closed window. Or maybe it was only the memory of its teeth that haunted her.

“Not scared, not scared, not scared,” Pan whispered.

She turned from the window. On the dresser, the row of dolls stared at her with round and glassy eyes, every line of their face opacity, down to their faint perhaps-smiles.

“Oh, who am I kidding.”

She opened the drawer below and shoved the whole row into it with one wipe. She closed it with perhaps a little more force than the toys deserved. But when she met her own eyes in the mirror, she wondered if she should have bothered.

Only one thing would make her feel better now.

Yawning, Pan padded down the hall and down the stairs to the dojo.

She didn’t give her brain time to think. She just started doing push-ups, counting off in her head and trying not to fall in time with the Prismasphere. Normally, training cleared her head, but this time she couldn’t shake the feeling something terrible was coming; in fact, it got worse by the moment. Ember plotting to ambush her now that she was alone, perhaps? She switched to crunches, enjoying the relief spreading through her cramped muscles. She’d be ready for him. What to do once she finished this set? Pan didn’t trust herself not to destroy the training dummies. Or the walls, for that matter. She’d already broken their mirror practicing with Incendria.

“Four hundred seventy-six, four hundred seventy-seven…”

Pan stopped halfway up and held the pose.

Something was coming.

More appropriately, somebody was rushing the palace. Dismal ki surrounded the dojo from every side. Pan vaulted to her feet, instinct landing her in a fighting stance. It felt like an invading army out there, but the windows showed her nothing but empty night, and the mirror showed her nothing but her own reflection.

Until every light in the dojo went out, and then she couldn’t even see that.

It was every light, too. Even the Prismasphere’s violet glow disappeared. Pan groped for the door, found the handle, opened it.

And was punched directly in the sternum.

She blocked, and not a moment too soon. Even after she’d gotten the impact under control it sent her across the room and into the wall, potentially through it. If she’d taken that full-force it would have killed her on the spot. Another one just like it followed, segueing into entire storm delivered so fast her mind raced to catch up with what her hands were deflecting. Something like a boa constrictor double-wrapped her neck and squeezed.

This… was not Ember. It wasn’t even Incendria. All that ki, what she’d thought was the Vile Wave outside congealing around her, it all belonged to one immensely powerful creature. And that creature was trying its damndest to kill her.

Oh, wow! What an opponent! Grandpa would be so jealous!

Spreading her arms, Pan drew luminescent energy to her palms. Not even those globes of light could pierce this darkness, but she freed it just the same. It loosened the flesh-noose around her neck. Her attacker didn’t waste any time on surprise; he moved, and she tried to follow. Her next strike caught only air, and then she was in the air, and then on the dojo floor. She tasted copper dripping through her lips, down the corner of her chin. She spun and pushed back to her feet just in time to hear the crash as the place she had been was reduced to shrapnel.

That wasn’t all she heard. Words followed. Words she mentally responded to with, “Oh, crap.”

“Vile Wave Laceration!”

The malignant energy sawed the floor like cruel laughter and fanned towards Pan. Blocking this would not be enough. She had only one defense and too little practice with it, and she wasn’t supposed to summon when the Vile Wave crested unless she absolutely had to, but she absolutely had to.

“Green Wave Deflection!”

Her form was not the best. The energy wobbled, and her shield took the wave from the side, not so much deflecting it as knocking it off-course. Shattering glass followed. It must have hit the mirror instead of her.

It wasn’t much of a victory. No sooner were the words out of her mouth than she was bear-hugged from behind. She twisted. Tried to get hold of something, anything. She couldn’t; there was no breaking free…

…and then he let her go, just like that.

The lights came back on.

Pan didn’t drop her guard. She didn’t know what game her enemy was playing, but she was ready to see an empty dojo, ready to search for an ambush. She didn’t have to, though. The lights hadn’t been returned by the same mysterious force that had stolen them. They’d been turned on at the switch, mundane as ever.

He stood in plain sight, a segmented pink Reizomorph in pale armor and a ratty old black cloak, one hand on the light switch and the other tucked behind his back. He smiled at her, open and genuine. There was nothing sinister about him. In any other context he would have looked friendly.

But that gruesome life force remained, and the damage it had done to the place; that Pan wasn’t ready to see. The walls had been shredded and the yard beyond them. The floor and the ground beneath it, deep pits. There were only a few lights left to come on. How had the roof not collapsed?

“I beg your pardon,” He said. “There’s been a terrible mistake. Indulge me in conversation a moment, won’t you? Perhaps we can figure out what went wrong.”

Was this who Pan had been fighting? The Vile Wave still filled the space like venomous fog, but he was so… nonthreatening. She couldn’t even match his voice, gentle like the low key of a flute, to the shriek that had summoned the Vile Wave.

“You see, when I dispatched my sentry to Earth, I specifically ordered it to bring me Son Goku, but clearly, that isn’t who stands before me now. I should have known. Triggering my trap early so you’d have time to escape the crypt, holing up in the palace; those are the moves of a chessmaster, not a buffoon who struggles with checkers. He’s not cold enough to send you as a decoy, either. Which begs the question… who are you, and why did my sentry ignore him in favor of you?”

He worded it like a question, but didn’t invite any answer from Pan. He strode to her. Pan readied for another attack, but none came. He leaned over her shoulder and tasted the blood on the corner of her mouth.

Pan patted her cheek. She couldn’t see her expression, but she could imagine it. “Did you just lick my face?”

“That is Saiyan blood, to be sure, and it’s got a familiar bite to it. Do I finally have the honor of addressing Raditz’s child?”

“You licked my great uncle’s face?” Pan asked.

“Great uncle? Ah! A granddaughter, then. That would make you the child of that docile little thing I met on Namek. Well! That explains how you tricked my sentry, doesn’t it?”

“If that bee was your sentry, you must be with the Cold family.”

He chuckled. “Oh, my dear, I am the Cold family. Emperor Frieza, at your service.”

“Emperor Frieza,” Pan repeated.

He didn’t make a move. He continued to stand with his hands tucked behind his back, wide open, smiling placidly. Frieza was dead. Fought and killed on Namek, fought and killed again in Hell. And yet Pan knew, with a nightmare’s certainty, this man was telling her the truth.

“You’re not what I expected.”

“Let me guess,” He said. “You thought I’d be taller.”

Pan measured him against her own head and said, “No, you’re about the right height.” It was more like when Grandpa and Vegeta had talked about the man who’d murdered their parents, slaughtered their race, and atomized their homeworld, she’d envisioned something eviler. But then, what did evil look like? This, apparently. And it wasn’t what she’d expected.

“Charming. Really.” He did not sound charmed, and there was a scornful edge to his sarcasm. “You don’t know me, but if you had expectations, I can only assume you know of me. That’s good. It saves time. I don’t need to convince you to answer my questions or explain what will happen if you don’t. Fortunately, I have only one, and it’s an easy one. Where is Son Goku?”

That may have been an easy question to Frieza, but to Pan, it was downright absurd. It was true, Frieza had been in hell when it happened, but surely he’d heard. Surely he knew.

“Son Goku is dead,” Pan said.

The quiet thickened and mingled with the Vile energy. Frieza did not budge. He regarded Pan so impassively, she wondered if he’d heard her.

“I do not appreciate…”

It changed with the sudden ferocity of the Vile Wave itself. His smile melted into a fanged grimace so intense he looked like a completely different person, and his voice, too, pitched like breaking glass, and now Pan could match that face and voice to the monster she’d fought in the darkness.

“…BEING LIED TO!”

Six more Lacerations flew at Pan, and she barely shielded herself from the first five. The final clipped her on the arm, leaving a trail of blood and the same kind of sting as the sentry bee. The others smashed into the floor, and this time, the wall did come crashing down, billowing dust. The lights were gone again, but at least this time, she had the Prismasphere for light. Pan wove through the falling chunks and flew above the debris.

“I’m not lying!” Pan tried to predict where she’d need to shield next. “Earth was attacked by seven dragons. He managed to slay six of them. The seventh… he killed it, too. But he was wounded in the fight and… and he never…”

Pan wiped her eyes as discreetly as she could. No crying in front of the tyrant.

“You can spare me your theatrics as well as your lies. Do you seriously expect me to believe the Saiyan who brought down the mighty Frieza met his end at the hands of a mystic vapor? Don’t make me laugh.” Frieza had taken to the air as well. He threw vile spike after vile spike. “And don’t.” Laceration. “Make.” Laceration. “Me. Ask. Again.”

Erratic though they may have been, the waves of energy were delivered rapidly, and hit close enough Pan still had to dodge them. She was so occupied doing that she didn’t notice Frieza had followed the last one to her; not until he was right next to her. He released another, but stopped it before it hit her. It lingered so close to her face she could hear it cackle like live wire. Pan turned away but he launched another out of the floor and blocked her path. Two more pierced the ground, enclosing her like thorns.

“If I recall,” Frieza said, “That monkey had an uncharacteristic soft spot for the weak. Most Saiyans place winning above all, but not Goku, oh no; he’d risk the battle and his life to save a friend in danger. How much further would he go to save his granddaughter? Or, more relevant to you, how loud do you think you’d have to be screaming before he couldn’t resist speeding to your rescue?”

“I’d save my ears if I were you,” Pan said.

She fired a Kamehameha, and he’d been so intent on intimidating her, he hadn’t even noticed her forming it. It annoyed him like a mosquito bite might have, but at least it shattered his trap.

Grandpa told Pan stories about Frieza. What had he said? Frieza relied too much on brute strength. He’d come out swinging, but the longer a fight lasted, the more likely he was to burn himself out before it was over. That battle he’d boasted about on Namek; according to Grandpa, it had lasted five minutes, and Frieza had been so winded at the end he would have lost even if he hadn’t walked into one of his own attacks. Surely Pan could hold out that long.

Another barrage of punches shook the ground. Even if Pan could, the castle surely couldn’t.

She couldn’t afford a moment’s distraction. She couldn’t afford to slip. He feinted and she fell for it; she hurled energy she couldn’t spare in an explosive wave. That did save her from the blow, but it also knocked the roof off its last legs, and it fell directly on her. The ensuing impact was worse than a car crash. It was disorienting to hear her bones break before she felt it, and to feel it before she understood it. Get your bearings, Pan! She wormed free of the rubble and pushed Frieza back by attrition. The shock splintered what little was left of the wall. Had Pan really been sparring with Incendria in this room just this morning?

Wait. Frieza wasn’t bothering with shields. It wouldn’t hurt him, but she didn’t need to, she only needed to move him.

“Masenko!”

He stepped into the grass and heather. Good. Vile Wave or no Vile Wave, Pan had to get him away from the palace, away from Asphodel, away from all these people. She may not have connected but least she had him moving in the right direction.

Frieza glanced past Pan, to the hall beyond. Did he suspect?

No, that wasn’t it. The guards were coming. They were close enough their footsteps echoed from the walls. Not many; they hadn’t been fighting long enough. Pan felt Ember. Gelata. Incendria, repressing less energy than usual. And a fourth she didn’t recognize. Of course they’d have noticed Frieza blasted the dojo to smithereens- they were inside the palace when he started tearing chunks off it, after all- and the strongest would be the quickest on the scene. Frustrated, Pan willed them to turn around. They’d be running straight into a room that, for all intents and purposes, didn’t exist anymore.

Yet Frieza held one hand over his chest and his fingers glistened. Surely that beam hadn’t hurt him. It hadn’t even hit him. When he next spoke, his voice was all oil again.

“I’m afraid I must take my leave, but don’t misunderstand. We’re picking this conversation back up at my next nearest convenience. I hope to find you in a more talkative mood. It will go better for everyone.”

Pan wanted to retort, but her ribs hurt so much even breathing was an effort. Speaking wasn’t happening.

There wasn’t anyone to speak to, anyway. By the time Incendria and the guards reached her, Frieza was gone. He hadn’t flown away, or even vanished in smoke, he was just gone.

But the dojo smoldered. The ground cracked to stygian depths. Pan’s bones were still broken. There was no question the Emperor had been here.

 

 

Chapter Text

Pan was moved to a structurally-sound room that looked like the inside of a mushroom and bombarded once again, this time with questions. Who was that second combatant the scouters had picked up? Did she see where they went? What had she been doing awake at that time of night? (Okay, only Incendria had asked that.) Pan couldn’t answer a one of them. Talking was starting to produce blood clots.

“Stop crowding her!” Incendria shoved the others out of the way. Now that most of the guards had been dispatched to pursue the “mystery invader,” the only others left to shove were Ember, Gelata, and a fourth Sutova guardsman with an elfin frame and an angular brow. “She’s injured and she doesn’t need you smothering her. She needs me.”

Incendria had just knelt to examine Pan’s side when that fourth guard pulled her back.

“She needs a Prismatist capable of healing her wounds, and that’s not you. Ember, repair her.”

What?” Captain Ember turned even redder than he was naturally. “That little brat? Give her a quick patch. It’ll be enough for her to tell us what she saw.”

“Now, Ember.”

Pan would have been happy to throw in with Ember on this one. His cranky storming didn’t exactly scream “compassionate bedside manner.” Trying to say so only made her hack a glob of blood into her palm, though, so she could only watch as Incendria moved and he knelt in her place.

He looked at the bruising flesh, then over to Incendria and the guard, as if weighing the risks and benefits of accidentally losing his patient on purpose.

“Blue Wave Balm,” He said.

Physically, breathing didn’t become any easier. It was, however, significantly less painful. Pan found that with effort, she could get a few words out of her mouth. Damp words, but still.

“It’s not a myth, Incendria,” She said.

She coughed, and Ember snapped, “Be still! You’re not better yet, and if you keep squirming, you never will be. I’ve only numbed the place I’ll be working. I still have to pull bone out of your lung, seal the lung, and put the bone back where it’s supposed to be, and I can’t do that if you’re gibbering.”

Pan tried to hold still. She tried to count to five.

“But it’s the best explanation for what happened back there,” She said, barely aware she was saying it. “With no Dragon Balls left to wish on, it may be the only explanation.”

She coughed.

“Damn it, I will paralyze you again if I have to!”

“It might be advisable, sir,” Gelata said. “She’s clearly upset and may not be able to follow basic commands.”

“Ember, if you were to paralyze her, we’d have to wait until it wore off to hear what she has to say,” The guard said. “Our men are out there searching right now. She might have information they need to stay alive. Just please continue. I’m sure the Saiyan knows how to wait.”

Incendria patted her arm. “You’re the patient. Try to be patient.”

Pan was too preoccupied to laugh at the feeble joke; she needed a good way to explain what just happened. If Ember thought she’d been “gibbering” before, he’d think the rest of her story was the punchline to a bad joke. She reclined and tried to tune out Ember murmuring about Blue Wave Drainage and Red Wave Melds, to say nothing of the unnerving sensation of bits and pieces shifting around under her skin.

Finally Ember stood, dusted off his hands. “There. She’s as back together as she’s getting.”

By that time, Pan had formed a plan. If she could get them on board with her line of thinking before delivering the punchline, they might be more open to it.

“Officer Gelata, Captain Ember, when I was escaping from the dungeon I overheard the two of you talking.”

“A-about what?” Gelata asked.

“Um, the ‘curse’ on my hand,” Pan said, wondering what else. “Didn’t you say you couldn’t figure out what it was, and guessed it was something from the Indigo Wave?”

“I accept I could be wrong.”

“Could it have been from the Vile Wave instead?”

“That’s out of the question. Wrestling the Vile Wave into any kind of useful form is impossible. Trying causes severe physical and mental trauma,” Gelata said. She stroked her chin. “Although…”

“Although what?” Incendria asked.

“That would explain why you suffered so much tissue damage. Neither the Red Wave nor the Indigo Wave should have done that to you.”

“Incendria,” Pan said. “You told me legend said the Vile Wave could raise the dead. We had a legend like that on my planet, about a dragon who’d grant a wish to anyone who gathered seven balls together. Everyone dismissed it as a fairy tale until a Capsule Corp scientist used a high-tech radar to track the Dragon Balls down. They were real, and so was the wish. What are the chances your legends are real, too?”

“Enough of this nonsense,” Ember said. “Where are you going with this, and what does it have to do with the attack on the palace?”

“What if I told you that damage you saw was done by the Vile Wave, tossed as casually as spitballs?”

 “I’d want to know what master Prismatist finally managed to tame the bane of planet Ketchyn so I could find out how he did it,” Gelata said. “Then dissect him.”

“You might want to put down the scalpel,” Pan said. “I don’t know how much contact Ketchyn has with the larger universe, or how closely you follow current affairs in the North Quadrant, but I get the feeling you’d know exactly who I meant if I said I was just attacked by Emperor Frieza.”

They didn’t have to confirm Pan’s suspicions. Incendria paled, her guard audibly gasped, and Ember and Gelata exchanged a stunned glance.

“On my homeworld, he’s the murderer of the Saiyans and the face of the Planet Trade Organization. It’s funny I never thought much about who he was before that, but he had to come from somewhere. That somewhere is Ketchyn, isn’t it? He’s a Reizomorph. That’s why their ancestral tomb is here. They didn’t just pick this out of their backlog of nice planets to get buried on, it’s where they… where he… was born.”

“Specifically, Frieza is believed to be of Arcosian descent, like myself,” Gelata said. “Although nobody’s sure. The Cold family’s genealogy contains a lot of… creative revision. Embarrassing or unsavory members have a habit of disappearing from the books. Connection is mostly inferred from the semantics of their naming system and the Planet Trade Organization’s heavy presence on Arcose.”

Pan thought of Frieza, his father King Cold, and his brother Cooler, and she wondered what they would consider “embarrassing and unsavory.” Sorry, Cousin Snowcone, you just didn’t stomp that helpless kitten to paste like you meant it. “Does he still have family here? Or friends? Anyone who might want him back badly enough to risk making it happen with the Vile Wave? How about the Planet Trade Organization; do they have much presence on Ketchyn?”

“Absolutely not,” Said the guard. It was the first thing he said directly to Pan. “Association with the Planet Trade Organization is not tolerated on Ketchyn. Offenders are dealt with very harshly, and not by the standards of your lenient North Quadrant. No one would dare consort openly with them.”

“When Frieza and Cooler were children, King Cold was banished from the planet,” Gelata said. “He was suspected of murdering the previous king. He’d have been executed if it had been proven, but it never could be, so he was convicted of obstructing the investigation and he and his sons were sent away. That said, he’s not without his sympathizers, particularly in the Bludwald, where Cold Manor stands. It wouldn’t be difficult to find someone there willing to exchange their lives for Frieza’s.”

 “Such elements may exist,” The guard said. “But there’s a vast divide between ‘willing’ and ‘able.’ We’re still talking about a purely theoretical method of manipulating the Prismasphere, suggested by an outsider first introduced to the concept this morning. And speaking of you.” He looked hard at Pan. “Please understand I’m not saying you’re lying. But would I be correct in estimating you were born long after Frieza’s death, and that you’ve never actually seen him?”

“I just saw him. He told me…”

“Any powerful Reizomorph could have given you that name,” he said. “It’s just the thing to throw a Saiyan enemy off-guard.”

Pan wanted to explain that her gut had recognized Frieza’s presence, even if her eyes couldn’t recognize his face, but Vile Wave was giving way to the Red Wave, and that didn’t sound as reasonable as it had in the dead of night. “He didn’t need to throw me off guard. He didn’t lose control of that fight for a second.”

Ember snorted. “You sound like you’re impressed by that.”

“Perhaps they fought in his name,” the guard said. “You did say you were on the Colds’, how did you put that, ‘naughty list?’”

This guard, whoever he was, excelled at making Pan feel stupid. She hated that.

“Show me a picture. I’m right about this. How do you know I’m Saiyan or why I’m here, anyway? I only told Incendria.”

“My sister saw no need to hide those things from me,” He said.

“Incendria’s your sister?” Pan said. “But that would make you…”

Incendria bowed. “May I introduce my brother, King Sulfuri.”

That willowy Sutova was the king? And Pan had thought he was just another guard? Embarrassing. But he was still totally wrong. Pan would prove it. “I don’t care if you believe me or not. If this Bludwald is where he came from, that’s where I have to go.”

“You can’t,” Incendria said. “You think it’s dangerous inside the city? You have no idea what it’s like beyond our borders. The moors are wild, uncivilized. The terrain is a deathtrap and it’s crawling with wild beasts.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I’m going to need as much training as I can get.”

“Even if you make it to Bludwald, what are you going to do? Ask around town for the Emperor of the Universe? Dig through the tunnels below the manor? There’s nothing there.”

Pan took Incendria’s hand. “I’m really grateful for everything you’ve done for me. I mean it. But I have to do this. Not just for me. For Grandma and everyone on Earth. You know if I can’t stop Frieza here, he’ll be on his way there next.” He would, too, looking for Grandpa. What would he do when he didn’t find him?

“Personally, I’m in favor of it,” Sulfuri said.

What, Sulfuri was on her side now? After dressing her down when he noticed her at all?

“You can’t be serious, brother!”

“I agree with the Princess,” Ember said. “You can’t be serious. This girl brings tragedy to our doorstep and you’re just going to let her walk out of here?”

The king leaned against the wall. “I can’t really stop her, now can I? Someone gave her a royal pardon. We have no grounds to detain her.”

“We could make a case for protective custody,” Ember said. He tried to sound smooth, but he choked on the word ‘protective.’

“Could we? I don’t believe she was attacked by a zombie, but I do believe she was attacked by an expert. Can you spare the manpower to repel, pursue, and detain a warrior who can do what he did to our training room?”

Ember didn’t respond.

“That’s what I thought. Let me ask you another question, then: how are our relations with Bludwald right now? For the sake of argument, let’s say you did have the men to spare. Could you send them into town wearing our insignia and expect to get anything back but their corpses and a lot of saber rattling? Do you want to deal with the fallout of that?”

Still Ember didn’t answer. At least King Sulfuri excelled at making him feel stupid, too.

“The Saiyan was able to hold her own against him. She’s not openly affiliated with us. In her current disguise, she won’t draw much attention. She’s just the person to hunt this grub down. So I am in favor of it.”

Right now, Sulfuri’s resemblance to Incendria was remarkable, and she seemed to realize he’d just pulled rank on her exactly as she had Ember.

Incendria did not try to convince him further. She clenched Pan’s fingers tighter. “Please don’t go.”

Pan, for the second time in just a few days, pulled the protective hand away.

“I’d like a map,” She said.

ooo

Deep in the heart of Ketchyn, there lay a monstrous power. Long dormant, it stewed in its ancient anger silently. Its presence would have alarmed the stoutest arm and bravest heart in all the universes.

Also, Frieza was there, standing beside it. He knew he shouldn’t be yelling at it, but it wasn’t like the abomination could reach out and throttle him for his insolence. It slept too soundly, and after all, it was only a mirror.

“Of all the things to go wrong! Here I find myself on my own homeworld, with near-unlimited power! I have every possible advantage to finally avenge myself on Son Goku! Do you know what I don’t have?”

The mirror didn’t answer, being a mirror. It really was a hideous one, too; clawed fingers, or perhaps sharpened ribs, ambiguous of purpose but most certainly wicked. Even the glass, which should have been no different from any other, stretched dull under a sheen of perpetual purple-gray. It looked like reflective skin stretched over a tanning rack of charred bone. It didn’t reflect true. Anyone looking into it would see only the worst aspects of what it caught. The filth, the decay, every scar or drop of blood, those were the only things it allowed in its surface. Frieza didn’t mind the way his reflection looked, though. To his eyes, these so-called “flaws” only made him appear more powerful.

Power that, at the moment, didn’t do him one blasted bit of good.

Son Goku, that’s what!”

The cavernous room he occupied, aside from being at the bank of an underground lake, showed other signs of construction. It was supported by six pillars and, further out against the stone wall, matching pilasters. Tied to each one with barbed wire was a statue. Like everything else here, these statues were designed to inspire revulsion. In addition to being wired in place, they’d been decapitated, the bronze mutilated with fake scars. Frieza hadn’t done this. He just hadn’t cared enough to change it.

He did now. “Change” in this case meant knocking over the nearest statue and detonating the crumbles at an atomic level.

“I certainly thought I did. The girl fights so much like he does, with the lights out, I couldn’t tell the difference until she spoke. He must have trained her. Still, I’m not going to regain my Empire’s respect avenging myself on a woman. It doesn’t matter how powerful she is, only how it would look if I called her family’s debts on her after failing to collect them from her father and grandfather.”

He dusted fragments of the stone from his hands.

“This is a setback, true, but it’s not a failure. I can still work with it. Since that tale she tried to spin me of Goku being killed by a dragon is obvious hogwash, I’ll just defeat her and bring her here. He’ll come to rescue her, right into the very heart of my newfound power, and then I’ll kill him. It’s only a slight delay. Nothing to worry about.”

He tapped the surface of the mirror.

He didn’t like touching it, not in the slightest, but it responded to the contact. His reflection grew translucent as an image appeared; an image of the girl. She stood beside a dresser, packing up an old leather backpack. She noticed a cracked drawer, inexplicably glowered, and kneed it shut. She resumed folding up a blue gi top.

“Just to be safe, though, I’d better gather my strength. I could defeat her in this form, as its potency is now greater than even my true form’s used to be, but so my victory is well and truly assured, I should regain access to the others. I doubt I’ll need all of them.” He stroked the glass. Nothing changed. He had not willed it to.

There was one other thing in this den of evil besides water, statues, and an ugly mirror. There was also a shelf. It was hardly packed. In fact, the only thing there, sitting on its top corner, was a leather-bound collection of notes. It would have been useless to most people. Aside from being written in the language of the Reizomorphs, its contents were so esoteric, they’d have made no sense to anyone who just picked them up and read them. They made sense to Frieza, though. They were instructions, often rambling but clear enough to follow, for operating the mirror. Spying through it. Raising the dead. And most importantly… filling his insatiable need for power.

Strange coincidence, that this brand new shelf and helpful sheaf of notes just happened to be down here when he woke. It was clearly a sign that this time, fortune favored the mighty Frieza. This time he would be triumphant.

“After all, my dear,” He said to the packing reflection. “You’re more competition than I’d have expected, but you’re no legendary Super Saiyan.”

ooo

Pan decided to take one last look at Asphodel City.

It wasn’t for sentiment. She hadn’t been there long enough to develop much attachment to the place. Instead, she lifted her phone and snapped a photo. The ivory palace cast deep shadows over the winding streets. Light flashed on the round windows of the crowded homes. It was a sight she wanted her friends to see. A pterodactyl soared the orange sky. She didn’t trust her descriptive power to do it justice.

She checked the photo to make sure the Prismasphere hadn’t interfered with the image (or overlaid it with a thousand screaming faces). Her thumb slipped and the scene scrolled to a picture taken a week ago, Pan at an amusement park, arms linked with her friends, Marron and Bulla. They wore bathing suits, and good thing, too; they’d just ridden an inner tube and all three of them were drenched. The shot made Pan smile. She flipped to the next, Trunks trying to bat away the flying robot Giru, who decided to roost in his purple hair. That Giru was a cyclopean metal ball with no resemblance to a bird only made that funnier. Another flip showed Pan at work with her fellow instructor Uub, the two of them surrounded by grinning students.

The pterodactyl caught sight of her and dove towards her bandanna, mouth wide open.

Pan scrolled to the next shot, Auntie Bulma and Uncle Vegeta. He’d swept her up and held her in a deep bow, like something off the cover of a novel; not a kiss, but seconds away from it.

“That is so romantic,” Pan said.

She twisted a hundred-eighty and punched. The pterodactyl didn’t make it to her fist. It collided with the drag and found it like a brick wall. The dinosaur slid down thin air.

Pan flipped to the next picture.

Pan’s smile didn’t fade, but it got a lot sadder. This was her favorite picture: her, age ten, standing between Chi-Chi and Goku. She brushed her grandfather’s smiling face.

She stuffed the phone into her back pocket and got to walking.

The pterodactyl, meanwhile, staggered through a few drunken twirls and then sailed fast in the opposite direction.

The road ahead was so overgrown in places it barely qualified as a path. No matter to Pan; she wouldn’t be taking it far, anyway.

It wasn’t long before the sky clouded over and spat snow. It didn’t build up or stick, it just gave the grass a frosted minty look. That made Pan want ice cream. There would be no ice cream, though. For the next few days, she was going to be roughing it as rough as she could. She hadn’t brought many supplies, just Grandpa’s gi, the requested map, some clean water, and her bag of coffee. They fit in her backpack with room to spare.

She thought back to that last photo. Wish you were here, grandpa.

Pan jumped when she got an answer. It wasn’t her grandfather, but Bonpara.

Oy! Pan!

Hey, brothers, Pan thought. Is everything okay?

We’re an hour past Rudeeze, right on schedule, Bonpara thought. How about you?

Not Pan’s favorite planet. I just left the palace about fifteen minutes ago. She wondered if she should tell them why. For now, she decided against it. It would invite questions she couldn’t answer, and there was no point in worrying the Para Brothers when, with any luck, the fight would be over before they got here. I’m heading to some ruins to do some training.

Where can we expect to find you? Bonpara asked.

It’ll be better to tell you when you’re closer to Ketchyn, Pan thought, unfolding her map. But I can give you my travel plans. My ultimate destination is an old manor where King Cold used to live. It’s a few days away, and the Prismasphere makes it dangerous to be outside after midnight. Not to mention she never knew when or where Frieza would attack her next. She drew a line from the manor, at the edge of the forest, down to her current location. So I’m going to start here.

She traced up to a small village a quarter-inch to the west.

And stop tonight in this town, Blendarr. It used to be the old King Flare’s hunting lodge, before he died. I should be able to make this farm by the next night, and the manor itself the next day, Pan thought.

And we should be getting to Ketchyn a day after that, Bonpara thought. You’re really going to spend the whole time practicing? Maybe we should send you our dance moves. We’ll inject some style in that old-school Saiyan pillaging of yours.

Tucking the map away, Pan shouldered her backpack. Thanks, but I’ve got moves I have to work on. One move in particular.

Grandpa had told Pan something else about Frieza. Ruthless as he was, there was one thing he dreaded more than death itself, one technique that would give her an edge when he returned to “pick up their conversation.”

And Pan… it wasn’t that she couldn’t use that technique, but...

Uh, oh, Bonpara thought, and Pan didn’t think she was supposed to hear it.

Uh, oh, what? She thought back.

Could be nothing, he responded. But I just picked up another ship on radar. There shouldn’t be anybody out here, and the computer can’t read its registration. We’re gonna have to break communication.

She didn’t like the whispery sound Bonpara’s thoughts had adopted. Tell me when you’ve gotten it straightened out. I don’t want to think the worst.

Bonpara’s mind snapped shut.

Worried, Pan turned off the road, into the wilderness.

 

Chapter Text

Pan extended her hands. She cleared her mind. She drew a deep breath.

Deep inside her there resided a well of conviction, void of conflict and contradiction, the place where Pan was her purest self. She focused every thread of her immense strength, mental and physical, on reaching inward and drawing from that well. It flooded her body, her limbs, her head. She could even feel it in her hair as it flickered from black to gold.

Now let’s see how long I can stay this way without anything… unfortunate… happening, she thought.

At the outset, Pan only walked, continuing to her destination as if she hadn’t transformed. It was a good thing she asked for a map, and maybe she should have requested a compass to go with it, because Ketchyn really was paper-flat, nothing like Mount Paozu. There were precious few landmarks to navigate by. The one she’d picked was a copse of trees on the horizon.

Two, three minutes. Everything remained quiet.

Maybe her little problem had finally gone away.

Pan had just decided to test her luck and hover a space above the ground when a shriek ripped from the copse of trees. Not bothering to land, Pan flew the remaining distance, burning through the snow with a trail of golden energy like a comet.

Now that she’d landed, she found there was much more to the copse than she’d been able to see from the road.  A kaleidoscope of butterflies took to the air as she landed. A spring trickled from deep in the woods to a lake so big Pan couldn’t see the far shore. She could see, however, the water of the near shore frothing with the gyrations of a squid the size of a bus.

In its clutches was a baby tyrannosaurus about the size of a large dog. The tiny reptile thrashed and dug its feet into the dirt, but it only broke off in clods as the squid dragged it closer and closer to the water… and its waiting beak.

Pan would have found this tragic under any circumstances, but as a Super Saiyan overwhelmed with Super Saiyan temper, it was outright intolerable.

She had to think fast. She couldn’t pull the baby free; those tentacles were ringed with blades that would peel its scaly hide right off. Instead, she rocketed at the tentacles, severing all four with one open-handed strike. The tyrannosaurus, pulling for its life, yanked so hard it tumbled head-over-heels across the snowy grass. The squid reared, thrashing the water to a red boil.

As Pan faced it, four new tentacles sprouted and flew at her like arrows.

She didn’t need to dodge. Her power surged. She blocked right, knocking all four aside at once. A sucker cut her arm. She punched the squid right above its beak, between its eyes.

A rumble like thunder issued from below.

Oh, no.

Both Pan and the confused squid stopped as the rumble became a vibration they could all feel. The tyrannosaurus slipped. The ground began to shake.

As quickly as she could, Pan depowered. Her golden hair faded to black. The light left her eyes.

No sooner did the glow fade than the quaking stopped.

Pan wiped her forehead. “Whew!”

The squid, however, saw an opportunity. Maybe it sensed its prey’s power had dropped, or maybe it simply thought she wasn’t paying attention, but it rose out of the lake as one gelatinous mass, hurtling at her.

Far from helpless, Pan linked her fingers and bump-passed the squid as if it were a volleyball. It sailed to the center of the lake and landed with a cannonball splash.

This time, it didn’t come back for another try.

Pan saw the ground littered with cracks. The damage wasn’t as bad as it could have been, or as it had been before, but still…

“I guess my little problem did not go away,” She said.

The tyrannosaurus sat upright with both feet out, gnawing the tentacles that still wrapped its body. Pan flew to it and gently unwound one. Fortunately, severing it had released it so she was able to remove it without much trouble. The skin beneath wasn’t too damaged, either; the suckers hadn’t made much headway through the lizard’s tough hide. She saw a few shallow scrapes and only a little blood.

That could be trouble enough if the squid was poison. How would she tell? Wait, of course; it had grazed her, and she wasn’t feeling any burning or numbness. The wound wasn’t turning red.

“You look okay to me, little guy,” Pan said.

It roared a high-pitched baby roar, opening its pink mouth wide, and hopped to its feet.

“Still, we ought to wash that blood off,” She said. “And I don’t want to risk getting the water from the lake.”

Nearby, the spring water trickled.

“That’s probably safer,” She said.

Hoping the lizard would follow, Pan took a wide step.

Her foot came down on a severed tentacle with a squish. It wasn’t a light squish, either. It was a blurpy rude sound like a whoopee cushion.

Pan stared at the tentacle. It twitched. She could feel her face getting blue.

The tyrannosaurus nudged the tentacle with its nose. On the other hand…

Pan scooped up that tentacle, then gathered the other three she’d cut off. “You wanted calamari for lunch, right?”

ooo

That was how Pan wound up sitting cross-legged beside a rocky spring, stoking a small campfire and munching squid. She’d found an animal that looked like a cross between a squirrel and a crab gnawing on large red nuts that reminded her of tulips and decided that meant they were edible, so she’d picked an armful, some to eat now, some for later. They tasted like potatoes.

The tyrannosaurus wasn’t interested in them. He just wanted the fish. Pan tossed another chunk into his mouth and he gulped it down.

Psst, she thought. Bonpara, are you guys safe yet?

The lull made her nervous.

When she got an answer, it was from Sonpara. We ducked into a pit on an asteroid and shut everything down. It isn’t comfortable for us, but it worked; they passed by. The ship isn’t gone yet, so we don’t want to fire back up, but we’re confident they didn’t spot us. If they are following us, maybe they think we used warp drive, because they aren’t searching or changing course.

Can you see what kind of ship it is? Pan asked.

It’s a nondescript little cruiser, the kind the Galactic Patrol used to use before they switched to the saucers. It’s not just missing its ID signature, it’s been scrubbed of anything that could qualify as an identifying mark, Sonpara thought.

What’s all that mean? Pan asked.

It means they’re definitely up to no good, whether it’s got anything to do with us or not. They might just be smugglers or escapees. Bonpara and Donpara are occupied running the ship, so that leaves me.

But you’re all safe?

For now, Sonpara thought.

I’ll leave you alone, then, so I’m not in your way. Pan broke the connection.

Two saber-cats wandered up to the spring. One slumped on the stone and dunked its paw into the water, licking it from its claws. The tyrannosaurus paid them no mind; maybe this had been where it was going when the squid attacked it. Drinking holes and burrows found predators and prey interacting with comically good manners.

Pan sloughed out of her backpack, rummaging for her map, when the dinosaur snatched it between his jaws and danced into the trees.

“Hey! I need that. Come on, this is no time to play.”

She chased it. It darted away from her.

“I’m serious,” Pan said.

The tyrannosaurus dropped the backpack and circled it. Even when Pan had pulled it back over her shoulders, the dinosaur continued to run circles around the trees.

“You want me to follow you?” Pan asked.

The tyrannosaurus stopped dawdling and vanished into the trees. She guessed that was a yes.

Deep in the copse, there lay a mound of stones. Beyond the stones, a pit. Pan approached the chasm and found it was actually a sinkhole, and a recent one. A combination of damp, cold, and some magnificent weight had torn the ground and poured dirt into the hollow chamber of an underground cavern system below.

A muffled roar tore out of the hole, and Pan knew exactly what straw had broken this hidden cave’s back.

“That’s your mom down there, isn’t it?” Pan asked the dinosaur.

Pan formed a small ball of energy for light and jumped into the hole.

Not only was she right, the situation was worse than she’d thought. Ruts in the mud led her along the adult tyrannosaurus’s path of descent, and at the end of it lay the lizard, breathing hard beneath an avalanche of rocks and dirt. The mud had solidified and frozen, trapping the creature in place. She struggled as Pan approached.

That was a bad situation. The ground was unstable as it was. Pan couldn’t just blast the dinosaur out; she remembered the Cold family catacombs, and if this was anywhere near as deep and winding as they were, she might bring the whole copse down. Pulling the tyrannosaurus free might not be safe, either. The ceiling might not survive it, and then they’d both end up buried.

At least this was one of the rare occasions Pan’s curse had its uses. She tapped her Super Saiyan power again, not long enough to bring more tremors, but a few seconds. It was all she needed to feel out the cavern. Huh, that was odd. The stones that held the walls looked natural, but they were molded brick, painstakingly disguised as the real thing. The floor behind the dinosaur, too; in her current state, Pan could feel the difference in the material. Why go to the trouble to do that, and then to bury it further? She didn’t have time to wonder. There. To the upper right of the cavern. A weak spot where the stone cracked. If she propped that up, she should be able to safely rescue the tyrannosaurus.

Pan crawled back out of the hole. She punched a tree. She pulled up a few small boulders. She carried them down into the dark.

The tyrannosaurus didn’t like the looks of that and snapped. Pan patted her side, hoping that would calm her. Once she was still again, Pan pushed the tree into the dirt, propping up the cavern ceiling. She fortified the tree with the boulders. That should keep.

“All right,” Pan said. “One, two, three!”

Pan pulled. The dinosaur got the idea and pushed, digging into the ground. She couldn’t keep up, though, and slumped, panting.

“Just a bit more,” Pan said. “Maybe if I…”

The dinosaur had managed to dislodge enough to leave a crack between Pan’s hasty support and her body. Pan might have better luck pushing her from behind. Pan squeezed through it.

It was bottom-of-the-ocean dark behind the tyrannosaurus. Pan had to make another, bigger ball of light, and not even that could reach the walls. It would be enough, though. Flying just above the dinosaur’s tail, she flattened her hands on its hide.

“Again,” She said. “One, two, three!”

Pan shoved, and the tyrannosaurus clawed, and with a pop the dinosaur burst free.

“Yes!”

The support shuddered and held.

The dinosaur was ragged and exhausted, but that didn’t stop her. She clawed up the incline, slid back, and climbed again until it burst over the lip of the hole, to her child. The baby nuzzled its mother, letting out a sound that sounded for all the world like purring.

“Aww,” Pan said.

Then the false ground beneath her crumbled.

The whole thing happened so fast, she didn’t have time to fly, so she fell the whole way and crashed into what felt like gravel, if gravel were sharpened. She landed flat on her back, arms out, and as she sat up she could feel bits of… stone? Wood?... falling off her. She dusted the biggest chunks away.

Ouch. She’d forgotten about the floor.

The opening above glared with yellow light. Was it that late already? At least getting out of the pit would be a simple matter of flying. She’d better make more light, though, so she could see where she was flying.

Pan spun a third ball of light and it illuminated a skeleton slumped against the wall beside her, mouth hanging open. Cobwebs hung thick between its fangs. A tarantula crawled out of one eye socket.

Pan screamed. It echoed.

There wasn’t just the one. What she’d fallen into, what she’d thought was gravel, it was more skeletons; a lot more, at least a hundred. Elongated skulls, tails coiled into spirals, outstretched fingers, aged brittle and weathered by time and insects. They weren’t laid out on slabs or inside vaults, merely tossed into the chamber as if the only concern in laying them to rest had been minimizing the space it took.

These bodies hadn’t been buried. They’d been hidden. Tucked away beneath a forest where only wild animals roamed and separated from even that company by smoothed dirt and fake rock.

Pan had to get out of there, but the thought of powering up to fly and blasting these people- whoever they’d been- to even smaller bits revolted her.

Standing as carefully as she was able, Pan jumped at the cavern wall, vaulted, and took off mid-air.

The first thing she did when she reached the top was pile dirt over the opening. She could remember where this was if she had to, but for now, there was no sense exposing the bodies to the elements on top of everything else.

Pan emerged from the hole with muddy hands and a dazed expression. The baby tyrannosaurus nudged her, and then so did his mother. She tossed them the rest of the squid. Her mind remained at the bottom of that pit.

One look at the yellow sky reminded her the Ketchian day was only a few hours away from being half-over, and she had a lot of ground to cover before nightfall. She’d better get back to walking if she wanted to be safely behind doors before the Indigo Wave crested.

Pan left the copse and its inhabitants, seen and unseen, behind.

But she didn’t think she’d ever be able to forget them.

ooo

Carved from the bank of a river prone to equal parts flooding and drying up, the town of Blendarr spent its first few years struggling just to keep alive. The arrival of the king and his hunting parties had, for a time, bloated it with opulent new buildings bearing the kind of acoustics designed to muffle screams. After King Flare’s death it had contracted once more, empty mansions and stores torn down to make room for smaller homes that nevertheless managed to look ancient and a mill that creaked even in still air. There it stayed, a picture of timid and uneasy quiet.

That same kind of quiet gathered under a willow just outside town. Pan curled against its bark and napped fitfully. Sweat beaded on her face. She made no sound, but there was no mistaking; she was having a nightmare.

The man who approached her could be forgiven for thinking she needed someone to wake her, and that doing so would be difficult, but he stopped cold when she turned her head, opened her eyes, and fixed him with a perfectly alert glare.

Some part of her was still dreaming, because she said, “You aren’t my brother.”

He tucked his hand behind his tendril-head. “That I’m not, miss. Was he supposed to meet you here?”

Pan blinked. The Sutova boy looked about her age. His smock and shorts were covered with washed-out paint stains, and in spite of the snow-dusted ground, his feet were bare.

“No, I, uh…” The truth was, Pan had decided she wouldn’t feel safe sleeping while the Vile Wave crested and, having reached town with time to spare, decided to get as much as she could before the Indigo Wave hit. The sky was still blue. She’d hoped for another hour, but this would have to do. “I was on my way to visit the ruins, and I thought I’d catch a nap first. I’m not trespassing, am I?”

“Not at all,” He said. “I just came here to work.”

Pan saw what he meant by work. A wooden easel now sat beside the willow, blocking her view of the shanties and the mill. “You’re a painter. Can I see?”

He laughed. “I haven’t started yet. There’s nothing to see but a blank canvas. Normally, I paint the ruins, but I was drawn here tonight. Good thing, too. You looked like you needed someone to interrupt that nightmare.”

“Tell me about it,” Pan said. “There are nights I think dreaming should be illegal.”

“But then you’d never have good dreams. Besides, I don’t think there’s any enforcing a law like that.” He bent over his paint kit and clicked it open. Pan tried to duck under his arm to see what he was doing in there, but he only pulled out a paintbrush. “I know. Here are some paints. Take control of your nightmare. Trap it on the canvas, and it can’t get you out here.”

“Look, I don’t want you to think I’m selling myself short, here,” Pan said. “But there are things I really suck at, and art is one of them.”

He shoved the brush into her hand. “You don’t have to think about it. Just feel what the canvas is telling you.”

Pan was sure the canvas was telling her to hand off the brush to someone who knew what they were doing, because that’s what she’d be saying if she were the canvas. Still, she dunked the brush in paint. She’d seen painters on TV and Gramps Hercule had dated one once, so Pan tried to do what they did. Mostly this meant she made a lot of serious faces and chopped the brush across the canvas in broad strokes, pausing occasionally to slather it with more paint, and once she formed an L with her fingers. She had no idea what that was supposed to accomplish, but artists always did it.

She stood back to admire her handiwork.

Her handiwork amounted to a brush-stroked black canvas with a tiny blue dot in the upper left-hand corner.

The painter gaped at it. “That’s…”

Pan was about to snap she’d told him she was no good.

“Minimalist brilliance! It must go into my gallery. But first, you have to sign it so everyone knows what master created it.”

She wasn’t sure he was looking at the same thing she was, but all the same, she wrote ‘Pan’ in the lower right-hand corner (so it wouldn’t unbalance her minimalistically brilliant dot).

“Excellent, excellent,” He said. “By the way, would you like to come to the gallery before you visit the ruins? I can show you where I will hang this.”

The boy didn’t look strong and wasn’t registering much battle power, but Pan knew neither meant anything. Even so, a gallery was a public enough place, and looking at pictures might take her mind off her bad dream.

“I’d like to,” Pan said. “But first, when you sign paintings, what do you write?”

“Flint,” The boy said. “Nice to meet you, Pan.”

“Nice to meet you, Flint.”

The gallery was one of the few buildings from Blendarr’s expansion that still stood, although it stood in desperate need of repair. It bone-pillars showed cracks highlighted in grime, the walls warped and needed painting. It was cozy, though, and didn’t have that haunted house look old buildings were prone to developing. A few visitors milled around the porch, chatting.

Inside, the walls were covered with paintings. Most of them didn’t make much sense to Pan. She liked them anyway, though. The blotches and shapes piled thick in angry dark colors made her think of the graffiti in the train station, and she liked looking at that even if she couldn’t always read it. She thought some of the pictures were of people, although they were also blotches and shapes so maybe it was just her mind filling in blanks. It was in a small blank patch of wall at the end of the hall where Flint hung her picture, next to what she thought was a painting of the road outside but turned out actually be the road outside through a small rectangular window.

“Here we are,” Flint said. “May your nightmare be too happy in its new home to bother you again.”

“I’ll try to dream of some of these prettier paintings instead,” Pan said. “But not tonight.”

Flint said, “Because you’re going to the ruins of the hunting lodge, right? Say. If you’re really interested in the history of that place, perhaps you’d like to see some of my work. I got it in my head to paint everyone who’d ever participated in the late King Flare’s hunting parties. Unfortunately, I got bored after finishing the participants for the year 664, but that in itself was enough to fill a hallway.”

“Sure,” Pan said. Maybe she could glean something about the lodge from the artwork.

That wouldn’t be possible. Flint turned Pan around a nearby corner and she found all the paintings were portraits. Photorealistic ones, too. She passed a painted Sutova labeled “Magmast,” felt his hooded eyes on her all the way to the next portrait, a Brenchian with cropped hair, followed by a Reizomorph in a full-face mask and a man like Grandpa’s friend Ledjic.

“These are amazing,” She said. “They look alive.”

“It’s difficult to find material to work with,” Flint was saying. “Records simply don’t exist. I don’t mean they’re hard to find or hard to read, I mean they just aren’t there. That’s uncharacteristic of King Flare. The hunts had volumes of rules and breaking them meant disqualification, so they had to write them down somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I can find where. The royal family is suspicious of anyone digging into their business, so I got most of my references…”

Pan missed where Flint got his references from. She ran to a portrait, this one not of one man, but four: one rugged and frowning pale violet Reizomorph man, a dark purple woman with downcast eyes, and two children. The first was a scowling child who looked a lot like the woman, and the second…

Pan was afraid to ask. King Sulfuri had instilled in her just the tiniest bit of doubt. What if he was right?

“That’s Frieza, isn’t it?” Pan asked, pointing to the second boy; younger, but otherwise the mirror image of the man she’d fought last night, down to the smile.

Her heart sank when Flint laughed. But then he said,

“You picked him out on your first try. I’m impressed. Most visitors assume it’s the other boy, I suppose because he’s meaner-looking. But, you’re right, that is indeed Frieza. The one beside him who looks like he’s swallowed a mouthful of gravel is his older brother, Cooler. The adults are King Cold and Queen Polrene.”

I knew it! Pan thought. Show her a picture, she’d asked King Sulfuri. Well, now she had one. Although in her opinion, Cooler didn’t look “meaner” at all. That the other three Colds’ faces were varying degrees of miserable made Frieza’s easy grin the most menacing thing on the canvas. “So they went on these hunts with the old king?” Sulfuri said they never got along. Maybe it was like those politicians back home who hated King Furry but still had to sit next to him at public dinners.

“Just the one year,” Flint said. “I imagine they wouldn’t have wanted to attend a second after the accident.”

“Accident?” Pan asked.

“The one that killed Polrene,” Flint said. “The participants were fond of their rules, and kept devices in place to enforce them. One of the mechanisms malfunctioned or… something. Like I said, the records are incomplete. The long and short of it is that Cold’s queen never came back from the hunt.”

Frieza’s mother was killed? There went Pan’s prime suspect in his resurrection. Polrene couldn’t very well bring him back if she was dead. Pan leaned towards the canvas. The woman’s red eyes remained fixed on her painted hands. How old were Frieza and Cooler in this picture? Pan remembered the times Videl had stayed awake all night because she had a fever, or watched some saccharine puppet movie four times in a row with her, or let her dress up in her Great Saiyawoman costume. “That’s sad,” She said.

“A tender heart isn’t always a virtue,” Flint said. “There are people on these walls who deserve your sympathy, but those monsters are not among them. Not after what they did on Vegeta and Namek.”

Monsters or not, it was still sad. Besides, Grandpa told Pan compassion was for everyone and not to be earned or deserved. Then again, he also told her he didn’t understand why Master Roshi had been so upset that time he’d opened the door to a guest with the frank admission his venerable instructor was “on the pot taking a dump.” Grandpa didn’t always see life the way other people did. But she thought he was probably right about the compassion thing, even if the pot thing was just weird.

Pan glanced out the window. The sky was darkening from blue to indigo.

“Was I here that long? Thank you for the tour,” Pan said, “But I have to be leaving if I want to get to and inside he ruins before… you know.”

“I do,” Flint said. “Fortunately, they aren’t far. Thank you for visiting, and for your marvelous contribution.”

There were fewer people in the street when Pan left. That had to be why she found a muddy footprint outside the window. The Para Brothers’ last call must have been making her paranoid, because she thought for a second maybe she, too, was being followed.

 

Chapter Text

King Flare’s hunting arena reminded Pan of Castle Asphodel’s dungeon, and not in a good way. True, there wasn’t a good way to look like a dungeon, especially not that one, but the second she stepped over its rusted threshold and into a rotten pile of leaves, she felt like she’d just entered a place that emphatically should not exist. Tunnels and long-dead shackle-phlegm tangled around corrugated metal and gears. The second floor consisted of a catwalk and even that had fallen in places. It looked like a maximum-security prison down to the cells and barbed wire. Those chambers lining the ground floor must be where they held the animals. Pan shuddered. They fit her perfectly.

In the end, though, that benefitted her. It gave her a secure place to wait. She pulled the door closed behind her. Seriously, just looking at this place could give her tetanus, never mind touching anything. She selected a cage behind a second-floor walkway that had fallen and half submerged in earth. She could see the whole entrance from there, but nothing could see her. If she kept her ki repressed, she’d be effectively invisible.

Settling down against the squishy dead slime, Pan ate the rest of her tulip-potato-nuts and waited to see what midnight would bring.

She peeled a “petal” from a nut. Vegeta told her, during his travels through space with the remaining Saiyan survivors, great uncle Raditz would often get stuck taste-testing foods to make sure they weren’t poisonous, and sometimes they were, with unpleasant results. Vegeta promised Pan he felt terrible, and then he laughed hysterically for three minutes straight.

Much as Pan missed travelling the cosmos with Grandpa and Trunks, she was glad she hadn’t been around for that set of adventures.

She swallowed that last bite hastily. There was a presence in the cell adjacent to her. Two presences.

Pan grumbled and marched out of the cell, holding up her hand.

“Captain Ember, Officer Gelata, I don’t know why you followed me here, but you’ve got to leave.”

It was Ember and Gelata, but Pan could tell right away they weren’t planning on following her advice. Mostly because Gelata threw a left hook at her.

Pan wasn’t there anymore so it sailed through air, but when Pan rematerialized, she found Ember at her back. He grabbed her and lifted her from the floor. Since she was headed that way anyway, she pushed off his knee and elbowed him in the face, twice for good measure, and then she kicked him across the arena lobby in a trail of dirt and rust flakes. Gelata attacked again, and Ember regrouped soon enough and charged from the other side.

Somewhere amidst blocking and returning blows, Pan felt the shift in the air. She thought she could even hear it scraping the walls like fingernails. Perhaps she could even breathe it like foul smoke.

“I’m serious! Both of you, stop. Are you so hung up on those scouters of yours you don’t feel anything?

There was no need to feel anything. Violet fog rolled over the second-floor railing and poured to the ground. Ember and Gelata simultaneously recoiled, but it wasn’t so much surprise as both their scouters violently exploding and trailing to the floor in pieces.

Out of the fog stepped Frieza. Pan thought the angle must be throwing off her perception, because he looked three times as tall as he had been before. He towered over Ember now, and bore a stronger resemblance to his father’s portrait than his own. This must be that second form the Para Brothers mentioned.

“Tsk, tsk. I’m disappointed in you. Did you have to involve other people in this? I’m afraid I just don’t have the head for too many complications, dear; I get frustrated and I start eliminating variables.”

“Leave them out of this,” Pan said, stepping between Frieza and her former assailants. “You’re not here to kill them.”

“I’m not here to kill you. Think about that a moment. Does Son Goku need your protection? I doubt it. Be reasonable. Perhaps you’ll find I can be, too.”

Pan knotted her bandanna around her arm. “I already told you, Grandpa is dead. If you didn’t believe me last time, you won’t now.”

“Still singing that refrain. You must have been very impressed with your grandfather’s tales of my cruelty if you’re this eager to experience it firsthand. Tell me, did he mention how I used this very form to disembowel his bald Earthling friend? It took forever. Shall I demonstrate on one of your companions?” Frieza traced a pattern in the air, one that only made any kind of sense to him, before pointing his finger directly at Captain Ember. “You, guardsman, seem to have found yourself on the wrong floor; but then, look where I’m standing. How positively saturnine we both are. I know. Let’s play a joke. You can be the first to go. Won’t that be funny?”

He hadn’t even finished speaking when the second-floor catwalk creaked slightly and was empty, and Pan barely saw him move, but she knew where he was heading…

She leapt in front of Ember and blocked, but Frieza sidestepped her. He struck close-handed, with perfect form, the very same attack he’d used on Pan when she’d first opened the dojo door to him. The one she’d barely survived.

But Pan wasn’t the only one who’d moved. When time flowed straight once more, Ember stood unharmed, but wearing a spray of magenta blood across his face; blood still pouring from Gelata’s chest. Frieza had driven his fist straight through her, armor and all. Even he looked surprised.

“Oh, that’s not funny. It’s just sad,” Frieza said.

The room darkened, and that was no illusion. Vile energy spread over the walls, starting in patches but joining one to another until there wasn’t a speck of metal or bone or dirt left. It bubbled like wet asphalt. Frieza threw Gelata at the murk.

She never hit.

Before Gelata could sink into the dark energy, the legendary Super Saiyan caught her, a luminous form with blinding eyes and hair like golden flame.

Frieza growled. Maybe he was trying to say something. It was rendered incomprehensible by rage. But for a moment, she saw it; a flicker of terror in his blood red eyes.

Pan swept Gelata to Ember’s side. “Heal her.”

“Gelata… I…”

 “Listen. I know you followed me here for a reason and this isn’t it, but do you remember that beast that stormed out of his tent and ordered me executed on the spot because I might be a hassle? That was you. I need you to be that guy again. Gelata needs you to be that guy again. I’ve given her some of my energy, but it’s not going to keep her alive forever. You healed me. You can heal her.” Pan scanned the arena and located a hall. It led deeper into the resort, but it hadn’t yet been swallowed by Vile energy. In fact, the way the contamination spread from the entrance back, it looked as if that hall might be the last place to succumb, which made it at least temporarily the safest place for Ember to work. “Back there.”

“Why?” Ember asked.

“Because either Frieza or the Vile Wave will kill you if you stay where you are.”

“Why are you doing this?”

Pan watched Ember cradle Gelata. Her blood still smeared his red face, down the corner of his uncovered eye. “We can talk later. Just get her out of here. I’ll deal with Frieza.”

She turned to find Frieza facing her; or at least, standing right next to her, as he was two heads too tall to face her properly, and was hovering just above the ground besides. He neither smiled nor fumed now. His face was cold and neutral, and his voice a bare whisper. Only his hands gave him away. He clenched his fists so hard they bled.

“You’ll deal with Frieza,” He repeated, mocking her down to her inflection. “My, are you in for a rude awakening. It may be you’ve mastered the transformation that brought me down in the past. It means nothing now. I have the Vile Wave flowing through my body, a pure and perfect malice, free from the defects of lesser beings. I’m stronger even in this second form than I once was at full power. Dare you test your legends against mine?”

Dark energy bled from the walls and over the floor. Pan, too, had to take to the air to avoid touching it. Blades flew at Pan from every direction. He wasn’t going to stop them this time, either; and the closer they got, the more Pan felt that sickly-sweet magnetism, that compulsion to let the Vile energy wash over her unimpeded. Now that she knew what it meant, remembered what would follow if she listened, she pushed it away with a revulsion that exploded physically in a liquid mess. It ran in chunks down the walls.

Which were closing in. What was Ember doing, moving so slow? Pan’s reflexes were heightened, and he moved gingerly so not to injure Gelata further, but the Vile Wave was pouring across the room and oh hell Frieza was right behind him, hand glowing-

Pan once again wedged between them with Instant Transmission, and again, Frieza moved to avoid her. This time she was ready for it. She stayed parallel to him, batted away his Death Beam.

Ember pulled Gelata through the door just as a tremor shook the ground. Everyone paused. It was a small one, just enough that three of the four wondered if they really felt it. Pan, unfortunately, knew it had been real, and was only going to get worse.

No; not now, this couldn’t start now, not when Pan couldn’t power down!

“Stay in the doorway and close that door, Ember,” Pan said. “I can still get through it.”

“I don’t care if you can’t,” he said, much to Pan’s relief. The Captain was finally getting his bearings (and attitude) back.

Still, he fumbled with the handle. Frieza made to capitalize on the hesitation, hurling a Laceration. Pan deflected it, moved to follow. He raced her to the door.

Frieza veered and knocked Pan off course. The force of the attack jarred her, and as if in response, the ground quaked once more, heavier this time.

She faced a series of attacks so fierce she doubted Ember saw more than flashes of light. She tried to break free, and he used her own momentum to hurl her at the increasingly-toxic walls. She flipped, avoiding the collision by such a narrow margin the energy crackled at the bottom of her feet. Another tremor. This time, Pan saw something roiling beneath the Vile energy on the floor, pale pink like electric lights at the bottom of a dirty pool. She was fast running out of time for whatever game Frieza was playing…

What if it was a game?

Pan descended. Frieza fought her the whole way down.

Without looking, Pan transported through the door.

If she’d been off, she’d have splattered straight into the Vile Wave. Instead, she wound up in the hall with Ember, bent over Gelata. Frieza could have followed, but he didn’t.  Pan had been banking that he wouldn’t.

It wouldn’t be safe forever, though.

Pan returned to normal, dropping her Super Saiyan form. She hated doing it; changing back and forth took a lot out of her, and she’d have to power up again before she left this hallway, but she had no choice. She had to stop the quakes. She had to suppress that gathering pink energy before it combusted. Most of all, she needed to know what kind of game she was playing.

“Is Gelata all right?” Pan asked.

 “Officer Gelata,” Ember said absent-mindedly, but he nodded.

“Good,” Pan said. “Flint told me the hunting lodge had rules. Tell me what they are. Now.”

ooo

A carpet of leaves decayed on the floor of the long hallway. They’d been there long enough to smell bad. A crab-squirrel scuttled over and under fallen branches, darted down the corner with a series of tiny splashes, and stopped at a giant door at the far end. There it slipped through a crack and vanished. Pan sagged where she stood, trying to regain as much of her strength as she could.

“Here’s what I’ve figured out,” Pan said. “The animals were kept in those cages and then released into that lobby. Those gears I saw in the corners moved the walls, driving them into this hall and through that door, further into the lodge. Am I right so far?”

Gelata took a few deep breaths.

“Don’t push her. She’s healed, but she’s still out of breath,” Ember said.

Undeterred, Gelata groped her way up the wall, to her feet. “I’m fine. I have to be. And your observations are astute enough. There’s just one small detail you’ve gotten wrong. What they kept in those cages… weren’t animals. Why do you think the reserve is indoors, with no windows? King Flare and his friends hunted people.”

The officer almost fell. Ember supported her.

“Never other Sutova, of course. They’d throw in the occasional Brenchian criminal or lost spacefarer, even the rare Saiyan when they could get it, but Flare built this place to imprison his favorite game. Ice maggots.”

Pan hadn’t heard that phrase before.

Gelata could tell. “Cosmic roaches. Grubs.”

“I did hear Sulfuri and a shopkeeper use that last one, and I can tell from the context it’s some kind of insult, but I still don’t know what it means.”

She pointed to her armored chest. “They’re all crude ways to say Reizomorph. We can and do survive anywhere, so we tend to inhabit dead worlds. It’s gotten us a reputation as pests. I’ve heard some argue we’re not even sapient, just very good mimics; if so, I’m actress enough to fool myself, because it certainly feels like I’m thinking. When the Sutova came to terraform Ketchyn, we had already been on their ‘lifeless rock’ for generations. Relations between us were never exactly friendly, but King Flare, Sulfuri and Incendria’s father, was the first man in power to take steps to be rid of us. These hunting parties were one of the crueler ones, reserved for those Flare truly wanted to suffer.”

Pan thought back to Flint’s hall of portraits, those paintings that looked so alive. “But a painter who lives in Blendarr told me…”

“The official story,” Gelata said, “That the hunters were after tyrannosaurus and casualties were natural. The royal family has paid a high price in blood and treasure to make sure that’s all their citizens know about this place.”

“I saw Frieza’s picture in the gallery.”

“The Colds were taken prisoner during the sack of Cocytus. They were held for the duration of the war, and when it ended in Asphodel’s favor, they were sent here to be disposed of.”

Between the fight and the shock, Pan didn’t have the breath to gasp. The horror of Gelata’s words crept up on her so slowly she didn’t think they were affecting her at all, until they did and she fell against the wall, gagging. “The bodies I found in the cave.”

“One of Flare’s mass graves.”

“And the ‘accident’ that killed Queen Polrene.”

“The only ‘accident’ was that her husband and sons survived. All four of them were supposed to die down here.” Gelata chuckled. “Now we will.”

“Maybe not,” Pan said. “That Vile energy Frieza summoned. Did you see how it was moving? Closing in, like the walls would, if they weren’t too old and broken down to work. Did you notice that while we fought, he never actually set foot on the first floor?”

Gelata caught on. She snapped her fingers. “Of course! The hunters were allowed to harass the prey to get them to move, but only if they stayed on the second floor. Like the good sports they were, they exploited the wording to its fullest extent, hanging from the catwalk and the walls. They considered themselves ‘on the second floor’ as long as they never touched the first floor. I see what you’re getting at. Frieza’s hunting us by lodge rules. I could appreciate his sense of humor if I weren’t on the business end of it.”

“It’s foolishness! If he was as powerful as he’s making himself out to be, he’d vaporize us on the spot,” Ember said.

“On Namek,” Pan said. “He was winning the fight against Grandpa, so he stopped fighting and started playing soccer with him instead. He likes to mess with enemies he thinks are beneath him. After that door opens, what happens?”

Gelata said, “There were two parts to the hunt. That door leads to the shooting gallery, which is self-explanatory enough: melee weapons are illegal and the hunters had to use firearms. I assume Frieza will be using ki instead of the Sutova arm-cannons. If we don’t die, we’ll be forced through another door, where it’s reversed. No shooting, just fisticuffs.”

“And if we survive both?” Pan asked.

“The hunters would leave and any remaining prey would be summarily executed and dumped,” Ember said. “There’s no exit on the ground floor. Daddy Cold and his brats killed the executioners and made themselves one.”

“There’s the spot where he’ll vaporize us. It’s where we’re ‘supposed’ to be vaporized,” Pan said. “We need to break out before then. You analyze the Prismasphere, right, Gelata? Could you figure out how Frieza made those ki walls he’s trying to smash us with?”

“If I could examine them closely enough, and without distraction,” Gelata said. “However, Frieza is going to be shooting at us, and I must confess I am going to find that distracting.”

“Never mind,” Pan said. “Ember, you’re like this master Prismatist, right? If she figured out how Frieza made those walls, you could take them apart?”

“You pick up strategy fast, I’ll give you that. You’ve only fought me twice and her once, and you’ve already figured out how we do things. She creates the spells, I use them.”

“You remind me of my friends, Tien and Chaotzu.” If they were both unrepentant jerks, Pan thought, but she didn’t say that last part. “I think if I can get Frieza riled up enough, he’ll focus his fire on me and leave you two alone long enough for you to get through that wall of Vile Energy. Once you do that, it’ll be a small matter to smash the physical wall behind it. Then you guys can escape.” That thing was so rusty, it wouldn’t take a martial artist to breach it. A forceful sneeze could knock it over.

“We can escape. Not you,” Ember said.

“I can’t leave until I’ve stopped him,” Pan said.

“I knew it. You want to fight him,” Ember said. “I remember how you talked about him in the palace. I saw your face when he stepped onto the balcony just now. You don’t give a damn how dangerous he is; I wouldn’t be surprised if that was part of the appeal. It’d be just like a Saiyan.”

Pan bit her lip. She did care about the danger, and even more now that it was Ember and Gelata who’d suffer the consequences if her gambit didn’t work. Yet hadn’t she told Bonpara she wanted to fight one of the Colds herself? That she wanted to meet the nut who wouldn’t take ‘you lose’ for an answer? Wasn’t that one of the last things she said before she’d been swept to Ketchyn?

She threw a pinecone at the wall. “This isn’t the time to be parsing my motives. There’s no telling when… it’s starting.”

Ember and Gelata couldn’t sense what Pan did, but they knew what it meant when the door creaked. It shuddered, opened a crack. Shuddered again. Dust and gravel fell from the ceiling.

It stopped. The mechanism behind it whined, high-pitched and grinding. Pan wanted to cover her ears.

Instead, she returned to her Super Saiyan form.

The door exploded, ripped straight from its hinges by wave of ki. By the time it hit the floor, there wasn’t anything left but faint ash.

“Broken garbage,” Frieza said. “I fixed it. Carry on.”

Another wall of Vile energy appeared behind them. Ember instinctively moved away from it…

“Look out!”

Pan shoulder-tackled him and knocked him to the ground, recovering just in time to block the death beam that would have hit him square in the chest.

Pan appreciated strong opponents. She appreciated fair fights. She had to admit, though, she’d feel a lot better about her current strong opponent if he wasn’t basing this fight on such a twisted definition of “fair.”

ooo

When Frieza’s energy receded to become indistinguishable from the Vile barrier, Pan grew equal parts intrigued and suspicious. She knew he couldn’t mask his own ki signature, nor read hers beyond a certain point; that struck her as a limitation native to Ketchyn that only Incendria had overcome. Therefore, he had to still be inside the lodge. Retreating, though? She doubted it. He was planning something. Something terrible. Pan couldn’t wait to see what it was.

The inside of the lodge proper disguised its machinery well. Cultivated trees and false stone provided strategic cover. Dirt piled over the floor. Vines wove through the walls. There was a time Pan wouldn’t have been able to tell this wasn’t natural, that the lodge hadn’t been built overtop a rocky stretch of ground. In her corrupted Super Saiyan form, she could feel the armature over which this convincing sculpture of nature had been hung, just as she’d been able to feel the false walls in the mass grave. This was no more a real forest than the “prey” trapped here ever had a real chance of escaping, or the “hunters” a real chance of being hurt.

No sign of Frieza hiding on the set, though.

“Damn, I wish he hadn’t destroyed my scouter,” Ember said.

“It wouldn’t do you any good,” Pan said. “I’m a walking scouter and there’s too much interference from that Vile barrier for me to pinpoint exactly where he’s gone.”

“We’ll have to use our heads,” Gelata said. “We’ve already seen the kind of ambushes he prefers, with his attacking Ember from the balcony and right outside that door. We know he’s going to fire on us. We’ll have to think like he does. What’s the most advantageous position for him to take? Where would we least expect to find him? When he strikes, it will be subtle and clever.”

They emerged from a dense collection of trees to find a pulsing ball of plasma concealing the whole roof. It rested on the tip of Frieza’s finger.

“Or he could just drop a Supernova on us,” Gelata said.

He did drop it, too, cackling the whole time.

Pan didn’t even have a split second to appreciate the sadistic brilliance of the move. He’d known, after his initial attack, they would seek cover, and that his barrier would mask him until it was too late to stop him.  The Supernova wasn’t just a world-clearer, it was a world-destroyer, and if Pan let it hit the ground, Ketchyn and a good chunk of its inhabitants would be torn to pieces. But if she stopped it, that would take all her strength and attention. She’d have nothing left to defend Ember or Gelata, and that was tantamount to signing their death warrants. Theirs or all of Ketchyn’s. That was the Hobson’s choice Frieza had left her.

Knowing that didn’t give her any way out of it. In the end it was no choice at all. She had to save Ketchyn. Pan flew to meet the descending ki and caught it hard in the chest. That, too, was a trap. He’d laced it with Vile energy and it snapped at her like a thousand lashes.

“Green… wave… deflection.”

Pan was overtaxed as it was, and the shield took energy she didn’t have to spare. The strain on her muscles tightened to a burn. It was ineffective on top of it, as the Vile wave that couldn’t get her through the barrier found her through the Green Wave she channeled to create it. The pain was a paradox of flame and ice, and it drained her and threatened to knock her back to base.

Frieza admired his handiwork, then left it.

She doubled her efforts. Ember had put up a decent fight against her. Perhaps he could hold his own until she could get free and they could fight together.

The earth echoed her frustration, shuddering. Ancient metal whined and showered the grass with rust.

Frieza stopped beside her. Maybe he changed his mind and decided to kill her first. If so, she was in a bad position.

“All right,” He said. “You’ve piqued my curiosity. That shield is the only Prismatic technique you know, but it’s a shock you know any. How did you manage to learn it?”

Pan resisted the urge to respond with, ‘a little busy right now.’ If Frieza was mocking her, he wasn’t killing everyone else. “When I stayed in the palace, Princess Incendria taught me how to make it.”

He was a little too amused. “Is that so? Your form is impeccable. I’d never have guessed you had so little practice. Not bad for a gibbon.”

Some part of Pan must not have taken the compliment in the spirit in which it was given, because the ground trembled again, and this time the pink energy returned with it, spreading in perfect circles below.

“You’re doing that, too, aren’t you?” Frieza asked.

Pan looked away.

“I thought as much. May I apologize for my outburst earlier? I don’t enjoy destroying talent like yours, and I’d been harboring the foolish hope you might be some Son family black sheep I could talk into betraying them and joining me, but no. Your great-grandfather, your grandfather, and your father were hopelessly fatuous, and you just had to be the same way.”

“That’s not true. My dad is really smart,” Pan said.

He laughed. There was a hum to it, a sound that didn’t match the giant’s body he wore.  “May I have your name?”

“It’s Pan.”

“Well, Pan, I don’t know who those people are to you, but I’m going to kill them now, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. Does that sting you the way it would have stung the rest of your family? I think it does.”

Ember stood his ground as Frieza landed before him. He dropped his center of gravity, testing his balance and bracing for impact.

Impact came in the form of venomous energy flaring and raining down upon them like meteors. Ember deflected them with a green barrier.

He said something. Pan was no lip-reader, but she thought it looked like ‘just a little closer.’

She didn’t know what it meant, but she knew it wouldn’t be enough. Ember darted like he didn’t know which way to go, dodging the blades Frieza hurled as if he had no idea how to really escape them. Ember had felt so strong when he fought her. What was he doing now? Protecting Gelata at the cost of his own life? But if he fell, the scientist would die seconds later, if it even took that long.

Pan struggled to fight away the ki that still held her trapped. She had to break free.

“Red Wave Snare!”

Like a hidden net, strings of red light fell from the trees and ground, ensnaring Frieza. Ember didn’t even wait for them to finish. He gathered energy and fired.

“Firedrake Bite!”

Not just once, twice, then rapid-fire, until the trees snapped and the dust ballooned for the quantity. He didn’t wait for it to clear, either; he attacked the spot.

“Blue Wave Razor Rain!”

Blue threads converged on the red ones glowing beneath the dust cloud, and still Ember wasn’t done. He hurled himself at it full-power, springing and putting every ounce of distance and speed into his fist.

The dust concealed them both.

It settled, revealing a horrifying picture.

Ember stood with his arm extended, his knuckles at Frieza’s chest. His form was perfect, his execution flawless, and Frieza had no stronger reaction to it than a bronze statue would have to a child slapping it.

The red thread holding him in place faded to indigo, indigo faded to violet, and it liquefied and clung to Frieza like muck.

Frieza flicked his wrist and it gushed from him. It struck Ember so hard he flew across the ground, carving a deep ditch through the sculpted stone the whole way. He dug his fingers into the dirt just in time to stop himself from hitting a wall of Vile energy.

That did him no good, because another hurtled straight at him.

“You have nowhere to run, Captain,” Frieza said.

Ember summoned a shield, but the laceration shattered it.

Pan screamed and the pink energy simmering across the floor erupted.

The simultaneous explosions cracked the ground, dispersing the Vile energy it touched. The soupy walls merely regrew like fungus, but the laceration’s blades dissolved and stayed that way.

The aftershocks had started.

An aftershock beam slammed into Frieza’s Supernova and dissolved that, too. The combustion shook the lodge so hard the walls crumbled, leaving only the toothpick-house outline of the supports and the Vile walls to the lodge’s shape like some morbid gelatin mold.

Another caught Pan’s shoulder and burned her skin.

She ignored the pain. Pan didn’t have much time before her own Super Saiyan form became as much of a danger to her as her enemy. She appeared before Frieza and kicked him hard enough to send him through two more doors. She flew to him and threw another. He met her blow-for-blow.

“I thought you were sticking to ki attacks until we reached the second half of the gauntlet,” Pan said.

“This is the second half of the gauntlet,” Frieza said, gesturing to the door Pan had knocked him through.

“I have something to apologize for, too.” Pan said. “The lodge. I’d never have brought you back here if I knew.”

It was difficult to tell what he was thinking. He didn’t sound particularly angry when he spoke. “You Sons never tire of making me ill. If you’re worried about my feelings, don’t bother. I learned something from King Flare. I learned what he did works. It worked for the Tuffles against the Plantians. It worked for the Saiyans against the Tuffles. It worked for Flare against me and it worked for me against your ancestors. By the way; that Earth of yours? I wouldn’t dig too deeply into the soil there if I were you.”

An aftershock shot from the ground and they both had to move. It burned the ground between them.

Catching Pan by the arm, Frieza jammed his nails right into the spot where the aftershock had hit her earlier. “So that’s your secret. You’re doing that, all right, but you have no control over it.”

The pain didn’t cloud Pan’s mind so much she couldn’t clamp down hard on his wrist. “In the sense that I can’t direct the aftershocks, you’re right. That doesn’t mean I can’t get them where I want them. They’ve got a default target. The same default target as a Holstein Shock.”

Frieza stared at her hand, and the pink energy spreading below them, and she could tell from his expression he knew exactly what she meant.

Eerie, how harmless that energy looked. Piercing the Vile dark the way it did, it was almost comforting. Pan wouldn’t think so when it hit her. Neither would Frieza, though.

If that frightened him, he was doing an uncharacteristically good job of hiding it. In Pan’s peripheral vision, she could see Ember dragging Gelata out of the blast radius. Good.

Frieza narrowed his eyes. “Do you imagine you’re the first person to try that little trick against me?”

He broke free just as the pink energy domed, but to Pan’s surprise, he didn’t simply flee. He grabbed her by the shoulders and hurled her at the ground.

The aftershock burst forth and missed them both. It hit the last of the ceiling, however, and with a rumble and a scream of metal it caved in straight from the middle, some kind of horrible rusted waterfall pouring pipes and asbestos right across the middle of the hunting ground. Pan flipped and landed on one knee. Frieza descended and came to rest across from her.

There was now a massive pile of junk between them.

Frieza held his palms up to his eyes, and there it was again; blood on his skin, when Pan was certain she had not hit him. Even if the aftershock had connected, it wouldn’t have left a wound like that, a slash running diagonally across his chest from just beneath one shoulder to his waist. It wasn’t the only damage he’d sustained, either; before Pan’s eyes, his arm also began to bleed.

“So that’s your secret,” Pan said.

Frieza shook the blood from his hand, dazed. The earthquake was a continuous presence now.

“Your resurrection is conditional. You haven’t been attacking me when the Vile Wave crests so you’ll be stronger, but because you aren’t alive to do it in the daytime. You come back at midnight and you die again at dawn. Earlier than that if you get beat up enough.”

“You speak of forces you don’t understand,” Frieza said. “Do you think this means I can’t defeat you?”

“Tonight, it does,” Pan said.

On impulse, she stuck out her tongue at him.

After everything Pan had seen on this bizarre planet, she was still utterly unprepared for what happened next.

Frieza, in his tattered cloak and drenched in his own blood, returned her raspberry.

“Real mature, your highness!” Pan stuck out her tongue again, determined to have the last word; which she did, because another earthquake and set of aftershocks brought down the rest of the roof and she couldn’t see him at all after that.

When he didn’t break through the rubble after her, Pan knew he was gone.

She should have waited until his energy completely faded, but the quaking threatened to destroy what little of the lodge their fight had left standing. So she sent the legendary Super Saiyan home and became plain old Pan once again, with eyes that didn’t glow and black hair that was, at this point, a mess. She smoothed it out as much as she could before tying her bandanna back in place. The ground stilled as her heartbeat returned to normal.

She staggered to the final door in the room, where Gelata and Ember waited for her. By the time she reached it, there was no longer any need to break through the Vile energy. It had vanished on its own shortly after Frieza did. There wasn’t even any reason to use the exit he’d made. The lodge was so destroyed red morning light poured in unobstructed, casting the rubble in a Martian light. The few girders and planks left hanging swayed precariously.

“What happened?” Ember asked. “Is he…”

“No,” Pan said. “But we’ve bought ourselves another day. Let’s get out of here.”

“I’m glad we didn’t have to take that Vile wall apart after all,” Gelata said. “Have you heard of a Highwayman’s Hitch? It’s a type of knot comes undone instantly if you pull the right thread. That wall is like an energy version, and… without time to....”

They spoke no more as they passed through the closest rift exposing the fake hunting ground to the true moors outside. They didn’t leave a moment too soon. The pitching supports tipped and crumbled, the sunken foundation gave way, rendering the place the lodge once stood as flat as the rest of the ground. The only thing left was a single metal wall, a remnant of the old execution chamber. Written on the wall in violet Reizomorph blood was a message:

Hell beyond hell comes

That fell, too. The breeze carried the rust away like bloody snow.

 

Chapter Text

Dawn broke over a bleak stretch of upheaval, piles and craters and old metal reaching towards the red sky like skeleton hands. Pan dragged a newly-cleaned fish the size of a motorcycle to her campfire, which she’d built beneath a concave rock formation. Ember and Gelata sat beside it.

Pan skewered the fish over the fire on a makeshift spit. She poured some water out to boil. “Are either of you having any coffee?”

“Don’t you dare,” Ember said.

“Make coffee? It was an offer, not an imposition.”

“Don’t you dare sit there and talk like nothing happened. Look at this place. It’s leveled. Did those quakes of yours reach Blendarr?”

Pan spilled a bit of the water. “No. Mine don’t have that kind of range. Are you sure you’re not having coffee?”

“Damn it, I told you to stop it! You think you did something noble back there? That all’s forgiven because you stepped in to rescue us from Frieza? He wouldn’t be here in the first place if it weren’t for you!”

Gelata touched his arm. “Captain.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, we have enough trouble on this world without you showing up and bringing your North Quadrant vendettas and your freak powers and your…”

“Fine!” Pan threw her backpack to the ground so hard the earth cracked. “You’re right! I’m a monster, I’d be endangering Ketchyn just by standing on it even if Frieza wasn’t after me, and you should have killed me when you had the chance. Is that what you want to hear?”

Pan wrapped her arms around her knees and wept.

“Crying again? How pathetic.”

“You think I don’t know that, too?”

“Captain,” Gelata said. “I have never raised my voice to you in my life, but you’ve gone too far this time. We’ve already established Pan couldn’t have brought Frieza back. Whoever did, this is their fault, not hers, and there’s nothing to be gained from taking it out on her. We three are perhaps the only ones on the planet who appreciate the danger Frieza’s appearance presents. We can’t afford to fight amongst ourselves.”

At this point, Pan had seen enough to know Ember wasn’t going to lash out at Gelata over this, but she thought he would argue. He didn’t. He fell in the dirt beside the fire.

“I might as well have been a gnat for all the harm I did him.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Pan said. “If you weren’t strong, you wouldn’t have walked away from that fight.”

“If it hadn’t been for you, neither of us would have. That’s what really burns. I can’t help thinking back to when you first stumbled out of that crypt. I knew you were formidable, but I’ve never heard of a Saiyan who can do what you can.”

“Most can’t,” Gelata said. “Not even their elite display abilities like this. It’s made me curious as to how you came about them. May I?”

Pan reached for her backpack to pour more water for coffee, but then she realized Gelata wasn’t pointing at that, but her arm. Specifically, the trickle of blood that had, at this point, reached her elbow. “You want to… um…”

“Only a bit.”

Pan winced and held out her arm. Gelata didn’t go as far as sucking on the wound, though. She daubed the blood with one finger to sample it.

“Hmm. That is odd. You’re not full-blooded, are you? There’s something else in there, Earthling I’d assume, but that isn’t all…”

Gelata grabbed her throat and gagged, spitting violently into the dirt.

“What did she do to you?” Ember asked, patting her on the back.

“I didn’t know evil had a flavor. I do now. It’s as terrible as you’d expect. Is that the source of your powers? What is it?”

Pan’s nightmare came crashing down on her. She forced it out of her mind. There was no way she was telling them everything, but she knew Gelata wouldn’t stop hounding her if she didn’t tell her something. A short version would have to do.

“You’re tasting Negative Energy,” Pan said. “What do you know about dragons?”

“Only that they’re a reoccurring motif in the mythologies of most inhabited worlds,” Gelata said. “You mentioned yours was one of them.”

“I also mentioned they’re real, and that they can grant wishes. How many depends on the strength and disposition of the dragon. Earth’s dragon was Shenron. He was kind. But when I was a little girl, seven new dragons hatched: the Shadow Dragons, beings of pure Negative Energy. They weren’t so kind. They wanted only to kill.”

“I do recall hearing a myth about a galaxy destroyed when evil dragons hatched on one of its planets,” Gelata said.

“That’s what King Kai told us, and when we heard what happened to that galaxy, Grandpa and I knew we had to stop them. We hunted them down, stopped the destruction. It was all going so well.”

The water began to boil. Pan removed it from the heat.

“The fourth dragon we found was the seven-star dragon, Naturon. He had two powers. One was that he could cause earthquakes. The other was that he could absorb the knowledge and skill of anyone he ate. When he found out how powerful Grandpa and I were, he decided he wanted to eat us. Grandpa was too fast for him.”

The flames of the bonfire, licking the sky, almost seemed to take the monstrous dragon’s shape.

“I wasn’t. He ate me. Integrated me and used my powers to attack everyone. I was still conscious, in a way, but I couldn’t move, and everything was so dark. It was like those nightmares where you’re lying in bed with something sitting on your chest and you can’t wake up no matter what you do.”

“I hate to point out a flaw in your story,” Ember said. “But I’m talking to you. You’re obviously not dead.”

“Grandpa knew that even though I’d been integrated, I hadn’t been in his stomach long enough to be digested. He pretended to be wounded, and when Naturon closed in to eat him too, he attacked at full power and tore right through the dragon’s hide to rip me free. That’s how Grandpa won the fight. We thought everything was okay. We even joked about it.”

Pan brushed her hair behind her ear.

“But later, I tried to go Super Saiyan, and that’s when I found out I was… not okay. Dad and Auntie Bulma examined me and found that when Naturon absorbed my power, I absorbed his, too. They’ve both been working with me, dad with training, Bulma with her research, and they think a concentrated blast of Positive Energy could cure me, but they’ve never been able to channel enough. All we’ve been able to do is delay the onset of the symptoms. It starts with the earthquakes. Next come the aftershocks, and if I still don’t power down, I start radiating Negative Energy. It’s a lot like your Vile Wave. It annihilates things just by coming into contact with them.”

“And now you’re going to tell us there’s no way you can defeat Frieza without transforming, aren’t you?” Ember asked.

 “Under the circumstances, it wouldn’t matter if she did defeat him, transformed or otherwise,” Gelata said. “Because of the unique conditions of his resurrection.”

“She’s right,” Pan said. “I could make confetti out of him and he’d just come back the next night like nothing ever happened. He always wanted immortality. This probably wasn’t what he had in mind, but it makes him just as invincible.”

“Only if we keep trying to pummel him into submission,” Gelata said. “However, recall what I said earlier, about the responsibility for all this devastation resting squarely on the shoulders of whoever brought Frieza back. You wanted to figure out who they were, right?”

Pan snapped her fingers, seeing the first glimpse of hope she had all morning. “Just out of curiosity then, but now, it might be the trick to beating him. Whoever summoned the Cold Family’s treacherous son from hell, they wouldn’t have done it unless they were confident he couldn’t turn on them. That’s the kind of confidence that comes from insurance. That means…”

“They know how to send him back to hell,” Ember finished.

After that huge argument, it felt disorienting to Pan that they’d all ended up on the same page so easily.

“You were planning on searching the Bludwald, correct?” he asked.

“Specifically, the ruins of Cold Manor,” Pan said. “It’s past Crater Farm on this map.”

“Before we do anything, all three of us need sleep,” Gelata said. “Not much, since we’ll have to make good time, but…”

“Woah,” Pan said. Maybe they weren’t on the same page after all. “You two can’t go. I’m not saying you aren’t strong, but you saw how Frieza works last night. He’ll use us against each other.”

“Don’t get us wrong. We plan on leaving the fights- at least those fights- to you. But though you may be able to throw punches, you don’t know the first thing about navigating Ketchian society. That’s something we can help you with, if you’ll let us.”

Pan couldn’t deny they had a point. “All right.”

With the plans out of the way, they turned to the fish. Gelata and Ember each served themselves a portion, and then Pan ate the whole rest of it. She’d had table manners drilled into her by Grandma, and so she took impeccably proper bites and didn’t make much outward show, but after all, she was still a Saiyan.

ooo

He couldn’t stop the shaking. It wasn’t just from the cold, although no one would accuse the watery crypt of being balmy. Frieza tried even harder to still it, but that only made it worse, and he hated himself for his fear and his inability to hide it. Not that there was anyone to hide it from down here. Himself and the mirror. To him, that was enough.

Four more of the statues went down, and the wall got a new hole.

A Super Saiyan. He thought he’d been ready to face one again. He’d spent hours steeling himself for his inevitable rematch with Goku, and Goku’s inevitable transformation. He’d replayed every moment of his defeat to keep the humiliation raw. He thought it had consumed him too fully to leave any room for waffling. He thought the legendary Super Saiyan had become nothing but another enemy to be crushed under his heel. Why hadn’t it worked? What had gone wrong?

Son Pan had gone wrong, that’s what. He’d prepared himself to stare down those white-hot eyes, but not in a face like hers. The combination was so incongruous he could barely make sense of it.

There was no spying on her now. She was still in that wilderness. It made him nervous, a Super Saiyan out there and him with no way to see what she was up to. That didn’t mean the mirror was blank, though. No, its surface showed a group of nondescript men in nondescript armor trudging down the gangplank of a small ship. They were too well-trained to speak to each other. Frieza didn’t know who they were. He knew exactly whose orders they had followed to Ketchyn, though. He growled.

“You traitor. You’re supposed to be on my side.”

This wasn’t going to do. He’d almost regained his nightmare transformation, but not even a warrior as unparalleled as he could be in two places at once, fighting two distinct enemies. At least, not without taking a handicap to strength he couldn’t afford. Pan had found some friends. Perhaps he should seek out some of his own.

“Wait. Do I have friends?”

He had to think about that for a long time, but eventually he decided he did. They just needed some repair work. It turned out, he had a manual for just those kinds of repairs. He yanked the sheaf of notes from the bookshelf.

He read the first step aloud. “Start with a small-bladed rusty knife and… oh, now that’s depraved even by my standards. There’s no helping it, though. I might as well get it over with.”

ooo

Frieza hadn’t expected the process to be so exhausting. He fell against one of the few standing pillars, bleeding and certain he was going to die once more. It had ended in success, though. Where he’d been alone in the room seconds ago, there was now a second man. That man curled on the floor in a quivering mass, wobbling like he didn’t have a bone in his body. He shook and sobbed and laughed all at once. He didn’t stop doing that, even when Frieza addressed him.

“Do you remember me?” Frieza asked.

“I remember,” He said. “Cutting. And being cut. I want to cut. I want to cut.”

The wobbling man picked up the rusty knife and giggled. A drop of magenta blood trickled from its tip to the floor.

“Dammit,” Frieza said. “You haven’t come out right.”

“Want… to… cut…”

Frieza scrutinized the man, looking for some clue to the cause of his curious behavior. “I’m sure I’ll figure out what went wrong, and I’ll get this little glitch worked right out of your system. You’re functional enough in the meantime to do a job for me.”

“…cut?” he asked, looking up with eyes round, hopeful, and thoroughly dead.

“Yes, yes; cut all you wish. Within reason, but I don’t need to tell you that. You know who’s off-limits and who isn’t.”

The man dissolved into giggles, brandishing the rusty knife like a saber. He continued to do both all the way out of the crypt.

“I think I did well enough for a first attempt,” Frieza said. “One down, four more to go. Though I do hope the others turn out better, or I shall have to kill them and start over. I have to find another knife as it is.”

Mulling over the problem, Frieza returned to his notes and his mirror, leaving his creation run free to cut.

Chapter Text

Pan wished she hadn’t had to talk about the battle with Naturon right before going to sleep. She knew that meant her nightmare about it would reoccur. It wasn’t a moment after she’d closed her eyes that the dark returned, a smothering and heavy dark of being buried alive. Pan had this dream enough to know this wasn’t even the worst part. The worst would come when that darkness was broken by cold light.

She braced for it, wondering if it would ever get any easier, when the nightmare popped like a bubble and she stood on loamy and soft ground beneath a giant pink lily. A ladybug up to her knee tottered by. She followed it to the shade beneath a giant mushroom. A giant mushroom made of metal, with a panel opened on the back, gears scattered across a mat of moss. The ladybug crawled inside and tossed a few more springs and bits out, uttering an unladylike curse.

“Oh, no,” Pan said. “Your ship!”

“It’s fine,” Donpara said. “We haven’t crashed or broken anything. We’re still on schedule.”

Beyond the ship stood Bonpara and Sonpara, haggling with a giant caterpillar. Pan must have been seeing the scene through Donpara’s eyes.

“Why’s it in pieces?” Pan asked.

“After that run-in with the smuggler, or whoever that was, we thought it might be prudent to outfit ourselves with some helpful and purely defensive measures in case of another such incident.”

“So you’re mounting turrets on the ship.”

“As a precautionary measure,” Donpara said. “In a pinch, there’s nothing our ship can’t outrun.”

“That’s what Grandpa thought about our ship until we ran into you,” Pan said. “What planet are you on now?”

Donpara turned so Pan could see, and as he was a very tall man, she got a good view. It looked like Dr. Briefs’ garden inflated to several hundred times its proper size. A few genuine mushrooms towered over the brothers’ mushroom-shaped ship amidst blades of grass that stood as tall as Donpara. The buildings were stems lined with leaves, and on these leaves, more caterpillars went about their business, carrying shopping bags, driving vehicles that looked like onion bulb helicopters with petals for blades.

“The place is called Lychen. It’s in the eastern part of the South Quadrant. They aren’t too picky about whose money they take and they don’t ask too many questions; so, basically, our kind of place. Or it would be if we weren’t one-hundred-percent reformed.”

“I like it,” Pan said. “I wish I could be there for real. I miss space.”

“You’ll be there yourself soon enough. In the meantime, I thought I’d check in with you, so you wouldn’t wonder if we’d been shot down and we wouldn’t wonder if you’d been barbequed.”

Donpara, all three brothers, deserved to know what kind of danger they were flying into. Pan remembered her conversation with King Sulfuri all too well, though, and feared telling them it was, specifically, Frieza she was dealing with. What if they didn’t believe her, either?

“I haven’t been invited to any barbeques as a dish just yet,” Pan said. “But remember when I said I hadn’t seen any live Colds here? That’s changed. I’m in trouble. Maybe you guys should stay where you are until I can promise you it’s safe to land on Ketchyn.”

“Don’t be silly,” Donpara said. “It’s our fault you’re in trouble. If we hadn’t come to Earth that bee never would have found you.”

“Actually, if you hadn’t triggered that sentry before it was meant to go off, I’d probably be dead. It was supposed to teleport me into a much worse situation than it did.”

“Maybe for you, being thrown in a dungeon isn’t a bad situation, but we’re still not leaving you stranded, and that’s the end of it. If the Cold Family’s found you, escaping from Ketchyn is even higher priority than before. We’re the good guys now, and we’re in the business of saving the day. Bonpara would tell you the same if he weren’t busy trying to talk the illegal weapons dealer down a few thousand Zeni.”

If the brothers wanted to cheer Pan up, they were succeeding. She grinned so hard she thought Donpara might feel it on his own face. “Thanks, you guys. Will you at least keep the channels open so I can warn you if something goes really sour?”

“Wouldn’t dream of shutting them down,” Donpara said.

A bird tweeted directly in Pan’s ear. “Uh-oh. Time to wake up.”

“You trained a bird to wake you up?”

“I’m traveling with a couple of people out of necessity, but none of us are exactly on good terms. We split up to get some rest… that’s how little confidence we have in each other… but we can only afford a few hours right now, so Captain Ember made us these alarms that look and sound like yellow birds. That’s my alarm going off.”

“See ya later,” Donpara said.

With that, Pan came to on a prickly tree branch, bare of leaves, with the sky yellow above her, and the alarm leapt off the end and spread its wings, dissolving into sparks as it took flight.

ooo

Dawn had crept into daylight and, in the plain where the hunting lodge had stood, the dust had settled. Most of the dust had, anyway. There was still one stream of clouds floating in a circle around the camp. Gelata watched it, leaning against the rock.

“Pacing like that won’t speed anything up,” she said.

Ember didn’t stop pacing, though. “Sly little brat. I thought she agreed too quickly. It was a trick, wasn’t it? She says she’ll go with us, and then ditches us as soon as we split up.”

“Captain, it isn’t time for her to be here yet. She’s still got a few minutes.”

“She should be here now! Punctual means early. It isn’t as if we’ve got all day to hang around here. Look, the sky is already pulsing yellow.”

The grass vibrated. The air trembled with a quiet grinding, like old machinery coming to life.

“Did she transform again? Is it another quake?” Gelata asked.

Right on schedule, Pan rolled into camp. She rolled literally, too, walking atop a giant stone wheel. She would run occasionally, or attempt to balance on one leg or the other, but she stayed atop it the whole way to the two dumbfounded guards.

At least that stopped Ember from pacing. By this time, he’d worn a trail around the rock.

“Hi, guys,” Pan said. “Ready to head out?”

Ember and Gelata’s astonished faces made Pan wonder if something was behind her. She looked, but saw nothing. “Everything’s okay, right?”

“I’ll bite,” Ember said. “Why are you on that thing?”

Pan rocked back and forth. “Training. If my best won’t cut it right now, I’ll just have to get better. This exercise is great for balance and agility, even speed if you push yourself. It’s one of the first assignments I give the children back home.”

“I didn’t know you had children,” Gelata said.

“I don’t,” Pan laughed. “I’m a teacher.” She flipped and caught herself on one hand. The wheel barely rolled. “At least I was. I haven’t shown up to work for two days now, so I might be fired.”

Ember took a step closer. “Where exactly did you get that… is it a millstone?”

Pan vaulted to the ground and landed on her feet in front of Ember.

“I carved it out of a boulder I dug up. Say, you said you wanted to get stronger, too. Why don’t you train with me? You’ll be getting free lessons from a sought-after instructor. You can’t beat that.”

Ember tapped the wheel with his knuckles. “You want me to climb up on this thing.”

“Not until you’ve warmed up. Otherwise you might tear something.”

“Warmed up how?”

“What warm-ups do you usually do? I’m asking because I don’t want to overload you, but I do want to push you a bit,” Pan said.

“Whatever we do, we should do it on the road,” Gelata said. “We still need to be indoors by nightfall.”

It was a clear day, though, and the roads were improving. Pan took deep breaths of the crisp air; it was still chilly enough she exhaled clouds, although the movement kept her comfortable. All in all, it was a pleasant stroll until Ember had gone through enough drills he felt ready to trade her spots.

Pan hopped off the wheel. “Okay, while you’re getting on it, keep in mind I deliberately made this one uneven, off-balance, and narrow so it’d be more difficult to keep upright. No cheating with bukujutsu, though. I’ll know if you try.”

“I would’ve tried, too,” Ember said. Pan didn’t see why, though. He sprung from the ground and landed atop the wheel with little difficulty.

Staying once he got there, however, proved to be a more trying task. The wheel rocked from side to side and back and forth as he tested it. He tried to move to his toes, then his heel, but it simply would not let him get comfortable. It hadn’t been meant to, exactly, and he didn’t fall off, but progress slowed considerably as he spent as much time rolling backwards as forwards.

Still, they pressed on.

Some time later, he swore. “If I could only see where I was going wrong, I’m sure I could figure this out.”

“This is one of the exercises Grandpa taught me,” Pan said. “And it’s a variant of something Master Roshi taught him. He had Grandpa and Krillin stand on uneven surfaces while balancing pots of water on their heads. It wasn’t just for extra strength training, although it helped. It’s also a great counterbalance and visual aid, sort of like those levels carpenters use. If you were struggling, you could tell where you were off by looking at the surface of the water. We could do the same thing if we only had buckets to put it in.”

Gelata said, “There’s a town nearby, Colander. Truth be told, Ember and I needed to stop there anyway for more appropriate attire. King Sulfuri had a point when he said we couldn’t visit the Bludwald as we are and expect to come back in one piece. We didn’t think we’d have to follow you this far or we’d have worn something else to begin with.”

Pan thought Ember could throw clothes over his uniform and call it underpants. “I still don’t understand why you followed me. What did you think I was doing?”

“Upon Flare’s death, the throne passed to his son, Sulfuri. Not everyone was happy with that choice. Not even among the Sutova. When analysis revealed you had been transported here by a third party, we thought one of Ketchyn’s various splinter factions had brought you as a recruit. The universe still fears the Saiyans, even all these years after your near-eradication; recall that when Planet Vegeta wanted new territory, one Saiyan warrior was usually all it took to acquire it. Now imagine a usurper showing up at the gates of Asphodel with your furry tail at his side. You could stand there doing nothing and the psychological effect alone might be enough to bring the walls down.”

“You can’t blame me for deciding the safest course of action was to kill you before you razed anything,” Ember said.

“Can so,” Pan muttered.

“Once it was established you were here against your will, we hoped that when whichever of the king’s rivals summoned you came to collect you, we could catch him. It’s all irrelevant now, of course. We completely misread the situation. Anyway, we can get your buckets in Colander, too.”

Checking the map, Pan found the trip wouldn’t be a detour. It was almost a shortcut, since she’d plotted her initial course to deviate around civilization and plunge into the roughest parts of the wilderness.

“Forget riding this thing into town,” Ember said, dismounting the wheel. “We’ll leave it at the outskirts. I don’t see anyone making off with it while we’re shopping.”

ooo

Ketchyn was a world terraformed by the essence of the dead, every line a construct. In that context, it made sense to Pan it would feel eerie. Colander, for instance, came with a sense of déjà vu so profound it was disorienting.

There was nothing unusual about the town itself. Maybe town square was marked by a courthouse that looked like a beached and gutted whale overlaid with shellacked meat, and maybe it was surrounded by buildings like bone and tissue peppered with wormholes, and maybe those were broken up by domed Earth-style houses rendered bizarre by their surroundings… but that was just how Ketchyn looked, and by this time, Pan was used to it. No, what put her on alert was a familiar smell. She couldn’t place it and couldn’t decide whether it meant danger or not. That bothered her.

She still lined town up in her phone’s viewfinder. “I’m taking a picture. Do you want to be in it?”

“Do I want you to create photographic evidence I disobeyed a direct order from the king? No. I do not,” Ember said.

“You don’t have to be so rude about it. You could’ve just said no,” Pan said, snapping the town sans Ember and Gelata. Picking through the photos to see if it had blurred, she noticed a thin trail of smoke on film. She took a second look, and sure enough, there was a ribbon rising from the square. It was so pale she wouldn’t have seen it without the digital autocorrect throwing it in sharp contrast, letting her know where to look. “That’s what I was smelling. Someone’s burning grass. Right in the middle of town, too. That’s a weird place for that.”

“Hmm?” Gelata asked.

Pan pointed. “Over there.”

To her surprise, Gelata groaned. “Don’t we have the worst timing.”

“Is that…” Ember trailed off.

“Unfortunately, yes, and there’s no going around it,” Gelata said. “The stores we want are in the square. It’s going to be congested.”

It was, too. Crowds gathered so thick they stood shoulder-to-shoulder, and navigating the maze of people became its own agility drill. Had Pan arrived in the middle of a festival? She didn’t see any games, and nobody looked like they were having fun. Worry lined the few faces she glimpsed. The throng became denser the closer they got to the courthouse; or, rather, a bonfire held in front of it.

They didn’t just thicken. They formed a line. Packed around the bonfire were Reizomorphs, waiting.

Was there someone in that fire?

Pan pushed her way through the crowd for a better look, resisting the temptation to teleport or fly. She was glad she did. A closer looked revealed there was a figure tied amidst the flame, but not a person; a straw doll. As each spectator passed, they removed a stick from a nearby pile and tossed it into the blaze. Again, Pan was nagged by an uncomfortable familiarity. She was certain she’d seen this before, but where?

By reflex she pulled away when someone grabbed her arm, but it was only Captain Ember. He glared at her, and the eyepatch only made it more menacing. He looked like an alien pirate.

“Don’t get lost in the crowd. We’ll never find each other again.”

“Right,” Pan said. “No getting lost.”

Ember said, ‘hmpf,’ and dragged Pan to a store.

“Now, here,” Ember said. “Gelata and I need to go to this store. The one right next door? That’s where you’ll find your buckets. If I let you go there and get them, do you think you can come right back here and wait for us without causing or getting into any trouble?”

“Wait right here,” Pan said. “Got it.”

Ember wiped his forehead. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

He tramped into the store and slammed the door behind him.

“Bad feeling?” Pan asked. “What’s the matter with that guy? Does he think I can’t follow simple directions? I can buy buckets. It’s not rocket science. Does he think I’m going to bolt at the first shiny thing I…”

A scream came from the alley between the two stores.

“I’d better go see what that is!”

Deep in the alley, a Sutova girl pressed against the wall, and she wasn’t alone. Pan ducked behind some garbage so she wouldn’t be seen. Those weren’t friendly people with her. The ten- Pan counted- ten men who surrounded her were thieves at best, carrying cannons and blades. It wasn’t a situation where the girl was hiding some massive power, either. She was made of crepe paper. Any one of those weapons could tear her to bits.

The girl screamed again, and the thugs’ leader slapped her across the face.

“Nobody’s going to hear you with all that ruckus in the square, Lucia,” He said. “Just come along quietly and nobody has to get hurt.”

Only, Pan was sure that if nobody was supposed to get hurt here, they wouldn’t be surrounding Lucia ten-to-one and jamming guns in her face. Pan was conflicted, though. That she had to do something wasn’t even a question, but Ember had told her not to get into trouble, and this was definitely trouble. One wrong move and any one of the kidnappers could grab the girl and slip away while she fought the others.

Frustrated, Pan did what she always did when her head wasn’t providing her answers: she swung her fists. As quickly as she could, too, knocking each of the ten kidnappers out in an instant. Lucia would see nothing but a flicker. It would look to her like they all suddenly lost consciousness and hit the ground at the same time.

There! Problem solved, no trouble.

Lucia remained clinging to the wall, a half-ring of fallen kidnappers around her. All right, so she was shocked.

A few more seconds later, she still hadn’t moved.

Pan appeared before her and put her hands on her hips. “Well? Run!”

Why was she staring like that? Did Pan’s tail come loose from its hiding place? No, she checked, and it was still tucked safely under her coat.

“Did you do that?” Lucia asked.

“Yes, but it’s not like I killed them. You still need to get out of here.”

Lucia grabbed Pan’s hand. “Will you go with me?”

“I’m supposed to meet somebody…”

“Just as far as the square. Please. When my father was well, these elements stayed in the shadows, but ever since his sudden illness they’ve been so much bolder. They might attack again if you’re not here.”

Pan looked over her shoulder. The square wasn’t far from here, but with all those people, it still wasn’t easy going.

Ember was going to kill her.

At least nobody else jumped them. Pan couldn’t ask Lucia who she was that those guys wanted to abduct her, but it gnawed at her the whole way. She also wanted to get back to the store before Ember noticed she was missing and his “bad feelings” exploded all over the place, but at this point, that was going to be an impossibility. She tried to think up a good excuse and couldn’t.

So worried was Pan about the inevitable confrontation, which if she was being honest scared her more than Frieza, she didn’t notice Lucia had brought her to the line around the bonfire until they’d gotten close enough for the heat to sear her face.

Flame licked the doll. It had to have been treated with something to make it burn slowly; straw should have been consumed long before now, but this was no closer to ashes than it had been when Pan had arrived. Lucia threw a stick on the fire. She bumped Pan with her shoulder, which Pan took as a hint she should do the same thing. She followed Lucia’s lead.

But then she couldn’t stand it anymore. As they left to make space for the next person in line, she asked, “I’m new here, and I have no idea what I just did.”

“You’re an off-worlder?” Lucia asked. “I see how strange this must look to you. It’s an effigy of Kuriza. The Reizomorphs burn them when someone they care about is dying. They believe there’s a chance death will be fooled and take the effigy instead.”

Great, ask a question, get an answer that raises more questions. Pan should have kept her curiosity to herself.

“Of course, the real reason I’m here is to meet somebody, and because of the crowds this is a discreet place to do it. Strange, though; he should have beaten me here, especially after that business in the alley, but I don’t see him anywhere.”

There you are!”

And now she was going to get chewed out by Ember.

Pan prepared to face the lecture, still rummaging around her head for something more useful than repeatedly promising she was sorry, but the Sutova she found fuming towards them wasn’t Ember. He was shorter, portly, and had two whiskers drooping over his top lip like a moustache. Also, he wasn’t heading for Pan at all. His target was Lucia.

“That’s not who you meant, is it?” Pan whispered.

Lucia only had time to shake her head, and then he was in her face.

“Sneaking out! That’s the second time this week. Do you have any idea what could have happened, with your father too sick to rise from his bed? Do you think of no one but yourself? Do you even think?

“If my father were well and this were someone else, you know he’d have been here.”

“He could have ensured his own safety!”

“I can, too, now that I’ve found this amazing Brenchian warrior…”

That was as far as Lucia got towards introducing Pan. The crowds parted just enough to give the edges of the square a good look at her, and she heard,

“I am going to strangle you with your own entrails!”

Pan wilted. “There’s Ember.”

Sure enough, he and Gelata pushed through the crowd. Pan couldn’t see much difference in their new attire other than color (Ember’s was brown, Gelata’s was purple), but she guessed there must be one.

“I gave you one task… one simple little task… go one store over and buy one little thing… and you… you… Magister Bustion, is that you?”

The mustachioed Sutova split into a wide grin. “Captain! How many years has it been, eh? What brings you to this part of the territories?”

The two men slapped each other’s shoulders in something like a hug. Pan never imagined Ember could greet anyone that warmly.

Lucia elbowed her. “Maybe we can slip away.”

“Don’t you move a whisker!” Bustion rounded on them both. “Whose fault do you think it’s going to be if you get yourself killed or held ransom?”

Pan swallowed. That was exactly what Lucia had almost done.

“And you! Encouraging her!”

Ember pushed him out of the way. “When you shouldn’t have been there to encourage her, I might add!”

At this point, Lucia and Pan were also clinging to one another.

Bustion regarded her. “So that’s yours, Ember? Is she a war orphan?”

“Something like that,” Ember said. “What’s all this, then?”

“That’s right. News wouldn’t have reached the city yet.” Bustion stroked one of his whiskers. “The count is deathly ill. Nobody knows what’s wrong. He’s beloved, so the townspeople organized a vigil for him.”

That meant something to Gelata. Judging from her expression, it wasn’t anything good. “Perhaps we should take a look at him, Captain.”

“The delay will cost us,” Ember said, “But this is important. The count’s the only thing holding this town together.”

“I wouldn’t mind at all,” Bustion said. “This way. As for those two, maybe we can throw them in the oubliette until they grow some brains.”

Lucia blushed as the three ushered them away. “I’m sorry for all this.”

Pan felt for Lucia. She had, after all, grown up with Chi-Chi. She knew all about over-the-top threats.

Chapter Text

At the bottom of a damp pit, Pan said, “I thought he was joking about the oubliette!”

Lucia sprawled on a wooden bench hanging from the wall. “Bustion never jokes about the oubliette.”

“This is some way to find out Ember does. Did you see the way he laughed?”

“He looked like he was going to choke. I bet you think this is all my fault.”

“I didn’t, but I’m thinking that now, because you just told me not to. If you don’t want me to think something, don’t tell me not to think it, because then I won’t be able to help it,” Pan said. Above them, the trapdoor waited still and silent. It didn’t so much as vibrate from passing footsteps. “How long does he usually leave you down here?”

“He doesn’t. I’m just trying to gather the energy to climb out.”

“Is that all?” Pan asked. “You should’ve said so earlier. Come over here.”

Lucia hopped off the bench. “What am I doing?”

“Hold on to my back.”

Lucia looked skeptical, but did as Pan asked her.

There wasn’t any good way to warn her what was happening next, so Pan didn’t. She just flew to the trapdoor and opened it, tossing Lucia out first before climbing through herself. It wasn’t her best landing. Lucia fell with a flop and skidded into a dresser. Pan closed her foot in the trap door.

As Pan yanked her foot free and dusted off her hands, Lucia climbed the dresser and cried out. At least she didn’t actually scream. It was raspy and strangled.

“Y-you can fly!”

Pan shrugged. “So what? So can Ember.” She thought back to her stay at the palace at the center of Asphodel. “And I think Incendria can, too.”

“Her majesty? You’re teasing me now. You have to be. I think I’d have heard of the Captain of the Guard was flying all over the place, and the princess? She’s delicate and proper, a model to every girl exactly what we should all aspire to be. I know she does ceremonial staff work, but it’s just for the grace and tradition of it. She wouldn’t hurt a naif beetle.”

That description clashed so badly with the Incendria Pan met, she couldn’t even laugh at it. Now that she’d seen other Sutova and gotten an idea of their average capabilities, she knew Incendria wasn’t just powerful, but abnormally so. Yet she went to such great lengths to hide it, this was how the public saw her. Why?

“Anyway, we’re out of the hole,” Pan said. “I’m glad it was easier to escape than the dungeon Ember threw me in. I’d better go find out where he went.”

“That’s no mystery. He went to visit my father. That’s on the top floor of the manor.”

It was difficult to stay angry at Ember. Here his friend was sick, and he was fighting an enemy that could very well be invincible. They might never see each other again. Pan thought back to the promise she’d made to Chi-Chi. Would she be able to keep it?

Outside the ivy-ringed window, the sky pulsed green. Much as she sympathized, they had to get back on the road. Frieza seemed to have some way of finding her no matter where she was, perhaps through the bug bite on her hand.

“Are you all right?” Lucia asked. “Your face is so… intense.”

Pan pushed away from the window. “I’m fine.”

“With an expression like that, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were thinking about a boy.”

That did make Pan laugh, largely for the realization she had been, kind of.

Even so, as they climbed the manor stairs, she kept an eye on the windows they passed and the increasingly green sky outside them. It wasn’t a long trip, though. Before she knew it, Pan stood on the top floor, before a closed door flanked by guards.

“Excuse me,” Lucia said, “Is my father awake? May I see him?”

“Your father is being examined,” One of the guards said. “We’ll call you when he can receive guests.”

“I see. Thank you.”

Lucia grabbed Pan and pulled her down the hall, around a corner.

“What I mean,” Lucia said, winking, “Is that we’ll have to go the back way.”

“I don’t know if we should do this,” Pan said, shocked to be arguing against sneaking somewhere she wasn’t allowed to go. She was usually the one coming up with schemes like that, but that was when she was with Trunks or Bulla or Grandpa. For all her alleged experience, Lucia didn’t seem particularly good at this kind of thing. “If he’s being treated he could be undressed or cut open.”

“If Ember’s doing the examination, he’s going to be using the Prismasphere, so that won’t be necessary. Besides, Gelata’s in there with him,” Lucia opened the window and swung one leg out. “This faces the garden wall, so nobody will see us, and the ledge is just wide enough to balance on. What am I saying? You don’t have to worry about falling. You can fly.”

Pan climbed out the window, hoping Lucia was right about Ember using the Prismasphere.

Lucia dragged her to a balcony overlooking a verdant field of thick rosebushes. Falling into those wouldn’t be pleasant, even for her.

Inside the forbidden room, Ember knelt beside the bed of an old Sutova man. Just how old was he? Lines covered his face, wore his expression, and he was aged even further by the illness, which paled his skin and glazed his eyes. Gelata leaned against the wall. They spoke, but the glass muffled their voices and hid the subject of their conversation.

“Not good. Father looks worse than before.”

“What exactly does he have?” Pan whispered.

Lucia’s face darkened. “Nobody’s sure, but I have my theories.”

Both Lucia and Pan ducked as Ember opened the window.

“…organ damage is not good, but it’s not beyond fixing, given enough time,” Ember was saying.

“Until I run out of it, I’ve got nothing but time,” the old count said.

“So the rumors are true. You’ve gone full diplomat after all.”

“What else am I going to do at my age?” The count lay back on his pillow.

“Gelata,” Ember said. “Much as I don’t trust the girl, much as I don’t like this, we may have to tell Pan to go ahead without us and catch up with her tomorrow morning. I can help him, but not in a single afternoon.”

“We have to leave the night’s business to her anyway,” Gelata said. “It’s just as well to wait here as anywhere.”

The count chuckled. “You don’t need to talk around whatever mission the king’s sent you on so discreetly. I know how things run in the palace. I was in his father’s court, you know.”

“Yes,” Gelata said, colder than Pan expected. “I know.”

“I could still go a round or two if the need presented itself. Nowadays, I leave the heavy lifting to Shivor, my best warrior. I’d introduce you to him but he hasn’t been in all day.”

Lucia covered her mouth. “He’s not back yet?”

Pan shushed her as quietly as she could.

Gelata opened the door. Pan wriggled back to the window as quickly as she could. She scraped her arm on the garden wall but squirmed through. Lucia must have had a lot of practice, because she was right behind her. They landed back on the floor inside just as Gelata closed the door behind her and asked the guards to fetch Pan.

“Actually, she was just here with the count’s daughter,” The guard said. “I told them it was too early to visit. I don’t know where they went to wait, but they couldn’t have gotten far.”

Pan poked her head around the corner and waved. “Over here! I heard the door open. Can Lucia go inside now?”

“Not yet, I’m afraid,” Gelata said, striding to Pan. “May I speak to you in private?”

She dragged Pan back the way she’d come, which wasn’t exactly private, but Pan didn’t have time to explain that; Lucia was gone, back out the window most likely, and Gelata began talking the very moment she thought they were out of earshot.

“I can’t stand any of this! That man is no friend of mine, but at least I understand the danger he’s in and the vacuum his passing would create, and what is anyone doing about it? Appealing to theatrics and superstitious nonsense! Do they really think burning dolls is going to… but pardon me, Pan. None of this is your concern. Making Crater Farm is, and Ember and I have elected to stay here while you go there. We’ll meet you in the morning, assuming you’re still alive.”

“Ember can fix the count, can’t he?”

“I’ve a good deal more faith in the Captain’s abilities than any of this other garbage, that’s for certain. Forgive me again. They are, after all, Reizomorph myths. I appreciate their significance from a cultural perspective.”

Gelata sounded anything but appreciative.

“And really, what happened to Kuriza was terrible, there’s no argument there, but believing you can activate ancient hidden Vile Wave magic by recreating it is an insult to his memory. But it’s not your problem. You can leave right away. Good luck.”

“That explains why I saw it on a headstone,” Pan said, turning to go.

“A headstone?”

“Yeah, in…” she glanced at the window. “In that graveyard by the city.”

“You must have seen Kuriza’s tomb. He was a Cold. The grandson of the last sovereign king of Cocytus, in fact. Ten years old when King Flare’s forces managed to snatch him. They demanded his grandfather, Chilled, open the gates to Cocytus City and turn over his citizens, or they’d execute the boy for treason. Chilled didn’t open the gates. Flare kept his word. You can hardly blame Chilled for his subsequent mental breakdown, but that’s all it was. Attributing the personality change to him tampering with the Vile Wave to avenge his grandson, becoming some kind of dark Prismatist who exchanged his sanity for power… the rest of the universe already thinks we’re ghoulish and credulous, and spreading rumors like that hardly dispels the notion.”

Pan tried not to shiver too visibly. She knew Lucia was still outside, and didn’t know how much she was seeing and hearing; she had to act like she already knew this. After finding out what really happened on the king’s “hunts,” maybe she should have.

“If you start for the farm now, you should be able to make it with a few hours to spare. I apologize for delaying you so much already.”

She spun and left, hands tucked behind her back. Pan wondered just how long she’d waited to get that off her chest.

After a few moments, Lucia clambered back through the window. “Yikes, she sounded mad. What she said, though; it all but confirms my suspicions.”

“What suspicions?”

“That my father was poisoned, just like King Flare was,” Lucia said. “That’s where Shivor went, to get the antidote from the outer wald. There’s a mushroom that grows beneath the trees capable of counteracting the poison used to kill Flare. Shivor was supposed to meet me with it in the square today. If he didn’t show up, and hasn’t been back here either, there’s no way around it. Something happened to him. I’m going to have to go looking for him.”

Pan grabbed her wrist. “Wait! I have a better idea.”

Then she had to come up with a better idea. As before, she decided to stick with what she was good at. “Tell me where he went and I’ll go looking for Shivor. If you stay here, I can bring him and the antidote back to you instantly. You just heard Gelata. I have a few extra hours, and I can always fly to make up for lost time. I won’t have to sneak out because they expect me to be leaving. It’s perfect.”

Boy, she hoped Lucia would think so.

To Pan’s relief, she did. “All right, but if I don’t hear from you…”

“You’ll hear from me. Trust me. It’ll be fine.”

Later, Pan would question her definition of “fine.” For now, she was just happy to have talked Lucia out of another ill-advised excursion and, at best, another trip to the oubliette.

ooo

Peril could thrive just as well in the daylight as the dark. For all her dodging the Vile Wave’s midnight appearances, Pan had forgotten that.

In a forest clearing, she found a grisly reminder.

If it hadn’t been for the birds, she might not have found anything. True, a queasy feeling settled in her gut as she peered into the treeline. Also, the first thing she found at the edge of the forest was a patch of blood. It had been spilled long enough ago that it had sunk into the dirt, disguising whether it had been red or purple, but recently enough it was still wet to the touch. However, nothing had been disturbed, and there were no signs of a struggle among the tall and quiet trees. Just dappled Prismatic light and the faint energy she’d expect to feel from the foliage and small creatures living in it. It wasn’t even dead silence. Birds called.

“This could be from a wounded animal,” Pan said. A few days of being hunted by fiends from beyond the grave might have her seeing monsters behind everything, but that was the most likely explanation.

Still, she kept her senses open.

She wasn’t just on guard because of the blood. Pan also had to feel for a large concentration of energy, a signature that could belong to the county’s best warrior. That was her best chance of finding Shivor.

At first, it was comforting that the woods weren’t suspiciously quiet, that there was a steady thrum of birdsong. The deeper Pan went, the more it bothered her. The squawking grew louder, and now she could hear the beating of wings; many wings. The ki hit her a moment later; a wash of power that must belong to Shivor. Pan broke into a run. The trees were wide enough to dart through without slowing down. Even though the sky overhead was green with just a tinge of blue, a clock ticked at the back of her head, the knowledge she had to be at the farm before midnight a constant and nagging companion.

Her blood chilled when she saw a hand sticking out of a sleeve behind a tree.

Her running steps wound down to a walk, then a tip-toe.

In a clearing around the tree, blackbirds gathered in flocks, stretching their wings, opening their stiff beaks to cry out between bites. They had come to eat. It would take all of them to finish the meal left here, too: four men, blanketed with crows, pinned to the ground with massive stakes sharpened from whole trees.

“This… this is horrible…”

Though it was the last thing Pan wanted to do, she shooed the birds away from them and checked them, one by one, to make sure they were indeed dead. It didn’t surprise her they were. It did surprise her warmth lingered in their bodies. Just like the blood was still wet. This hadn’t happened in the middle of the night, but this afternoon at the earliest.

Whoever did this might still be here!

Pan whipped around, searching the trees from every angle, but she found nothing but crab-squirrels and a mystified lizard. She didn’t feel any out-of-place energy, either. What did that mean for Shivor? Was one of these men… she cut that thought right off. Somehow, she didn’t think so. In fact, their piecemeal attire made her think they must be bandits.

She knew who could tell her for certain.

Pan knelt by one of the dead men. She tried to focus. Bonpara?

She got a response almost immediately. If you’re asking if we’re moving again, keep your bandanna on. We’re back in space and on our way.

I’ve got another question, actually, Pan thought, but it’s a morbid one, and… you guys haven’t eaten recently, have you? I found some bodies. I want to see if you recognize their clothes.

Why not see if we recognize their faces? Bonpara thought.

The birds haven’t left much of those, Pan replied.

There’s not much choice, is there? Send it along.

Pan concentrated on the man’s dull gray cloak, trying to ignore the more gruesome details. She thought it might have worked, because Bonpara said,

Eh. I’ve seen worse. So why do you need to know who these guys are? Did they jump you?

No, Pan thought, but I’m looking for someone in these woods, and I want to make sure this isn’t him.

I know this is asking a lot of you, but check to see if they’re carrying anything.

Pan almost protested aloud that she had to move them to do that, but Bonpara knew that. Apologizing, she brushed the man’s cloak aside, checking for pockets or possessions.

Nothing, Pan thought. Wait. I take that back. He’s carrying

Pan pulled out a blaster. It was a puffy cylinder that made her think of a marshmallow. It showed signs of heavy use.

This gun.

Silence followed. Perhaps Bonpara was checking the computer, or perhaps he was filing through his own memory.

Bonpara thought, Are you sure they weren’t after you? These are Planet Trade mercenaries.

You can tell from the gun?

The gun, the clothes, what I can see of the men themselves; it’s their calling card. Very professional. They want their enemies to know exactly who’s after them, but they don’t want their men leaving corpses the Galactic Patrol could trace back to them. The equipment’s gotta have the serial numbers filed off in case they get caught.

They definitely got caught by something, Pan thought.

Energy exploded right behind her.

And I think it’s here! I’ll call you back!

Pan rolled out of the way just in time to avoid a heel to the head that could have fractured her skull. Her opponent tried to keep her on the ground, throwing himself bodily over her. She kicked him with both feet, sending him flying back to the trees. He stopped himself from hitting, landing on his feet. Pan made it to hers just in time to stare him in the face.

He was pale teal, sleek and unarmored, and a small pack was slung over his shoulder. Without the chitin he was fast; he was already charging Pan, trying to overpower her.

She locked hands with him. He faltered. He wasn’t expecting her strength.

“Are you Shivor?” Pan asked.

“Who wants to know?”

Fairly certain the answer was “yes” and hoping her hunch was correct, Pan slapped the man’s hands away, but instead of pulling back, she threw her arms around him and teleported.

She popped out of the teleportation zone and back into existence in the manor hall. The two of them careened into a table. A vase toppled and spilled water all over the tile. Lucia screamed as they slid at her feet. Pan jammed her elbow under the teal man’s chin, and asked,

“Is this Shivor?”

Dazed and probably thinking she was dreaming, Lucia nodded.

Pan stood, taking a good leap backwards in case his mind hadn’t caught up and he attacked again. It had, though. Shivor stared at his changed surroundings, his face as dumbfounded as Lucia’s.

“Is this another illusion? Can I truly be back in Colander?” He said. “How?”

“I locked in on Lucia’s signature,” Pan said. False alarm, Bonpara; everything’s okay, she thought. “Speaking of which, I bet I know how you hid yours from me. You reverted to your first form so you’d be faint enough to blend in with the forest life and the Prismasphere, and didn’t change into your fourth form until you decided I was a threat. Clever.”

“Then you really were sent to retrieve me,” He said. “When I saw you disturbing those bodies, taking their weapons, I thought…”

“Bodies,” Lucia said. “What bodies?”

“The Planet Trade King Sulfuri swears has no presence here,” Pan said. “There are four of them dead on the edge of the Bludwald.”

 “You reached the same conclusion about their identities I did, then,” Shivor said. “Those mercenaries were sent to kill me before I could retrieve the antidote. There were five.”

He tossed Lucia the pack. She opened it and removed one of the mushrooms. She swore under her breath. “I knew it.”

“After they confronted me, something came out of the woods and tore them to pieces. I couldn’t get a good look at it. If I tried, everything would blur, and it would disappear, and when my senses returned to normal another mercenary would be dead. I began to question my own perceptions of reality, but I kept enough of my wits about me that when two had fallen, I was able to burrow underground and seal the entrance. I couldn’t think of any safe way to leave cover. Even from there, I never did see what killed them. I only heard it. The last mercenary, the fifth one, it talked to him.”

 “What did it say?” Pan asked.

“It spoke but two coherent words. ‘Stop meddling.’ It had the most horrible voice, like an evil little troll.”

“So the Planet Trade mercenaries attacked you and this… mysterious creature you never saw… rescued you from them?”

“No,” Shivor said. “I believe it was there for them and my presence was incidental. It would have killed me if I’d stayed, but when I opted to hide instead, I wasn’t important enough to hunt down. At least I was able to keep the antidote safe. We must get it to the count quickly.”

Lucia tugged Pan’s sleeve, but the sky outside pulsed once more and flooded completely blue.

Years ago, on Imecka, Trunks had told Pan every planet had its troubles and she couldn’t fix them all. She hated leaving Colander like this, with something horrible abandoning bodies in the woods and the count ill from what was most certainly poison. However, if she didn’t leave for the farm right now, if she didn’t at least clear town before the Vile Wave crested, Colander would have a lot more problems. If she really wanted to help, she had to go. Now.

Instead of following Lucia and Shivor, Pan opened the window and flew.

 

Chapter Text

She’d arrived just in the nick of time. The sky pulsed from deep blue to violet, and she had only minutes left until the Vile Wave crested and the latter swallowed the former.

Before she entered Crater Farm, though, Pan had to take a second to admire it from above.

It was indeed a crater; a wide crater that plunged as deeply into the soil as Mt. Paozu rose above it back home. Had this been made by a meteor? A sinkhole? Gohan would be able to tell. Pan wasn’t. She did know, however, that the terraces that spiraled from the lip of the crater to the its foggy depths like the threads of a bolt; those had been built, and they were magnificent. The winding chain of greenhouses had been built straight into the stone and covered with glass like snake scales. Thick heart-shaped leaves grew inside and out. Vines trailed from terrace to terrace.

Maybe I shouldn’t have come here, Pan thought. This could all get smashed.

The sky raced above. Pan sighed. She didn’t have time to go somewhere else, at least not anywhere abandoned. She could only teleport to somewhere with a recognizable energy signature. She had no choice; the fight would happen at the farm. Perhaps she could avoid transforming.

Pan slipped through the door. According to Incendria, this farm had been abandoned and neglected since the end of the war, so Pan had worried there wouldn’t be much in the way of light. That had been an unfounded fear. It’s true the overhead lights were dark and also cracked, but a luminescent fungus grew out of the basins that had originally held them and crawled up the wall. Far from dim or eerie, the mushroom lamps were brilliant enough to give the place a hospital’s brightness. They weren’t the only thing that had grown haywire. The crop, a speckled gourd, had also taken over, carpeting the floor and whatever wall the mushrooms had left unclaimed. This was less to Pan’s advantage than the mushrooms. The vines were covered in hairy quills that snagged her clothes as she pushed through.

“I’m too close to the surface,” She said. “I’d better get further down. That way, if the fight does get destructive, I won’t be letting too much of the Vile Wave in.”

The cels of the greenhouse were connected, and the only thing keeping Pan from the next room was a door. Which should have been a cinch to open. Too bad that when she approached it, she saw no doorknob. Or sensor. Or buttons. Or anything but unbroken sheet metal.

“I could blast it,” She said. She wouldn’t be able to close it behind her, though.

Amidst the matted net of leaves and mushrooms, something poked out. A lever! So that was how it worked.

Pan yanked it.

The mechanism must have operated on some kind of pulley system. The chains and wheels creaked, threatened to break, but ultimately held and the door opened. Good. The vines that had gown around the lever came tumbling down in a ball of needly vines. Not so good.

Something small and humanoid rolled out of the ball and hit the ground with a bony crack.

Pan jumped to avoid getting sprayed. What was this? A gourd? No, only the head was a gourd. The rest was ragdoll cloth, stitched together haphazardly into a figure that would be about up to her knee if held upright. Now it lay with its legs over its head. Its eyes turned to her.

A gourd doll.

Pan stared at it. It stared at her. Not for real, but it felt like it.

“G’AH!”

She gave it a hard stomp, which broke it like an egg, and then ran through the door and grabbed the lever to close it like it was a life raft. As soon as the door slid back into place she leaned against it as if the remnants of the gourd doll were going to try to break it down.

That was silly. Pan’s whole reaction had been silly, and probably rude. That gourd doll had been someone’s toy, after all. She just wished it hadn’t jumped out at her like that. Fallen on her, she corrected. Dolls could not jump out at her. Except when they could.

What was with Ketchyn and dolls? Incendria’s dolls, straw dolls, gourd dolls; did any one planet really need that many dolls lying about? Where was Frieza? Who did that murdering undead tyrant think he was, running late and leaving Pan all alone in an abandoned farm full of creepy dolls?

Once Pan’s breathing and heart rate slowed back to normal, she felt a concentration of Vile energy several floors below. Oh. There he was.

However Frieza managed to materialize in her general ballpark, he still didn’t seem to be able to pinpoint exactly where she was. If she kept quiet she might be able to take him by surprise. Moving through these vines without rustling them would be difficult without flying, though, and the creaky pulley doors were right out. Pan pushed some of the vines aside. The floor beneath them was a wooden catwalk, rotten and termite-eaten. Punching through them might make too much noise, but if they were as warped as they looked, the boards may just be resting on the nails that had once held them fast in place.

Pan lifted one and moved it aside. Yes! She shifted a few more until there was enough space for her, and then she dropped to the floor below through her makeshift trapdoor. She repeated the process for the next floor, and the next, watching the color outside the window sink from violet to pitch black as she made her way underground.

Pan knew when she’d reached the bottom of the crater. She could tell from the fusty scent in the air and the vapors rising from the floor. Here there were patches of stone poking through the vines. Pan walked on those. She knew she was getting close to Frieza when Vile fog mixed with those vapors.

She ducked under a pulley door jammed half open, and through the glass at the end of this room, she saw him.

It took her a moment to recognize him, even with his distinct energy signature pouring through every molecule of this floor. He kneeled, ripping a length of vine, so Pan could only see his torn cloak and broad shoulders, but even those looked misshapen, whorled and spined like a snail shell. He stood…

Pan would have thought seeing the third form of the Asphodel palace guard would have prepared her for Frieza’s, but the guard didn’t have the Vile Wave radiating from him, either. With his pale armor now covered with thorns and enclosing him like an iron maiden, with his crimson eyes and fanged mouth swallowing most of his face, Frieza looked like something that didn’t belong in the sunlight.

He twisted to the window and scanned the crater floor. Perhaps he was looking for her.

His tail caught some of the vines that had overgrown the wall. They dropped in a spiny green ball, and a gourd doll fell out and bobbed like a marionette before falling to the ground.

Frieza stared at it.

It stared at him (except of course it didn’t, because dolls didn’t stare).

“G’AH!”

He flattened it with one swift stomp of his heel and fled through the nearest door.

That was bad news. The nearest door was the one Pan herself stood behind, and he saw her as soon as he was through it.

They fell into fighting stances simultaneously.

“I congratulate you for your prowess yet again,” Frieza said. “Tactically speaking, you could not have picked a smarter place to confront me. I can’t dim the fungus’s bioluminescence. Your earthquakes could break the greenhouse glass and turn this entire building into a raining storm of blades, and that’s going to force me to hold back.” He kicked another doll, whose arm was poking out from beneath a green heart-leaf. Its head rolled to Pan. “And the psychological stress of all these infernal mannequins cannot be understated. Well done. I hope you’re prepared to suffer for it, because oh, are you ever going to.”

“Don’t blame me for these things.” Pan kicked the head aside. “I didn’t put them here.”

“As if you didn’t know it was common practice on Nightwater farms to make scarecrows from the dry gourds instead of throwing them out.”

“That’s not widely known where I come from, no.”

“It should be!” He leveled two fingers and fired a ki blast.

That blast wasn’t difficult to dodge, but dodging was exactly what Frieza wanted Pan to do. As soon as she moved, he fired six more, covering every possible direction she could possibly bank. There was nowhere to turn she wouldn’t contact one of the virulent beams.

Channeling an old baseball move, Pan slid through the very narrow opening between the lowest beam and the floor. She still scraped close enough to sever the tips of her hair. The black strands flew away, sizzling with heat. Her pants rolled up at the cuffs and the vines dragged bloody scratches across her bare ankles. Frieza fired another shot as she emerged from the brush. Pan felt something in her hand and threw it. It was a gourd, and it splattered like it had been stuffed with dynamite, covering the walls in chunks and leaving a strange fermented smell lingering in the air.

Back on her feet, Pan dashed towards Frieza. She couldn’t be kept on the defensive like this. She returned fire, deflecting the beams he launched at her; the Laceration he threw, she leapt, putting every bit of her momentum and strength into a punch. Frieza crossed his arms before his face. The punch still sent him flying into the wall, breaking mortar and the stone behind it.

He swept up some of the plaster and threw it in Pan’s face.

She couldn’t let that get in her eyes. She remembered all too well what happened when the dragon Eis had blinded Grandpa in the midst of battle. Closing her eyes, she wiped her face frantically. She couldn’t see Frieza, but she could still sense him, so she knew he’d launched at her with even more power than she’d thrown at him. She had just enough time to throw out her hands and catch the kick he aimed at her.

“Be crushed, maggot!”

Even at arm’s length, his foot ground her into the door. The old rusted thing couldn’t stand the pressure and it broke free, giving Pan leverage to dig her feet in and push back.

 “This maggot doesn’t get crushed. She feasts on the corpses of her enemies,” Pan said.

“Cute,” Frieza said. “I hate cute.”

“If you hate cute things so much, why do you have such cute feet?”

The pressure eased. Frieza jolted. “I… beg your pardon?”

She didn’t know if he was stunned by her irreproachable logic or what, but at least Pan had the chance to duck through the open doorway and make some breathing room.

She needed it. This third form of his had powerful ki, and he fired it like a super machine gun. It took Pan more energy than she could afford to dodge and block, and she blocked more than she dodged.

“I see beating you within an inch of your life yesterday increased your power,” He said. “Saiyan adaptability never ceases to impress. But you can’t hold out forever without transforming.”

Pan fired a Masenko. She might as well have flicked a maggot at him.

“Or you could stop this farce and surrender before you’ve completely exhausted my patience.”

To show Frieza exactly what she thought of that option, Pan grabbed the nearest thing and hurled it. She’d thought it was another gourd. It turned out it was one of the gourd dolls.

He flattened his palm and stopped it mid-air. He ripped one of the arms off and flung it at Pan.

It hurled until Pan stopped it with a blast, tearing off its other arm and sending it back the way it came. Frieza smacked it and it lost a leg, and finally Pan’s last energy ball hit its gourd-head and it exploded.

Frieza snickered, and Pan did, too.

That only lasted a second. They returned to fighting form.

Pan saw an opening, or thought she did. She appeared at Frieza’s right flank and back-handed him once, twice, three times in rapid succession; but she’d only seen an opening he wanted her to, and he caught her arm and twisted it behind her. She slammed him into the wall. He squeezed harder.

“Years I’ve waited for revenge! You won’t be the one to deny me, neither you nor your army of homunculi! It never stopped me before and it won’t now! Do you have any idea how long it’s been? What I’ve had to endure?”

Pan struggled against his hold, but something in his words brought back another memory. Not of one of her grandpa’s moves, or some adventure they’d had, but a mundane day on Earth when Bulla had gotten a lower score than Trunks on some extra-credit test at school. She’d spent a good three hours responding to everything- question, comment, random observation about the weather- with “Apparently Trunks is the family genius, so why don’t you ask him?” She hadn’t gone back to normal until Pan had responded with a question of her own.

“Do you want to talk about it?” Pan asked.

“What kind of question is that? Do I look like I came here to talk? Do warriors settle their debts with talk? Did I claw my way from the very depths of hell to talk?

ooo

“Teddy bears and dolls, marching with whimsical little teddy-and-doll sized musical instruments, sharing cupcakes and glittering the perfumed air with cherry blossoms and fairy dust every second of every day, at least as long as I as able to keep track of days. Soon it all melted together into a Bacchanalian of sugar and pastels. What kind of place is Hell for such a revolting display of saccharine excess, I ask you?”

“None at all,” Pan said. “That is messed up. They shouldn’t be allowed to do things like that, not even to creeps like you.”

“Don’t patronize me!”

“I’m serious.”

“And don’t act like you have any idea what I went through!”

Pan scooped up a doll next to her in the vines. She had to give it credit for not being totally robot-faced. The bumps and wrinkles of the gourd had been incorporated into its features, giving it the gnarled and wizened smile of a Halloween witch. She tossed it over her shoulder.

“You’re right.”

“Stop agreeing with me! I can tell by your expression you at least think you do.”

“I’ll disagree with you when you say something I disagree with, and not a moment sooner, thank you very much,” Pan said. “Luud wasn’t exactly the same, after all. Its leader had a machine that could immobilize anybody. It didn’t matter how strong you were, or how well-trained. If you got in its range, it could lock you up. It wasn’t like Red Wave Paralysis, either, where it wears off; you stayed that way until someone turned the machine off. I’d always thought no matter what kind of trouble I got into, my fists could get me out of it, but then that thing came along, and I… I don’t know, it was like…”

Pan struggled for words, so she just stopped trying to find them.

“Like someone changed the rules on you,” Frieza said.

“Exactly. I crashed on Luud while fighting the Para Brothers, and wound up confronting their leader, so I got to find out what he did with the people he froze. He played dolls with their immobile bodies. He had a room-sized dollhouse just for it. The walls were marble. The curtains and blankets were pink silk. Everything was trimmed in lace. He spared no expense making it look like a cheap plastic toy sized up. The furniture dug into my back. Grandpa smashed the machine and then me and the Para Brothers smashed his face, but I never really talked about it before now. I was afraid if I told Grandpa and Trunks, they’d think… I don’t know what I was afraid they’d think. I just wanted everything to be normal again, and I thought if they found out, it wouldn’t be. Is that weird?”

“No,” Frieza said, picking at a vine. “You were right. After we fled the hunting grounds, my father and brother became strangers. My brother, I understand. Magmast’s arrows, the arrows that struck down Queen Polrene, were aimed at Cooler. It’s not been pleasant for him to know he’s the reason she’s dead. But Papa? What did he hope to accomplish, taking it out on us?”

Frieza stood. Pan almost leapt to her feet, thinking he’d said all he wanted to, but he only brushed the vines away from the wall. Behind them was a shelf full of gourds, polished for preservation and very dusty. He blew at one, ripped the stem off, and sat back down.

“I know your grandfather didn’t drink often. What about you?”

“He always said it was up to me, but that he preferred not to dull his reflexes, since he never knew when he’d need them, and if I was serious about martial arts I’d take that into consideration, so I decided no.”

“More for me, then,” He sipped the contents of the gourd. “Nightwater is the only thing I missed about this irrelevant speck of space dust after I was banished. It truly has no equal, and that’s coming from someone who spent a long time looking. The Bludwald, on the other hand, could be any forest on any planet, nothing special at all, and on top of that it had been razed generations previous by my stubborn ancestor Chilled. Do you see this cloak I’m wearing? It belonged to him. I don’t know how I know that. I don’t know why I was watching that plush parade of the damned one moment and the next I was here, wrapped in this thing.”

Pan was glad she’d turned down his offer of a drink, because she’d surely have spit it out. She’d assumed Frieza knew who resurrected him, that they were co-conspirators in some kind of diabolical plot. Now here he was, casually telling her he had no idea how he’d woken up alive(ish) on Ketchyn and, from the sound of it, didn’t care, either.

If Frieza didn’t know, who would?

“I do know I’m not staying here any longer than it takes to conclude this sordid business. The family title was a relic of a bygone age that hadn’t had any real power behind it for centuries. Had I not been banished, I’d have been lord of one broken-down little manor in the middle of a forest. Out there they called me the Emperor of the Universe, and they meant it. I’m not giving that up on some petty whim. Returning to my empire is at the top of my list. Right after avenging myself on your hateful grandfather for humiliating me on Namek and sending me to that mockery of an afterlife.”

“You still don’t believe me?” Pan asked.

“I don’t believe Goku is dead. I’m starting to believe you believe it. Dead family is so easy to idealize. It’s more comforting to think you lost him than that he simply abandoned you.”

The thump and cracking that followed was Pan crushing the floor in her fist and trying desperately not to transform and cause an earthquake.

“Oh, did I hit a nerve?”

She dusted the gravel off her hands. Great, now she had some unidentified crushed mineral all over her face and her hand. She’d better remember not to rub her eyes. For all she knew it was corrosive. “Yup.”

“You’re no more fun to taunt than he was,” Frieza said.

“Don’t taunt people for fun and you won’t have that problem.”

“Don’t tell me what to do.”

“You just told me what to do,” Pan said.

“That’s different. I’m Emperor of the Universe. Besides, when?”

“Like, just now.”

That was followed by a lot of thumps from a lot of purple hands as they reached from the darkness and clawed the greenhouse windows. There were so many they blocked the crater outside.

Pan’s eye twitched.

Frieza waved his hand and they vanished. “That wasn’t my fault.”

“I don’t know how you stand having the Vile Wave running through you all the time,” Pan said. “Doesn’t it hurt?”

“No more than anything else,” He said. “Don’t pretend you care I’m in pain. You’re just trying to change the subject.”

“No, I’m not. I said I’d disagree with you when I disagreed with you, and right now, I disagree with you.”

“Please explain yourself. I’m not intoxicated enough to make sense of what you just said.”

“Grandpa wasn’t physically breathing down my neck every minute, and yes, I’m not going to lie, I’d liked to have seen him more often than I did. That… might have had something to do with why I stowed away on his ship when he went to find the Black Star Dragon Balls, although it’s a good thing I did, because I found them all, and did I mention there were killer robots, and that I was wanted on Imecka? I saved one of the posters. It’s still in my room.”

“Oh, those are fun, don’t you think? I kept a few of my own. They’re old since it wasn’t long before law enforcement became too afraid to post them.”

“But if there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that Grandpa would never abandon me. I could always count on him to be there when I needed him, every time I needed him. And you know what? You’re counting on that, too, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

 “We’re having this conversation because you suggested it,” Frieza said. “We can end it if you wish.”

“Do you want to?”

Frieza stroked what was left of his chin. In this form, it wasn’t much. “No, I don’t think I’ll subdue you in this form. I’ll give you another day to get your hopes up and then I’ll choke you with an iron fist of terror you’d never have imagined existed. How does that sound?”

“Sweet. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Of course you are, Saiyan.”

That was all there was to say about that. Instead, Pan told him more about evading Don Kee’s forces on Imecka. She told him about flying with the giant butterflies of Monmaasu, about dressing Trunks up as a girl and marrying him to a talking fish on Gelbo (at this point, Frieza glanced at his bottle again and wondered aloud if he’d had more than he thought). She didn’t do all the talking. Frieza told her about the mind-reading inhabitants of Kanassa, the molten surface of Beppa, and planet Kuhn, where the ruins were populated entirely by dogs and at no point did he help repair any of those ruins, nor did he know where she’d ever gotten such a foolish notion (at this point, Pan glanced at Frieza’s bottle and wondered silently if the Nightwater fumes were powerful enough to affect her from here).

Fighting slowed time to a crawl. Minutes could stretch into hours. This was the opposite. It felt like she’d just sat down a moment ago, yet when she thought to glance at the window, she could see the crater floor in a haze of red light; so much time had passed, the Vile Wave was waning, the Red Wave cresting.

With the changing light, Frieza’s shoulder opened again. He rubbed the blood between his fingers like it was an alien thing.

“I made it all the way to dawn. That’s a first. Since you’re so agreeable, may I ask a favor?”

“Sure,” Pan said.

“Leave me. Go back upstairs. Or go outside. It’s safe now, and I’d rather you didn’t see where this goes from here.”

Pan wasn’t used to sitting for quite that long. Her legs were stiff. She almost tripped over a vine. What was the quickest way out of here? The way she’d come in, she decided, since she’d made such a convenient path straight through the floor.

Awkward as it was, she thought it would be rude not to, so before she ducked under the broken door, she turned back and waved. “Um, goodbye.”

She wasn’t watching where she was going and she knocked into another gourd doll, which slumped and splayed with its arms wide.

“G’AH!”

They both zapped it at once.

Pan crawled into the next room and through the ceiling before anything else could fall.

 

Chapter Text

Frieza had passed the last kind of night he’d expected with that Saiyan girl, and releasing his worst memories, recalling his fondest, had left him in a good mood.

The crypt ruined it. He returned to an unfamiliar sensation, an electric ice that snapped in the air as he passed and made him feel, for the first time since he returned to Ketchyn, distinctly unwelcome. The mirror, once so torpid, glowed with some putrid inner light. It felt like walking into a seemingly-vacant cave only to find some hibernating beast in the back opening one eye and fixing it right on you. He could feel its gaze, and with it, a sense of disapproval that pierced him to his core.

To the floor went the last statue, another several chunks of wall, and two of the six pillars. Who did this inanimate piece of funhouse trash think it was, disapproving of Frieza, Emperor of the Universe?

The mirror had taken so much of his attention, he hadn’t noticed there was someone solid waiting for him in the crypt. Someone was there, anyway; on second glance, the large purple horned man was far too unconscious to be waiting for him. From the look of it, he’d woken up, crawled away from the mirror, and fallen back to sleep in the corner. It was a good sign he was breathing. It would be a much better sign if he could form a coherent sentence.

Though Frieza didn’t remember much about his own trip through that mirror, he knew it had been traumatic and physically draining, even for a dead man. If Frieza wanted to wake him, his best choice would be to do so softly, so not to startle him.

Frieza didn’t make the best choice. He snapped his fingers in the man’s ears until he sat bolt upright with a gurgling scream.

“Pardon me, Captain Ginyu,” Frieza said. “But have you gotten a Prismatic lobotomy, as your unfortunate subordinate did?”

He squinted, and Frieza feared the worst. But then he climbed to his feet, twice Frieza’s size, and felt the top of his head.

“It feels like it’s all there. Damn, it’s great to see you.”

“Finally, something went the way I meant it to,” Frieza said. “It’s almost too good to be true. Are you suffering any other issues? Injuries? Memory loss?”

Ginyu rubbed his neck. “I ache like I’ve been ground under the steel toe of a giant boot.”

“Considering your circumstances at the time of your demise, you might have been, hoppy. Down to business. Do you know why I’ve brought you here?”

“The same reason you bring me anywhere. You have a job only Ginyu Force panache can get done.”

“Indeed I do. This way, please.”

Frieza led Ginyu to the mirror, or tried to. Halfway to it, the Captain stopped and gave it the most revolted look Frieza had ever seen on his face. If Frieza were being honest with himself, he felt the same way about the horrid thing, but it wouldn’t do to show it. He gave Ginyu his sternest glare and beckoned once more. Ever the loyal subject, Ginyu complied in spite of his obvious discomfort.

“You died in the body of a frog, Captain Ginyu. A body Son Goku cursed you to inhabit. How terrible a fate was that? Go ahead. Be honest.”

“Honest? I’d have much rather been fighting for you, but it could have been worse,” Ginyu said. “Goku put me in his inventor friend’s pond, and her son used to stuff me in his satchel and take me to school with him. He’d feed me bits of his dessert under the lunch table, and when we dissected frogs in biology class, Trunks swapped the teacher’s dead frog for me. You should have heard the students scream when I jumped off the tray and performed my Happy Dance …”

“When I said ‘be honest,’ I meant, ‘tell me what I want to hear.’”

“What do you want to hear, my lord?”

“That you spent the rest of your miserable life and time in the afterlife burning for the revenge we’re about to take on that defiant Saiyan.”

Ginyu counted on his fingers. “Could you repeat that? I didn’t catch it all.”

“Just say yes, Captain.”

“Um… yes.”

“Excellent. Now here’s what we’re going to do. My own task will be the acquisition of a hostage I believe Son Goku will go to any lengths to have returned to him unharmed.” Frieza held his hand to the mirror, intending to show Ginyu the hostage in question.

And stopped, his nails grazing the glass. The mirror still felt awake and vigilant, and Frieza was suddenly aware he didn’t want it seeing Pan in that state, even if that meant he couldn’t see her, either. It had been so easy to talk to her last night. She’d argued with him and joked with him and told him secrets, and he hadn’t found a bit of it pathetic or unforgivably impudent. He’d enjoyed it when she disagreed, how her questions made him think of things he’d taken for granted. He’d found her jokes funny.

And then he’d come back to that mirror’s disapproval. As if it was any of its business.

Frieza tapped the mirror eventually, but it wasn’t Pan’s image that came up. It was a tent cast in a forest, surrounded by men in uniform, working radio equipment. Everything had a curved haze thanks to the only reflective surface being a panel on one of the consoles. Remnants of buildings jutted from the ground. They’d been long destroyed.

“This mobile base has been constructed to gather information and feed it to a cruiser now approaching Ketchyn. I think it would be best if their next attempt at communication was met with radio silence, don’t you?”

“That uniform,” Ginyu said.

“Yes. I’ve seen it,” Frieza said. “My order stands.”

“It will be done, Lord Frieza.”

That finished, Frieza took the opportunity to blank the mirror and get as far away from it as possible. Ginyu didn’t need any convincing to follow him.

“So,” Ginyu asked. “What then?”

“What when?” Frieza asked.

“After we get revenge. What happens?”

“What happens?” Frieza asked. He pumped as much derision he could muster into his voice, hoping it would disguise the alarm. “I will again be undefeated, having lost one battle but won the war with that infernal Saiyan. We’ll return to my empire and I’ll resume ruling it. Everything will go back to the way it was before Namek.”

“Do you really think everything can be like it was before Namek?”

“Fool! Have you forgotten what it means to question my judgment?”

Obviously Ginyu hadn’t, because the next thing Frieza knew, the Captain backed away to the water, in the direction of the exit. Clearing out to follow his orders, was he? Not just yet.

“One more thing, Captain.”

Ginyu braced himself.

“You don’t think I have cute feet, do you?”

That wasn’t the attack Ginyu had been expecting, and he struggled with visible confusion, trying to figure it out. Finally, he said, “You are the very model of masculine perfection, your feet included.”

Frieza thought about hitting him with a death beam, but decided against it. “My fault for asking. Be gone, would you?”

So Ginyu left, and a pilaster and the statue attached to it crashed and exploded.

Frieza would return to his empire. He would mend it and strengthen it until Cold was once again the most feared name in the universe. Frieza did indeed believe that restoration was possible. Inevitable, in fact, once Son Goku was out of the picture. It was only when the Captain had asked him, “after we get revenge, what happens,” he’d realized that while those things were beyond question, there was one variable, one answer he did not know.

After he’d gotten revenge, what happened… to Pan?

In the distance, the bone-rack mirror with its perpetual layer of grime churned in silent judgment.

ooo

Halfway through her bath, Pan shuddered.

The night had been the kind of surreal that made perfect sense while it was happening, and when dawn came and every trace of Vile Energy vanished, she found herself with an immediate and pressing concern: she was covered from head to foot with dust, grass stains, and chunks of booze pumpkins. Removing these things was not optional. Pan hadn’t expected much from the farmers’ quarters, considering how broken-down the farm was, but she was pleasantly surprised to discover the baths’ pump system didn’t require electricity; the row of small white tubs ran on gravity and a geothermal spring. Not only did she have water, the water was hot.

Pan switched on the first. She didn’t even wait for it to fill completely. She submerged and scrubbed her hair until she couldn’t feel any more grit or seeds. That required a personal record for holding her breath. When she surfaced, she leaned back in the tub, letting the steam relax her muscles. It fogged the pale walls and blurred the lines of tile, and Pan felt like she was lounging on a cloud. That was when it hit her.

Did she just hang out with Frieza?

There was no way to spin it. Yes, she did. He’d again defied an expectation Pan wasn’t aware she’d had: she sat next to him with her guard down and he’d failed to throw a single punch. She hadn’t realized how sure she’d been the fight would resume until now, as she lay in a bathtub pondering why it hadn’t.

He was really excited about this iron fist of unimaginable terror thing he was planning for tomorrow night. That was all. If she’d thought she’d heard genuine wonder in his voice when he spoken of other worlds, a wonder that brought her back to sleepless nights spent in the top hatch of a Capsule Corp spaceship with Giru at her shoulder, gazing into an infinity of stars, she was probably reading too much into it.

After all, he’d had no trouble fighting her yesterday, up until the point he’d started making faces at her instead, and he’d almost torn down Asphodel palace throwing what amounted to a temper tantrum.

Honestly, tantrums were the worst. People shouldn’t throw those.

When Pan finally emerged from the farm, carrying a surprise for Ember behind her back, she tried to put it out of her mind. What stood between her and Cold Manor? How should she prepare for the fierce battle she’d been promised there? How soon should she signal the Para Brothers to land so they could leave? Those were real-world questions with answers she could wrap her head around. A question like “How bad a person is Frieza?” just gave Pan a vision of sitting at a fishing hole with Dad and Grandpa and Great-Grandpa Bardock, and they were all saying, “I once fought a Frieza this bad!” It was ridiculous.

The red wave greeted her by pulsing orange. Now Pan knew she’d been on Ketchyn too long. The gooey glow was actually starting to look nice. And there they were, right on cue: Ember and Gelata, blotches against the sky but recognizable for all that.

Pan waved with one arm, careful to keep the other hidden safely behind her back.

Ember didn’t bother walking the rest of the distance. He flew and landed in front of her. “You’re not dead, I see.”

“Aw, were you worried about me?” Pan asked.

“Don’t get the wrong idea. I told you before, it’s my job to keep peace in the city-state of Asphodel, and much as it pains me to say it, in the current situation you’re my best shot at that. If you get yourself killed, there’s no one to step in and take your place.”

“You’re getting sentimental on me,” Pan said. “I’m glad I brought you a present.”

Gelata caught up just in time to see what it was.

“They were in the farmers’ quarters. A whole bunch of them. I figured these two wouldn’t be missed.”

Pan grinned and pulled her arm out from behind her back to reveal a pair of buckets, stacked one inside the other.

She thought Ember was going to protest. Instead he disappeared over the mouth of the hill, and returned… rolling the stone wheel she’d made. “I knew I was right to bring this with us. What are we waiting for? Let’s get started.”

ooo

The door opened and closed with a click. For the time that took, the chill and the hum of strengthening wind filled the room. Pan dusted snowflakes from her sleeves. Ember stomped caked ice from his boots. The heavy sky dropped snow. With the fire roaring behind a grate that looked like gnarled fingers chasing the cold right back out, Pan hoped she could sit by the window. She liked watching snow fall; just not so much trudging through it. Especially not atop a giant wheel prone to icing over.

“No,” Pan said. “I don’t think you’ll be in any danger.”

“I don’t trust your judgment on safety,” Ember said.

“You didn’t mind fighting with me after I crawled out of that tomb,” Pan said. “I seem to remember you insisting on it. What’s changed?”

“I found out you can transform and cause earthquakes.”

“So as long as I don’t do that, it should be fine.”

“I don’t trust your definition of fine, either.”

Gelata passed them. She led them to a table that looked like an open-mouthed Venus flytrap encased in onyx. “It’s not too crowded in this section.”

“And it’s by the window!” Pan squeezed into the chair (which looked like a smaller, less open-mouthed Venus flytrap) nearest the wall. She wasn’t normally the selfie type, but she snapped her own picture in front of the window, framing herself with the flakes’ lazy circles to the grass. “Come on, Ember. I already told you I teach this stuff, and obviously, the academy is still standing. I can describe moves to you all day, but they’re not going to make sense until I get you performing them in a practical setting.”

“I understand what you’re saying. I’ve trained recruits myself. It’s just that…”

A waitress in bumblebee-yellow armor brought them drinks. Her segmented faceplate wasn’t enough to conceal her bored expression.

“Thanks,” Pan said.

“It’s just that you need to be training on your level. You’re the one who has to do the bulk of the fighting, and with someone stronger than me. That’s what you should be spending your time preparing for.”

“Do you need a few more minutes?” The waitress asked.

“No, I know what I want,” Pan said.

Gelata unfolded her menu. “How could you? You haven’t even read it.” As an afterthought, she added, “It’s in our language, so I didn’t even know you could read it.”

“I can’t,” Pan said. “I just want one of everything.”

The waitress laughed. “No, seriously.”

“She is serious,” Ember said.

Even behind the visor, Pan could tell the waitress was stunned, so she asked, “Do I need to pay in advance? There were a lot of places back home that made Grandpa do that. I don’t know why. As far as I know, he was always good for it.”

“I’ll just… put that in for you, then,” She said. “And you two?”

Once the waitress had completed the order and left, Pan returned to watching it snow. The door opened and closed again, and three armored men stood at the threshold, shaking snow from their tails and doing what Pan could only describe as hissing at each other. It was throatier than a snake hiss but not croaking like a frog, and carried such inherent menace, even though all three of them were grinning, they still managed to sound like they were cursing one another. Pan tried not to look like she was listening. Least of all because she wasn’t, not in the sense of understanding anything they said.

“It might take a bit longer if we travel main street,” Gelata said. “Perhaps if we cut through the glacial pillars.”

“It’s best to keep to the roads. We’ve got time,” Ember said.

“That’s what we thought in Colander.”

“Do we have to go through town?” Pan asked. “It’s a straight shot through the deep wald.”

“Where even expert navigators and locals have gotten turned around and lost,” Gelata said. “To say nothing of the criminals who make the place their home for that very reason. No, this is the best way.”

“Where will you two stop while I go on to the manor?”

“According to the map, there isn’t anywhere to stop. We have to go to the manor with you,” Ember said.

“But…”

Off the map,” Ember continued, “There’s a series of tunnels below the manor. They’re old stone, they go very deep, and at their furthest, they’re well into the forest, further from the manor where you’ll be fighting than Blendarr was from the lodge. Gelata and I can hole up there.”

“My quakes might not hit you in those tunnels, but that doesn’t make them safe. Frieza can still reach you.”

“If he’s firing in that direction, it means he’s decided to detonate the planet and we’re screwed no matter where we are.”

They hushed as the three men sat down at the table next to theirs. So much for this corner being private. Although they were still hissing at each other, and so loud Pan didn’t think they’d be able to eavesdrop over it.

Gelata turned and hissed back. It sounded like a question.

The three looked at each other. One nodded to the other two, pointed to the window, and responded.

“Argh!” Gelata turned back. “He just told me this storm is supposed to grow into a full-blown blizzard by tonight. It’ll be getting steadily worse all day. If I were the sort to believe such things, I’d think some nefarious force was trying to slow our progress.”

“Can we beat it if we fly?” Pan asked.

“I can’t fly.”

“Ember and I can,” Pan said. “And you can ride on my back.”

“Don’t be silly. My tail would get in the way.”

The three conferred with each other, and then one said, with a sharp accent, “Then the three of you would be going to his majesty Chilled’s old estate?”

Gelata and Ember grew silent, but Pan failed to pick up on what that meant until after she’d blurted out, “You mean Cold Manor? Yeah, that’s where we’re headed,” and they both winced.

“So you are the colleagues of Dr. February?”

“Who?”

“The meteorologist,” He said. “She and her crew want to monitor the storm when it hits. She is trying to prove the weather patterns are unusual and indicative of a shift in the Prismasphere. Her equipment has failed several times now. We thought you were delivering more. Perhaps his majesty Chilled is playing a joke on her, no?”

Gelata hissed something. It took a long time. Whatever it was, the three men at the table burst into laughter. The one who’d been speaking held up his hands, and then they turned back to each other and resumed whatever they’d been talking about before. Or at least, Pan guessed they did. She didn’t know what they’d been talking about before.

“What did you say to them?” Pan asked.

“The wordplay doesn’t translate so well,” Gelata said. “I merely pointed out that if ‘his majesty Chilled’ were playing a joke on this Dr. February character, it’d be along the lines of exsanguinating her in front of her own cameras and playing a blast beat when she finally succumbed. He wasn’t terribly good at discerning between friend and foe at the end. Or he decided all were foes. The news just keeps getting better, doesn’t it? First there’s a storm, and now we have to deal with civilians at the site.”

“It might be a good thing, though,” Pan said. “Think about it. We may have ourselves an eyewitness. Depending on how long she’s been there, she might have seen the person who …” She glanced to the occupied table, “…woke our current opponent from his untimely slumber. She might be able to describe them to us. If she’s filming, she may have even gotten a picture.”

Ember snorted. “Could anything go that right for us?”

“Even if it doesn’t, and she doesn’t know anything, you can get her crew to safety before the Vile Wave crests,” Pan said. “That’s not so bad. Either way, we won’t know how the researchers figure into things until we meet them. Instead, why don’t I tell you about the move I want to teach you?”

“I don’t know that I could get a good enough grasp of anything in such a short time to use it in combat.”

Pan sipped her water.  “This, I think you can. Gelata, too; I want you working with us.”

“I am suitable enough backup in typical situations, but let’s be honest, this isn’t one,” Gelata said. “There’s nothing you two are doing that won’t be far beyond my skill level.”

“I’m not going to show you some kind of strike or blast. I was thinking back to our first fight, how similar your Prismatic manipulation is to how we use ki back home; that’s how I was able to channel it, although I know I didn’t do the best job. I thought I might be able to show you how to sense and repress ki the way I do. Trust me, it’s a lifesaver. It’ll make you much harder to sneak up on and you’ll be able to hide your own presence from… ooh, intestines!”

The food had arrived (it took five people to cart it all out) and Pan immediately seized on the “noodle” dish Incendria had made her. The servers had to pull up a second table to load everything on to. The three guys at the adjacent table stared and tried not to look like they were staring.

Gelata watched Pan slurp the noodles. “I’d love to open her up one of these days and a get a good look at the inner workings of the Saiyan digestive system. I think they could metabolize rocks if it came down to it.”

Pan remembered Frieza telling her about a planet he’d visited where the rocks were, in fact, edible, but her mouth was too full to bring it up.

 

Chapter Text

The hours spent struggling through the storm were difficult, and it wouldn’t be right to call them uneventful; the mellow flakes fell denser and faster, the road became slipperier, and the once clear, flat horizon transformed into a frosted wall. Yet traveling developed a paradoxical monotony. The weather chipped away at the snowy postcard in gradual pixels, so though the winds grew in intensity and the sky grew darker, one moment seemed very much like the next. It was as though the blizzard swept away the passage of time itself. Pan only really believed they’d moved at all when the manor came into view.

Back on Mt. Paozu, there was a small rope bridge over a deep gorge. It creaked under the slightest pressure and swayed in the faintest current, and had single-handedly inspired more than one would-be mountain climber to turn back.

The bridge to Cold Manor was flatter and wider and made of stone, and Pan spent every step she took on it wishing she was crossing that rope bridge instead. Maybe it was the way the western winds blasted the snow across its surface and into the void beyond the edge. Maybe it was how Cold Manor looked like a collection of rust and tombstones laced together with zig-zags of stairs sagging from its cracked and asymmetric towers, and the pitch of the bridge tilted that already-morose picture disturbingly sideways. Maybe Pan was starting to get homesick.

Even a bridge like that had to end, and soon, Pan stood at the manor gate and its one last bit of strangeness: the bone doors were attached to a pair of four-sided mirrors. Frost bloomed over their surface, and one was cracked diagonally, but they were clear enough Pan could still see her own face behind it. A heartbeat thrummed in the depths of that house.

“Pop quiz,” Pan said. She concentrated a small ball of energy in her hand. “Reach for this the way you’d reach for the Prismasphere, just like I showed you. Got it?”

Ember gave the ball a slight mental push, and then Gelata pushed it back, to confirm they both had.

“All right,” Pan said. “Now, do the same thing, but further ahead of us, and a little below. What do you feel?”

“Some kind of web,” Ember said. “I’ve found dense knots of energy at certain vital points of the house; two of the three towers and the back of the south wing.”

Gelata approached the gate. “It’s another barrier, like the one Frieza made to keep us trapped inside the hunting lodge. This one isn’t enclosing the whole estate, though. It’s just sectioning off certain rooms. The central gardens are open. The south wing, which if I’m remembering the floor plans right would open into the tunnels, is the most heavily shrouded.”

“Not good,” Ember said. “You and I need to get those tunnels open.”

“If you get me to them, I think I can now. In fact, I’m certain of it. What do you suppose the weather researchers are making of the barrier?”

“I don’t feel any weather researchers,” Ember said.

“That could just be interference,” Pan said. “I’m picking up a distinct signature to the southwest. Let’s be careful in case it isn’t Dr. February. Remember how to mask your presence? Make yourselves a ball, just like this one… good!... now squeeze it as small as you can. Feel what you’re doing there? Extend it to all your energy. Right! See, I knew you guys could do it.”

Ember dusted the snow from the door handle. “Next she’ll be giving us stickers.”

“Do you want stars or smiley faces?” Pan asked.

The jokes stopped. They slipped into the manor as quiet as shadows.

The foyer gave them plenty of other shadows for company. Cables ran in ceilings and corners, and the lamps they powered ran dim and sparse. They might have mistaken the decorative statues for people, were it not for one little issue: the stone figures had been decapitated to a man. That wasn’t unusual. Dad had explained it to Pan. Smugglers who pilfered ruins for artifacts broke off heads because they could be removed and carried away more easily than whole statues, but still fetched a high price from collectors. That was probably what happened here. Even if the neck-stumps looked a little too eroded for the damage to be recent.

There was recent damage, and Ember found it. He motioned for Gelata and Pan to see the small black scuff on the hip of one of the figures.

“That’s residue from cannon fire,” He whispered.

It was all he needed to say. They all saw the clean equipment and floor with new eyes. There had been gunfire here, but every trace of the battle had been scrubbed.

By who? And why?

They were going to need a better way to keep hidden.

They found one quickly enough. The foyer opened into a great hall. It was empty of tables or furniture, and the staircase had crumbled into a magnificent pile of asbestos, but its balcony opened on each side to the east and west wings’ second floors. That wasn’t what interested them; it was still too visible. However, right above it, dark wooden support beams crossed the ceiling, and those would be thick enough to conceal them.

Ember pointed to them. He thought so, too.

Pan flew to the support. It was as dusty as she’d have expected up here, with some old boxes rotted through. She breathed through her shirt to avoid coughing. Ember arrived a second later, carrying Gelata.

All three felt the approach at once, a power not monstrous but not insignificant, either. Such was the speed at which it travelled that, as soon as they’d managed to squeeze themselves against the roof, the first-floor door to the east wing opened.

Pan had to resist leaning forward to see what came through.

A Sutova guardsman stepped through the door. He also tried to remain hidden and probably would have succeeded, had they not picked such high ground. He was wiry with scars and sinew and wasn’t anyone Pan recognized. He tapped his scouter, swept the room.

Eventually, he shook his head in disgust. “False reading,” he said. “It must have been a rat. Over. Over? Hello?”

He retreated into the east wing, tapping the communicator on his gauntlet.

Pan almost hopped down to the balcony, but Ember held her back by the shoulder.

She waited until the guardsman was out of earshot to ask why.

“Isn’t that one of your men from the palace?” Pan asked. “Why didn’t you want to talk to him? He might know what’s going on here. At least, you should take him into the tunnels with you.”

Ember peered over the edge. “Missing civilians, signs of a gunfight, a guard on premises… I don’t like any of this, and it’s because that’s one of my men. I know what we do and how we do it. Let’s follow him from here before we get our hopes up.”

Following the guard wasn’t difficult. They kept pace with him on the second floor, monitoring his signature. He wasn’t so fast they couldn’t keep up without making noise or releasing enough of their own energy to show up on the scouter. The researchers must not have come this way, because the utility lamps vanished. Here, the only light came from the ceiling-to-floor windows punctuating every interval in the wall, and that was indigo light, a dark light that made everything it touched too fluorescent.

Pan wanted to see what was outside, but she didn’t have time. The guard turned into a room below, and they had to follow him.

This led them into an apartment with an odd twist: the bed had been stripped and heaped with broken instruments. Smashed cameras. Torn papers. Unstrung tape. On top of it all, a fire had been lit, and while it had burned out and taken the potential evidence with it, the ashes were still warm. This hadn’t happened long ago.

“Son of a bitch,” Ember whispered.

Gelata brushed away some of the ash. She waved them over.

At the very bottom of the pile, one singed laptop remained. Pan thought it was a laptop, anyway. It looked like an oyster. Gelata opened it on the edge of the mattress, and it did have a screen inside.

“They wiped it before they burned it,” She whispered. “However, the other equipment protected it from the flame, so it’s still functional.”

“What does that matter if the data’s been erased?” Ember whispered.

“Erasing something doesn’t get rid of it,” Gelata replied. “It’s more like it tells the operating system the space those files take up is blank and can be used for other things.”

“Can you find a program that can get them back?”

“I wouldn’t risk connecting in case network activity is being monitored, but there’s no need to go that far. I can use an old restore point to roll the system back to before the files were deleted.”

“Nice,” Pan whispered. “If you ever move to Earth, you should apply for a job at Capsule Corp. My friend Trunks is the president, and you wouldn’t believe what he pays his staff.”

“You jest, but if we find what I think we will, hiding in the North Quadrant’s boondocks might not be off the table.”

Pan didn’t like the sound of that.

Still, there wasn’t much she could do for Gelata as she worked the computer. Instead, Pan quietly returned to the window and watched the snow pile itself onto the brown shrubs. Plants had overtaken the space, knotting into and ripping up the walkways and supports. In this weather they were dry, but they’d spring to life in warmer weather, and then the court would go from tangled to impassable. With the high tops of the trees towering over the roof of the west wing, it looked like a little strip of house between foliage.

‘Broken down little manor in the middle of a forest;’ that’s what Frieza had called it. Had he meant it? Had he lived here for years and walked away with no attachment to the place at all? He couldn’t possibly hate the manor that much. Then again, maybe if Frieza were on Mt. Paozu, he’d be thinking she couldn’t possibly love it that much.

Pan scowled at her reflection. Why was she thinking about that when her mind should be on the darkening sky and the fight it would bring her? In an hour and a half, tops, she’d be battling for her life. In fact, maybe she should tell Gelata to start for those tunnels now and take the computer with her, just to be on the safe side.

She’d almost persuaded herself to do that, perhaps to take her mind off her own thoughts, when Gelata flashed them a thumbs up. She’d managed to restore the deleted files.

They found, as she played through the video with the sound muted, most of the video was mundane. Researchers set up lamps and close-caption cameras under the leadership of a stern-looking second-tier Reizomorph in spectacles Pan guessed must be Dr. February. Some of the shots documented those rooms blocked off by barriers, which might help them find those rooms but gave them no hint as to what could have happened.

Until Gelata skipped straight to the last one.

It started as dull as the others: Dr. February holding a clipboard, saying something to the camera as she pointed to splotches and arrows over an area map. It ended as quietly as it began… but violently.

A team of four Sutova guardsmen stormed the room. They said nothing, not even when Dr. February approached them yelling; they merely pulled their cannons and fired. February fell on the spot, clutching her chest. Two more researchers ran to her aid and fell next to her.

The guardsmen didn’t speak as they filed through the room. Two of them placed a round device that looked to Pan like a motorcycle engine next to the door; the other two took the equipment so smoothly it would have looked like they were running a fire drill, if it weren’t for the dead scientists on the floor. Then one of them grabbed the computer and snapped it shut, and that was all.

“I thought it would be something like that,” Ember whispered. “Officer, what is that machine they’re placing?”

“You mean it’s not a bomb?” Pan asked.

“Do you remember what I said when I analyzed the barrier at the hunting lodge?” Gelata asked. “It was woven like a Highwayman’s Hitch. That’s a kind of knot that’s painful to tease apart, but if you pull one right thread, it’ll come undone instantly. This barrier is composed of threads of the Vile Wave, drawn thin like a Razor Rain. It kills anything that touches it, and if you destroy part of it, it’ll grow back… as long as the ‘right thread,’ the core of the barrier, remains in place. Pull that and the whole barrier comes down. That device is supposed to find the core.” She shook her head. “It won’t. It’s in the wrong place.”

“Then you know where it is?” Ember whispered.

Gelata flipped back a few videos, to February working beside some stairs in the south wing. It was strange to see the scientist alive and moving after watching her being gunned down. Strange and eerie. She pointed.

A laser flew through the floor and into the ceiling.

“Say something! I know you’re there! You have to be there!”

He’d heard them! Had they gotten too loud? Pan had thought if they whispered, their voices wouldn’t carry through the floor; how had he heard them? A moment later, she realized he hadn’t. He wasn’t talking to them at all; he was shouting into his communicator, and from the sound of it, getting no response from any of the three men Pan had seen on the video with him.

“Blaize! Steyme! Roil! It’s Char; anybody copy!”

Nobody did, and he fired another shot through the roof, inches away from Pan’s foot.

“I think,” Ember said, “It’s time for me to introduce myself to my subordinate.”

“We can’t go down there now! It’s getting too late,” Pan said.

“You can’t go down there now, and you’re not going to. You’re going to take Gelata to the room in that video. You’ve got your fight; you can’t afford to get tangled up in one of mine.” Ember cracked his knuckles. “I’ll handle this. I’ll meet the two of you in that room. Officer, I want that barrier down by the time I get there. Now get into the hallway.”

Pan soon saw why. Ember didn’t bother climbing down the stairs. Since Char was already destroying it, he punched straight through the floor.

She wished she could stay, but Gelata grabbed her and pulled her to the balcony. “Captain’s orders,” She said. “We’re leaving.”

With one last look over her shoulder, Pan followed.

ooo

“We’ll make the best time if we cut through the gardens,” Pan said.

Gelata glanced to the open door and the darkness beyond. “Can we risk it?”

Pan pulled her through in spite of her protests. “The Vile Wave hasn’t crested yet, and if we don’t open up those tunnels before it does, you and Ember… you can’t go outside, and if you’re anywhere Frieza can see you, or if I start shaking the ground again…”

Pan knew there must be some piece of equipment about, since now that she and Gelata ran underneath the gnarled old trees that had blocked her view, she saw tangles of wire poking through the rapidly-piling snow, around the dry fountain, all leading to the south wing. She just thought it would be some kind of weather balloon or barometer or some other thing that wouldn’t help her. She was wrong; she opened the door, ushered Gelata through, and found the wires hooked up to a series of close-caption monitors. Most of the screens showed empty rooms. One, however, showed her Ember, and the room he’d fallen into. Perhaps it had been a library at one point, but now the shelves were empty, and there was little else but a table made of marble.

“Look,” Pan said, brushing snow out of her hair.

Gelata knelt beside the arch to the undercroft. The barrier flowed like squid ink before it, but it was just translucent enough Pan could make out stairs behind it. “There’s nothing I can do for Ember except trust him and follow his orders. It looks like I’ll need all my concentration for that. The thread vibrates. I have to catch it at exactly the right time.”

Pan didn’t want to be in the way, either, so she kept silent and watched the monitor.

Ember landed on one knee amidst a cloud of dust. Chunks of plaster dropped as he stood. Char tapped his scouter. He clenched the trigger of his arm-cannon and the barrel glowed, burst.

The laser crashed into a green barrier and trickled down in rivulets; and Ember didn’t give Char another shot, either. He drew a handful of indigo light and pulled. The straps holding the rig to his back and arms fell apart, and the weapon flew into Ember’s hands. He turned it to one side, slid it open and checked it.

“You spent a lot of charges on a ceiling that, from the look of it, was coming down anyway. That’s a criminal waste of resources. You should have learned better than that.”

“My apologies, Captain,” Char said. “It’s only that I’ve lost contact with the rest of my team. I can’t pick them up on the scouter. I couldn’t even pick up yours, and apparently you were right on top of me. Interference from the storm, perhaps? Or some kind of sabotage?”

“What?” Ember said. “Not open to the possibility I’m a ghost?”

Ember faced Pan on the monitor, which meant she saw Char’s back, and moreover, the knife strapped there; the one Char reached for, his fingers inching around it as Ember was occupied with the cannon.

“No.”

The knife was out of its sheath in a flash and carving an arc into the air beside Ember’s face.

“At least not yet!”

The blade didn’t hit its mark. Metal clashed and sparks flew; Ember had pulled one of his own concealed knives, locked it onto Char’s. The younger guardsman slid the blade free with a scrape and lunged, aiming the point at Ember’s chest. Blood flew; had he hit? Not what he was aiming for, Pan saw, when the static cleared; blood soaked Ember’s leathers, but it was pouring from a gash across his shoulder.

Char couldn’t stop. He stopped himself on the table, doubled over, and that was when Ember snagged the whiskers on his head and cracked his skull against the marble.

A blow like that could kill, but Char was made of stronger stuff than Pan had thought; though dazed, he was not seriously hurt, and when Ember pulled him back for a second slam, the guardsman struggled under his arm and hurled him back-first into the table. The stone snapped in half as Ember fell through it. The knife was back out now, and Ember rolled just in time to keep it from piercing straight through his windpipe. Char brought it down again and again, and more sparks flew as it missed flesh and hit stone.

Ember snapped his own knife’s cross-guard to the blade. It was a desperate move, Pan knew, and just as she feared the blade sliced his fingers. Now his hand was as slick with blood as his shoulder. The knife held, though; the blades were locked, neither moving.

“My men are dead, aren’t they?” Char asked through gritted teeth.

“Haven’t seen a one of them,” Ember responded. The veins in their arms bulged as each tried to overpower the other. “The way things are going, probably.”

Char put both hands and his back into twisting the knife, and Ember’s glanced to the side and hit the broken table, still in his hand. He was wide open now, and Char grinned a joyless kind of grin as he brought the knife home. He hadn’t watched what Ember’s free hand was doing, though; and the Captain had snagged a jagged chunk of marble, about the size of his forearm, and heaved it into the side of Char’s head. He staggered again, and Ember didn’t try to dislodge him gracefully; he shoved him in the chest, into the wall.

“Funny thing about that, too,” Ember said. “Just before I left…”

“Before you defected, you mean,” Char spat.

“I’m not mincing words with you. Before I left, I requested an expedition much like the one you’ve managed to lose, and King Sulfuri refused me. Said it was suicide. Now, there are only two people with the authority to order a strike like this, so did King Sulfuri lie to me, or was it Princess Incendria who sent you?”

“I see no reason to share intel with a dead man.”

“Not even what the royal brat thought those researchers might find in this wreck that justified making them disappear?”

“I’ll tell you what a wise man once told me,” Char said. “We’ve got one job here, to keep Asphodel City peaceful at any cost. If the price is you, too damn bad for you, right? As part of my mission is disposing of all unauthorized witnesses, it looks like the price is you, Captain.”

“Let’s be blunt, kid,” Ember said. “That’s more than you can collect, and you know it.”

“I also know why you’re holding back. Midnight’s coming. The Vile Wave is alive and hunting. No summoner could stop it. Those weak little barriers and magnetics are the best even you can risk this late. I’d say that evens the odds nicely.”

“And you’d be talking shit.”

Char may have thought he was ready for Ember’s attack, but he wasn’t ready enough. Ember drove the knife home and he was simply so much stronger that, with all the power of his barreling run behind him, it broke straight through Char’s defenses. He only barely managed to block with his knife, and that came with a price; the blade flew from Char’s hand, spun across the room, and stuck with a glint from the edge of an old bookshelf.

It bought Ember maybe a second. Instead of trying to fight the force of the blow, Char whirled into it. The roundhouse kick he delivered Ember’s bleeding hand knocked his knife away, too, and while he groped for another one Char hammered his knuckles into Ember’s gut.

It was sloppy and thuggish, but there was power enough behind it that it did its job. Ember was thrown off-balance, and Char was one strong blow from putting him back on the floor. He tried for it; there was no choice, Ember had to block…

Ember stumbled. Char seized his cannon from the floor, pressed it against Ember’s head and fired.

Pan gasped.

The barrel glowed. The glow faded. The gun was out of ammunition. That didn’t make it useless, though; Char drew it back and slammed it into Ember’s jaw. At that bad angle, it tore his face open. Blood erupted from the cut. Char brought it down again, this time on Ember’s injured arm; and not only did more blood flow, Pan heard a sickening snap and Ember’s arm went limp. Char raised the bludgeon again, higher.

He’s open, Ember! Pan thought.

Ember did see. He may have lost full use of one arm, but the other was fine, and he raised it. “Firedrake bite!”

The ki scored a direct hit on Char’s unprotected side and threw him into the wall, this time hard enough to crumble the stone.

He dusted off the ash and stood. “You can’t use your arm anymore, Captain, and you can’t use the Prismasphere. It doesn’t matter how much you flail. You have no chance of walking away from this fight alive. Out of respect for your service and your position, I’ll grant you a quick death, but only if you give up now.”

“You’re a more generous man than I am,” Ember said. “But you’re still wrong.”

“You can’t think you can still fight.”

“Not about that. You’ve sized that situation up nicely.” Ember raised his functional hand. “You’re wrong that I can’t use the Prismasphere. Blue Wave Razor Rain!”

The light was so bright, when it faded, it was like a blackout. Or maybe that was the Vile energy that ballooned through the room, obscuring the fighters and sending the CCTV monitor into static. When it finally cleared, Ember wasn’t the only one bleeding. Char was covered with hairline cuts.

Could it have possibly been worth it? Ember was breathing harder than Pan had ever seen, and the sweat that poured down his face mixed with the blood. He hadn’t hurt Char that much.

“Are you mad?” Char said.

“You tell me,” Ember said, and fired again.

With teach blow, the pain etched on Ember’s face grew stronger, his skin damper. After the fourth razor rain, he sagged, no longer having the energy to even hold a proper defensive stance. If Char got through the Prismatic razor-wire to attack him now, it would be over, he would be dead. Char wasn’t able to, though, and the longer he struggled to, the more the Vile Wave curled from the floor like smoke. Blocking Ember’s attacks chipped away at him, and the Vile Wave knew which of them was the weaker.

“Green Wave Deflection…” Char coughed.

The backlash came swift, and it came powerful. Char threw his head back and screamed as the energy found its outlet.

Ember did not so much take cover as direct his fall behind the broken table. Pan didn’t know if he’d come back up again. He did, though, once Char had fallen to the floor. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he moved his mouth but no words came out; had Pan looked like that after the backlash hit her? Though Ember didn’t look much better. As he raised his hand one final time, it shook with the effort.

“Turns out I’m more merciful than I thought. I’m not going to let that energy eat you alive from the inside out after all. Firedrake bite!”

The blast contacted Char again, and this time it tore straight through him. He slumped on the floor, dead. Tendrils of flame mingled with the Vile Energy.

Ember paused, looked down at the dead guardsman. Pan couldn’t read his face. Was it regret?

Whatever it was, he turned away and pushed himself through the door, leaning on the wall for support.

ooo

“Ember won, but he’s hurt.” Pan turned from the screen. Gelata still knelt by the barrier, and it still rippled between them and the stairs, a deceptively placid wall of instant death.

Gelata stopped. “How badly?”

“He’ll be okay if he can get to a safe place to ride out the Vile Wave. How soon can that happen?”

“Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done,” Gelata said. “I know how to remove it. As I said before, the core thread expands and contracts. I have to dislodge it when it’s at its thinnest; that’s the only time it’s vulnerable. It’s difficult to get the timing right, thanks to the syncopation. I’m not strong enough to move it, even if I could get hold of it. Once the Captain gets here, perhaps he can…”

“I don’t think he’s that okay,” Pan said. “If you’re not strong enough on your own, I’ll have to help you.”

“But it’s almost midnight!”

“That means there’s no time to argue,” Pan said, the image of Char’s twitching corpse still fresh behind her eyes. “Tell me what to do.”

Gelata glared at the gate, or maybe through the gate, at the stairs that were so close, yet so far. “I don’t think… never mind. You’re right. Reach for the green wave, like you’re deflecting an attack.”

Pan knelt and spread her hands over the barrier. It tickled her fingers with its sickly attraction. “I have it.”

“Since we can’t touch the Vile Wave, we’re going to push it out of the way with the green wave. Do you feel that pulse? That’s the thread. Do you feel what I mean about its difficult rhythm? We’re going to have to push in perfect unison, as if it wasn’t difficult enough already.”

Pan felt two short thrums, one long crash, a pause, and then it repeated itself. She tried to count it out, but got frustrated, and a lot more quickly than Gelata had. What kind of strange beat was this? Thrum, thrum, crash, thrum, thrum…

The rhythm tugged at Pan’s memory, and when she figured out why, she laughed.

Gelata cast her a sidelong glance. “You aren’t experiencing a backlash, are you?”

“No,” Pan said. “I know how we can get the timing right. My grandpa was bad at telling time, so when we were training together and had to keep a tempo, he made me recite an old tongue twister instead of counting out the seconds. Pickle pot, pepper pot, purple pot.” Pan drew it out. “Pick-le pot. Pep-per pot. Pur-ple pot. Do you hear it now?”

“I don’t believe it,” Gelata said. “That matches the barrier’s rhythm perfectly.”

“Say it with me. As soon as the sequence starts over. Right about… now. Pickle pot.”

“Pepper pot,” Gelata said.

“Purple pot!”

Gelata and Pan both spun the green wave into globes and fired at the barrier.

Had it worked? Pan didn’t know. Their little green will-o-wisps had been so feeble, and the poisonous fog over the doorway so overpowering; it rippled when they hit and swallowed them whole.

The darkness cracked. Green light shone through. The glow grew stronger, more verdant, and as it did, the cracks widened.

It happened all at once, like a dam breaking. The Vile barrier shattered. The explosion knocked them both to their knees, arms over their faces. It wasn’t just this one room, either; sense extended, Pan could feel the oppression lifting from the entire manor. The barrier crumbled, opening every door it had blocked.

Including the one before them.

“Help Ember when he gets here,” Pan said. “I’m going to run to the other side of the manor. I’ll lead Frieza away and give you guys time to get into the tunnels beneath the forest.”

She turned on one heel and made to do just that. There was no time to congratulate herself. There might not even be any reason.

Under her breath, without even thinking, Pan whispered, “Thanks again, Grandpa.”

 

Chapter Text

When midnight had come and gone and Frieza’s energy was nowhere to be found, Pan knew something was wrong.

The west wing of the manor had been the Cold Family’s living space, and it was also the biggest wreck. For three rooms in a row, the first floor merged with the second because the stone dividing them had fallen into heaps all over the tile. Pan found more beheaded statues and wondered if any looter could possibly have been that thorough.

At one point, Pan poked her head through a small door. The furniture inside looked like eggshells ran over and got petrified, but she could guess their purpose well enough to tell it was someone’s bedroom. Her footsteps sounded hollow on the floor as she pattered to the window. She wanted to see the progress of the storm- it was nearing whiteout conditions now- but she noticed a hidden switch just inside the windowsill.

Ooh, maybe it was a secret passage, like in an old movie! Pan pressed it.

The floor that had sounded so hollow retracted, opening into a wide and dark pit. A fall that far would be deadly enough on its own for anyone who couldn’t fly, so the series of sharpened iron rods that shot from the walls and skewered every bit of empty space from the pit’s lip to its bottom felt like overkill. Pan snapped her hand away from the switch and everything folded back into place.

“What is that doing in here? Who’d want a spike pit in the middle of their bedroom?”

Come to think of it, Pan knew exactly who would want a spike pit in his bedroom, and she dashed out the door, face burning.

Yes. Something was definitely rotten here. The Vile Wave pressed the windows. Where was her enemy? Pan didn’t think for a minute his big terrifying surprise was refusing to show up.

She felt for life energies. Still nothing.

Eventually, Pan’s feet and dark thoughts took her to a wide judicial chamber. This place was the most decrepit of all. The roof was nothing but support beams and girding. Had it not been for the snow packed overhead, this place wouldn’t be safe. As it was, it posed no barrier to the freezing wind. They tore through the walls and blew the snow that had drifted to the floor back into the air in swirls. Pan felt like she stood inside a snow globe. She couldn’t decide if the effect was creepy or pretty.

Farther inside the room, something cracked under Pan’s feet. Ice! There was a fluvium (probably for boiling the convicted alive on the spot, if the rest of the manor was anything to go by), and it was frozen so solid Pan had walked right out on it without even realizing it.

Silver flashed in her peripheral vision.

The most logical conclusion was that it was snow or ice, or her mind playing tricks on her. After all, she didn’t feel a thing, and perhaps even with the snow, the room was open enough to the elements that the Vile Wave leeched in and caused those hallucinations Incendria warned her about. But Pan’s gut told her otherwise, and she’d learned from experience to listen to it. She’d been in less shelter for longer without any ill effects from the Prismasphere, and no chunk of snow that size could fall so silently. But then… what?

The answer slammed into her and sent her tumbling to the ground. That power she hadn’t detected at all moments ago opened up, and it was an overflowing abyss Pan hadn’t felt since Grandpa had faced Omega. A vice enclosed her throat, and she tried to pull it away only to find she no longer had use of her left arm; that was locked away with the pressure on the back of her neck and shoulders.

Pan knew this hold. What was the traditional advice for dealing with it? Oh. Yeah. ‘Don’t get put in this hold.’

It was too late to take that advice, but if Pan couldn’t get up, she’d just have to go down. She didn’t have much leverage left, but she didn’t need much. Her own power flared as she transformed into a Super Saiyan. She drove her knee into the ice below and trusted the combined stress of her own and her opponent’s weight to do the rest.

They plunged into the water together.

If Pan had been human, this would have been suicide. Even with her Saiyan constitution and tolerance for extreme temperatures it was pure desperation. The shock of the cold water almost robbed her of her senses. Instinct took over; she had to breathe, and breathing meant getting her attacker’s forearm off her windpipe. Now, she could, too. With the whole depth of the fluvium, she was able to throw him over her shoulder.

Pan leapt back onto the ground, dripping. The cold was even worse now, with the blizzard winds battering her soaked clothes. Ice formed on the surface of the cloth. She remembered almost dying of heat stroke on Rudeeze and did not want to find out if driving her body temperature to the opposite extreme would feel as awful.

That silvery form and its abyss of power shot from the water and landed across from her.

That… couldn’t be Frieza, could it?

Pan remembered Bonpara’s diagram of a fourth-tier Reizomorph, but the dull two-dimensional outline bore only the most superficial and cartoonish resemblance to the man before her. He’d returned to his natural height, eye-level with her, and had shed his bulky chitin. Beneath it, he was so pale he could have been formed from the snow itself, every lean muscle sculpted from ice. It only made his eyes and smug, self-congratulatory grin stand out by contrast.

“Tsk, tsk, Pan,” He said. “Is the legendary Super Saiyan having second thoughts? It didn’t have to come to this. I gave you chance after chance to forfeit, but you choked on that Saiyan pride of yours. Now it’s too late. You’re going to have to follow your defiance through to its sad, bitter end. Your heart is racing. I can feel it from here. Keep in mind that you brought this terror on yourself.”

Some dark sensation made Pan’s heart race. It was confusing and chaotic and she wouldn’t call it pleasant, but terror was the one thing she could definitively say it was not. She pushed the feeling away until she could deal with it, ignoring it like she ignored the cold of the storm. “I was wondering if you forgot about me. Didn’t anyone ever tell you not to keep a lady waiting?”

“It’s your grandfather you should be taking that up with. I really thought he’d be here by now. Clearly you are not yet terrified enough. I know. I’ll tell you exactly how I managed to surprise you. I think you’ll find it inspiring,” Frieza said.

“I thought maybe you’d reverted to a weaker form to hide in the interference, the way Shivor did, but that isn’t possible, is it? You couldn’t have transformed that quickly, and I’d have felt the change.” Pan could see her breath in the air. Not good.

“No, Pan, I have you to thank for it. Oh, but you couldn’t have foreseen that. Most of the powers granted me by the Vile Wave make some kind of sense, after all; the increase in strength, the laceration attack, the unlimited resurrections, the barriers. Do you know what else I am able to do? This one’s very strange. I can see through any mirror on Ketchyn as if it were a window.”

“Any mirror,” Pan said. “Like the mirrors attached to the gate outside this manor, where I reviewed ki repression with Ember and Gelata.”

“So you do understand what I mean. That’s a delightful trick, concealing your own presence while detecting others, and you explained it so clearly. In spite of my best efforts, I learned something from you. What an affront that is. Make it up to me, won’t you? When you hand out stickers, bring me a star.”

Then Frieza stepped backwards into the blizzard, the abyss closed, and he was again gone.

Not gone. Hidden.

Pan had showed him how to hide.

What have I done? I made one of the deadliest men in the universe even worse!

Now was not the time to beat herself up over that. She pushed it away, too. Frieza lurked behind that wall of snow. Pan had to figure out where before he emerged.

Ice cracked sharp to her right.

Pan’s first instinct was to seek out what made that sound. She resisted it. She turned her eyes from the snow to the solid ice below… and the shadows not even the blizzard could conceal. It wasn’t so lightless there were none.

She found a shade out of place and followed it left.

There wasn’t much point in holding back. She chose a close-handed strike and put her whole body behind it. She had no way of knowing, but it was much like a strike her father had used against this very form of Frieza when he was just a boy, searching Namek for the Dragon Balls.

Alas, it had the same effect that punch had. Frieza ducked and it whiffed. Frieza was there to duck, though; Pan had been correct the cracking ice was a feint and his was the shadow she’d seen approaching. She kicked hard and it connected.

The abyss gaped once more and he fired a two-handed blast directly into her chest.

There was no way to dodge or block. The impact was like falling off a mountain. Pan would be swept away if she couldn’t strategize through the pain; but all she could think to do was scrabble for purchase. She did catch something and hold onto it, and that did keep her from skidding across the ice. So dazed was she, it didn’t even surprise her when the thing in her hands turned out to be Frieza’s tail.

Frieza, on the other hand, was instantly alarmed. He yanked the tail away from her and clutched it.

“If you would kindly keep that out of your mouth!” He said.

“Says the guy who introduced himself by licking my face!” Still, it was an opening. Pan took it, punching furiously. Frieza blocked and returned; she countered.

A rumble from below shattered all of the ice in the fluvium, forcing their battle into the air.

For once, Pan had a more pressing concern than those quakes. The cold was getting to her. She had to warm up. If she could guide the battle into one of the rooms the scientists had been using; those were heated, maybe she could buy herself some time, even dry off a little. Frieza wouldn’t have the snow for cover, either.

How to fall back?

Exactly how he was falling back, that’s how. He’d just bragged about learning it from her. Pan gave Frieza a shove, ducked into the snow, and then powered down and repressed her own energy.

“Do you want to play? Very well. I can spare the time to play with you. If it’s hide and seek, though, I fear you’re at a disadvantage. Cooler and I found all the good spots years ago.”

It may have been a game to him. To Pan it was, appropriately enough for a fight taking place in a courtroom, a trial. Her trial. As she slipped to the door, she knew it was far from over.

ooo

Pan’s hands shook so badly she feared she’d be caught before she could light the fireplace, and once she managed, the living room was simply too vast and spacious for the comparatively small flame, so she had to climb up on the mantle right next to it. It served its purpose, though. By the time Frieza found her, she’d warmed up enough to restore the feeling in her fingers and toes.

She was surprised it took him so long, and that in the end, he had to cheat. Atop the fireplace Pan could see every entrance and exit, and since he’d have to power up at least a little to make his own, she wouldn’t be ambushed here. She was still perched there when a Vile Sentry fluttered into the room. Now that Pan knew it was an automaton and not a live bug, she grabbed a candlestick from the marble beside her and flattened it. If the sentry’s destruction hadn’t told Frieza exactly where she was, the banging would have.

Pan returned to her Super Saiyan form.

The fight resumed in earnest, cracks appearing in the floor and walls before the CCTV cameras could pick up more than blurs. The film would have to be played slow even show Pan and Frieza exchanging strikes and counter-strikes, holds and releases, with an ease born of second nature.

“Why in the world,” Frieza asked, catching Pan’s elbow, “Did you decide to come to this room?”

“I remembered passing it on the way in and thinking the fireplace looked dramatic,” Pan said.

“There was a generator two rooms to the court’s left.”

“Oh, yeah. I forgot about it.”

“Forgot it? The room was smaller. Heating it would have been faster and more efficient, and you wouldn’t have been practically casting a spotlight on your location for me to see the second I walked in.”

“Now that you mention it, you’re right,” Pan said, stopping Frieza’s fingers from jabbing a pressure point on her collar. “I still like the fireplace.”

“You are terrible at this game.”

“I dispute that,” Pan said. “Think about it. The purpose of hide-and-seek is to keep the other guy looking for you for as long as possible. Because I picked such a bad hiding spot, you didn’t think to check it, so it took you forever to find me. I’d say that makes me awesome at this game.”

“Then you make terrible decisions.”

“I make terrible decisions? I’m not the one who tried to lure a living rival into a trap designed for the dead inhabitants of hell only to wind up stuck in it myself.”

“Why, that was a brilliant decision! At least, it would have been under less bizarre circumstances. How was I to know the Hell’s Buster could tell me from your grandfather? Traps are hardly renowned for their sentience or pithy senses of humor.”

“I guess you’d know, keeping one under your bed and all.”

Frieza halted so fast Pan almost flew over his shoulder dodging his aborted attack. “Why were you snooping around my private quarters?”

“I wasn’t snooping. I didn’t know they were your quarters until I went inside. I am really sorry about that.”

Rumbling issued from below and above simultaneously. Pan thought her earthquakes might have undermined the building and prepared to dodge falling ceiling, but nothing came down on her head. It sounded again and she realized it was thunder. The man at the café had warned her there might be lightning. Sure enough, the sky flashed.

Frieza struck like the lightning and tangled Pan in a conflagration of a fight. She searched for an opening to control and victory, not just survival. He didn’t make finding one easy; his moves were coarse, driven more by instinct and raw power than practice… and that gave them a rough grace Pan had seen too many of her peers let convention polish right out of their style. How amazing would he be if he learned to fine-tune those instincts, strengthen what they did right and recognize when they steered him wrong? Not that he wasn’t amazing now.

Pan shoved that feeling back down again, this time with more mental force than necessary. What was she thinking? Hadn’t he picked up enough from her already; did she want to sign him on at the academy and really create a monster? Maybe she should jump back into the fluvium to see if that brought her to her senses.

“You know, girl, I’m beginning to think that far from merely stalling for time and waiting for a miracle, you’re actually harboring some fool notion of defeating me. There was a time I’d have promised you hell for that, but I’ve been there since, and it was quite the disappointment. You deserve so much better. How about I create something better? A dreamland of a nightmare, all for you? Would you like that?”

Pan hoped she could pass off her reddening face as exertion. “Now you’re just doing it on purpose.”

His wide-eyed blank stare was so deceptively innocent. “Doing what?”

“…that!”

“Oh,” He said. Then, hopefully, “Is ‘that’ bothering you?”

“Yes!”

“Then I’m doing it on purpose.”

The floor cracked into even halves. They both leapt to opposite sides. This time when the ceiling creaked, it wasn’t lightning. Pan flew backwards. She had to keep her eyes on Frieza so she took a chunk from the doorframe with her shoulder.

She slammed the door as hard as she could, but Frieza was right there and ripping it off its hinges. The roof came down behind him and rubble closed the path, though, so at least the Vile energy had been stifled that way.

As the fight wore on, Frieza lost that grace and made it up with aggression. Grandpa had described this increasingly erratic fighting as “sloppy” and “rage-blind.” That completely failed to convey just how threatening a foe a sloppy, rage-blinded Frieza became. He fought like a trapped animal; a trap he’d built himself in his own head, and those were the worst kind.

“I know you’re scared of Super Saiyans, but come on, it’s still just me,” Pan said.

“I’ll show you that I fear nothing!” He knotted his hands together and brought them down on her.

Pan had plenty of time to dodge, but the wall didn’t, and wouldn’t have known how to if it had. It peeled away and scattered across the yard outside. Vile energy eagerly wrapped its purple tentacles around the opening.

I have to block that off! Pan thought, but before she could move to do that, bubbles of pink energy rose below her, and it was all she could do to get out of the aftershock’s way as it blasted through the ground at her feet and right through both floors and the manor roof.

Oh, no. This room wasn’t secure anymore, either. But where was there to go? Three doors; which would lead her to safety?

Another aftershock built. At least Pan caught this one in time to stop it from colliding with her. She was able to direct it outside. The explosion sent dirt flying in chunks and slit the ground like a cocoon.

Pan only saw into that hole for a split-second before Frieza made the decision for her and tackled her through the door to the foyer. But that split-second was enough time for her mind to take a photo of its contents: piles of skeletons stacked just like the ones she’d found in the copse outside Asphodel City, under a thin layer of dirt. It was the last look she got. Piles of Cold Manor fell and blocked the view.

“What was that?” Pan whispered.

She did not need to elaborate.

“It’s Flare’s handiwork. Do I even need to tell you that? It’s so distinctive, the way he stacks us all up.” He brushed his forehead. “That is, when Cocytus’s walls were breached by the forces of Asphodel, they went through the place and cut down everyone they didn’t want to humiliate in that damned lodge. They dropped them all in there and threw the sod over it. It looks like they’re tossing a carpet over an unseemly pile of dust. They had few alternatives. Reizomorph bodies are so very hard to destroy. Fire, water, lime, exposure to a vacuum… they call us roaches for a reason.”

Pan wiped her eyes on her collar. It was still icy, but so was her skin.

“Are you crying? Why are you crying? So quick a death, it’s nothing but a mercy, and anyway, life only has the value assigned to it by social constructs, so it’s not like any of them mattered.”

The fight stalled. They stayed where they fell. That gave Pan seconds to think, and right now, that was too much time.

“That’s the second time you’ve done that,” She said. “You pushed me out of danger. In the lodge, when that aftershock was about to hit me, you threw me out of its range, and you did it again just now. Why?”

“You’d make a poor hostage dead. True, I’ve done enough of this sort of thing to know there are people who’ll make concessions for a corpse, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all if your grandfather was one of them, but I prefer to let him think he has a chance of rescuing you before I dash his hopes. Does it dash yours to hear that? Did you really think seeing that grave upset me because I harbored some kind of compassion for the people inside it? I’m not sorry for them. I’m sorry for me. It’s not even because of what happened; it’s for nothing at all. It will pass. It always does.”

“Frieza…”

“Don’t. I had my fill of your grandfather’s lectures years ago and I can’t abide your pity. What do you think, that a man can be justified by tragedy? Then why aren’t you thanking me for improving the character of the entire Northern Quadrant in my years as emperor? I’ve caused far more tragedy than I’ve suffered, wouldn’t you agree?”

Pan screamed and shoved a handful of energy directly at his face.

She stopped it a hair’s breadth away from his skin. She heard no sound coming from him, but his shoulders heaved, so he must be laughing.

“Perhaps you’re smarter than Goku after all. Of course, that’s a bar so low it’s more like a sewage pipe. Well? Are you going to fire that or hold it there until I get a mild sunburn?”

“I’ve got a quiz for you, too. If I did fire this, how much would it hurt?”

He scowled and gave the energy a nudge. It flared gold.

“About as much as getting struck by that lightning out there,” He said. “Which is to say, not much.”

Drawing more strength from her core, Pan let the knot between her fingers expand. “How about now?”

“You’re getting warmer. That one might sting a little. If I were in my first form and looking the other way, that is.”

With a deep breath, Pan gathered from her innermost core and flooded the web of energy. “How about now?”

“It feels like that attack Goku used on me on Namek, the one he formed in the sky just before he transformed for the first time.”

She dropped her arm and let the energy fade.

“So you couldn’t go through with it after all,” Frieza said.

Pan stood over him, radiant in gold and blue and, in spite of the scuffing and torn cloth and tear-reddened eyes, every line the Legendary Super Saiyan. Yet though the legend spoke of a battle-hungry warrior, her hands remained at her sides.

“The people you claim don’t matter… the first energy level you felt was the life force of one of them. The second, your own family of four. The third? Every man, woman, and child in that grave. Now I want you to look me in the eye and tell me you didn’t feel anything. Tell me those people, your kinsmen, are just numbers on a scouter.”

He stood to meet her challenge. He got as far as looking her in the eye.

“I’m not here to pick up where Grandpa left off. I’m not here to pity you, or lecture you, or change your mind about Saiyans or anything else,” Pan said. “But what you were saying about ‘life only having the value assigned to it by social constructs?’ That doesn’t sound like something you believe. It sounds like something you memorized. I’m giving you the chance to tell me I’m wrong about that. I’ll even help you. Here it is again, the first one. Say it doesn’t matter. Like you mean it this time.”

Pan held her palm forward, another small ball of ki swirling just above it.

Frieza lowered his own hand onto it, just enough to sense the faint signature. He passed through it and locked his fingers around hers.

“Your hands are too cold,” He said.

Even after Pan withdrew the attack, he didn’t move.

“Dawn’s coming already. I can feel it. It got so late so quickly. That’s because you’re terrible at hide-and-seek.”

“You’re not bleeding yet, though,” Pan said.

He shook his head. “We’re done for now. That’s what I have to say to you.”

“I’d stay.”

“I know. Do change back on your way to your friends, won’t you? This house doesn’t need your help to fall.”

It was more difficult than she’d thought it would be to pull her hand away and leave. At least with dawn coming, she could take the shortcut through the garden without worrying about traveling outdoors. It was warming up, too. Quite a bit, in fact. Quite rapidly. She didn’t know what he meant by cold hands. Those felt like they were burning most of all.

ooo

Once light reached the sky, Ember and Gelata released their energy so Pan would know where to find them. She stumbled into a dank old storage room that must have felt like home to them, so indistinguishable was it from their favorite haunt in the palace dungeon. Had they lit a fire or found a generator down here? It was downright stifling. She’d already opened her collar on the way. She was about to shrug out of her jacket. Even the undershirt beneath it felt like too much.

Ember stared at her like she’d sprouted another head. She wondered if she’d remembered to power down, so she checked her hair, and yes, it was matte black again.

“Hi, guys,” She said. “It looks like we weathered another night of horrors. Go us. I hope you don’t mind if I blow off the investigation for now and take a nap. I’m exhausted. I can’t remember ever being this exhausted. Or hot. I don’t even think it got this hot on Rudeeze. What kind of generator did you fire up down here? It’s so stuffy.”

Ember jumped up from where he was sitting and charged her. Before he got to her, Pan fell face-down on the nasty old floor. She hoped she didn’t get mystery grit in her mouth. The last thing she heard was Ember giving her helpful advice.

“You damnable fool! How in the hell did you manage to do this to yourself? What did you do, go swimming and run around the snow drifts?”

“Yeah, how’d you know?”

She wasn’t awake to hear the reply.

 

Chapter Text

Pan hadn’t wanted to know how hypothermia felt. She got to find out anyway. To her surprise, it wasn’t that different from heat stroke. She was by turns on a pyre and a glacier, and she shivered uncontrollably no matter which. She wanted nothing more than sleep, only she was sleeping, and she got no rest from it. Whispers echoed everywhere. She couldn’t catch any of them. She skipped from one nonsense thought to the other. Mixed into it, a snapshot of grandma Chi-Chi crying on gramps Hercule’s chest while her grave parents watched from afar, and she tried to tell them she was fine, even though it was a lie.

Some time later, and she couldn’t tell how much, the shaking stopped and Pan had real dreams. Which were just as nonsensical, actually. She dreamed she dug up a giant treasure chest beneath a rainforest ruin and inside found a collection of novelty hats. She’d just started trying on the first, a hat shaped like a dolphin complete with a long nose for a visor and a plush tail sewn on the back, when the scene changed abruptly to the deck of the Para Brothers’ ship.

“Guys! I got her!” Sonpara said, running across the bridge on his tiny legs and skidding to a halt beside the computer.

“Don’t just stand there! On second thought, you can stand there. Just make sure you keep the connection.”

She’d only seen Sonpara, but now Bonpara and Donpara faded into view. They didn’t look at her, since she wasn’t really “there.”

“Pan, what happened?” Bonpara asked.

So many things happened, Pan was confused which one he meant. “When?”

“A few minutes ago.”

“Um,” Pan said, “I was in a rainforest, digging, and I hit what turned out to be a treasure chest, and inside it were all these hats…”

“Not that. What was killing you, and are you out of danger?”

“Was something killing me?”

Bonpara said, “It wasn’t just that I couldn’t make a connection. It’s the jumbled static your head spewed at me when I tried. I know what a dying brain sounds like, and that’s what it sounds like.”

Pan pouted, even though he couldn’t see it. “I don’t believe it. One of the last surviving Saiyan warriors endures four straight nights of brutal combat, dies of exposure the next morning. How pathetic is that?” She tried to wipe her brow and found the dolphin hat still on her dream-head; she was glad Bonpara couldn’t see that, either. “He saved my life a third time, kicking me out of the fight early so I could find help.”

“Hey, are you still there?” Sonpara asked. “We’re losing you again.”

Telepathy wasn’t an unrestricted flow of thoughts, and the brothers couldn’t see anything Pan did not expressly send them any more than they could stroll into her house through her phone. She still found herself battling the impulse to hide from them as if they could. As if they’d caught her doing something wrong. “I did find help. The best help there is, too. If Ember can’t patch me up, I can’t be patched up. Say, you guys are going to be here today, aren’t you?”

Donpara tapped the computer screen. The blue stretch of figures and diagrams cleared to reveal stars… and a dime-sized speck of a dead planet on the horizon. Gleaming beside it, a shimmering moon. “You see that? That’s Ketchyn. We’re so close, our biggest concern now is figuring out where and how to land. No atmosphere is good for a spaceship, but this one presents such a massive series of issues the computer’s been trying to figure out how to get through it since we left.”

“And then, once we do get through it, we have to find a secure place to land. Otherwise, remember what happened to you when you landed in ‘unauthorized space’ on Imecka? Now imagine instead of having your property confiscated by Don Kee and his paid thugs, it’s King Sulfuri and his highly-trained army,” Sonpara said. “It would be something like that.”

“I remember what kind of welcome I got, and I was asking for help with my hands up.”

So that blip onscreen was Ketchyn from the outside. The swirling color gave it the appearance of an uncut diamond under a bright light. Pan giggled, realizing she was standing on that world, and therefore was looking at herself on camera, just from very far away.

“I’ll be happy to see you, though,” she said, surprised how much she meant it. “And Captain Ember and Officer Gelata shouldn’t freak out so much this time, since they know you’re coming and that you’re my friends. I should warn you Ember is a little confrontational, Gelata might ask to dissect you, and they’re in love with each other, but he’s Sutova and she’s a Reizomorph, so you have to pretend you don’t notice.”

Donpara snorted. “Wow, really?”

“What?” Pan pulled off her dolphin hat and sat it in her lap. Her dream-hair was sticking up. “There’s nothing wrong with it.”

“No, I wasn’t saying there was. I’m just surprised, is all. There’s a lot of bad blood there. It isn’t like sneaking out your window to meet the boy with the frosted tips your mom doesn’t like because he smokes and rides a motorcycle.”

“No,” Pan said. “It’d be more like sneaking out to meet Frieza.”

“Yes! Exactly!” Donpara thumped his fist into his palm. “It’s the sort of thing you hear and think, ‘like that would ever work.’ Continuing your astute if somewhat disturbing comparison, could you ever look at Frieza and not be thinking ‘this is the guy who punched a hole through my home planet?’ Could you ever trust Frieza to look at you and not be thinking, ‘filthy third-class ape?’ That’s what they have to be going through.”

Pan sighed heavily. “When you put it that way, it sounds pretty hopeless.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s hopeless. It’s more like an amount of hope that statistically rounds down to zero, is all.”

“But forgiveness is supposed to have all this power, right? How powerful is it if you only get to use it on little unintentional ‘offenses’ like when Uncle Goten finishes my juice without asking me first? If someone realizes they wronged you, and they’ve paid their debt several times over, isn’t forgiveness strong enough to set you back on equal footing?”

“Theoretically, yes, but I wouldn’t bet on those odds.”

“And if that happens, if the field really is even, wouldn’t you be free to build anything you wanted on it? Even love?”

“Theoretically, yes, but I wouldn’t bet on those odds.”

“And couldn’t there be a perfectly logical reason to keep a spike pit under your bed?”

“Theoretically… what?”

Bonpara answered with, “Sure, I can think of several. Dispose of assassins, guard prisoners prone to escape, heat them up for a flashy way to toast marshmallows. Look, Donpara, these are friends of Pan’s, so you’re gonna shut up and be nice to them, okay?”

“I wasn’t going to say anything to them about it,” Donpara said. “I was just telling Pan…”

“Well, don’t. You’re upsetting her. I can tell if you can’t.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m upset,” Pan said. She was upset. She just wouldn’t say so. Mostly because she’d have to explain why.

“Aw, geeze, I’m sorry, Pan,” Donpara said. “You’d think with feet as big as mine, I’d notice I was sticking them in my mouth. Since we’re talking about it and all, can you ever forgive me?”

“Of course I do,” she said.

“And with that,” Bonpara said, “Computer’s found some options for us. Let’s go over them, and we’ll contact you with some coordinates when we have them.”

“That works for me.”

Bonpara faded away first, then Donpara, and finally the bridge and Sonpara with it. Pan was again alone in a rainforest with a treasure chest and a dolphin hat in her lap, wrangling with her own insides.

She stuffed the end of the shovel back in the dirt. She hoped she woke up soon so she’d have the noisy real world moving all around her and wouldn’t have to knock around her own head with thoughts and feelings she was trying to ignore and hoped would just fade. They had to fade, didn’t they? She spoke of forgiveness when Frieza had shown no concrete remorse. True, when she demanded he tell her those deaths hadn’t hurt him, he hadn’t been able to, but for all she knew that was because he was trying to think of a scathing insult instead. Pan wasn’t the sort of girl who got snake-charmed by bad boys. Besides, wherever Frieza went when he wasn’t properly in the land of the living, she was sure he wasn’t carrying on like this.

ooo

“No, no, no! I won’t allow it! It’s not to be tolerated! I, the mighty Frieza, cannot be in love! And if I were going to be in love, I couldn’t be in love with a Saiyan! And if I were going to be in love with a Saiyan, I couldn’t be in love with that Saiyan!”

The crypt had now accumulated so many pits, cracks, and piles of rubble, it was a wonder it hadn’t imploded. It could have been mistaken for a natural cavern, almost, now that the Emperor had ripped away every fixture or trapping of design, leaving nothing but uneven pockmarks. Ginyu sat atop a fallen pillar. He was not alone this time. There were four more shadows perched behind him.

“So she’s pretty and funny and amiable and relatable and so endearingly eccentric. What of it? I’m not the sort of man who needs an eccentric pixie to make everything better for me, and if I were, there are plenty of pixies in the universe who aren’t Son Goku’s granddaughter.”

Full as the crypt was, as far as crypts went, nobody dared answer, though the small round silhouette did approach and try to comfort Frieza with half a quilt, two pinecones, and a liver with a bite out of it. Frieza, preoccupied, set the gifts aside.

“She’s not just his granddaughter. She’s Bardock’s great-granddaughter and Son Gohan’s daughter. She’s every bit the willful mutineer Bardock was, she’s got that same gentle spirit I found so infuriating in Gohan, and when it comes to combat potential, she’s certainly playing in Goku’s ballpark. She’s even a Super Saiyan. What part of ‘horrific amalgamation of everyone who ever defied me’ is my brain translating into ‘irresistible siren?’”

The mirror’s facade clouded in censure.

“Did I ask you, you officious busybody?”

The glow faded, and the mirror sheepishly buckled.

Frieza punched the glass. It undulated before forming an image. Pan lay tucked into a pile of blankets. Not even the mirror could spoil her beauty, caught in the shadow of her eyelashes on her cheeks, the gentle curve of her neck and shoulders. She was so still. So pale. Her short hair clung to her face, at least until her Reizomorph companion brushed it away. They wouldn’t be tending her if she were dead, would they? No, Pan’s chest rose, fell once more. She survived. He’d expected no less, but he’d sent her away so weak, he could not deny nursing a sliver of doubt she would make it… or that, seeing now that his fears had been unfounded, he was relieved.

“This is the worst I’ve ever felt, and I’ve been bisected. What do I do about it?” he whispered.

It was a rhetorical question. He hadn’t intended anyone to answer it. He hadn’t even meant anyone to hear it.

So naturally, Captain Ginyu chimed right in with his suggestion:

“Ask her out?”

Stone combusted to particles. Debris rained down from above. The room quaked and seemed to even tilt as Frieza fired shot after shot. He didn’t stop when his minions jumped from their platforms to avoid being caught in the crossfire, or when the small round one began to applaud and laugh hysterically at the destruction. He didn’t stop when he breached a wall and brown earth poured through. He didn’t stop until he was too exhausted to continue, and even then, he did not lower his hand; he continued to stare and point at the last crater he’d left as if it were a personal enemy.

The din faded, leaving silence strange even to a grave. Only then did Frieza lower his hand.

“This is a weakness. Nobody can know about it, least of all Pan.”

He strode with purpose to the one place in the crypt there wasn’t a hint of damage: the small corner that held the bookshelf and its notes. He untied the leather and opened it.

“Here you are still. Here you were before I was coughed into this pit. You have all the answers when it comes to perpetual cycles of pain and death and condemnation, and I commended you for it, as those have always been the answers I sought.  Yet here I stand now, locked in memories of time spent in the underground reliving the stars, or beside a fireplace in my childhood home weathering a storm, and for the first time in my life I know what it feels like to be warm. I want that. I want that to go away. Can you give me no help with either? Why are you silent? Has your well of knowledge run dry?”

If he’d left himself enough energy, things might have been different.

If he’d left himself enough energy, he might have set the notes ablaze on the spot.

“What good are you, then?”

He returned to the mirror and collapsed before it, brushing its surface clean, missing mortality and the release of unconsciousness.

ooo

Pan woke up with a problem, and even though Gelata was in the next room, she got to hear about it immediately.

“Gelata! I need your help!”

“What is it?” Gelata asked, running into the storage room so hard she skidded on its floor. “Are you hurt? Are you under attack?”

Tugging the corners of her blanket-cocoon even tighter around her shoulders, Pan jerked her head to the wall and whispered. “I need you to cover that mirror.”

Against the wall, there stood a dresser, and atop it was a round mirror, like most other things in Cold Manor very much an antique. Pan’s clothes had been dried and folded atop it, and it hadn’t taken Pan long to figure out that meant she wasn’t wearing them.

“Why?”

“Because I’d like to think I can defeat Frieza without borrowing techniques from Ran Fan. Look, it’s a long story, and I’ll tell it when I’m dressed, but until that mirror’s been blocked off, these blankets aren’t going anywhere.”

“You didn’t strike me as the superstitious sort,” Gelata said. She yanked a sheet from an old divan and smacked the dust from it. “But perhaps I shouldn’t have been so dismissive. It’s looking more and more like ‘the superstitious sort’ were right all along. Ember and I made some startling discoveries while you recuperated. I have much to tell you, as well. We’ll speak over your breakfast.”

“Aren’t you having any?”

“You’ve been asleep half the day. The yellow wave is nearly over. Since you didn’t have a destination in mind after this one, and you needed the rest so badly, we didn’t wake you.”

Pan fell back on the cot, staring at the ceiling. “Where do we go from here? We didn’t find anything that’ll tell us who resurrected Frieza or why.”

“On the contrary,” Gelata said. “We’ve narrowed down our suspects considerably.”

Gelata threw the sheet over the mirror and left.

A few minutes later, Pan left, too, pulling on her jacket. She yawned.

The small storage room led to a large storage room, this one with some artwork and the remnants of a dining set inside. There was food on the table, mostly dried and preserved rations Ember and Gelata had brought… and so grisly was the artwork that Pan initially ignored it. Her eyes were riveted to a painting as tall as she was, flanked by two more beheaded statues.

She could tell the subject was a Reizomorph. She could tell he was stout. She could even tell from his old-fashioned sallow clothes that he must have lived in some distant past. It was impossible to identify him, though, and not just because she wasn’t up on Ketchyn historical figures; no, in this case it was because his face had been burned right off the canvas. Not his folded hands. Not his curved horns. Just his face. Right between his neck and the bottom of his auburn helmet was a scorched hole she could see the wall through. She poked it. There was no way the damage had been an accident.

“Who did this?”

“He did,” Gelata said. She invited herself in and sat at the table, near the paintings. “After Kuriza’s murder, he had every image of himself defaced… and I mean that literally. De-faced. Paradoxically, that’s how I know whose portrait this is. It’s Chilled, King of Cocytus.”

“Creepy,” Pan said. It was, too, like a trick portrait with eyeholes cut out for eavesdropping; except it was worse, because it felt that way in spite of not having eyes to cut holes from or a face to hide behind. She glanced over her shoulder, worried. “Where’s Ember?”

“He’s fine,” Gelata said. “As fine as can be expected. We found Char’s missing team. They were in much the same state as those Planet Trade mercenaries you found on the outskirts of the Bludwald. Ember is burying them. Treacherous or not, they were his colleagues, and they didn’t deserve to be put on display like that.”

“What were they even doing here? I still don’t understand that,” Pan said, ripping open a bag of seeds.

Gelata turned to the faceless portrait. She tapped her foot. Whatever she was struggling to get out, it was making her nervous.

Finally she asked, “How much do you remember of that story I told you in Colander?”

Pan followed Gelata’s eyes back to the portrait. “About Chilled? I remember you said his grandson was murdered by King Flare, and that he got mean after it happened.”

“Do you remember why?”

“He started doing dangerous experiments with the Vile Wave and couldn’t handle it, right?”

“Indeed, and that isn’t up for debate. At that blurry border where history becomes legend, though… there were tales that though he destroyed himself in all but body in the process, he succeeded in mastering the Vile Wave. And you’d think I’d have suspected there might be some truth to it, because while the things they claimed he did were fanciful, the way they claimed he did them, in theory… did you ever burn paper focusing sunlight through a magnifying glass?”

Pan shuffled and stuffed as many seeds in her mouth as she could.

“I take it that wasn’t your favorite school project.”

Pan swallowed. “One of the dragons we fought could focus sunlight through distorted air. It melted anything it touched. That’s not one of my best memories.”

Gelata overturned a bowl. “It has to do with the shape of the glass. Light hits it evenly here,” she waved over the whole bowl, “But the convexity of the surface forces all of that light to travel and focus to this one spot, here.” She drew her finger down the side of the bowl to the very center. “It controls and concentrates all the photons to that one pinpoint.”

She tossed the bowl back on the table.

“And I know that can be done with Prismatic energy because those staves the Sutova queens use in their ceremonies do it. All Chilled had to do was find a way to focus the whole Vile Wave like that. He used glass, not a lens, but…”

“…mirrors,” Pan said.

“How did you know?”

“Remember, I asked you to cover the mirror before? Frieza told me when we were fighting he can spy on us through mirrors. That’s what I wanted to tell you. We have to be careful what we say or do in front of them. He could be watching. I knew he couldn’t be making it up because he repeated the conversation we had at the gates almost verbatim, but I wondered how he did it. That’s how? It’s also how he uses the Vile Wave? Through mirrors?”

“Through a mirror,” Gelata said. “Chilled’s Mirror. The bastard really did it.”

“Did what?” Pan asked. “What does the legend say?”

 “After Kuriza’s death, Chilled was so consumed with grief, he forgot Flare was his enemy and decided all of Ketchyn, and perhaps even all the universes, needed to understand his suffering,” Gelata said. “By experiencing it themselves. He focused the Vile Wave through one very powerful and very evil artifact: a cursed mirror made from his own flesh stretched over his grandson’s charred bones. Not only did it give him control over the Vile Wave, its surface reflected everything at its worst, so that to anyone who gazed into its depths, the world would be distorted… and the longer they looked, the longer the image would remain in their eyes after they turned away. Stare too long into Chilled’s mirror, it’s said, and you’ll never find splendor or hope in anything again. You’ll be stuck forever seeing the world just like Chilled did at the end of his life.”

Against the wall, Chilled’s portrait leaned faceless, flanked by its headless statues. It made an eerie sort of sense he’d done that, Pan thought, if that mirror had become the only reflection the King of Cocytus thought he could trust.

“Wait,” Pan said, almost spitting out her food. “Are you saying this mirror is real and it’s here?

Gelata pulled out her chair and asked Pan to follow her.

Pan did, but she wondered if Gelata knew where she was going. The tunnels coiled around each other, and they walked for forever, or at least long enough for Pan to finish off two more bags of seeds, some jerky, and dried fruit. Condensation dripped on her head. The temperature grew so dishwater tepid Pan longed to return to the blizzard. When they did finally arrive somewhere, which had to be somewhere near Ketchyn’s core if they’d gone as far down as it felt like they had, it was a dead end.

“I wouldn’t have been able to find it if you hadn’t taught me that ‘pickle pot’ trick,” Gelata said. “The barrier here is so subtle and small, you can barely detect it.”

She whispered the tongue twister, fired the blast, and the wall opened like lips.

Pan walked onto a vast cavern, hung with dead shackles and long-abandoned cobwebs. Rows of tables gave it the appearance of a classroom, or maybe an alchemy lab. Stairs led up to another blank wall of a dead end.

On second glance, it wasn’t blank. There was spot on the wall, unmarred by dust or time, where something large and squarish, like a jagged painting, had once been.

“I’m saying the mirror is real,” Gelata said, brushing the wall, “And it was here. It hung right there. Someone stole it. Someone who had the authority to order Sutova guardsmen to kill those researchers for fear they’d find this place and trace the theft back to them. Ember was right. There are only two people with that kind of authority: King Sulfuri and Princess Incendria.”

“Incendria,” Pan said. She slammed her fist on the table with so much force it blew the dust away.

“That’s what Ember thinks, too,” Gelata said. “I, for one, require proof, and I know where we’re most likely to find it. It’s a good thing you’ve got that Instant Transmission, because it’s late, and it’s a long way home.”

“You’re right,” Pan said. “We have to go back to Asphodel.”

 

Chapter Text

Pan hadn’t expected a triumphant parade on her return to Asphodel, but she got one.

It wasn’t parading yet, and it wasn’t strictly for her. When she appeared behind a tent in the market, using the bearded shopkeeper’s signature as an anchor, the main thoroughfare was in the process of being closed off. Shoppers with bags and crates still pieced down the road, but they were joined by Brenchian and Reizomorph servants partitioning off the side streets and hanging banners from the meaty walls. Guards were out in force, which killed their hopes of blending into the traffic undetected.

“I know a back way that should still be safe,” Ember said.

“Is this a holiday?” Pan asked.

“His majesty is having company,” Gelata said. “Unexpected company, judging from the haste. I wonder who, and why such short notice.”

“We can find out at the palace, assuming anyone there remains loyal to us,” Ember said. “This way.”

From the roof of the palace, Pan had thought the alleyways looked difficult to navigate. She was right. They were even drearier and more tangled up from the ground. Dirty snow from last night’s storm melted into puddles. The walls looked like ink with hints of texture and stone scratched off. Round doorways sank off to places Pan couldn’t imagine and suspected she didn’t want to.

The palace was in greater disarray when they arrived. Servants and nobles alike sped through the halls, clogging the walkways and murmuring. It was impossible to catch even a word of conversation, so many voices were competing for space. So Pan couldn’t hear anything, and she couldn’t figure out what tasks everyone so busily worked.

She could, however, tell there were guards everywhere here, too.

“How do we get through, Captain?” Gelata asked.

Before the last of her words had been drowned out, they found out the answer was, ‘they didn’t.’ A guard stepped before them, hands tucked behind his back, his face impassive. Pan wondered if she should ready herself for a fight. She watched Ember, and he didn’t, so she waited.

“Welcome back, Captain, Officer,” He said. “I hope you’ll find your appointed interim replacements have kept everything running to your satisfaction in your absence. Unfortunately, you have no time to take their reports. The king has requested your presence immediately. He sent me to wait for your arrival and bring you directly to him. I was instructed to bring your Brenchian servant, too.”

He turned on one heel and marched away.

Ember stepped in line behind him.

“Wait,” Pan whispered. “This sounds suspicious. Do we really want to…?”

“We don’t have a choice,” Ember said. “This is how it’s going to be.”

“I think I’d prefer to be arrested,” Gelata whispered back. “We’d only have a farce of a trial, so the end result would be the same, but at least his majesty would be limited by the publicity in what he could do to us.”

Whatever the king was planning on doing to them, he was in no hurry. When he said he needed to see them right away, he apparently meant he needed them to wait outside a closed door for a long time, the guard staring them down the whole while. There wasn’t even anywhere to sit, although Pan didn’t know if she’d be able to anyway, as keyed up as she was. The wait only made it worse. She thought that might be the point.

When the door finally opened, Pan was surprised by what she saw; or rather, what she didn’t see.

Pan had visited a throne room before, in the palatial estate of Don Kee. Every line and brick of that place had been designed to display wealth. She’d assumed that was typical of throne rooms. Why, then, was this one so gloomy and bare? Light filtered reluctantly through windows and fell in bleached squares on an old burgundy carpet. The few bits of antique furniture that didn’t look ancient and worn only stood out for it, making them feel less a display and more a mean-spirited parody of opulence.

There was a high-backed wooden throne, but Sulfuri didn’t sit on it. In fact, Pan couldn’t see the Sutova king at first, so well had he hidden in the shadows. She only located him when he spoke.

“I have in my midst a pair of traitors,” Sulfuri said, fading into view at last. “Do you know what my father did with traitors, Captain Ember? Of course you do. You oversaw some of those executions yourself. I bet you still remember how to weave the trap so there’s no door to chance springing open, how to fan the flames so the smoke can’t suffocate the condemned before they’ve felt every last tongue on their flesh. Maybe he’d have given your friend Gelata a coat of butter first. My father hated traitors.”

Sulfuri took his eyes from the floor and fixed them on Pan.

“Do you know what he hated more than traitors? Failures. I have ways of monitoring your progress, and I’ve seen a lot of spectacle and devastation, but as of yet, no Reizomorph corpses. Am I correct in guessing your target is not dead? Tell me, little girl, how do you think my father dealt with failures? I’ll give you a hint. If that grub you’re hunting were really Frieza, you’d face a kinder fate turning yourself over to him than crawling back here.”

That deep well, that place Pan’s purest self resided; at the very bottom of it, she felt a slow boil starting, a rage at the presumption and injustice of all this. She fought to clamp it down. Too much anger could trigger a transformation, a transformation could trigger an earthquake, and an earthquake right at the center of Asphodel City… she’d seen that kind of destruction in her worst nightmares. Yet she feared trying too hard to bottle it would only make it blow even harder.

“But I am not my father,” Sulfuri said, turning from them, taking his place on the throne. “And your little mutiny did uncover some valuable, if disturbing, information. It seems in spite of my best efforts, a handful of rogue Planet Traders managed to breach the Prismasphere and touch down on Ketchyn undetected. It’s essential we find out how they did it. Do you know who is on his way here this very minute to discuss that?”

Ember swore under his breath. “So that’s what this is about. That’s why Gelata and I aren’t in chains.”

“You aren’t in chains because you were careful,” Sulfuri said. “I expressly said you were not to go to the Bludwald, we both know that’s where you’ve been, and if I could prove it you would be punished. I can’t prove it. You covered your tracks too well. Bravo. Since you’re back, I assume you’re ready to resume your duties; and it’s fortunate you’ve arrived just as that hideous man, Count Magmast, has announced his surprise visit.”

Magmast. Pan racked her brain. Why did that name sound so familiar?

“And you’re hoping you can use my history with him for leverage,” Ember said.

“He does have more of a rapport with you than he does me,” Sulfuri said.

Magmast… Magmast… hadn’t there been a painting in Flint’s gallery labeled Magmast? He’d been a guest at the ‘lodge’ the same year Frieza had been forced into it.

It struck her hard enough to shock away some of the anger that was not the only place she’d heard the name. Frieza had mentioned it after their fight at Crater Farm.

“Magmast’s arrows, the arrows that struck down Queen Polrene, were aimed at Cooler.”

This Count Magmast that was coming to the palace… he was the man who’d murdered Frieza and Cooler’s mother!

“I trust the two of you understand. You are to keep that damned Count peaceable during these talks. Your lives depend on it.” Sulfuri interposed himself between Ember and Pan. “And you. As luck would have it, I’ve found a way for you to redeem yourself, as well. You may have noticed the absence of my sister. She’s up in her tower, pouting and refusing to come down. It’s not her refusal to make. She must meet the Count. I recall her developing a fondness for you, so you go up there and get her dressed and down here. We’ve established Ember and Gelata understand their situation. Do you understand yours?”

Actually, Pan was still stifling her temper, shuffling through memories of her family back home, settling on one of her grandpa trying to eat one of Giru’s metal apples.

However… curiosity cooled the boiling. Was Incendria really in her room, or off on some new plot? Perhaps Pan could use Sulfuri’s orders as an excuse to investigate places she couldn’t normally go and ask questions she wouldn’t normally get away with. Perhaps she’d even find out where Incendria stashed Chilled’s Mirror. She wondered about Magmast, too. She hadn’t taken a good look at his portrait and didn’t remember much of his face. What kind of person would he turn out to be?

It was enough for Pan to incline her head slightly, although she didn’t dare risk opening her mouth for fear promises of compliance would not be all that came out of it.

Sulfuri smiled. “Excellent. I see why the Colds kept you as pets for so long. You’re so tractable. All three of you are dismissed.”

Pan would have loved to plant her tractable boot right across Sulfuri’s face.  Ember must have sensed that, because he clamped down on her shoulder and steered her out of the throne room.

When the massive door closed again, Pan wanted to scream. Instead, she stormed away without a word, hoping a long, solitary walk would give her the chance to compose herself.

ooo

Gauzy curtains fluttered by the open window. Dolls stood all in a row. Doors opened to murky shadow. Incendria’s spider cradle gave every appearance of being empty.

Pan didn’t know what bothered her about the scene. She’d expected the room to be empty. She was sure Incendria had made those excuses to Sulfuri so she could scheme without being disturbed. Yet as Pan stood in the doorway, watching the curtains billow and the blue sky thrum, her gut nagged her to look harder. Something was not right here.

No life forces glowed in the immediate area.

Perhaps Incendria had left some clue to her whereabouts. Pan didn’t know if she could risk being caught rummaging through the drawers, though. The halls were still too crowded to search discreetly.

She thought back to the grave hidden in the copse, and how she’d found it. Maybe she couldn’t search physically, but nobody would notice a brief transformation.

Pan’s reward was immediate. The cloth hanging from the ceiling hid ceiling tiles, and one was false. Pan powered down. She brushed away the webbing and knocked on it. Hollow, just like the grave’s floor.

Was this where Incendria hid Chilled’s mirror? Would Pan open this hidden trapdoor to her own bastardized reflection? How did it open?

Remembering the trap in Frieza’s room, Pan ran her fingers under the windowsill. There; a switch. She flipped it. Something behind the tile clicked.

Pan approached it slowly, pondering whether or not a bunch of spikes would shoot out. She pushed it slightly and it sprung open.

It wasn’t spikes that dropped from the opening. It was slick and red, and it landed on all fours on the floor. Whiskers lashed, prehensile. Knees buckled and elbows turned out. Before Pan had time to wonder if she was dead, the Sutova woman turned her head upwards, the angle so extreme it looked unnatural.

With the same jerky movements, Incendria climbed to her feet and stared.

Still off-guard and scrambling for her bearings, Pan simply couldn’t react when Incendria charged her; but the Sutova princess only threw her arms around Pan’s neck and buried her face in her chest.

 “Um… hi?” Pan said, wondering if Incendria did this to all her friends. It wasn’t the greeting she’d expected from a devious mastermind. Not sure what to do, Pan patted her back.

“I can’t believe you’re alive,” Incendria said.

“After the past few days, neither can I.” Pan glanced up to the trapdoor. It had closed on its own. “Would I be prying if I asked what you were doing up there?”

“Hiding,” Incendria said.

“From what?”

“Everything. Usually, if I don’t want to be found, I’m not. I’m glad you found me, though. It brought back so many bad memories when Sulfuri threw you out. I wondered if every moment I spent in here was your last out there. I’m glad Ember went with you. I wish I could have.”

“The king didn’t throw me out. I wanted to go,” Pan said, wriggling away.

Incendria tried to straighten her whiskers. “That’s what they all say. I suppose you’re back to fetch me.”

“He threatened to execute me if I didn’t come back with you,” Pan said. She stretched her neck out the open window. She could always fall back on her favorite old pastime. Incendria struck her as experienced enough to handle it. “We could steal away instead. Flying’s too risky, the scouters would pick us up, but we could jump from this sill to the top of that pillar and climb down. I saw it in a video game, so it probably works.”

Incendria smiled for the first time since Pan’s return, although it was a wan smile. “Sulfuri can posture all he wants, but that’s an empty threat and he knows it. I suspected it before, and when you powered up for a moment just now, that confirmed it. He doesn’t have anything approaching the strength it would take to put you down.”

“That isn’t all that matters, trust me,” Pan said. “I’ve had too many close calls with wizards and cultists and parasites and even a few dragons who shouldn’t have been any match for me, let alone Grandpa, but came this close to killing us both. Not everybody fights with their fists. Ember told me Sulfuri has a lot of people after his throne. He’s still on his throne. He’s stayed there somehow, and it’s definitely not by charming his enemies with his winning personality.”

“I misjudged you, Pan. However, I still think your plan to jump out the window is grossly misguided.”

“You mean you changed your mind, and you want to go see Count Magmast now?”

“No, I mean there are much better ways to sneak out, especially for those of us who can hide from scouters.”

“The halls are full of guards, though.”

Incendria knelt beside her spider’s cradle of a bed and pressed a tile. It sank about a half-inch into the floor, and then a trapdoor swung open beside it. “Who said anything about taking the halls?”

Pan bent over it and looked inside. She was expecting a dark rift, but the crawlspace below was well-lit. It was less of a tight fit than Pan would have imagined, secreted as it was behind the palace walls, and it was cleaner, too. A smattering of little black spiders scattered when the door opened. “How many secret passages do you have in this room?”

“As many as we could find places for,” Incendria said. “He did the building. I only dictated where I wanted them to go.”

“Sulfuri, you mean?”

She covered her mouth and giggled, and maybe Pan imagined it, but a blush crept across her face. “No, he doesn’t know. I hope he never finds out.”

There was no ladder leading to the bottom, but it wasn’t far to jump. The door closed as soon as Incendria landed beside Pan.

Coincidentally, that’s also when Pan remembered she may have just shut herself in an enclosed space with a killer of indeterminate strength. She looked down the descending hallway. It did fade into darkness, even with the prismatic lamps glowing haunted blue. “Where does this go?”

Incendria passed through the lamps and shadows, glowing and fading by turn. “To one of Father’s old trophy rooms; ironically, one of the safest places to go if you wanted to avoid him, as he never bothered with it unless he had guests and wanted to show off his collection. From there we can dart across the hall to my wardrobe, where another hidden passage will take us to the garden. Perhaps it’s not as dramatic as your suggestion, but it’s less conspicuous.”

“I wish I knew this was here when I was escaping the dungeon,” Pan said. “It would have made things so much easier.”

“Yes, but then I’d never have met you, so it all worked out.”

“Can I ask something kind of personal?” Pan asked. “How did you learn how to suppress yourself? Nobody else here knows how to do it, so you couldn’t have been taught. Did you just figure it out?”

“My father, King Flare… was not a kind man,” Incendria said. “When he’d get angry with Sulfuri and I, I’d curl up in a little ball and wish I was invisible with all my might. Do you know what happened? My wish came true. I became invisible, at least to scouters, so Father could never find me. I’m afraid that means Sulfuri got the worst of his rages, and for what? It didn’t matter. Even when he wasn’t there to enforce his ‘rules,’ we followed them, and we still do. I don’t know which is sadder; that our marionette strings are tied to King Flare’s corpse, or that the spasms of his death nerves can still pull them, even after all these years.”

They stopped talking to navigate a narrow staircase.

“Is that why you don’t want to meet Magmast?” Pan asked, once they reached the bottom. “Or is he unfriendly?”

“Unfriendly?” Incendria snorted.

Stupid question, Pan though; the guy used to hunt people for a tyrant. ‘Unfriendly’ was probably right in the job description.

“He’s so sentimental he makes me want to vomit! All his quixotic notions about equity and reform; you’d think he’d gotten so senile in his old age he forgot what planet he was on. What good will any of it do? If I go down there, he’s going to smile, and I’ll be expected to smile back, and he’s going to shower me with sympathy and I’m going to have to accept it, and I can’t right now. I just can’t.”

Huh?

Incendria and Pan passed a few more lanterns in silence, their shadows on the walls like prison bars. Pan walked through another series of these miniature eclipses. They stopped at a dead end.

“Here we are,” Incendria said, pulling the nearest lamp.

The wall slid open. The room on the other side was cluttered and unlit. Before they went inside, Incendria gave it a quick scan to make sure it was really empty.

“No life-forces,” She said.

Pan double-checked. She didn’t feel anyone nearby, either. There were faint signatures outside the door, probably guards and palace servants, but none of them seemed interested in this room. “As we say on Earth, the coast is clear.”

They stepped through the door and it closed behind them, fading so neatly into the wall, not even Pan could find it once it had completely sealed.

When Incendria said this was a trophy room, Pan had no illusions about what she meant. It was still chilling to see the shelves and cabinets lining the walls full of blasters, swords, armors and knives, bottles and canteens… personal effects of people Flare and his friends had massacred. More chilling than she expected. And just when she thought she’d gotten over the shock, she came to a display like a knife to the heart.

In the middle of the room there was what she could only describe as a shrine; a tower of a curio, gilded dark wood. On it she found models of stone huts, mixed with jewelry and tools. A variety of clothes, from classic post-annexation battle armor to old fur robes, hung on racks. There was even a strange dress with a smooth armored chest plate, a heavy belt, and thick gloves and boots. There were books, too, and Pan didn’t know what they said; couldn’t even read the titles, and that hurt most of all. She recognized the clothing and the models. These were Saiyan things.

“Don’t look,” Incendria said. “There’s nothing you can do for them now.”

Incendria pushed Pan to the door. She let herself be pushed.

Passing through the hall would be the difficult part. Incendria put Pan on point; the guards, after all, weren’t looking for her. She poked her head out the door and watched several pass. When the guards had passed and she saw nothing but bakers and attendants, she motioned to Incendria.

They ran across the hall and threw themselves through the door to the wardrobe.

After the last room, this pastel forest of dresses was a relief. Pan disappeared into the lace and silk. Dresses hung from racks, and also from mannequins in poses, most of which had been modeled after the princess. Each was as extravagant as Pan would have expected a royal wardrobe to be, bejeweled and in every cut and every color of the Prismasphere. A few shifted with it, like Incendria’s staff. Pan lifted the sleeve of one of these, admiring the blue shine.

“Are you fond of dresses?” Incendria asked.

“Yes,” Pan said, although it was a half-truth. She was fond of dresses on Bulla and Marron, much in the same way she was fond of the paintings in Flint’s gallery, but she never quite felt like herself when she wore one.

They both felt it at once. Pan dropped the sleeve and Incendria froze. Someone else had entered the room.

“They’re not powerful,” Incendria whispered. “Perhaps it’s an attendant, looking for me. I bet I can get rid of her by sending her to fetch something, and then we can slip through the trapdoor before she comes back.”

Incendria picked up the dress and carried it with her. Pan followed.

“Ah, I was just about to ring for you. I’ve decided to wear this to my meeting with the Count, but it simply will not do if I don’t have… the…”

Incendria stopped so suddenly Pan bumped into her, but Pan would have if she hadn’t.

The Sutova girl was not an attendant. In fact, though her whiskers had been braided and her green dress, while plainer than the ones on display here, very formal, Pan recognized her.

“Lucia?” Pan asked.

Lucia turned. “Pan! I didn’t know you’d be…” She fell into a deep curtsy. “Your majesty.”

Pan waited to see if Incendria would say something, but from the look on her face, she wasn’t going to. Pan did.

“What are you doing here?”

“You’re wondering why Magister Bustion didn’t make me stay back at the mansion,” Lucia said. “Believe me, he tried, but father insisted I be brought to see the proceedings. He says if I’m to succeed him someday, I have to know how it’s done. Personally, I’m hoping to marry a handsome prince, and then I won’t have to worry about such complicated things… oh, I beg your pardon, your majesty. I shouldn’t be chattering like this in front of you.”

“Your father,” Pan said.

“He’s doing much better, thanks to you,” Lucia said. “Your majesty, did Pan tell you how she helped Shivor save my father’s life? Mine, too. I’m so grateful to you for lending her skills to us.”

In an instant, Incendria melted into her professional demeanor. She smiled. “We’re all too happy to have been of service. So your father has arrived at the palace?”

Lucia said, “He insisted on a private exchange with the king, so they sent me here. They thought I might like the gowns. If I may say, your majesty, your selection is impeccable. I’ve never seen anything so lovely. Are you coming, Pan? What will you be wearing?”

“Your father… is meeting with the king…” Pan said.

“That’s right,” Lucia said. “My father, Count Magmast of Colander.”

 

Chapter Text

The mirror had eyes. It would lend them to Frieza on occasion. It would let him see the forces aligning against him. Just as frequently, they watched him, a hypercritical stare he could never escape. He was aware they were watching him fall apart. Strange how a construction that appeared so sturdy, that had weathered every argument and every plea like a dam impervious to the heaviest storm, could be undermined by the tiniest of fractures.

Strange, too, what hands could deal those fractures. They could come from the smallest of details, something another man would not have even noticed, let alone allowed to call his whole existence into question. Three Brenchian attendants with the kind of dead eyes one came to expect on Ketchyn faces sat Pan in front of a dresser. All three were hard at work on her hair, one with a brush, one with various foams, one with a plain silver band that matched her chest plate. Frieza watched the whole thing through the mirror’s borrowed eyes. He frowned.

“Come here a moment, would you please?” He asked.

Captain Ginyu was away on business, so it was left to one of the others to volunteer a response. The slightest of shadows appeared at his side.

“Tell me, Jeice,” Frieza said, “Do you know what an anachronism is?”

“I can’t say that I do, Lord Frieza.”

Frieza traced a line down Pan’s deer-in-the-headlights face before pointing at her bright red dress with its shiny armor. “That’s an anachronism.”

“That explains why I don’t know it. I never was up on my high-end fashion designers.”

“…of course not.” Frieza could have explained, but didn’t think it was worth his time, especially since Jeice was liable to forget such an explanation. “I find my concentration broken by thoughts of her these days, and not of the sort you’d expect. I feel a nagging anxiety I can’t quite explain. Do you know how much of my childhood I wasted in that court she’s now expected to navigate? I know how it works. I wonder if she does. That dress, for instance. If it was her idea to wear it, I doubt she’s aware of its significance, or that whoever suggested it to her is using her to send a message. I also wonder where she got it. It shouldn’t exist.”

“The skirt’s a little puffy and impractical, but it’s not that bad.”

“It’s ceremonial garb. It’s not so cumbersome it couldn’t be worn into combat- nothing of Saiyan design would be- but its primary purpose was…”

His reply was cut short by surprise. Pan noticed all three sets of eyes were down and winked. Hastily, she scribbled on a piece of paper and held it up.

Remember what I did to Trunks on Gelbo?

If Frieza had any doubt the wink had been meant for him, the message left none. She’d written it backwards so he’d be able to read it. He’d thought of the mirror as a one-way spyglass, not a device for communication; and yet, apparently knowing she was being watched had given Pan the idea to start sending messages of her own through it. She flattened the paper again as the attendants looked up, and didn’t pull it back up until they were again occupied.

Then it said, I’m being punished for it.

“Apparently, she disagrees.”

An attendant sprayed a puff of perfume at Pan. She coughed and held up a paper that said, HELP.

Frieza chuckled. It wasn’t particularly loud or joyful, and it stopped as soon as it started, at which point he cuffed Jeice on the back of the head.

“Well? Help her.”

Jeice bowed. “As you command.”

The slight shadow peeled away from the wall and left the tomb.

Frieza turned back to the mirror, silent once more. Now Pan was pretending to bang on the surface while mouthing, ‘let me out.’ He still felt a twinge of… was that jealousy or concern or some emulsion of both?... knowing the mirror could see what he saw, and therefore eavesdropped on these messages meant for him. It didn’t react with the kind of contempt it had shown in the past, however. The glow of its oily surface had a subdued quality, as if the thing was deep in thought as well as sleep. Or perhaps, for once, it watched the growing cracks in his resolve with some mote of empathy.

“I’m sure it’s a convincing replica,” He said. “Or some antique Flare couldn’t be without and had smuggled to him. He fancied himself a collector, perhaps because it had a more sophisticated ring to it than murderer. Surely he didn’t acquire every piece in his collection directly off its original owner’s back. It was imported. Yes, that must be it.”

Mustn’t it?

The mirror’s heartbeat slowed. Empathy. It wasn’t something Frieza normally had much respect for, but he supposed in this case, it could be forgiven. What could understand his fear of shattering better than a mirror?

ooo

One of the people at this table was Pan’s true enemy. One of them had brought Frieza back to life. Ember was sure it was Incendria. Pan wasn’t anymore. In fact, as she stared from Sulfuri to Magmast to Incendria to even Lucia, the only ones she knew she could definitively rule out were Ember and Gelata, and them only because they’d been with her when some of the plotting must have happened.

Pan wasn’t familiar with all of the concepts they discussed, but she tried to focus on her suspects and their conversation, hoping the amateur necromancer at the table would do or say something to tip her off.

“We’re here today,” Sulfuri started, “Because two days ago, an attempt was made on the Count of Colander by what appeared to be members of the Planet Trade Organization.”

“Appeared,” Magmast snorted. Pan knew he had been sick the last time she saw him, but she couldn’t believe the difference now. He sat up straight and strong, with broad shoulders and folded hands. Wrinkles and other signs of age and weathering didn’t make him any less intimidating than they made Master Roshi when he was serious. When she entered and he fixed her with a long, hard stare, she actually shrunk back a little.

Sulfuri sneered. “I know you’ve been angling for Cocytus to form a standing army of its own, and a looming invasion from those ice-maggot thugs would give you a perfect excuse to establish one, wouldn’t it? Temporarily, of course; and then you just wouldn’t ever have the time or the inclination to disband it. But you can’t ignore the possibility that the attack came from one of your many enemies on world, and they disguised themselves so you wouldn’t know which.”

“I have only one enemy who wants to be rid of me that badly,” Magmast said. “And I don’t believe he has the creativity or the clout for an operation like this.”

Incendria sat between the two, and she extended her pole across the table. It flared. “Your majesty, my count, please. I’m to understand these men, whatever their identities, were successful in infiltrating the manor, poisoning you, and escaping. It was by sheer chance they were attacked by bandits in the forest.”

Shivor said nothing, but Pan saw his stoic face crack just a bit. He knew those men hadn’t been killed by bandits.

“If they can do that in Colander, they can do it in Asphodel. This is a threat to all of us. Let’s stay on that subject, please. I’d like to go back to what my brother calls my frivolous moping.”

And there it was, the reason Pan’s certainty of Incendria’s guilt was wavering. Compared to the others at the table she just didn’t have much motive. Yes, she was vaguely dissatisfied with her life and was obviously hiding something, but after her reluctance to come to this meeting and willingness to abandon the palace, Pan was certain it wasn’t designs on the throne of Asphodel.

She made a mental note. Suspect: Incendria. Suspect because: she’s secretive and creeps me out. Possibly innocent because: that’s really all I have on her.

“I’m not certain your scenario is a possibility so much as it is wishful thinking,” Magmast said. “But assuming it’s not, we have to accept that a very dangerous group of criminals has breached the Prismasphere, and face exactly what that means.”

Sulfuri flinched. Pan had never seen him flinch before and had to admit the sight satisfied her a little. “The only way for a spaceship to land through the Prismasphere is by way of a prismatic cloak. That’s technology only available on Ketchyn.”

That must be why Pan hadn’t heard from the Para Brothers yet. Perhaps she should get her hands on some of this equipment.

“If your attackers come from off-world,” Sulfuri continued, “That means someone on-world sent them that tech and told them how to use it. It would certainly explain why they haven’t come after you before now, as long as Cold’s elder son has been itching to get his hands on you.”

This time, Magmast flinched. Lucia touched his hand. Sulfuri missed the hooded glare she shot him. Pan didn’t.

Suspect: Lucia and Shivor. Pan thought. Suspects because: Lucia is protective of her father and has recruited Shivor behind his back before. They could have summoned Frieza to take care of Magmast’s enemies while keeping Magmast’s hands clean. She doesn’t have much in the way of foresight and might not understand the danger of dealing with the Vile Wave or men like Frieza. Shivor could have called some favors to get Asphodel’s soldiers to clean up their mess at Cold Manor. Possibly innocent because: she doesn’t have much in the way of foresight and that scheme requires a lot.

“I don’t blame him,” Magmast whispered, pulling his hand from Lucia’s.

Sulfuri ignored him. “It also means someone on Ketchyn is working with them. We have a traitor in our ranks. And frankly, if the target hadn’t been you, I’d suspect you. I’m not sure I still don’t. You chip away a little here and there, but we both know your ultimate endgame is restoring Colander’s independence, and then Blendarr’s, and eventually, Cocytus’s; splitting my father’s kingdom into the quasi-functional warring states they were before he united and civilized them.”

“And yours is keeping that zombie of a kingdom shuffling on its decaying feet just because he said you couldn’t,” Magmast said.

Pan glanced at the king and saw another flinch. Suspect: Sulfuri. Suspect because: trying to earn the posthumous respect of his abusive mass-murdering father by keeping his kingdom together. He’s stayed in power in spite of having no clear advantage over the competition. No question he has the authority to call the raid on Cold Manor. He could have summoned Frieza to keep anti-Cold sentiment stirred up so Magmast doesn’t get his independent Cocytus. Possibly innocent because: he wasn’t faking that surprise when I told him I was attacked by Frieza.

“Decaying or not, we can all agree the last thing our people need- any of them- is more upheaval,” Ember said. “Yours are noble sentiments, Count, but we can’t discuss them seriously at this table, without any contribution from our citizens. Now, about the business of investigating this immediate threat of assassins and a potential traitor…”

Pan left that meeting with her head spinning. She wished Gohan were here. He’d be able to sift through all this. She made a gallant attempt, though; and so involved did she get, she rounded a corner and almost walked straight into Count Magmast.

They were alone in the hallway. He stared up at a painting, a stately Sutova nobleman drawn so perfected as to be generic, but he turned his head when he felt her at his elbow. He held her in place yet again with that scrutinizing look.

“Hello,” He said. “You’re the one Lucia tells me helped Shivor retrieve that antidote I needed. I’m glad I have this opportunity to thank you personally.”

“You’re welcome,” Pan said. His unwavering eyes made her nervous, especially the way they kept darting over her. She didn’t like creepers to begin with, and this one felt like he was sizing her up for vulnerabilities.

He must have noticed she’d noticed. “That is a lovely dress. May I ask where you got it?”

“Princess Incendria lent it to me. I didn’t have anything formal to wear, and she thought it would fit.”

“Indeed,” Magmast said. “I should have guessed it was Incendria. It fits too well. It’s not a costume, is it? You’re really a Saiyan.”

Pan fell into a guarded stance without thinking about it. Magmast made no attempt to attack her, though. He only turned back to the painting.

She unwrapped her tail from her waist and pulled it through the hole on the dress.

“Phenomenal. I haven’t seen one of your kind since…”

He trailed off. Pan didn’t know how to break the silence, but it was so oppressive and uncomfortable, she didn’t know how not to.

“The hunting grounds,” Pan said, trying to keep her voice neutral.

He closed his eyes. “Do you know hatred is like a well? It runs deep. It runs cold. And it’s so very easy to convince yourself that reflection you see on the surface is really you, when at the bottom, you’re drowning. I once believed your kind, and especially the Reizomorphs, were inferior to the Sutova. I really did. But I also thought ravens were inferior to the Sutova and I didn’t feel compelled by seething rage to destroy every single one I saw. What was the difference? Down at the bottom of that well, where I was drowning, it came down to one thing. One of them had something I wanted.”

He looked to the floor.

“I wouldn’t dare ask for forgiveness. I don’t think what I’ve done can be forgiven. There’s only one path left for me. I will spend the rest of my life doing all in my power to make sure it never happens again.”

Magmast left. He must have had other places to be.

“Don’t forget to hide your tail before you go back into public,” He called back.

Pan tucked her tail back into the cloth and wrapped it around her waist immediately. She watched Magmast’s leathery cape follow him down the hall, and she made her last mental note.

Suspect: Magmast. Suspect because: he’s trying to undo his greatest mistake.

Possibly innocent because: can’t think of any reason.

 

Chapter Text

The incident on Imecka had made Pan nervous. She knew she had to get one of those prismatic cloaks Sulfuri had mentioned for the Para Brothers’ ship; even if they found a way through without one, they’d need it to take off again. Unfortunately, equipment like that was bound to be regulated. It might even be illegal. And the charming government Imecka had been struggling under before she, Trunks, and Grandpa had overthrown it had a policy about illegal contraband – namely, that it was illegal to own it, but not to buy or sell it. So Trunks had been allowed to buy illegal spaceship parts for his illegal spaceship, but once he’d gotten it pieced back together, they’d confiscated the ship and arrested them… or at least they’d tried to. They hadn’t actually been able to arrest them until Grandpa had decided he wanted to be taken before their corrupt ruler.

Pan watched the tents and the people milling through them. “If only I knew where to start.”

Pan, are you there?

Pan ducked behind a tent, in a grimy gutter. It was as densely-packed as the rest of the market district. She didn’t want to look like she was talking to herself, so Pan pulled out her phone and held it to her ear for show.

“Sonpara, it’s great to hear from you. I’ve just found out there’s a device that’ll get you through the Prismasphere. I’m looking for one right now.”

Sonpara waited to respond. When he did, his voice shook with affected cheer; a red flag for a voice Pan only heard in her head.

Oh, no need to do that. It turns out we found a way through. We found a ship that must have one of those cloak-thingies preparing to land, so we just coasted in on its Prismatic wake. We’re through the Prismasphere and in Ketchyn’s upper atmosphere.

“Already? Why didn’t you tell me?” Pan asked.

No reason, Sonpara thought. We figured we’d wait until we were clear o the ship and had landed safely. It’s kind of the same ship that we thought was following us earlier, and we don’t want to touch down too close to it.

“You mean the same model.”

No, the same ship.

The nervous laugh, the strained voice, that it was Sonpara and not their leader Bonpara who’d reached out to her… something was really wrong. “What’s the part you’re not telling me?”

There’s nothing I’m not telling you!

“I know you’re holding something back. Spill.”

No, there’s really nothing. You’ve got it all wrong. The fields around Asphodel are flat and we’ve located several confirmed to be free of sinkholes or catacombs. Now all we have to do is dodge all these lasers that ship has been shooting at us for the past ten minutes and shake them off our tail so they won’t see where we land and follow us, because otherwise we’re all going to d… dammit!

“You’re being shot at?” Pan tried to keep her voice down, but a few heads still turned her way.

And I wasn’t supposed to tell you. Bonpara didn’t want you to worry.

“It didn’t work! I’m worried! How are your new turrets holding up?”

They work great. It’s just our computer wasn’t programmed for automated combat. Our old employer, and thank you for confirming he’s burning in hell, thought that since the jobs he sent us on primarily involved stealth and treasure hunting, we didn’t need it. So Bonpara and Donpara have had to switch to manual, and it’s taking both of them at the controls to keep up the kind of evasive maneuvering it takes to escape these guys. I don’t know who’s piloting that crate, but he’s good. Maybe too good, even for us. I didn’t know anyone could squeeze that kind of speed out of a relic like that.

“And that means?”

I’m the only one available to man the turrets, and I really suck at it.

Ever since Pan had arrived on Ketchyn, she’d encountered one massive quandary after another. Pan was no stranger to massive quandaries, but these were different. These were quandaries where the only available decisions were bad ones.

Right now, for instance, she had two possible plans of action. The first would be to let Sonpara work the turret controls he was firing for the first time in his life against someone he described as being deadly skillful, and that path almost inevitably led to the brothers being shot down and killed. The second? Pan was not new to turret controls. She could operate them through him using telepathy.

That would require her to seclude herself out of the public eye and tune out her immediate surroundings on Ketchyn, projecting her mind onto the ship. Syncing that firmly to someone else’s head would render her, for all intents and purposes, unconscious. She’d be totally vulnerable.

Like the last time, it was no choice at all. She had to save the Para Brothers’ lives.

“Here’s what we’re going to do,” She said. “I need to get out of this busy marketplace, and when I do, I’m going to take the controls from you.”

But Pan!

“Don’t tell me it’s too dangerous. I already know that.”

I wasn’t going to, Sonpara thought. I was going to tell you that when Giru was playing reverse-mole for you against General Rilldo, he told us you really suck at this, too.

“He said what? That little braggart! He’d think so, wouldn’t he? He was a war machine programmed to shoot cruisers out of the sky and I was just a kid.” Little as Giru looked like a war machine, that was true, and Pan counted it an advantage. She doubted even the best flesh and blood opponent could give her the kind of thrashing he had. “I was holding my own against him, wasn’t I?”

Bonpara’s going to be so mad at me… Sonpara thought.

“I’ll give you a signal when I’ve found a safe place,” Pan said. She pretended to hang up.

Pan checked the sky. Its blue pulsed slowly indigo, but it was difficult to tell how close it was to changing. Her ‘safe place’ couldn’t be too far away. She didn’t have that kind of time, and more importantly, neither did the Para Brothers. A picture popped into her head, and she decided it was the best she could do on short notice.

The copse of trees where Pan had fought a squid on the first day of her journey wasn’t far, and now that she could fly to it, they were there in minutes. Once she landed, she ran all the way to the cavern near the spring.

“Sonpara, I’m ready,” She said.

Pan leaned back against the wall. She closed her eyes. The connection with Sonpara was already there. She followed it. The cavern blurred, joined with a vision of screens and controls. The harder she tried to read the screen, move the controls, the less of the cavern she could see. There was still a ghost of its image in her eyes. It was enough time to see men enter the cavern. Nondescript men with unfamiliar faces.

Planet Traders. Live ones this time.

She tried to pull back out of Sonpara’s head, but it was too late. It was a struggle just to keep the sight of the approaching Planet Traders in her eyes, and she wondered if she should let it slip away. She didn’t know if they were there to kill or abduct her, only that it might be better not to helplessly watch like this.

Suddenly, another figure dropped from the cavern roof between Pan and her would-be attackers: a Brenchian man with long hair. There was no way he could have been there before, or Pan would have seen or sensed him. He landed on one knee, and spread his arms before he stood. The Planet Trade men stopped, but did not lower their guns.

“You amateurs think you’re up to fighting me? I’m insulted. You should know better. I know who sent you, and he should know better,” the newcomer said. Her mind added a crackle to the radio. “At least I don’t have to argue with the others over my slice. I’m the only guest at this party. The whole pie is mine. There is no pie, by the way. I’m talking about you. I don’t know if I was really clear on that. And when I say ‘party’ I mean ‘curbstomp.’ Let me tell you what’s going to happen after you open fire. You’re going to empty those squirt-guns of yours first. It will do nothing. You’ll try to throw a punch. Slow. Weak. Like flies, except I’d have to shoo flies. In the end, you’ll be slumped against the cavern wall, out of ammo, worn out, all ‘why is he not going down?’ Then I’m going to peel your faces off with my fingernails and gouge your eyes out of their sockets. Did I say that last part out loud? Sorry, those things just slip out these days. Lord Frieza says he’s working on it. But seriously, save a bullet for yourself. If you’re still alive when this is over I’m actually going to do that. Ginyu Force! Jeice! Tou!

Little as Pan liked the sound of that, she couldn’t afford not to trust this strange man. She released the picture and let the Para Brothers’ ship come into total focus.

Pan stretched her fingers (really Sonpara’s) over the twin triggers. The screen showed her a facsimile of space; or at least, high up enough in Ketchyn’s atmosphere it still appeared to be space. A cruiser zipped behind them like an insect. Brilliant stars bombarded the ship, only those weren’t stars, they were shots fired as detected and mapped by the computer, so many and so rapidly they’d blended right into their surroundings. One burst beside her. It looked like a tiny pop, then a dust ball. That dust could become just as deadly as the cannon.

Another made a white-hot beeline for the screen. Pan fired. It popped; too close. It would have been worse if the shot had connected, but she had to fire quicker.

Blips filled the space.

Which one should I stop first?

She decided on the closest. She lined it up in her crosshairs and fired. A flash marked her success.

The turret grew sweltering. Even though it wasn’t Pan feeling the heat, she was sure she was sweating back on Ketchyn. She fired. Her shots matched her heartbeat; as it sped up, so did they. Sometimes the ship would bank and she shot wide. Sometimes a blast would only just miss. Flashes peppered space around each ship.

The cruiser made an unexpected decision. Its cannons went quiet and, with a burst of speed, it shot around them.

A siren blared in Pan’s head. Giru used to do that. It was a trick; he’d always have a second ship waiting to eradicate her. There was only one cruiser, she was certain of it, but Pan was sure there was some nasty surprise waiting for them if they sped up to catch it.

“Sonpara, tell your brothers they’re driving into a trap. They need to slow down and lose altitude.”

Sonpara smacked the radio button. She didn’t hear the Para Brothers’ exchange. Instead, she heard gurgled screaming that must have been coming from the cavern. She sure felt it when the ship dropped, though; at least, Sonpara did, and she got his sick stomach.

She knew they’d be dodging something, but even Pan had to admit to a twinge of utter astonishment when a boiling ball of plasma hurtled past the top of their ship, into space.

“Was that a Supernova? Did someone on that ship just fire a Supernova at us?” Pan yelled.

The cruiser hadn’t expected them to dodge it, either, and hovered in place, waiting for them to combust.

Pan lined up her crosshairs and fired.

The ship’s wing flashed and cracked. The cruiser’s nose dipped first. The rest of it followed that downward trend, though. It plummeted out of the stars, through the swirling color of clouds, down to the ground.

The computer screen changed to map its descent, highlighting all the landing spots it projected would be a safe distance from its crash site.

One of the landings spots was in sight of the copse!

“Guys, you see where I’m pointing?” She hammered Sonpara’s finger on it. “I’m going to break contact. Land there. If everything goes well, you should be able to see me. Also, you can hide the ship in the forest.”

“You got it,” Sonpara said, radioing his brothers.

Pan woke in the cavern as if the whole scene had been a dream. She was still there after all? She sat up. When she braced her hand against the floor, it landed in something warm and sticky that clung to her fingers.

Her first instinct was to find the man who’d introduced himself as a member of the Ginyu Force… a group papa only spoke of in hushed, haunted tones… but he wasn’t in the cavern anymore. In one sense, nobody was in the cavern anymore. Her attackers were dead. Some of them even looked like they’d taken Jeice’s advice to turn their guns on themselves. The nearest Trader’s eyes were wide and lifeless, but at least they were still in their sockets. Pan pulled away from the wall, dodged through a slumped arm. She thought she was going to throw up.

These were more Planet Trade men. Why had a member of the Ginyu Force killed them? Why had they attacked him in the first place? And where had he gone?

Scrawled on the wall, she found something like an answer.

Midnight came. Your coachman had to turn back into a rat.

Pan didn’t need another incentive to break free of the cavern and into the outside air, but that gave her one.

Yes, the sky was indigo.

Yes, it was racing.

Yes, that was bad.

ooo

There were so many ways Pan wanted to greet the Para Brothers, the only familiar faces she’d seen all week.  She could have hugged them for coming all this way. She could have tried to hide her relief by chewing them out for letting that cruiser follow them here; that was Grandma Chi-Chi’s favorite tactic, and Pan admitted she wouldn’t mind resorting to it, the way she felt. Unfortunately, haste gave her room for neither. No sooner had the dinged-up metal mushroom landed and Bonpara disembarked that Pan shook him.

“Do you remember that hologram you projected on Gelbo to make yourself look like one of the locals? Do it now. Your computer has Sutova profiles in its databanks, right? Disguise yourselves as Sutova.”

Bonpara must have sensed her urgency, because he didn’t ask. He pushed a series of buttons on his spacesuit, and his image flickered digitally; he faded back into view as an ogre-faced Sutova man. The other two followed. It was disorienting to still recognize them in the face in spite of how different the rest of them looked.

“Your hand’s bleeding,” He said.

“It’s not my blood,” She said. “Hold on tight.”

One Transmission later, the four of them stood before the only place she could think to stash them this time of night: Flint’s art gallery.

“Hide here. If you want a cover story, ask for Flint and tell him your friend Pan sent you to see her painting. Whatever you do, don’t go outside for the next two hours. The air goes bad and will make you see things, or at least that’s what everyone tells me. I’ve had a few close calls but I haven’t been stuck in it yet.”

“Woah, you can’t just drop us here and leave. We’re already imagining the worst.”

“The short version is that I have to fight the leader of the Planet Trade Organization in minutes, maybe seconds. Just hang tight. Remember, ask for Flint. I’ll be back for you after dawn.”

Bonpara gave her a firm fist-bump. “Be careful.”

Pan tried a weak smile before charging out of the gallery.

ooo

Pan considered running as far as she could into the wilderness and risking the Vile Wave compromising her perspective. She didn’t know she had many other options. The hunting lodge would provide no protection even if she could reach it, and she couldn’t. She couldn’t go back to the city or any of the small towns between them, for they were too densely populated. She couldn’t go back to the Manor or the farm for the opposite reason: there was no ki to latch onto, and she didn’t have time to fly. She didn’t even have time to change out of this stupid dress. But just as she was about to give up, she felt a familiar energy signature flare up to fighting strength. It was faint, but it was also alone, and in an unfamiliar place on Asphodel’s outskirts. One her map marked “Tower of a Thousand Eyes.”

Seizing onto it, she leapt into the Teleportation Zone.

She appeared beside an old plinth holding an even older bust. She saw its dour, squashed Sutova face for a brief instant before a familiar voice touched her ears.

“You received my message, such as it was. Good.”

As usual, it was difficult to pick him out of the background. “King Sulfuri. You meant for me to find you?”

“I hoped you would. I knew your time was running short and that you hadn’t picked a battleground for tonight. I thought this place ideal. It’s the sort of vacant ruin you’ve been favoring, it’s shelter enough from the outside, and symbolically, I can think of no better place to thwart a modern enemy. It is from this watchtower that we saw and routed the armies of Blendarr. Now that we are Blendarr there has been no need for it. And I understand you have some way of reading energy, not just whose it is but what they’re doing with it, so I came here and knocked over a few statues.”

Pan could find them, at least, smashed in a row. Mentally piecing together the fragments, she thought they were all the same man. King Flare, perhaps? She wouldn’t know. She’d never seen so much as a portrait. The man Incendria described as Ketchyn’s puppeteer was even more invisible than his son.

Sulfuri did finally stir in the shadows, but it was only so he could brush past her on his way to the door. “I hoped you’d recognize it as an invitation. Good work. I won’t be staying, of course. It’s not my place. I dictate wars. I don’t fight them. That’s how a smart king rules. Look what wandering onto the battlefield got Frieza. Perhaps he’s not the best example, though. He was never truly a king.”

Sulfuri, a ghost of a shadow, slipped from the tower so quietly Pan couldn’t be sure he hadn’t always been there. His words echoed behind him with the click of the closing door.

“But in this day and age, are any of us?”

 

Chapter Text

Once upon a time, the tower held an overpowering smell of dust and decay. Now it smelled like something else: coffee. Pan would never have admitted it, but the exertion she’d put on her body was catching up with her. Eventually she’d have to find some way to squeeze in real rest, not just snatch an hour or two of sleep here and there or knock herself unconscious. However, she still had the secret weapon of caffeine on her side, and now was the time to use it.

Not that she needed the side effect of jitters. She wouldn’t have admitted this, either, but the things she’d seen here had worn down her mind just as much. She pulled out her phone and again flipped to her picture collection. There was Trunks and Giru.

“I owe you one for coaching me to anticipate that ambush,” She said to the robot’s picture. “You’re still a braggart, though.”

She flipped to the photo of her grandparents and stared at it a moment. What else did she have on here? She filed through more photos of herself and Bulla and Marron before stopping at a grainy old picture of her six-year-old self on the seashore, holding a crate of milk, with a hairy and sandal-clad foot just barely visible behind her. That picture hadn’t been taken with this phone. She’d had to scan it.

She took a swig of coffee and that was the exact moment Frieza walked out of the mist and looked over her shoulder.

“Is that you?” He asked.

“On my first official day of training.”

“That doesn’t look like Goku.”

“It’s Master Roshi, the founder of the Turtle school of martial arts,” Pan said. “He taught Grandpa, and me, too, for a few years.”

“Dare I ask why he has you carrying that?”

She laughed. “It’s early-morning training. Me and Marron had to get up at four-thirty and run the milk all the way around the island before it got warm. After that we had to plow for the farmers with our bare hands. He made us keep up our schoolwork in the afternoon, and last of all, he’d mark a stone and throw it into the forest, and we had to bring it back before we could have dinner. He wouldn’t teach us any techniques until we could do all that without tiring out, because otherwise, he said we wouldn’t have the stamina or mental and physical control to use them without hurting ourselves.”

Frieza took the phone. “That’s training? It sounds dull. I’m glad I never bothered with it.”

“Maybe you’d feel different if you’d been there with us,” Pan said.

He looked away, at the floor, and was quiet for a moment. “Maybe,” He said finally. “Cooler and I were besieged, after all; and even a manor house gets stale if you’re never allowed to leave it. We fought, but only from the battlements, with ki and the Prismasphere. Likewise, it didn’t take long for the new to wear off the palace of Asphodel when we were prisoners there. The sorts of games we invented… well, by necessity, they were bordering on solipsist, weren’t they? Maybe I would have found some entertainment chasing empty bottles and rocks around an island with you and your friend Marron. I doubt there’s anything to be gained from speculating, but I doubt there’s any harm in it, either.”

Woah. He didn’t argue, Pan thought. She offered him her cup. “Are you feeling all right? Try some of this. It’ll perk you up.”

Frieza looked at Pan, then the cup, and then tasted some. He gagged on it. “That’s revolting!”

“That, my friend, is the flavor of maturity.”

“It’s killed me. I’m choking.”

“That’s how you know it’s working,” Pan said. She took another drink herself and tried not to wince.

“You don’t seriously believe a socially-constructed rite of passage based on keeping down some foul concoction will confer any strength or wisdom, do you? That is a hopelessly naïve view of personal development.” He reached into the mist and pulled out something that looked like a flower pot. “Besides, this is a much bigger cup.”

It was, too, and with a saucer, like in a fancy restaurant. He was able to empty the rest of the pot into it. They glanced at each other and swigged it at the same time, which only meant they ended up trying not to wince at the same time.

“You gave me this because you thought I felt bad,” Frieza said. “Do you feel bad? Is that why you were drinking it?”

“What? No!” Pan said.

“There’s no shame in it. You have to know the pace you trying to keep is unsustainable, even for you. A lesser being wouldn’t have survived this long.”

I didn’t want you to know that. Blurt it right out, why don’t you. “Oh, so I’m not one of the lesser beings anymore, huh. When did I graduate?”

It wouldn’t have surprised Pan if Frieza had become angry at her taunt, but instead, he looked disturbed. “Did your grandfather tell you about the time I fought him without using my hands?”

“Yes,” Pan said, wondering at the abrupt change in subject.

“Since you’re under the weather, tonight I will fight you without using my hands.”

“Now, I may be a little tired, but I don’t think that’s fair,” Pan said.

“If it’s unfair, I’ll stop. He should have told you that, too.”

“I’m going to even the odds my own way,” Pan said. “You go ahead and fight without using your hands. I’ll fight with my Gramps’s moves.”

“Isn’t that what you’ve been doing?” Frieza asked.

“I don’t mean Grandpa Goku,” Pan said. She brought up a picture on her phone and held it up: a picture of a mustachioed giant with an afro as broad as his significant shoulders and a shiny golden championship belt. “I mean my maternal grandfather, Mark Satan, alias Hercule.”

Frieza stared at the picture skeptically. “This man… is also strong?”

“He’s very strong,” Pan said. “For an actor who only pretends to fight for entertainment. He and my mother used to be professional faces, although they’re both retired now. They played the heroes in what amounts to battle theater. They made up these over-the-top moves that looked flashy on television and they had choreographed fights.”

“You want to play-fight me like a common cur,” Frieza said, “You mock the Emperor of the Universe, girl; and anyone else would be dead for it. However, I have to admit your description has left me with such an excess of disgusted curiosity I’m willing to humor you just to see if it’s as farcical as you’ve made it sound.”

Pan ran that through her head a couple of times and still had to clarify. “That’s a yes, right?”

“In fact, I’m revising my battle plans in accordance with yours,” Frieza said. He paced between two of the fallen statues and kicked one out of the way. “Not only will I refrain from using my hands, I won’t spill the coffee, either. If so much as a drop touches the floor, you win. You may come at me at your leisure.”

She did. “Dynamite kick!”

Pan lashed out too low and too hard, but she’d timed it well enough that though Frieza blocked the first strike with one knee, when she pulled back and kicked again, that one tapped him. It left something like a scuff. The coffee barely rippled.

He kicked back. Pan rolled out of the way and threw a punch while she was at it. She wasn’t as wide as she should have been, all things considered, but it didn’t take Frieza a lot of effort to step aside. Once he had, there wasn’t really any way to stop the runaway train that was the Rolling Hercule Punch. Pan skidded into another bust, which fell over and knocked over a half-pillar, which fell over and knocked over her coffee cup, which splattered all over the floor.

“Eek!” She yanked her skirt away from the spreading puddle.

“Perhaps you misunderstood,” Frieza tapped the side of his cup. “You’re supposed to spill this one.”

“Good line, and the torn-up cloak of doom really sells it. You’re a natural heel,” Pan said.

“I won’t argue with that.”

“Volcanic Sting!”

Frieza dodged the first and second strikes but he took the third. It didn’t take Pan long to find out why; he caught her square in the chest launched her.

“This is one of my favorites. Hercule Miracle Bomber!”

She clotheslined him on the way down and knocked him clean off his feet. He landed face-first on the floor.

At the last minute, he threw the cup and saucer straight towards the ceiling.

Pan held up her phone. She flashed the camera a peace sign with the other hand and snapped a photo, capturing Frieza’s stunned face.

He wasn’t so astonished he couldn’t catch the cup and saucer, though. The coffee sloshed more than it had last time, but still none tipped over the edge.

He hooked his tail around her waist and moved her so he could stand back up.

“A valiant attempt, but an ineffectual one,” He said, sipping the coffee. “Give up yet?”

“Give up? You haven’t even seen Gramps’s signature move. You want me to show you that, right?”

“Oh, please do.”

“You ready?”

“Any time you are.”

“You asked for it,” Pan said. “Megaton Punch!”

At this point, Frieza had gotten familiar enough with Gramps’s moves (and their effectiveness) he didn’t bother dodging or deflecting. Pan had known he’d get confident eventually, and it was the opportunity she’d been waiting for. She didn’t aim for him. She aimed for the cup in his hands. She stopped just short of hitting it full-force. Cracks formed in the glass.

Frieza flicked his wrist and hurled the coffee- not the cup, just the liquid- into the air. Both the cup and the saucer crumbled.

“Uh, oh,” Pan said. The brown liquid lingered in the air right above her head.

Before it could fall, Frieza yanked her away from it, crossed his arms behind her back, and caught the coffee in both hands.

If Pan ever had a reason to suspect bad luck was a sentient entity consciously out to get her, this was it. Here she was trying to act normally, and she’d been succeeding; now she’d somehow wound up with the tyrant’s arms around her.

“I wasn’t expecting that,” He said.

She hoped she wasn’t stammering. “That I’d attack the cup, even though it had always been my target? You should have anticipated it.”

“No,” Frieza said, frowning, “That this beverage is still hot.”

Pan twisted to look. Steam rose from his hands. “Oh.”

“This is most uncomfortable. I don’t suppose you could…” He jerked his head towards the coffee pot, which was about the only vessel they’d left intact.

Pan stretched her leg. She slipped her toe through the handle and slowly pulled the pot to her, then pushed it with her heel until it was roughly under Frieza’s cupped hands. He dropped it and it oozed into the pot, too perfect a blob.

“I never thought I’d be using my telekinesis that way,” Frieza said.

“But you didn’t spill any coffee. That means you win.”

“What do I win?”

Pan showed him the picture she’d taken during her recreation of the Hercule Special. “A photo of yourself with the granddaughter of the World Champion.”

Frieza twitched. His shoulders were shaking. “Do you know one of the torments those evil dolls used to inflict on me involved trying to force me to laugh? They were trying too hard. They should’ve just brought you down.”

“I’m not sorry you pulled that off, though. I’d have hated to stain this dress. It isn’t mine.”

“Whose is it?”

Pan shrugged. “I don’t know. Someone Flare killed in the lodge.”

“It can’t be. It predates the lodge by years. Would you know what I meant if I said this is period-specific attire?”

“The red skirt is camouflage?”

“…not that kind. I mean there’s only one time in Saiyan history clothes like this were available: the late fifth century, when they were awarded to the warriors who captured the most land. They were to be worn to royal feasts so the king could immediately identify his most prolific raiders,” Frieza said.

“Now I feel even more wrong wearing it. I’m not a prolific raider.”

“You conquered Imecka.”

“We didn’t go there to do that. The robber baron in charge wouldn’t leave us alone, even after his advisor told him to lay off us.”

“As if the how or why matters. You still did it. Even if you insist on splitting the planet three ways because your grandfather and friend were with you, that’s more than enough to earn the uniform. It’s authentic, too. I’d hoped it might be counterfeit. Much as Flare considered himself a connoisseur of Saiyan culture, he knew less about it than I picked up sharing a cell in his hunting lodge with a bunch of captured monkey scouts. He might not have been able to spot a fake. I am. That isn’t a fake. How did he get his hands on it?”

Pan sighed. “I wonder.”

“What? Do you know something about it?”

Pan swung her legs over the edge of the fallen pillar. “King Flare had a lot of books on display. Didn’t you see them when you were held here?”

“I was held in the dungeon,” Frieza said. “I certainly wasn’t allowed near Flare’s ‘treasures.’”

“I wonder if any of them are from the same era. Not that I could read them if they were.”

He was inches from her so fast it almost looked like Instant Transmission. “I can. Will you take me to that trophy room?”

“You mean break in? Right now?”

“And besmirch my sterling principles? Perish the thought. We should wait until morning and ask King Sulfuri for permission. Of course I mean break in right now!”

“Ember showed me a secret path to the palace from the market district,” Pan said. “And if I can get to the palace, I can use the secret path Incendria was going to sneak us out to get back in. It opens in a wardrobe across the hall from the trophy room. Nobody should be in either this time of night. It shouldn’t be too hard to get in and out without anyone knowing. But why’s it so important?”

He looked down. He wasn’t embarrassed, but pensive, as if seeking an answer to that question on the floor.

“It might not be. I won’t know until I see the documents.”

Pan held out her hand. “Then let’s go see them,” She said.

ooo

Frieza had not been afraid as he’d run the lodge’s opening gauntlet, and he wasn’t afraid now, although the two events were in his mind very similar. Fighting in the lodge could have killed him. What waited in the trophy room could destroy everything he was inside.

Pan hadn’t spoken since they’d reached the palace. It was comfort enough she was here, picking through this dark room of rustling cloth and mannequin shadows; and that was the pathetic kind of state he was in now, that he found it comforting to have a Super Saiyan hovering at his elbow.

She opened the wardrobe door and peeked out. He didn’t feel anything, and doubted she’d have risked the look if she had. He noticed in the Prismatic light a gleam of cobweb that had caught in her hair, probably when they were spelunking in that old secret passage.

She jerked her head and darted across the hall. He followed.

Pan didn’t dare turn on a light until she’d closed the door behind her, and then it wasn’t the trophy room’s lights, but a small candle she found amongst Flare’s prizes.

“They’re all here,” she whispered, pointing to the display.

Frieza would have guessed it even if she hadn’t told him. Those small-scale huts, he’d seen in person, stood inside. He’d fought the owners of those weapons. He almost snapped one in half reaching for the first book. To see the scourge of so many worlds enshrined in a curio cabinet; he couldn’t decide if that was repellent or amusing, and he was leaning towards repellent.

He flipped through the first book with lingering disgust. Its contents did little to ease that. This one’s just a storybook. He put it back.

Pan, meanwhile, browsed a weapons display on the far side of the trophy room. “I bet Trunks would like these swords.”

“So would my father,” Frieza said. He tried the next book. Recipes. Dear to a Saiyan, perhaps, but no help to him.

“There’s something behind the sword display,” Pan whispered urgently. “I found a hidden switch. What could Flare want to keep so secret he’d go to all that trouble? It’s more books! It’s…”

She pulled one out and shook it. A centerfold unfolded.

“…dirty magazines,” She said, disgusted. “I bet Master Roshi would like that.”

“So would my father,” Frieza said, exchanging another useless book for an unread one.

“You know what? I’m just going to stay over here with you so I don’t find anything else I don’t want to know about.” Pan pushed the sword case back into place and squeezed next to the center island, wrapping her arms around herself. “This place is creepy enough as it is. And this thing here is the creepiest.”

She kicked the center island.

“Why?” Frieza asked.

“All the other displays are sorted by category. One for weapons, one for armor, one for sculptures; but this, it’s all the Saiyan stuff tossed together.”

“I told you Flare was quite fond of you. You should have heard him go on about how close the Saiyan conception of honor was to the Sutova’s, unlike us scornful Reizomorphs. How dedicated and practical you were, with none of that grub-like disloyalty. You were assertive, we were predatory; you were hardy, we were vermin; you were good, we were evil.”

“I’m glad I missed this King Flare guy’s reign,” She said. “Every new thing I hear about him is grosser than the last.”

“You consider being placed on a pedestal gross?”

“If you mean the kind of pedestal a serial killer keeps his victims’ pickled faces on,” Pan said. “Yes. That’s gross.”

“Hmpf! At least you’ve still got a face.”

“But if it’s been peeled off me and pickled, it’s not doing me any good.”

Frieza opened his mouth to argue, realized he couldn’t, and also that he was about to get into an altercation over the value of pickled faces, which was a discussion not even he had ever expected to have.

Before it could continue any further, he glanced at the book in his lap.

“I found it,” He said.

“Great!” Pan flopped down beside him and looked over his shoulder, even though she couldn’t read the Saiyan language. “What is it?”

“Records of the envoy Flare sacked for these goods. It dates…”

Frieza grew silent. He didn’t know whether to continue with “that’s impossible” or “I knew it.” Everything he believed told him it must be impossible, but he wouldn’t have sought out these records if deep down, he hadn’t begun to suspect it wasn’t.

“It dates in the late 570s. It was started before construction began on the colony that would become Asphodel. The Saiyan envoy was sent to document as well as assist in the construction of the Prismasphere. The writing is every bit as austere as I’d have expected. It’s little more than a list of names. Names of those whose contributions to the Prismasphere included their own life energy.”

Frieza closed the book and laughed.

“They’re Saiyan names.”

That laugh must have sounded like it felt. Pan edged away from him.

“Don’t misunderstand. They’re not only Saiyan names. Taleggio, that’s a Brenchian name. Tempra, that’s a Reizomorph name. Tinder, that’s a Sutova name. Turni, that’s a Saiyan name.”

Frieza politely closed the book and placed it back on the shelf.

Inside, he was screaming, I was told only the Sutova had anything to do with the Prismasphere! That a weaving of that complexity required the refined life forces of fully-developed beings, not simple organisms still in the process of learning to think and walk upright.

Outside, he said, “Is it possible to transport us back to the tower? There’s no point in breaking in and retrieving what we came for only to get caught on the way out.”

“No, sorry,” Pan said. “It doesn’t work like that. I can’t teleport cold into an empty building. I need someone’s energy to use as an anchor. Our safest bet may be crawling back in the tunnels and waiting out the dawn.”

Frieza thought, your grandfather never told you, did he, what he did that I found so unforgivable? Likely, he didn’t even know. But it wasn’t defeating me; I’d faced defeat before. It wasn’t humiliating me; I’d faced humiliation before. It wasn’t even the proselytizing… although that was a close second. No, it was that moment he decided to save my life by sharing his own energy with me. I couldn’t sense vital forces then, but not even I could have missed the implication our energies would have to be the same for that to work.

Frieza said, “Fine. We’ll do that. We’d better do it quickly. Dawn approaches, and we don’t need anything else in here.”

“The hall’s still empty. Let’s make a run for it before people start waking up and that changes.”

In that lightless tunnel against the palace wall, Frieza could feel the daylight coming, and envied that Pan couldn’t. It felt more like a tomb than his tomb. Pan sat across from him and stole the occasional glance at him, thinking about talking, and not, and it drove him mad. What did she bite back?

She finally found the courage to unstick those words in her throat. And what did she say?

“Are you okay?”

He almost snapped, I’ve been the enemy of your family for several of your lifetimes, apparently for no damned reason at all, and you’re asking me if I’m okay? Why must you sit there so… considerate? This is all Goku’s fault! If he weren’t dragging his feet, our fight would be over by now.

But he didn’t, because as frequently as he’d defaulted to those kinds of outbursts, they’d never improved his mood.

Instead he said, “Thank you for asking.”

They were the last words he was able to speak that evening.

 

Chapter Text

Pan emerged into a sunless morning and empty garden. She dusted off her skirt. It was a testament to how cramped a space the tunnel was even she felt stiff after spending a few hours there. She held up her hand; fingerprints in magenta blood lined her knuckles. She brushed it and a few flakes dropped away. She watched them fall until she couldn’t anymore.

She would tell them everything, Pan decided. As soon as she’d taken Ember and Gelata to pick up the Para Brothers in Blendarr, she’d sit them down and explain the whole mess. How the Cold after her was specifically Frieza. How he wasn’t even their real enemy, but just one more puppet being manipulated from the shadows. Even that she hoped he might be swayed to fight with them, if only just against that one mysterious enemy, since he’d stayed his hand against her already; that would be news to Ember and Gelata as well. Pan hadn’t meant to hide those things, but snatched telepathic conversations had meant stripping the details away. It was time to fill them in. She owed them that much after dragging them all the way out here.

First, Pan had to find Ember and Gelata. She closed her eyes.

The both of them came into focus below, in the dungeon. It was good they were still alive after Sulfuri’s threats, but she was ambivalent about their location. They weren’t in the dungeon as prisoners, were they?

There was only one way to find out.

Pan was admitted into the palace without incident. It was the first time she’d just walked through the front door. Nice at it was, it was also disorienting. The guards who didn’t give Pan a second glance also didn’t give her any directions, and she’d never visited these rooms. She didn’t recognize so much as a bone sculpture or anemone desk. She was about to just fly out the window and to Incendria’s room when she finally saw a familiar face coming her way: King Sulfuri himself.

Okay, so it wasn’t exactly a friendly face.

It was even less friendly than she remembered, in fact. He scowled when he saw her. Only for a moment, though; he got his expression under control quickly enough.

“Is that fresh blood I see on your hands? Have you come to report success? Don’t answer. I know what you’ll say. You’re still alive, though, and that’s more than I expected after five days of attack. It’s too bad the hunt has been outlawed. Surviving the brute flailing of some Reizomorph maggot is no mean feat, but do you think you’d do as well against a higher life form with a functioning brain? I’d have loved to find out; and let’s be honest, Saiyan, you would have, too,” He said. “But you aren’t here for such musings. No, you’ve come scurrying back for your accomplices, have you not?”

“If you mean Captain Ember and Officer Gelata,” Pan said.

“You’re in luck. They’re still here. That’s more than I can say for that traitor, Magmast, who’s on his way back to his filthy worm hole, or my fool sister; I have no idea where she’s buried herself this time. Maybe he finally convinced her to go with him. Oh, well; the dungeon is this way. Take a left at the next hall and go straight until you see the stairs. You’ll remember those, I’m sure.”

Pan leaned closer to Sulfuri, thinking. He hid his nerves well; were it not for a small bead of sweat on his forehead, she’d never have known her scrutiny was bothering him.

“I can’t figure you out, Sulfuri,” She said, finally, “But thanks for finding me that tower last night, and for telling me where to go.”

She watched his face for a reaction, and did eventually get one: his scowl returned, deeper this time. He pushed past her and stormed down the hall, even though there had been plenty of room to go around her. It wasn’t much of a push.

Pan wouldn’t have said returning to the dark of the underground was comforting, even though she knew where to go now, both from memory and feeling her friends’ life energies. Neither of them masked their presences, and Ember was as commanding as he’d been when she’d first sensed him inside that tent.

She paused before the door. That didn’t mean he wasn’t in prison.

To her relief, it opened; if he was arrested it would be locked.

She was less relieved when she entered the room and found out what it was, and what they- or rather, Gelata- was doing there. It was a sterile lab, the brightest place she’d seen on this sunless planet, with countertops that glowed under the lights and shiny cupboards and drawers. Ember leaned against one of the shelves. Gelata stood in the middle, knife in her hand that was also stained with blood. On the table was the body of… had his name been Char? The knife-wielding guard. Pan guessed Ember hadn’t buried him with the others, or someone had exhumed him for autopsy. Gelata looked to have been working on his head.

They both looked up when she stepped inside.

“Brat,” Ember said. But he said it affectionately, and he grinned. “You’re late again. If you were under my command, I’d be throwing you in the hole every morning.”

“You’ve got an oubliette somewhere around here, just like Bustion? I should have known.”

Magister Bustion,” Ember said. “And why wouldn’t I? So it’s a good thing you’re not my subordinate, but my friend.”

“Mine as well. I’m relieved to see you,” Gelata said, waving her bloody gloves. Good thing she wasn’t a hugger like Incendria was. “You’ll be pleased to know we weren’t idle while you were fighting last night. Someone had recovered Char’s remains, and since they were here, I decided to search them. I’ve discovered something I think you’ll find intriguing.”

She opened a refrigerator and pulled out a small glass box. Inside it was what looked like one of the alarm-birds Ember had made to wake her up in the morning, except like the Vile sentry, it was bloated and bruised purple. Yet it was also alive, at least as “alive” as Prismatic sentries ever were.

“You mean Char had that on him when you searched him?” Pan asked.

“On him? That’s one way of putting it,” Gelata said.

Ember clarified, although Pan wished he didn’t. “It crawled out of his chest when she opened it.”

Pan paled. “That’s sickening!”

“Sickening, perhaps, but it’s also cunning,” Gelata said. “Char wasn’t under mind control, exactly, but this sentry seems to have been able to influence him to some extent and send him orders remotely with no chance of eavesdropping. I’ve saved it for later examination. I might be able to retrieve the messages passed through it. The Vile wave is such an exciting new area of study! I had no idea such a thing was possible.”

Ember shuddered. “I’m glad one of us is happy about it.”

“I don’t think it’s going to break our case open, though,” Gelata said, packing the shadow-bird back into the fridge. “Even if our culprit used this to pass messages to his warriors, I doubt he’d have identified himself in them. What about you? Have you made any discoveries? Did Frieza let anything else slip while you were fighting?”

“Yes, and actually, I came here to get you two before taking you to Blendarr,” Pan said.

“You do have a clue, then!”

“Even better. I have witnesses. There are three men in Blendarr who were attacked by a Planet Trade ship last night. They can tell you all about the make and model.” Perhaps this wasn’t the best way to start being fully honest, Pan thought, but it’d be easier to get Ember and Gelata to Blendarr, where the Para Brothers could explain themselves better than she could.

“That is an excellent lead,” Ember said. “It almost makes me suspicious Traders were sloppy enough to be seen, let alone merciful enough to leave the men who saw them alive. That isn’t like them. How quickly can we get there?”

Pan motioned to him. “In less than a second, thanks to Instant Transmission. Hold on.”

Ember slapped her on the shoulder and clenched it. “Tell you what, teacher; when all this is over, this has to be the next technique we learn from you. The sheer convenience of it!”

Pan grinned as Gelata peeled off her gloves and linked arms with her. “Only if you keep training. It looks easy, but Instant Transmission is one of the most difficult and taxing things we do. My body wasn’t capable of handling the physical stress of it until I was about fifteen, and that’s nothing compared to the mental strain of maneuvering in the Teleportation Zone. You can get lost in there and come out parsecs away from where you meant to.”

“I don’t want to learn it today. Are we leaving?” Ember asked.

“We’re leaving,” Pan said, stretching her focus from the palace and the glow of life inside it towards Blendarr and the distinct signatures of her friends.

Para Brothers, here I come.

ooo

As bizarre as the situation on Ketchyn was becoming, Pan would be glad to see Blendarr again, with its stately old gallery and peaceful streets. She was glad to be meeting friends there. She’d be relieved when they were all together again, when getting off this planet and back to Earth was a simple matter of installing the right equipment on the Para Brothers’ ship.

That was why, when she entered the Teleportation Zone and felt the clammy fingers of a bad feeling on the back of her neck, she tried to ignore it.

They touched down in an alley between the gallery and a butcher’s shop, advertised by a sign whose pictures Pan understood, even if the writing was unfamiliar. The Para Brothers must have taken her advice to stay there until she arrived. Where were they now? Inside the building? She noticed a stuffy chemical smell and located its source: a junkyard behind the gallery, catty-corner the butcher’s. She shooed and decided to go inside just to get away from it.

No sooner had she taken a step towards the main street than a woman screamed.

That one scream multiplied in number and intensity. Men and women both yelled in alarm and fear. Then came the stamping of running footsteps and the unmistakable crackle of a ki blast.

A woman holding a child crashed back-first into the gallery wall, her sleeve smoking. It wasn’t even a second later a man in dark blue and white armor bearing a black insignia rounded the corner and shoved her to the ground. He raised his fist to deliver a killing blow, but Pan broke his attack and his arm in the same shot and put him out of commission with a Masenko. Ember pulled the woman to her feet, healing her and dragging her to the shadows of the gutter with his usual level of kindness (in other words, it was only the Prismatic balms that convinced her he wasn’t also trying to kill her).

“There’s no question these are Planet Trade men,” Gelata said, brushing the insignia. “This is the mark of one of their elite battle forces, although I don’t know which, only that I’m certain it’s not Ginyu. This attack is subtle as a sledgehammer to the face. The question is, what prompted such a bold move on their part?”

Pan only had one question right now: where were the Para Brothers? It was their energy she’d followed here, so the elites hadn’t killed them, but it was gone now, so they weren’t captured, either. They were hiding their power.

Just as Pan realized she’d better do the same, she heard yelling in the back of her head.

Junkyard. Right behind you.

Pan tugged Ember’s sleeve. “There.”

The five of them, Pan, Ember, Gelata, the woman and child, made their way to the junkyard. The door had already been forced, so they opened it carefully and slipped inside.

Three Sutova waited inside: a short, squat one, a tall stringy one, and a burly one. Their disguises changed so little of their appearance, but were convincing enough that if Pan hadn’t known what to look for, not even she would have recognized these men as the Para Brothers.

“You’re here,” Pan said. “When the attack happened…”

“The attack just happened,” Bonpara said. “Seconds ago. Until then, your plan was working perfectly. We went to the gallery, we asked for that Flint guy, we told him you’d sent us to see your painting, and he took us right to it. We figured he’d kick us out after a few hours, but when he found out we didn’t have anywhere else to be, he told us to ‘wait out the Vile Wave’ there. We didn’t know what he meant, but we figured it was a good idea to do what he said, so we did. We’d just gotten up and were about to check the square for you when we heard Flint screaming.”

“Oh, no! Is he…” Pan remembered how nice Flint had been to her when he’d found her under that tree.

“They dragged him away before we could stop them,” Sonpara said. “That big Reizomorph and his thugs. We saved who we could, but we can’t fight at full power in these disguises…”

“Then lose the disguises,” Pan said. “The Planet Trade invaders aren’t hiding. You can’t afford to.”

The three brothers hit a series of buttons on their suits. Their Sutova features melted, revealing the blue faces and red suits beneath.

Ember swore. “Now what in the blazes are you three?”

Gelata, on the other hand, clasped her hands together, looking on the verge of happy tears. “I know! I know! You’re machine mutants from the planet M-2, aren’t you? I’d recognize that cyanosis and the skull-chassis anywhere. They were standard outfitting used by the robot uprising to transform the few organic lifeforms they bothered sparing into cyborgs. You’re also made to be upgraded, right?” She cackled. “It should be easy to take you apart and see exactly how that process worked.”

Donpara backed away from Gelata’s wiggling claws. “You must be that friend Pan told us about. Nice to meet you.”

“What about Flint?” Pan pressed. “You said they dragged him away. Do you know where they took him?”

“You can see it from here,” Bonpara said. “The west window. It’s a little grimy, but that’s better. With the lights off, they can’t see us in here for all that dirt.”

“But how much will I be able to see?”

“Enough,” Bonpara said darkly.

Though she stood on her tip-toes, Pan couldn’t reach the window. She pushed a box underneath it and climbed atop it, and then the film gave everything a grainy look, like an old video tape.

A small platform, professional-looking enough Pan suspected it had come from a capsule, had been erected in the middle of the square just north of the gallery. Around it, Planet Trade soldiers herded the townspeople like cattle; and since there was one captor for every person, these noncombatants had no hope of fighting back. More elites stood atop the platform, and between them she saw Flint, thrust to his knees by two Trade men. She only saw them for a moment. Another figure, a much larger and darker one, blocked her view.

Pan remembered Krillin telling her about the time a deep woods camping trip had turned into a nightmare when, in the wake of Frieza’s death, the Planet Trade Organization had launched its first attempt at vengeance. She remembered him repeating, over and over, “they looked so much alike, I thought he was Frieza, back from the dead.”

Perhaps she’d spent too much time mulling over the Emperor’s face, but Pan didn’t agree. She could see some similarities, mostly in his jaw and the pallid armor, but his features were sharper, and he was much taller and broader in the shoulders. He fell more towards purple than pink. Red skin crawled from his eyes to his chin like bloody tears. Perhaps appropriately, where Frieza constantly wore that placid smile, even when furious, this man frowned even when he was bored.

“How long has it been?” The Reizomorph asked the men holding Flint.

“Two minutes, thirty seconds,” one replied.

“That’s longer than I care to wait.” He wasted few words on Flint. “I know you’re harboring those three men who crashed near this town, and I know you’ve at least seen Pan.”

“I don’t know who you’re-”

Flint didn’t get to finish the sentence. The Reizomorph backhanded him. Blood flew. He threw something at Flint’s knees. Pan went cold as she recognized her painting.

“What name is that in the corner?”

Flint looked down.

“That’s what I thought.” He grabbed Flint by the wrist. “Here’s how we’re going to do this. I’m going to count to ten, and if you haven’t talked by then, I’m going to kill you and move on to someone else. I’m going to keep doing that until I either hear what I want or this is a ghost town. One.”

He snapped Flint’s forefinger. Pan could hear the sickening crack all the way from the junkyard.

“Flint helped me. I have to help him,” Pan said, clenching the windowsill. “I can’t just watch this happen.”

“You can’t go out there, either!” Ember said, grabbing her shoulder. “Don’t you know who that is?”

Their whispering was cut off by Flint’s scream as the Reizomorph snapped his middle finger. “Two.”

Pan couldn’t believe she was saying it, and yet out of her mouth it came. “Yes. I do. It’s Frieza’s older brother, Cooler. That’s why I can’t watch this. He’s not bluffing. He’s not stalling. He isn’t going to waste any time preening or flexing his muscles, and he has no mercy for these people to appeal to. Everyone in Blendarr is going to die if we don’t act.”

Cooler drew back his hand. Flint braced himself for another broken bone. Instead, he got something that was, as impossible as it seemed, even worse. Cooler clamped his hand on Flint’s head. It didn’t look like anything happened, but a moment later, Flint screamed even louder and slumped, trying to struggle away. He trembled with the exertion of even doing that much.

“What did that bastard just do?” Ember asked.

“Short version?” Pan asked. “He’s ripping out Flint’s energy. It’s a technique he learned from the Big Gete Star. He can drain other peoples’ ki to become temporarily stronger, or heal himself if he’s injured.”

“To think such monsters exist in the North Quadrant.”

He lifted his hand eventually, but only to snap Flint’s thumb and forefinger in rapid succession. “That’s three and four, to make up for the time I wasted stealing your wretched life force. You’re halfway dead in more ways than one, painter. Do you still hold your tongue? Perhaps I should remove it before you die.”

He reached for Flint’s second hand.

Pan’s knee knocked him away. She pulled Flint off the platform, to the comparative safety of the crowd, tossing the men that held him in the same swipe.

“I’m sorry,” She said. “I should have been here sooner.”

“Leave us and run,” Flint whispered, and then he lost consciousness.

Pan clenched her fist. She grit her teeth. Her hair flickered from black to gold and her energy surged. She stood and turned, placing herself between Cooler and the painter.

Cooler was not impressed. He looked as if this was a scene he’d witnessed too many times to find interesting anymore.

“Son Pan. Finally. You are the most difficult woman to get hold of.” He motioned to his soldiers. “Seize her.”

Chapter Text

The men came at Pan like a wave. They crashed around her. Some had assumed those numbers would be enough and were surprised to find they’d slammed into nothing. Pan held both hands before her. She’d stopped them with the sheer power of her movement.

She took advantage of the seconds she’d bought to drop into a fighting stance.

They attacked again, not bothering to look for an opening.

The first three met Pan’s fists and collapsed on the spot. Their colleagues had no qualms about crawling over them to get to her. She spun out of their outstretched hands, firing; only a few blasts connected, but the purpose of that defensive trick was to get Pan out of their range and throw off their phalanx. It worked; dodging made a crack right through the center of the crowd. Pan shoved herself into it like a wedge. Enemies went down on either side of her.

It was a lot like the Panther-Fang fight that started all this. True, these men had practical experience, but it was all against crowds of their invaded planets’ shivering inhabitants, not opponents with every advantage they had and more. Pan’s biggest problem was holding back the rage and her Super Saiyan power that came with it. She needed to save her unstable transformation and the few minutes she could safely use it for Cooler.

Atop the platform, he gave a new command: “Fire into the crowd. Get her when she tries to save the townspeople.”

No! Pan stirred up enough of a breeze to divert the first barrage of cannon fire, but there would be more. When another warrior leveled his cannon at a fleeing man, she could stop him. She could even stop the one yards away; but there were too many of them flooding the square from too many directions, and sooner or later one would slip through.

A trader turned to fire and found his face breaking under the weight of a massive blue fist. Two red blurs passed it and broke through the line on either side of that fallen warrior; Sonpara and Donpara. Bonpara stepped over him, following them.

The brothers were excellent fighters, but in a melee of this size, that still left Pan with too much of a blind spot. Mercenaries came at her from both sides, then a man charged her head-on. She stopped the blows and deflected the attackers, channeling her building anger into a Burst that threw them, spinning, into the air.

“Red Wave Snare!”

A group charging her stopped cold, struggling against bonds they couldn’t see.

Ember stepped out from the alleyway, hands folded before his face. He pulled one back and hurled light and heat at his trapped opponents.

“Firedrake Bite!”

Behind Ember, another mercenary slipped from the shadows, making to sneak up on him, but Gelata punched the man in the stomach and, not expecting that to do much to a Planet Trade elite, followed it up with some kind of orange goo in a canister. Pan had no idea what that was, but the mercenary screamed and clawed his face, wide open for Gelata to bat him away with her tail.

She waved the can. “Bioluminescent conductor fluid. It gets very corrosive with age. I pulled it out of a saucer in the junkyard, and there’s plenty more where that came from.”

Ember jerked his head. “You know what’s going to happen if she has to transform. Can you get these people out of here?”

“I’ve cleared a path to the forest beside the lodge already, captain, and I’ve taken that painter friend of Pan’s there.”

When she turned back to her own corner of the battle, Pan had a smile on her face. It looked like she was covered after all.

Cooler’s expression didn’t change, though, and that shook her for just a moment. He remained as impassive and confident as he’d been when the battle began.

She couldn’t stare at him, though. The fight commanded her attention. She was grabbed on either side. She leg-swept one mercenary and let him pull her down with her, throwing the other off-balance. She elbow-smashed the first as she fell on him, then clawed her way back to her feet up the second’s body, knocking him out.

“Captain,” Gelata said. “The people; they aren’t moving.”

“Do they have a good view of me?” Pan asked.

“What does that have to do with anything?”

She didn’t ask again. She climbed onto the two fallen mercenaries (they were so huge that between the two of them, she almost had as much platform as Cooler) and pulled her tail through the hole on the back of her dress.

“Did you think you killed us all, Cold?” She said, projecting her voice, again channeling Gramps and her mother. “The Saiyans are not so easily destroyed! Did you think I’d die here today? On the contrary; this will be the day I take my revenge!”

That was not a reassuring thing for the crowd to hear, but Pan hadn’t wanted it to be. In fact, it got exactly the reaction she’d been going for: they didn’t just follow Gelata’s instructions, they stampeded to and through the path she’d cleared. Even Cooler looked surprised, though unruffled.

Pan again threw herself at the line of warriors, and this time, between the assault from her, the Para Brothers, and Ember, it shattered completely. These men knew better than to flee, and fought to the last, but Pan struck three, the Para Brothers one each, and Ember five with another Razor Rain, and it was over. Cooler’s men were spent, spread on the ground unconscious or worse (Pan had been trying not to kill them. She didn’t think the Para Brothers or Ember had bothered).

Pan approached the platform. The Para Brothers struck a pose and then fell in behind her. Ember and Gelata flanked them.

“You were resurrected as well, then,” Pan said. “Maybe you can tell me who brought you back.”

Cooler surveyed the damage. “Nobody brought me back. There was no need. Don’t you remember when the gates to Hell opened and the dead poured forth? While everyone else threw themselves right back into the grave with their dreams of conquest and revenge, I simply boarded a ship like any other passenger and left Earth. In the bedlam, King Enma never noticed I was missing.”

She wasn’t getting any answers from him, then. “Are you ready to come down here and fight me yourself?”

 “I would love nothing more,” Cooler said. “However, I’m afraid you owe a fight to someone else on Ketchyn. Princess?”

A red hand clenched the back of the platform, right behind where Cooler stood, and an arm followed it, then tendrils.

Princess Incendria pulled herself onto the platform, holding her power pole.

“You wanted to see what she was capable of, didn’t you, without revealing your true power to the rest of the palace?” Cooler asked her.

She extended the pole. It flashed yellow and hissed with energy. “Yes, I did.”

“Here’s your opportunity. Bring me that gibbon.”

Incendria leapt from the platform to the ground and advanced.

ooo

Pan had known this moment would come. She hadn’t expected it to hurt so much. She’d suspected from their first meeting that Incendria wasn’t really her friend, but she must have been nursing more trust than she’d thought, because she felt deep inside the vituperative sting of betrayal. Her black hair flashed golden again. She suppressed it. “Attacking me is one thing, but attacking your own people alongside the Planet Trade Organization? That’s low, Princess, even by Ketchyn standards.”

Incendria stopped her placid approach. “Is that what you think is happening? You’re wrong. Not a word I’ve said to you was a lie. Not a thing I’ve done for you was inspired by anything but sincere affection. This isn’t an invasion, either. Cooler is here for one thing, and he’s going to leave as soon as he gets it.”

“Let me guess. The ‘thing’ is me, right? It wasn’t Frieza who put that bounty on my head, it was Cooler. Why couldn’t I be this popular in school? It would’ve been easier to get dates.”

“I can’t imagine a sweet girl like you had any trouble getting dates,” Incendria said.

Pan looked around her and quirked an eyebrow. “Are you still talking to me?”

She answered with the kind of sing-song tone a mother might take with a bratty child. “Yes, I’m talking to you. Cooler would like you to go with him, and it would be best for all of us… including you… if you did what he asked.”

“Why is that?” Pan asked.

“He has something to tell you.”

“Tell me now. You have my full attention.”

Incendria looked over her shoulder as if she expected to find someone hovering there. “That would be a bad idea. We might be overheard.”

“By who? Frieza? I don’t see any mirrors.”

“That isn’t the only channel open to the Vile Wave,” Incendria said, “And Frieza isn’t the only one listening. You can’t even begin to fathom the danger we’re in; not just you, but all of Ketchyn. If Chilled’s Mirror isn’t…”

Cooler hissed. “Shh!”

“That confirms you know about the mirror,” Pan said. “Are you the one who stole it from Cold Manor after all? Funny, I was about to dismiss you as a suspect.”

On the sidelines, Ember cleared his throat. “I wasn’t.”

“It’s not for you to worry about, Pan. Or you, for that matter, Captain,” Incendria slid into a dragon stance, holding the power pole diagonally from the ground. Voltage darted up and down its golden length. “We’ve got a plan to set everything right again. The first step is getting you onto a cruiser, off Ketchyn, and to one of Cooler’s more defensible fortresses. To be honest, I’m looking forward to this. It’s been so long since I’ve gotten to use even a fraction of my strength against an opponent. I can’t wait to see your limits.”

In spite of the lingering pain, Pan felt her chest thumping with excitement. “I can’t wait to see yours.”

Pan knew the pole would enhance Incendria’s range and force, and she didn’t know what its Prismatic connection would bring to the mix; but she also knew it was better as a defensive weapon. Regardless of the Princess’s natural talent, if she were used to fighting dummies and inexperienced training partners, Pan might be able to put her out of commission quickly if she could goad her into attacking first.

It turned out, not much goading was necessary. Incendria swept low. Pan had to get out of the pole’s way, and normally the best way to do that would be to dart closer to Incendria; but Pan felt the crackle of a green shield, and the pole flashed green, and she knew she’d only be trapping herself. Instead, she turned away on the outside of the staff and knocked it away.

So much for putting Incendria out of commission quickly.

Incendria tried a high strike this time. She’s testing my defenses. Pan thought back to their first fight. She brushed against the shield this time, feeling the Prismatic energy over her shoulder. She tried to block, but Incendria slid the pole right past her forearm, into her ribs, knocking her back.

Pan rolled with the fall, throwing herself into a building. She pulled a bone from its wall and deflected Incendria’s next strike. Splinters flew. This improvised weapon wouldn’t last long. That was exactly why Pan had picked it.

Indeed, Incendria brought the pole down again and again until it broke clean through the bone. She raised it higher. Again, Pan blocked. Again, the pole glanced off her skin and went right through her defenses. This time, however, she spun, locking it against her body, and wrenched it from Incendria’s hands.

The yellow energy flared and burned, but Pan didn’t let go until she’d thrown the weapon to Ember. Surprisingly, the pain cooled instantly.

Incendria chuckled. “A weakness deliberately introduced. It’s exactly what I did to you when we sparred. I should have seen that coming.”

“Still,” Pan said. “I’m impressed. You’re a lot of trouble for someone who’s never had to seriously fight someone on your own skill level.”

“I have a confession,” Incendria said. “I don’t have as much practical experience as I’d like, but I have been trained. Do you remember when I said I had help building those tunnels? That’s what we built them for.”

“Whoever your mystery man was, he was good with a staff,” Pan said. “How much hand-to-hand did he teach you?”

Incendria winked. “I’ll tell you all about it on the way. Red Wave Paralysis!”

“Green Wave Deflection!”

“That’s the problem with paralysis. It shatters like warm ice at the slightest disruption. We’ll do this the hard way, then.”

The ground collapsed beneath Incendria as she flew towards Pan; it buckled further beneath them as Pan cross-blocked and threw her. Incendria flipped mid-air and planted her feet on the junkyard building, demolishing the wall. Pan thought she’d launch another attack, but instead, she flew to another building, dragging something behind her.

It was one of those snares, the kind Ember used to immobilize his enemies; it must be a sturdier version of the paralysis, but with the disadvantage the target had to walk into it for it to work.

Not only that, but Pan had yet another way out of it: Instant Transmission. If Incendria did manage to box her in, she could just anchor herself to Ember or Bonpara, whichever was closer, and teleport out of it. That would cost her time and energy, though, and it could take the battle dangerously close to the fleeing civilians. It would have to be a last resort.

Atop the platform, Cooler lashed his tail.

Though Incendria managed to lay one thread, Pan banked and caught her before she could start another.

Incendria counterattacked with more power than Pan was expecting. Incendria released her power like an explosion; it wasn’t like Vile Frieza’s, but Pan only had to outlast him, and she had to defeat Incendria. The Princess didn’t fall for a second feint. She wouldn’t seize on any of Pan’s false openings, opting instead to try to force her own. Another building fell as the force of their battle shattered it. So many cities Pan had seen like that, living cities made ruins in a day by the wake of the Shadow Dragons…

Isn’t that what you are now?

The memory felt as sharp as a knife to the brain, and it gave Incendria the chance she needed. She kicked, and Pan took it full force. She struggled on the ground, struggled to repress the energy that glowed and faded, glowed and faded like the rhythm of the Prismasphere. Not yet. She couldn’t change yet. Incendria set two more snares. 

Clawing her way to the surface like a woman drowning in her own head, Pan jumped back into the fray, but it was too late. Incendria set the final corner of the trap.

“Red Wave Snare!”

Pan felt the Prismasphere closing around her. It was like moving walls. She waited, uncomfortable, for the energy to graze her skin, and then she tapped her forehead.

That little bad feeling grew into a big bad feeling as she entered the teleportation zone. Something was wrong, and by the time she figured out what, it was too late.

Cooler wrapped his arm around her neck from behind and kicked her in the back.

“I got you,” He whispered, slamming her into the cold forest ground.

ooo

For the second time in one week, when she pulled herself back to her feet, Pan was not standing in the place she’d fallen. She wasn’t in Blendarr anymore. Cooler’s strategy had been first-rate. Hadn’t she just told her friends he had little respect for polite one-on-one combat? Why had he bowed out and offered just that sort of “time-wasting” fight to Incendria? Because Cooler, like Pan, knew Instant Transmission. He knew if he kept throwing Pan into escalating fights, it was only a matter of time before she’d have to use it. He’d planned this whole thing with one goal: getting her into the teleportation zone, where he and nobody else on Ketchyn could follow her.

They were still on Ketchyn, though. As much grief as it had caused Pan that she couldn’t teleport through the Prismasphere, she was glad for it now. Cooler couldn’t, either. The yellow wave fell in beams through the trees, looking deceptively like the sun. They must be somewhere in the Buldwald.

Cooler grabbed her throat… well, he’d never really let go of it… and shoved her into a tree. “I had my men stash another cruiser here. I’d advise you not struggle any further.”

“You interrupted my fight with Incendria. She’s not going to be any happier about that than I am.”

He continued as if she’d said nothing. “I don’t want to kill you because I don’t want to stir up that hornet’s nest your father and ‘uncle’ Vegeta crawled into. If you die at my hands, they most certainly will be knocking down my door to avenge you, and the empire needs my full attention right now. I can’t be ‘settling scores’ with Saiyan debris.”

“You think they won’t come to find me if you kidnap me? It’s been a week. They’re probably already circling Ketchyn. They’ll spot you the second you take off.”

“They don’t know you’re here, and make no mistake, I have a way to keep you in line.”

She tried to jump again. He clamped down harder and suddenly, ice consumed her from the inside out. When the agony faded, she no longer had the strength to jump.

“There. See? You can walk through the woods on your own feet, or I can drain you to unconsciousness and carry you. It doesn’t matter to me either way. In fact, forget having a choice in the matter. I think I’ll just do it to save myself the headache.”

He’s stolen my energy. Pan thought, wondering if the Brothers could hear her. I was already weak, working so hard on so little sleep, and now there’s not even enough left to teleport. There’s barely enough left to transform…

And suddenly, she knew how she could defeat Cooler.

It might work. It might kill her, too.

Screaming, she stopped trying to hold back her rage. In a burst of energy, her last remaining bit, she became a Super Saiyan.

The transformation alone was enough to break his grip on her. That was fine for now.

“You must be joking,” He said.

She knew she was breathing hard. He lunged at her and she dodged. It was sloppy, and she looked more like a tossed doll than an experienced fighter, but she was out of his range. She had to make sure Cooler really believed she meant to fight him to the end so he didn’t wonder why she was stalling.

“I could use a senzu right now, it’s true,” She said. “But I’ve seen dad and grandpa come back from worse. Are you sure you don’t want to tell me what’s going on? Why you put a bounty on me? I might cooperate if you’re convincing enough.”

He actually appeared to consider what she was saying.

“The Mirror is going to explode if it remains in use,” Cooler said. “I don’t mean the kind of explosions that destroyed Planet Vegeta. I mean Chilled’s Mirror sleeps, and each Prismatic technique channeled through it rouses it a little more. If it wakes fully, it’s going to trigger a planet-wide Vile Backlash. There isn’t a thing on Ketchyn that could survive that, and with the Dragon Balls destroyed along with those Shadow Dragons, there’d be no way to undo it.”

“Oh, no,” Pan said. “But if that’s true, we need to find who took the mirror!” And that definitely meant it wasn’t Incendria, if she joined forces with Cooler to stop that backlash from happening.

The ground shook. Cooler gazed at it, perturbed. “That’s funny. We aren’t near a fault.”

“Answer me! Why are you trying to lock me up in some dungeon on whichever Planet Cooler when we need to be searching Ketchyn for…”

Frieza has the mirror! I don’t know who he got it from, but he’s the one using it now, and I knew exactly what he’d use it for: trying to yet again defeat your grandfather.”

“Grandpa is…”

“…dead. I was close enough to Earth that I heard his final distress call. You forget, this is my home world, too. I know how a sentry works. In absence of its target, it would take the next nearest thing.”

“How did you know the sentry would decide that was me, not dad or Uub or uncle Goten?”

“Because you’re the one Son Goku left his gi,” Cooler said. “Prismatic techniques lose power the further from Ketchyn you are. Put enough distance between you and the planet and they won’t work at all. I thought if I could take you away from this world and hide you somewhere you wouldn’t be easy to retrieve, Frieza would leave Ketchyn to try to acquire you, and the mirror would remain asleep.”

“But you can just… tell him,” Pan said. “That’s what we’ll do. The next time Frieza comes to fight me, we’ll tell him to stop using the mirror.”

Cooler laughed. “And you think he’ll listen? Have you ever tried to tell my brother anything? No. Close your mouth. I know what I’m doing. This conversation was as much a waste of time as I thought it would be.”

The rumbling below grew steady. I hope it’s enough, Pan thought.

She tried to put up a fight nonetheless. Cooler did not pull his punches even a little. She felt her skin breaking with the first two, and on the third, she coughed up blood. He grabbed her by the hair.

The icy pain returned.

Pan laughed, even though it hurt. “I got you.”

Then she screamed. But this time, so did Cooler. He threw her into another tree, shaking, clutching his hand. Pink energy darted up and down his arm. It moved to his shoulder.

“Negative energy,” Pan said, limping away from the tree. “How do you like the taste?”

“What… are…” He slumped, fell to the side. “…you.”

Pan checked him. Cooler was still alive. She didn’t know how long her negative energy infusion had knocked him out for. She had to get out of here, whether she knew where ‘here’ was or not.

Without the energy to teleport or even fly very fast, Pan picked a direction and walked.

 

Chapter Text

Frieza closed the book and placed it back on the shelf for what he did not know would be the last time.

The mirror boiled as he approached, distorting his reflection. He could feel its agitation, its anger, and deep beyond the surface, a peculiar sense of disappointment; not something one was used to getting from an inanimate object. It did not disappear as he scratched the glass. It only slowed its seething enough to reveal images.

There weren’t many to be had, just glimpses through windows, mostly. Between them and the energy-reading technique Pan taught him, he could follow the fight. He knew Cooler had touched down and confronted Pan. He knew Pan had fought Incendria, then his brother. He knew they’d used that Yardrat teleportation trick to move the battle out of the town. He’d even felt that Pan had scraped up something that resembled a victory; her ki had plummeted like a rock, but so had Cooler’s, and Pan was the one who’d walked away in the end.

The problem was, she was nowhere near civilization, and wasn’t strong enough to get to it before nightfall. She’d never find shelter. He had to get to her. Not one of his minions. Him.

He pulled the rusty knife and stared at the blade.

“Are you bringing someone else through the mirror, Lord Frieza?” Captain Ginyu asked. “Your father? Zarbon and Dodoria?”

“No. I’m going into it myself.”

Ginyu shuddered. “May I be so bold as to ask why?”

“This mirror controls the Vile Wave by focusing it through a lens. That lens was created by distorting the barrier between the lands of the living of the dead, accessing a kind of purgatory where you’re not truly either.”

“I remember,” Ginyu said, and Frieza could tell he wished he didn’t.

“It took a lot of study in that journal, and a lot of experimentation, to figure out why I can only move freely at night. I knew it must be a deliberately-introduced weakness when I brought you back and you didn’t share it. Now, I know how it was introduced. I was tethered to the mirror. Something that belongs on that side of the glass was brought over here with me, and that’s why I can only leave when the Vile Wave is at its strength and I’m dragged back here as soon as wanes. I’ll have to search the place to find out what, and then I’ll put it back. That should cure my little daytime issues.”

“How will you get there?”

Frieza gripped the rusty blade hard and pulled. Blood flew. He pressed the gash against the mirror’s surface.

The mirror went so still it almost looked normal. Even the violet sheen cleared. Frieza could see, clear as day, his own face staring back at him, his own palm, like a window.

His reflection grabbed his wrist and pulled.

And though every instinct he possessed screamed at him to fight it, though every cell of his being recoiled in revulsion at its touch, he allowed it to draw him through the glass.

The journal’s author had collected accounts of people who had visited this space through near-death experiences or Backlash accidents, and from what Frieza could tell, it wasn’t the same for any two people; it reflected the place the experience had happened, but was skinned over with whatever personalized afterlife leaked through the barrier. The diarist had reported bloodied faces screaming from the walls and the constant smell of smoke and ash.

Frieza envied him. As soon as he stepped through, he was hit in the face with the stench of perfume, and a moment later, with a puff of gold glitter and confetti from a party horn. Oh, it still looked like his tomb, all right; it just looked like his tomb overgrown with flowers and flowering vines. Bright red mushrooms with white spots sprouted in fairy rings on the floor. Lanterns glowed above. A butterfly flapped past him and fireflies darted over the surface of the underground lake. Feminine giggling bounced off the walls.

He almost turned around and went back.

No, he had to fix this problem. He wouldn’t be here long. He tugged free his cape, which had caught on a crack in the mirror. He willed himself to take another step.

His foot hit something that felt like a stone.

A trio of snails with sousaphones for shells slimed across a broken statue. Riding atop the last and biggest was a doll. She had hummingbird wings, a peaked cap, and a doe-eyed gnome face, glistening with cracked paint and porcelain glaze.

“Hello, Grumpy Gus. Are you looking for your way home?”

He knew exactly what the horrid little thing meant by home. “No.”

“You’re not here to do mischief, are you? It’s not a good idea to do mischief here. Not even we can help you if you wake the Gatekeepers.”

He resisted the urge to punt her across the room just to get her away from him. She was no toy, she wasn’t as harmless as she looked, and this was no place to test the nature and extent of her power. “I’m trying to find some difference between the room I left and this one,” He said. “Not just the flowers and fairy dust, a big difference. It must be done quickly.”

“You mean a scavenger hunt. That doesn’t sound like mischief. It sounds like fun. I’ll help, too.”

Help, indeed. Frieza knew this thing would lure or trick him back to the land of the dead at the first opportunity, and giving herself such an opportunity was the only reason she was imposing her “help” on him. On the other hand, he couldn’t afford not to take it. He was in the false doll’s territory.

He didn’t have to like the chipper tune she hummed as she marched around the room. “If I were a missing thing, where would I be?”

“This isn’t a safe place for a live person,” Frieza said, “So whatever was taken would have to be small and easy to carry. It wouldn’t be a statue.”

I’ll check the shelf, he thought.

It sounded like a logical idea at the time. If anything was wrong on the other side of the mirror, it was that diary with all its forbidden secrets. When he approached it, though, he found it completely unchanged. It stood tall and weathered and empty. The book sat exactly where he’d left it. Frieza didn’t open it. He speculated it would be just as readable, too, and he didn’t want the confirmation.

“Grumpy Gus! Over here!”

The doll jumped up and down and pointed at a square door in the wall. It was a burial vault.

“That would have worked,” Frieza said, “Pulling something off one of the bodies interred here. Nobody would notice a missing finger bone here, or a spare one over there, if they weren’t breaking into the vaults.”

He knelt and opened the vault door.

Frieza peered into the hole. It was pitch black. He couldn’t see a body inside. He couldn’t see anything. However, he did hear running water somewhere far below; running water and music.

Familiar music.

He crawled back out of the hole and threw himself against the wall just in time to avoid the gnome’s kick. She teetered on the edge of the open vault before steadying herself. She tried to scurry out of reach, but Frieza swept her up by the collar.

“Nice try,” He said.

She wriggled. “Put me down!”

He kicked the door closed and dropped her. “Did you or did you not hear me say I do not have time for this? Pan’s in danger.”

The gnome climbed up on a table and watched him search with a blank doll expression.

He paced the room fully and cursed its emptiness. His missing piece hadn’t been taken from the vaults or their inhabitants. It wasn’t a pillar, pilaster, or statue. It wasn’t any of the reflection’s elaborations. What did that leave? Nothing! There hadn’t been much in the tomb to begin with. When he’d first woken there, it had been just him, the diary, and the mirror.

“Perhaps whoever resurrected me destroyed the object after they removed it,” He said.

The doll came to a decision. She flounced off the table and peddled to him. “There’s still somewhere you haven’t looked.”

“Let me guess. Some other garbage chute back to hell, right?”

She shook her head and pointed at his chest.

“You mean to say it’s stitched up in me?” He patted the spot. Was this also some kind of trick?

His eyes shifted from the gnome’s face to the rusty knife still in his hand. He’d done worse things with it than crack his chest, and it wasn’t like it could kill him or make him sick. It was just going to hurt. It was going to hurt a lot.

He turned his head and raised the knife.

Even if he didn’t see it go in, he could feel it, and it was every bit as comfortable as he’d expected. His hands grew slick and that made it hard to keep his grip on the handle.  What was he looking for?

He knew it when he found it. The knife hit something and clinked, and as soon as it made contact, he was on the floor. It had come from nowhere and knocked the legs right out from under him. The anguish went away, leaving a lingering ache behind it, when reflex took over and he yanked the blade away from it; but the gnome had been right. There was something in his chest.

He couldn’t bear the thought of making a second attempt to remove it… so he didn’t think. He just dug.

Before the skin could close, he removed the knife and plunged his fingers into the hole. Whatever it was, it was at least jagged enough to get his finger around it and pull it free.

As soon as it was gone, the pain faded.

Frieza opened his hand and found a piece of mirror glass, about the size of a dagger, glinting in his palm.

The crack in the mirror. Frieza remembered getting his cloak stuck on it; but now, he also recalled there had been no such crack on the other side. He held the shard up; it fitted the space perfectly.

Dizziness washed over him and made it hard to keep his feet, but it was a good kind of dizzy, as pressure he was not aware had built up released. It was time to go. With each step, he grew stronger, his head clearer. Vile energy swirled from the floor, congealing around him like vaporous armor. It gave him even further support.

“Are you leaving again?” The gnome asked.

“I’m sure you can amuse yourself without me.”

Back through the mirror he went. Tendrils of it clung to him and he sloughed them off. Frieza had never been so relieved to return to his crypt. He’d be even more relieved to leave it behind him. He didn’t even slow his steady march to the underground lake.

“Where are you going now, Lord Frieza?” Captain Ginyu asked.

“You mean, where are we going,” Frieza said. “Out. We’re going out.”

ooo

A moment’s hope could be worse than no hope at all. When Pan saw a paved road on the forest floor, her pulse quickened, and her pace followed as much as her exhausted legs allowed. When she saw the shapes of houses through the trees, she even allowed herself a relieved smile.

Both washed away the second she was close enough to the house-shapes to see them clearly. They were not homes, but burned-out skeletons and mossy, eroded rock. The well in the middle of the charcoal-ring had gone mostly dry. There were no walls. There were no roofs. There were no people. She thought she’d found help, but she’d found a ghost town; from the looks of it, another dirty secret Flare had tucked away out of sight.

Perhaps she could find a building intact enough to hide in while she regained her strength. What she wouldn’t give for a Dino Cap portable house right now.

She fell to her knees before the well and clutched its side just to stay upright. Surely it wouldn’t hurt to rest here for just a few minutes.

Pan woke under an indigo sky when a shadow fell over her.

How could Cooler have recovered so quickly when he’d been so much worse off than she had? Pan jerked away and scrambled backwards, only to find the well blocking her escape.

The face she looked into wasn’t Cooler’s, though. It was an old woman wearing thick glasses and a fisherman’s hat. Gray hair dusted her shoulders. A Brenchian, maybe? What was she doing in the middle of nowhere?

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” Pan said. “I thought you were…”

The old woman bowed her head. “Say no more. The palace uses this place for its dirty business all the time. You thought they’d come back to finish you off, but you don’t have to worry about that. They never do. They trust the forest will do it for them. In this part of the wood, their trust isn’t misplaced. Best come with me now, dearie. The Vile Wave is almost upon us.”

Pan reached to accept the old woman’s outstretched hand. Just before their fingers touched, Flint’s face appeared in her mind. Smiling as he led her to his gallery. Contorted as Cooler broke his fingers. Flint had helped her, and his reward had been torture. Would she sentence this kind woman to the same?

She would not, Pan decided. She crawled up the side of the wall. “No, thank you. You shouldn’t be seen with me.”

“I’m not afraid of retaliation. I’ve been in this forest since the reign of King Flare. I saw him at the height of his power and savagery and I’m still here to talk about it. Now stop fussing and come with me.”

Pan must have been right. There must be an intact building here. The woman had to be living somewhere.

She was surprisingly spry, too. She leapt thick tree roots and cracks with the agility only someone who knew the road could have. In her weakened state, Pan could barely keep up with her; as she ran, she found she wanted to. Her reservations melted the further into the forest she went. She even felt less tired.

“Ma’am? What’s your name?” Pan asked.

“We’ll talk at home, dearie. I’ll make you some nice, hot tea.”

However, Pan never grew easy. Row after row of homes showed signs of assault. Burn marks, broken glass, kicked-in doors. Terrible things had happened here, and Pan could gather a little bit of what. How had the woman survived it? What did she mean when she said the palace used this place for its ‘dirty work?’

White cloth fluttered between two charred pillars.

“Someone’s there!”

Pan veered from the road and ran to the house. A petite woman ran through the door. Though the garment was meant to conceal her identity, Pan recognized her instantly.

“Incendria!” Pan asked, shocked. If Pan thought it unlikely Cooler could find her here, Incendria should be an impossibility, but there was no mistaking the Sutova princess’s face under that veil.

It was too late for Pan to ask herself if it was wise to follow, since she already had. Incendria had betrayed her, it was true, but if she’d come here to fight, she wouldn’t be running. Was she in danger? Maybe together they could get out. There’d be time to settle the score over Blendarr once they were safely back in Asphodel, or at least somewhere resembling civilization.

However, when Pan walked through the door right on Incendria’s heels, she found the house empty. There were no walls so Incendria could have jumped out and continued into the forest, but Pan had been so close she would at least be able to see where the Princess had gone. Nothing. The spaces between the trees were as vacant as the house. Indigo light glowed through them.

“Incendria?” Pan called again.

The old woman appeared at her side. “Don’t stray from the path.”

“But I saw…”

“I told you, this is a bad place,” The old woman said, and Pan could feel anger seething under the words. “You’ll see a lot of things and you should ignore them all.”

The old woman turned and left, but lingered at the door, waiting for Pan to follow her. Pan glanced down. Scrawled on the floor in the dust were the words GO BACK. She looked up and then fell into step behind the woman. “I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

If the old woman wanted Pan to go with her so badly, she shouldn’t be moving so fast. As if Pan hadn’t been betrayed enough for one day, she could feel her own body yearning to catch up. It felt suspiciously like the siren call of the Vile Wave.

“What did King Flare do here?” Pan asked. “If you don’t mind telling me?”

“In the first wave of the unification, this town refused to kneel to him, even after he’d subdued it. Flare locked the townspeople into their houses and set them ablaze. A few enterprising lackeys attempted to rebuild it and make a profit off the land, but they all disappeared, and eventually, they just left it for the forest to reclaim. Sometimes, you can hear things out in the dark, but as I said, if you ignore them, you’ll be fine. Won’t you, dearie?”

Silence was the only answer she got.

“Dearie?” The old woman turned to find the path behind her empty.

Pan threw herself against the back corner of a house, hoping it wasn’t too crumbled to hide her. For the second time in a few minutes she’d let hope stifle her better judgment. She’d seriously been ready to believe she’d found help in the middle of nowhere! Pan didn’t know what that old lady was, but she knew that even with the indigo sky growing darker by the minute above her, she’d be better off taking her chances with the Vile Wave.

How big had this village been, though? Pan saw more homes further into the trees. She snuck from one to the other, hoping the growing darkness and thickening brush would offer the cover the matchsticks couldn’t.

White cloth trailed from a nearby window.

Pan crept to it. She stood just enough to see inside.

Two women stood in the building. One was Incendria, and now Pan could see she was holding something under that cloak. The other…

Was that Queen Polrene?

Incendria looked as shocked as Pan did to see her slipping through the door. “What are you doing here? I thought King Cold would…”

“…lead your father right to us? He’s being watched. Flare thought we might try something like this.” Polrene crossed her arms. Her smirk was identical to Cooler’s, and it wasn’t on her face for long, either. “I know you wanted to see him one more time, but if the exchange is going to work, secrecy is of the utmost importance. Quickly, give the baby to me.”

Incendria took a step back.

“I won’t pretend to know what you’re going through,” Polrene said. “But I do know if it were Cooler King Flare ordered fed to the Vile Wraiths, there’s no risk I wouldn’t take to save him.”

“How do I know you’re not one of the wraiths? They can adopt any form they want.”

“They’re easily unmasked. Their illusions can’t stand even the slightest disruption in the Prismasphere.”

“Red wave sentry,” Incendria said. A red kaleidoscope flapped around Polrene before vanishing into sparks.

Shivering, Incendria uncovered her bundle. Pan couldn’t see much of it, but she saw enough; a tiny pink Reizomorph tail that flopped from the cloth and coiled around Incendria’s arm. “I knew my father was a cruel man, but this? It’s his own grandson. How could he? Just because his father is…”

“You must understand Flare intends for you to be devoured as well, your majesty,” Polrene said. “Don’t give him the satisfaction of dying. Leave before the wraiths begin to stir. If you want revenge, you have to live.”

Incendria handed the baby to Polrene. The queen brushed the cloth from his face.

“How nice to meet you, little prince. You want to come live with your father in the manor, don’t you? I’ll hide us both for a few months and nobody will suspect you aren’t my child.”

His father? Pan thought. King Cold had a child with Incendria?

Pan gasped. How had she not seen it before? They had the same eyes. The same smile. She’d even noticed when she examined Flint’s portrait that he bore no real resemblance to Cold, Polrene, or Cooler…

Incendria bowed and kissed the baby’s head. “Goodbye, Frieza.”

In one way, the old woman’s advice had been sound. Pan should have ignored those vapors. She spent so long watching them reenact this long-passed scene she didn’t hear the old woman creep up on her until she’d grabbed her hair.

“I told you,” She said. “Not to leave the path.”

They’re easy to unmask, the phantom-Polrene had said. By any disruption in the Prismasphere.

Pan grit her teeth, expecting the indigo sky to close in on her the second she spoke the words. “Green wave deflection.”

Something released Pan’s head and reared back, but it was no old woman. She couldn’t get her head around its being, only that it walked on all fours and had a mouth lined with flesh-rending teeth.

She didn’t waste any time trying to see it better. Gathering up as much energy as she could muster, she flew through the trees, away from the creature. She had little respite. The pads of its feet hit the floor behind her. Brush stirred where it walked. Pan picked up as much speed as she could. Fog coiled from the ground. Dark purple fog that hummed with malice.

Trees flew by. She felt like an insect weaving through raindrops. She couldn’t pay the attention she wanted to the thing following her; she had to concentrate on dodging limbs and broken houses. Fog closed in there, too, descending from above. Unnatural. How long had she been breathing this Vile miasma?

Perhaps that’s why she didn’t realize the sounds of pursuit had stopped. She flew in earnestness, only to realize nothing was digging through the brush behind her, there were no claws scraping the forest floor. She landed, ducking below the brush. She couldn’t see a thing from behind the meaty leaves, not with all this vapor, so she listened. Nothing.

Pan stood.

The forest was gone. Instead, she saw a city spread before her. A ruined city, skyscrapers bent double and collapsed. A four-lane highway cracked in half and folded towards the sky like a steeple. Broken glass crunched beneath her feet.

“No,” She whispered. “Oh, no.”

This was worse than whatever she’d eluded in the forest.

Pan was back in her nightmare. This time, she couldn’t escape it by waking up. This time it hadn’t snared her in her sleep. She knew exactly what was going to happen now that she was on her feet. She felt the shadow fall over her. The temperature plummet. The frost feathering over the shards of glass and the stone. The dark was broken by cold light, and with it came a voice, the one voice Pan wished she could never hear again as long as she lived.

“Did you sleep well… baby sister?”

ooo

So many nights Pan had this dream. So many nights she’d been forced to watch her greatest failure unfold anew. She tried to will herself to run. Tried to will herself to hide. Even tried to will herself to stay down and play dead as the shadow of the dragon’s wings unfolded over her.

Their darkness gave way to cold light. Fingers of frost strangled the ruins and caught the sun. That light, in turn, caught the dragon’s metallic blue scales. He snow-blinded her, big as two men together and with a pink mouth that looked stuck in a crooked grin. From one of his claws, Pan’s backpack dangled. Inside it she saw glints of glassy orange and red. The dragon balls. The last time she’d ever seen them.

“Where’s grandpa?” Pan asked, standing ready for a brawl. “The last I remember, you’d challenged him for the dragon balls. If you have them now, what did you do to him?”

An explosion and shuddering in the distant sky brought Pan’s attention to a pair of figures engaged in combat. One of them was her Grandpa, his black hair flying as he dodged a second dragon’s attacks.

“You’ve mistaken me for Nuova,” The dragon said. “I am Eis.”

“Grandpa’s still fighting, Eis,” Pan said, “Yet here you are, trying to make off with the prize. I call that cheating. It falls to me to enforce the rules of the game and take those back from you.”

“Why would you want to do that, baby sister?” Eis asked.

“Why do you keep calling me that? Don’t patronize me just because I look like a little girl.”

His lip twisted into a cruel smile. “I wouldn’t dream of it. I know what you are, after all.”

“You mean a Saiyan? Then you know we’re ferocious, and you should return that backpack to me with its contents intact before I have to hurt you.”

The dragon slung the backpack over his shoulder and approached her, and for one disorienting moment, child-Pan thought he was actually going to do what she asked.

Instead, he patted her on the head.

She jumped away and raked her fingers over the spot, pulling out flakes of frost, fighting off the memory of the last man who’d stroked her hair like that.

“Yes,” He said. “I see how ferocious you are. Perhaps I should introduce myself so you know exactly what you’re dealing with.”

“You already told me your name, although honestly, I don’t care what it is now.”

“Names hardly constitute an identity. I’m the dragon of ice, renowned among my brethren for having a heart as cold as my flesh. I’ll do anything to win. That’s who I am. But I don’t have to justify myself to you, do I? You’re the same as me.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Pan said. It sounded like a lie even to her.

Eis turned back to the fight raging above them, the burning dragon Nuova and Grandpa, a red flame all his own. “He hasn’t started to suspect yet, has he? You’ve kept it bottled up inside, the changes you’ve felt in your body ever since he tore you from our brother Naturon’s stomach. You tasted negative energy and your adaptable Saiyan cells could hardly wait to start integrating the new power source. May I be honest, too? I never liked the first Naturon. I have a feeling you and I will be much better friends, baby sister.”

“I told you to stop calling me that!” Energy cackled around Pan and threw the gravel at her feet into the air.

“But I must,” He said. “Don’t misunderstand, I’m more than capable of lying when it gives me an advantage. You, though, I’m obligated to tell the truth. Do you know why? I am the dragon born from your selfish wish to exonerate your mass-murdering friend Buu by erasing his victims’ memories so he could walk among them in anonymity. What can I do but return your memories and bring the guilty to condemnation?”

“And stop touching my hair!”

“You said you were going to kill him,” Eis said. “That pervert from Luud. You meant it. If the cyborg general hadn’t interfered you’d be standing before me with blood on your hands. But let’s go back further than that, to the anarchy you caused on Imecka. Did you ever think about the power vacuum you created, deposing its corrupt but stable leader and replacing him with no one? Do you think you left that planet in better shape than you found it, or do you think the riots started ten minutes after you took off?”

“Shut up!” Pan yelled, her aura flaring golden.

“How did you get to Imecka in the first place? Oh, yes, you crashed there because you prematurely started the launch sequence. You were so afraid of being left behind you couldn’t even wait to see if the junk heap flew before you took it into space, and lo and behold, it didn’t. Your grandfather could have gone straight to Gelbo if it weren’t for you.”

Shut up!”

“Or speaking of Gelbo, do you think Bonpara could have wrested the dragon balls from Goku as easily as he got them from you? Perhaps deep down, you wanted them to be stolen so your little adventure could continue. Do you remember the Tuffle the Machine Mutants preserved for their experiments? The one who came a hair’s breadth from destroying the Earth after he found out the authors of his people’s genocide lived there? Who answered his false distress signal and brought him to your world? Admit it, Pan; even before Naturon perfected your inner darkness, hadn’t you always been a bad girl?”

She clenched the sides of her head, trying to tune him out. Her aura flashed. Tears streamed down her face. “I didn’t mean for any of that to happen.”

“If you didn’t intend all that chaos and managed to cause it anyway, why, that only goes to show what a natural you are. You’re a bad girl, but you’ll make a good Shadow Dragon. When we reduce this world and everything on it to dust, you’ll remain, and you’ll revel in the carnage along with the rest of us, baby sister.”

“You aren’t! My! Brother!

A perfect sphere of energy and debris surrounded her. Her aura stopped flashing and held gold, and the color crept through her hair and eyes, bringing its glow along with it. Her consciousness faded into her rage and her heart’s turmoil, knotted like steel coils with fear.

It was her first Super Saiyan transformation, and because she had no practice controlling her corrupted power, it was nearly her last.

The aftershock came immediately. It spread beneath her before she even noticed it, and she didn’t have time to move. It shot straight from the ground and engulfed her, launching her head-over-heels. She fell hard enough to crack the earth, and from the feel of it, her bones, too. Her newfound strength fled her as quickly as it had come.

Eis stood over her, and instinct prevailed over reason. She crawled away. She hit a wall.

He only paused a moment, his grin briefly falling into a scowl.

“You Saiyans are so predictable. You think your anger makes you powerful. Do you know what else anger makes you? Stupid and vulnerable. That’s two down,” He said. He raised his eyes to Grandpa Goku, fighting against the fire dragon. “And one to go. When he sees what’s become of you, how angry do you think he’ll get?”

Eis walked right past Pan, knowing she posed him no further threat.

As she tried to at least pull herself to standing, the tears soaked her face, poured onto her shirt. Somewhere beyond this nightmare, four-legged, razor-mouthed creatures closed in on her. She could feel their energy and even the heat of their approaching claws. She was locked in the past, in her child’s body, in the moments before her grandfather’s death, and all she could think was it’s my fault. I let it happen. It’s all my fault.

The circle of Vile Wraiths tightened around her.

ooo

The first wraith to raise its claws against Pan was the first to die. It didn’t even see the death beams coming; the red light crashed into it first, and then into the wraiths on either side. The creatures once thought to be impervious to attack dissolved into ashes.

Three had fallen. There were as many of the four-footed nothings as the town was big crowding into the forest.

A giggling green ball rolled beneath two monsters, cutting their legs out from under them. They writhed after him, but he held out a hand and they stopped, frozen in time; and he ripped trees from the ground and skewered them against the forest floor. Through the mist where they had stood a giant of a man barreled, opening his mouth wide.

Blinding light tore a whole line of the beasts to evaporating shreds.

Violet light, pale and distinct from the Prismatic wave, blew through the trees. Sparks flew as the creatures and their cover fell in their wake. Their bodies were tossed further into the air, with new additions, as cannon fire burst in the ground, radiating daylight in the dead of night.

The final few wraiths circled the man they rightly guessed to be their assailants’ leader.

He took each down with a single strike.

Pan slumped against a tree, sobbing, still only half-conscious of the forest around her. It was empty of the wraiths that had almost eaten her.

Now she was only surrounded by all five members of the Ginyu Force and Emperor Frieza.

Burter tapped the scouter fastened to the side of his blue terrapin head. “Is she dead or what?”

Jeice elbowed him. “That’s the sheila the boss is crushing on we’re not supposed to know about. You’ve got to ask more sensitive-like.”

“Is she sensitively dead or what?”

“Hey, I know that face,” Recoome, who might have passed for an Earthling if he weren’t three times the size, said. “It’s that little squirt I busted up on Namek. I don’t remember him being a girl.”

“That’s not Gohan, it’s his daughter,” Captain Ginyu said. “He brought her to Capsule Corp whenever he visited. She was frightened of the ladybugs in the garden, so Dr. Briefs got her this pop-up entomology picture book. She ate one of the pop-up flies and tried to feed me the other. As far as cardboard goes, it wasn’t bad.”

Guldo didn’t say anything, but he was about to poke Pan with a stick when Frieza brushed him aside.

Pan’s eyes were fixed on a distant horizon that, in the thick of the forest and broken-down village, didn’t exist. He tilted her chin.

“Can you hear me?”

Her vision did come into focus, but that was as far as it got. The tears still fell. “You weren’t here. It was only me and grandpa and the dragons.”

“I’m here now.” He touched her cheek with his thumb. “You’ve been overexposed to the Vile Wave. You’re hallucinating. Whatever you’re seeing in those mists, it isn’t real.”

“It is real. You don’t believe Son Goku is dead, but he is, and I know that because I killed him. If I hadn’t lost the dragon balls, Omega wouldn’t have devoured them. He wouldn’t have become strong enough to overpower Grandpa. We could have used them to undo the destruction he caused instead. Now Grandpa’s gone, and the dragon balls are gone, and it’s all my fault. Don’t tell me it isn’t real!”

The tears wouldn’t stop. Frieza pressed his hands against her face, his fingers brushing her eyelashes, wiping them away as they fell.

“Then it’s over,” He said.

Pan slid her arms around him and lay her head on his shoulder.

It was an unexpected move, and Frieza briefly wondered if it was really him she was seeing. He returned her embrace all the same. The warmth he’d but tasted that night they fought in the manor consumed him now. His pulse surged and he couldn’t tell if it was affection or blind panic. He considered pushing her away. He held her tighter.

“Aww,” Jeice said.

This time, Jeice was on the receiving end of the elbow, courtesy of Captain Ginyu. “Do you have any filter at all?”

“What are you mad at me for? Burter’s the one who kept saying she was dead.”

“She was just sort of leaning there,” Burter said. “Dead people can be propped up. It was an honest mistake.”

“’You’ and ‘honest’ don’t belong in the same sentence. I say that lovingly.”

Pan’s bandanna had fallen from her head in the scuffle. It snagged like a forlorn flag on the end of a branch. Recoome snatched it. “I think this might be hers.”

“Bring it along,” Frieza said, scooping Pan from the ground. “We have to get her indoors. There’s still at least an hour left before the Vile Wave gives way to Red. If she inhales too much, it might cause her permanent damage.”

“The problem with that is, there isn’t any indoors here,” Captain Ginyu said. “I’ve checked the buildings. Every last one has been compromised, structurally speaking. A few might have provided enough partial shelter to weather the rest of the night if she hadn’t already absorbed so much of the Vile Wave, but as it is, we’d do just as much good throwing a sheet over her.”

Frieza scanned the buildings. Ginyu’s Milky Cannon had plowed a canyon through the center of town, and as he traced its progress, a structure on the doomed settlement’s outskirts caught his eye. It stood in a perfect column of stone, overgrown with moss and uneven.

“Over there,” He said, pointing.

“That’s a creepy place to take a girl.”

“I like it,” Guldo said, offended.

“And it’s no ‘creepier’ than where she’s stuck now,” Frieza said. “Set up a perimeter in case there are any more of those Vile Wraiths skulking about, or in case my brother’s forces figure out she came this way.”

The order given, Frieza carried Pan away from the forest.

 

Chapter Text

Dawn brought clarity Pan had not expected.

She lay on soft earth underneath half a quilt. A red shaft split the dark and cast itself like a spotlight on the center of the cistern. Frieza sat there, gazing up at the only exit. What form was this? It fell somewhere between the first and final, small and aerodynamic but also sharp and lightly armored, with a sheen that in the glare looked tarnished.

She propped herself up on one elbow.

He’d been watching for the movement. “Good morning, Pan.”

“The well,” She said. “Solid stone. Underground. Why didn’t I think of that?”

“The Vile Wave might not have gotten in, but those wraiths surely could have. It would have been a death trap.”

“And I’d make a poor hostage dead.”

The spotlight and the metal sheen cast shadows all wrong as he walked. Had she made him angry? Would she have to fight in the bottom of the well after all? But he only knelt before her, not in deference, but to study her at eye-level.

“Goku isn’t coming, is he?” Frieza asked.

The shake of Pan’s head was almost imperceptible.

“Then I have no need for a hostage.”

She’d cried herself dry last night so no new tears came, but the pain was no less raw for it. “Am I alive? Is that daylight up there, or fire?”

“You’re wondering how I’m speaking to you instead of falling to pieces. I’ve removed the last traces of the afterlife from myself. It turns out that mirror shard wasn’t just limiting my time, but also my strength. Tell me, Pan; what do you think you have to fear from the flames?”

She pulled away from him, or at least tried to, but he’d sat on the quilt so she didn’t get as far as she’d have liked. “Don’t pretend you didn’t hear me last night. I remember. I told you how Grandpa died.”

“Do you think the outcome would have been different if you weren’t there? Don’t you remember how he let Vegeta recover because he wouldn’t fight him injured? How he let me attain my perfect form? How he healed Cell? If Goku had thought for a moment he wasn’t facing this Omega at his best, he’d have given him those dragon balls himself, because otherwise the fight wouldn’t have been fair.”

The guilt had built up for years, so long it had taken a life of its own. That guilt insisted he was wrong. In Pan’s mind and heart, though, she knew every word Frieza said was true.

“You didn’t kill Goku. He died in battle with a powerful enemy, just like he always wanted. I regret I couldn’t be that enemy, but at least Vegeta was denied the privilege, too. See? I’m still capable of spite.”

Pan tightened her arms around her knees. Grandpa had always seen the best in everyone, and she wanted to be like him, but if Frieza believed her now, why was he here? Why hadn’t he let those monsters devour her?

“You’re suspicious,” He said. “With good reason. Surviving a week on Ketchyn after being raised on a planet like Earth is no mean feat. It must have been quite the shock. On your world, honor is a goal to attain. Here it’s an excuse to exploit so we can lie and steal and murder and look at ourselves in the mirror, confident our hands are clean because we did it all by the rules. Rules we wrote and then called the natural order. Since that fateful day your grandfather shared his own life force with me to last night, holding that list of names in my lap, I spent a lot of energy trying to keep that house of cards propped up in my head. I defended it to the last measly deuce. Now that it’s fallen, though, I feel so calm. As if the worst is over. Natural order? Ha! Every annexation, every torture, every execution, was a choice we made. A choice I made. I told myself it was the only one that worked.”

He removed his fist from the dirt and placed it in his lap. The ground was bloody.

“It was the wrong choice, and if it worked, I wouldn’t be here.”

Frieza was right; Ketchyn had made Pan suspicious. Did she dare believe him?

“However,” he continued, and Pan was almost relieved there was a catch, “I’m not ready to acknowledge your path as the right one, either. I’ve seen kingdoms embrace compassion and crumble under its dead weight. I’ve seen integrity paid lip service by tyrants who make me look like an angel. I’ve personally crushed those who stood against me with nothing but their own bravery for a shield. Your virtue has failed before my eyes as surely as King Flare’s vice. Are you willing to fight for it?”

Frieza drew closer to her. The stone amplified his voice.

“Are you willing to fight me for it, one last time, now that you’ve rested properly and I’ve perfected my Vile Form? You won’t be saved by a time limit. I won’t be able to regenerate; at least, no more than I ever could. There’ll be no handicaps, self-imposed or otherwise, nothing to stop the battle from reaching its conclusion. If it’s you, I will…” He swallowed, the words stinging his mouth even as he spoke them, “I will give up my grudge and honor the request your grandfather made after defeating me on Namek.”

“And if it’s you?” Pan asked.

“I return to my empire to see what I can sort out from there. If you want to come with me, the offer is still open.”

A drop of water fell from above, into the last small puddle the well hadn’t given up. Ripples spread from its center to its edges. The surface regained its glassy calm in silence.

“I will fight you,” Pan said. She’d never accepted a challenge with such conviction before. This time she wasn’t trying to fill her grandpa’s impossible shoes, prove her superiority, or even test out Frieza’s impressive new form. This time, the lingering memory of Eis’s grinning litany of accusations mixed with the stories Frieza told her of planets like Kuhn, of anonymous kindnesses paid from the shadows. These masks had to be broken, and if her fist was the only thing that would break them, that’s what she’d use. She would fight. She would win.

He jerked his head towards the opening of the well. “Up there. When you’re ready. Oh, and one more thing.”

He pulled from the folds of his cloak her bandanna. In the intensity of the morning, she hadn’t even realized it was missing. He tied it in place.

“I said I wanted you at your best, so you’ll need this. It’s lucky, isn’t it?”

He looked like a wraith himself as he left the well, cape trailing, leaving Pan with her hand on her head and burning creeping into her cheeks.

ooo

Pan was halfway up the mouth of the well when the stone ground. She hurtled and powered up just as the bricks collapsed in on her, pouring from above like a waterfall. She punched through them, shielding herself with her aura, and emerged into sunlight.

Pale sunlight it was, too; the brightest morning the old town had known in a century, sunless though it may have been. Orange light shifted beneath the branches, fell through the remnants of homes, cleaning them of primal shadows.

This town still harbored one shadow, though. Frieza hovered over a partial wall beside an overgrown forest path, his fine profile in relief, his hands reaching to the sky. It was the first she’d seen him in full daylight and the sight was impressive. The bricks poured back out of the well at his command, wrapped him in a sphere. He threw them again. This time, they tore through the air towards Pan an open-mouthed snake.

Harnessing light in her hands, she burned the stone to ash. It flaked around her and floated to the ground.

Frieza fired two lacerations simultaneously, crossing one hand over the other. The energy plowed up splinters.

One swipe and two; she deflected them both. The dirt rolled over Pan in a wave, but the Vile energy behind it was gone.

Frieza appeared beside her and delivered a blow to the center of her chest. It hurled her into the ground.

Pan got right to her feet. Eis’s words still rung in her head, her every failure and misstep. This wouldn’t be one of them. She wasn’t adding Frieza to the list of people she’d let down.

So much conflict tangled within her; there wasn’t room inside her to contain them. Golden flame erupted from her. She let it happen. From the place Pan had fallen, the dust parted, and the Super Saiyan rose.

“And there it is,” Frieza said. “The one nightmare I couldn’t leave behind me with this planet. A warning my ancestor Chilled passed down to me along with the gift of his mirror.”

It was enough hesitation for Pan to lash out. The punch threw Frieza into a tree, and it snapped in half. He returned fire before the trunk even hit the ground. Energy blossomed in the sky and rained to the ground as they clashed.

“You call that mirror a gift?”

“Look what it’s made of me,” Frieza said. “The strength it’s bestowed upon me.”

“As bait. The mirror is a trap. That’s what Cooler is so afraid of. If you keep using it, it’ll trigger a planet-wide Backlash nothing on Ketchyn could survive, not even you.”

“That wasn’t its intended purpose,” Frieza said. “Like all the worst evils, it began as an attempt at doing good.”

Deep inside Pan’s instincts noticed the opening before she was consciously aware of it; a thread of a crack in Frieza’s stance, just enough for a Masenko to pierce. The light smote him. He fell to the ground. He lay a moment. Slowly, the ground rocked back and forth. Pan landed, her aura flickering from golden to its corrupted pink.

She held her fist in place.

“What do you mean?” She asked.

He leapt on her, trailing dust.

“Surely you’ve figured out what attacked you last night,” He said.

Beads of sweat flew from Pan’s forehead. For all his talk, he wasn’t even slowing down. “I heard those phantoms of Incendria and Polrene call them Vile Wraiths, but for all I know, that was just another hallucination.”

“No, that was the truth. But don’t you know what they are, other than King Flare’s unofficial family garbage disposal?”

Pan had been so busy watching his hands that she forgot about his tail, and was rewarded with a swat to the head that sent her flying.

The wind tore at her, but she recovered, returning to Frieza. An Aftershock bubbled. Pan couldn’t stop it, but she was so tuned into the fight that she felt it coming and avoided it, navigating her own negative energy like an expert sailor would navigate a storm.

The energy boiled under Frieza. He smothered it with a well-placed boulder.

“Chilled didn’t intend his mirror to be an instrument of vengeance at first. He designed it to resurrect his grandson, Kuriza,” He said.

Pan shielded her eyes from the dust. “What?”

“Oh, yes; Chilled’s Mirror was to be our dragon balls, the magic that would erase the scars of King Flare’s depredation. And what more fitting place to test it than here, the site of one of his most brutal massacres? Only when the ritual was complete, it wasn’t the slaughtered women and children who passed alive through the mirror’s surface. It was those wraiths. Chilled could only revive the wickedest and most violent dead, and them only as monsters.”

“What do you have to do to raise somebody?”

Frieza must have suddenly found his feet as cute as Pan did, because he stopped and fixed his eyes directly on them as he mumbled, “I don’t want to talk about it.”

Pan could have taken the free shot, but it didn’t feel right, so she snapped her fingers in front of his face. “I mean, do you know why didn’t it work on anyone else?”

“That question, I can answer. The rift he made in space to focus the Vile Wave only opens to Hell, so it is only from Hell the dead can be summoned. Furthermore, Hell keeps its inhabitants separate from their bodies, and only returns them to inflict physical torture. If you don’t perform the resurrection in one of these narrow margins where your target’s spirit and body are together, you get a wraith. If you do make the window, you get something like me. Well? Are you not impressed?”

The ground rolled like the sea, unrestrained, but Pan did not let it frighten her.

“Then let me impress you.”

He held his hands out. Pan recognized the gesture; it was the one Ember had used to paralyze her. She was ready to deflect it at a moment’s notice, but the Red Wave never came. Instead, Vile energy, the kind Frieza wove into his barriers, gathered between his hands in a pulsing glob.

He kneaded it like clay, and as he did, it grew in size and darkness, as if he held the night sky in his hands.

He thrust his hand to the sky and the darkness blotted out the dawn as it spread, glowing like a black light. Pan felt its heat on her skin as surely as she felt its dark life… anti-life?... deep inside. It took shape, solidified; and she recognized it, a Vile Supernova.

Pan remembered the last time he’d used this, how she’d struggled to hold it. This time it would be different. She crouched, focusing her energy between he fingers. She’d have to time it just right…

“Ka… me…” she said.

The Supernova shuddered and expanded again. So did the glimmer in Pan’s hands.

“Ha… me…”

Frieza threw the Supernova.

“Ha!”

The light shot from Pan’s fingers and crashed into the darkness. The earth shook with vigor. The aftershocks rained from below even as dust and debris rained from above. The Kamehameha stopped the Supernova mid-air, but Frieza didn’t release it. He focused more energy into it. Pan lost ground.

The Supernova shuddered again and stayed in place. Then it rocked backwards, just a bit. Then more. Frieza tried to find more energy, but there was none left; the attack was at its limit, and its limit was not enough.

The golden light in Pan’s hands exploded. The Supernova sailed back to Frieza. He boiled in his own attack, and then Pan’s Kamehameha hit him, too.

The dust cleared and he stood, dazed, but still on his feet. He was open and Pan was about to launch another attack, but then it was unnecessary. Frieza collapsed, smoke rising from his body. Blood dripped from his mouth. Pan landed, breathing hard.

“You spoke of choices before,” Pan said. “You can make a different choice this time. Get rid of the mirror.”

Instead, he yelled. Pink sparks flew from his palm. It was the last bit of energy he had to fight with, but if it connected, it would be enough. Pan remembered Grandpa telling her about this; Frieza’s favorite last resort, the Death Saucer.

She closed the distance between them and stood with her face inches from his.

“What? Do you think the attack won’t be effective at this range? You couldn’t be more wrong, Super Saiyan. The legends spoke of a ruthless warrior, the sort of living weapon the destroyers of the Tuffles would call a hero, and yet you and your grandfather present yourselves as would-be avengers of the fallen. Let me show you how far that will get you.”

“Psst. Look down.”

So focused on forming his saucer was he, Frieza failed to notice Pan had flattened her hand right over his chest, a Burst glowing on her fingertips.

The razor edge of the saucer was so close to her skin she could feel its spin disturbing the hairs on her arm. Yet even so, she inched closer.

Pan tasted the blood on his cheek.

The Death Saucer dissolved, the energy dissipating harmlessly. “Did you just lick my face?”

“I won,” Pan said, holding her hand out to him. “Are you going to keep your word?”

Frieza stared at his palm, the dirt and blood, his sharp nails.

“I will,” He said, taking it. She helped him to his feet.

Pan stroked his fingers.

It wasn’t something she’d thought about doing. She just did it, and she flushed instantly. Frieza looked distinctly uncomfortable; his hand tensed beneath hers, and his face went as blank as he could make it. Pan turned away. First she’d thrown herself into his arms last night, and now this.

The ground shook and a pink dome formed under their feet, forcing them both to leap away from each other, and the Aftershock that pierced the ground and sky.

“If I might make a suggestion,” Frieza said, “Consider powering down before we return to Blendarr.”

“I… forgot,” Pan said.

Awkward as the exchange had been, the victory surged through Pan’s blood as it would have any Saiyan. Frieza fell in beside her on the forest path. She’d found a new ally in the last possible place she’d expected.

Now all she had to do was break the news to Ember, Gelata, and the Para Brothers.

 

Chapter Text

Donpara peered into the bleak doorway of the old hostel and said, “Are you sure it was Pan who told us to meet her here? I’ve heard rumors of powerful telepaths who can imitate other peoples’ minds.”

The cobwebs hung so low, even the tiny Sonpara found himself tangled in them. “And I gotta be honest, brother, it doesn’t look like she’s been this way. It doesn’t look like anyone’s been this way for a long time.”

Bonpara grimaced. “You two should have told me you were having surgery to get your spines extracted, so I could have sent flowers. You know very well she could have come in through another door or one of the windows, and that it’d take a telepath of considerable power to fool us. You don’t see Ember and Gelata going on like this.”

“True,” Gelata said, “But that’s because we’re trying to sense Pan’s energy and so far, neither of us have found it.”

“She’d be disguising it if she were smart,” Ember said. “I just don’t understand why she didn’t teleport back into town.”

“She said she’d found some new allies who’d helped her out of that scrape Cooler got her into, but that they weren’t the kind of people she could walk into Blendarr with,” Bonpara said.

In the shadows of the hostel, Pan listened, pressed against the wall. She sympathized with the brothers’ caution; so much so, she wanted to wait until she could see them, confirm they were who they sounded like before she revealed her presence. She didn’t lack hiding places in this old squat place. It was one of the few places from Blendarr’s days as a resort that still stood, but just barely; two stories, with most of the second’s floor gone and the apartments missing their doors.

“My guess,” Bonpara continued, “Is that one of Cooler’s elite got a sudden attack of conscience and helped her escape.”

The blue face and red jumper came into view, so Pan stepped into the hall.

Bonpara grinned and pulled her into a half-hug.

“That’s the second time in a week you disappeared and left us certain you were dead,” He said.

“You were almost right this time. I got away from Cooler, but stumbled into a town overrun with these hungry wraiths. I couldn’t have fought them all even if I’d had a clear head, and once the Vile Wave crested and I couldn’t find shelter, I didn’t. I was completely helpless.”

“Are you trying to give us a heart attack now?” Donpara said.

“No, I’m trying to impress on you how desperate a situation I was in. The men you’re about to meet could have left me in it and they didn’t, so please, keep that in mind while we’re talking to them. I know you aren’t going to want to believe them. I wish Incendria were still here. She might have been able to smooth things out a little. Where is she? Did you catch her?”

“That’s a long story,” Ember said. “The short version is, she ran away after Cooler left with you.”

“What about Flint? The other people Cooler’s men attacked?”

“We had to lock ourselves in the hospital overnight to ride out the Vile Wave. While we were there, I led the other Prismatists in healing the ones that weren’t too far gone to heal, including your artist friend, Flint. He’s fine. Casualties were low and the town’s still standing; against the Planet Trade Organization that’s practically a victory. Enough about that. Take us to your mystery heroes. I want to know what all this secrecy is about. I don’t like it one bit, and that’s an opinion I’ve formed from experience.”

“It’s this way,” Pan said. “I left one in what I think was a cafeteria.”

The lamps on the wall were old gas-powered lanterns, and walking under their light felt like walking through mist, especially in the too-even prismatic dawn light. Pan wasn’t naïve. She knew things could go very sour from here. Even the heavy atmosphere seemed to be slowing their progress.

They reached the cafeteria door. Pan opened it. The creak sounded earth-shattering.

Frieza sat at the table with his arms crossed. He slid to the floor when they entered. Pan saw shock on the Para Brothers’ faces and horror on Ember and Gelata’s, and she knew theirs were appropriate reactions.

“There’s an explanation,” Pan said.

“There had better be,” Ember said. “The last time I saw him, his hand was sticking out of Gelata’s back. Officer, do you remember that sentry you found stuffed in Char? How much influence do you think it had over him? Could Frieza have infected Pan with one of those things? Can he control her mind with that Vile Wave of his?”

“It’s a possibility, sir, but a slim one. The sentry we found embedded in Char was primarily a means of communication. It could influence him, as in goad him into doing something he was already inclined to, but it couldn’t have forced him to go against his nature.”

“Mind control is not the explanation,” Pan said.

“Agreed,” Gelata said. “It’s more likely Frieza has simply tricked her.”

“Saiyans aren’t famous for empathy or gullibility,” Ember said.

“Maybe not Saiyans,” Bonpara said. “But her grandpa? Most soft-hearted mug this side of the North Quadrant.”

“That’s not it, either,” Pan said.

“Allow me,” Frieza said.

Then he fired a death beam right down the center of the room. All five of them had to jump out of the way. A swipe of pink energy brought down the door and blocked them from going back the way they’d come; now the only way out was through Frieza. He lowered his hand.

“Now that I’ve gotten your attention, I’ve heard so much about you from Pan, but I’d like to ask you a few questions of my own. Humor me, won’t you?”

Nobody spoke.

“Excellent. I’ve just realized how long it’s been since I’ve seen that look on another’s face. Not since I stole those dragon balls from the Namekians. I killed them all. In fact, that ties neatly with my first question: are you aware I could do the same to you, right now? That Pan couldn’t save you all, just as her grandfather at the height of his power wasn’t able to stop me from killing his best friend?”

Bonpara glanced to his brothers. Gelata edged towards Ember. They knew the answer to that question.

“Right you are,” Frieza said. “Then did you know I’ve studied the notes Chilled made on the use of his mirror and I’ve mastered it nearly to the extent he did? Of course you didn’t; you weren’t aware he’d left instructions. Do you even know where the mirror is?”

More silence.

“Now that we’ve confirmed I’m holding every card, one final question: if I meant you harm, why do you think I would need to deceive you? I grant I’ve been known to toy with my prey in the past, but I’ve had as much fun with the lot of you as I expect to, so at this point, if you had something I wanted, I’d take it, and you’d have no means of stopping me. That I have not should be all the proof you need I do not intend to.”

“Then get to the point and tell us what you do intend,” Ember said.

Another death beam hit the wall, this time so close to Ember’s face the smoke stung his eye.

“Don’t take that tone with me, you old butcher.”

That shut Ember up faster than anything Pan had ever seen.

“When I first found myself in possession of the mirror, it was fast asleep,” Frieza continued. “With each use, it woke a little more. When it’s fully roused, according to Cooler, the Vile Wave will eclipse the rest of the Prismasphere and cause a planet-wide backlash. I don’t so much care about this world. However, I suspect someone has been using me to get that very result and I do not appreciate it. For that, and for personal reasons I am not inclined to disclose to you, I want to be rid of that thing just as much as you do. You can’t trust me to do what’s right. You can’t even trust me to do what’s good for me. You can, however, trust me to defend my pride. I, the mighty Frieza, will not be made a puppet. I am Emperor of the Universe!”

“You speak of this mirror as though it’s sentient,” Gelata said.

“It is, and that makes discarding it impractical, if not impossible. If it released me, it would only be to find a more compliant user,” Frieza said. “That’s why I propose we destroy it. Quickly, too, before it finds out what we’re doing and moves to stop us.”

“What’s it going to do to stop us?” Pan asked. “Malicious or not, it’s a mirror. If it could attack on its own, it would have. Grandpa didn’t believe there was such a thing as an unbeatable foe. If the mirror was made, it can be unmade. We just need to figure out how.”

“You said you had notes,” Gelata said. “What do they say about it?”

“Nothing at all, I fear. If Chilled had that information, he kept it to himself,” Frieza said. “We could always detonate Ketchyn’s core. The Prismasphere would spin off into space like any other atmosphere would, and then there wouldn’t be any Vile Wave to Backlash. Given the constitution of Asphodel’s inhabitants, it shouldn’t kill too many of them.”

Pan gave him Chi-Chi’s best “really?” look.

“Bad idea?” He asked.

“Points for trying, Frieza,” She said. “What about you, Gelata? If we went back to your laboratory in Asphodel, do you think you’d have anything in your archives that might point to a weak spot in the mirror? How about Flare’s personal collection?”

Ember snorted. “Forget the palace. We need to go to Colander.”

“Colander?” Pan asked. “Why?”

“Remember I told you Incendria ran away?”

“You said it was the short version,” Pan said.

“Here’s the long version,” Ember said. “After Cooler escaped with you, she panicked; thought he meant you some diabolical harm and had fooled her into helping him. She offered to give herself up. I was suspicious so I threw her power pole out of reach, and while she was walking to me…”

“…the power pole blew up,” Bonpara said. “Shattered like someone had stuffed it with plastic explosives.”

“Which wasn’t too far from the truth,” Gelata said, reaching into her armor. She pulled out a tissue.  “It was sabotaged, but with this.”

Inside it was a tiny sliver of glass, just like the one Pan had squeezed out of her bug bite. “Is that…”

“A shaving from the mirror’s surface,” Frieza said. “Most clever. The staff’s designed to work with the Prismasphere, so it wouldn’t have activated until she used it; but once it did, the Vile energy would have gradually overtaken it, acting as a timer. There are only two people who’ve had access to that mirror. I’m one of them and I know I didn’t do this. The other is whatever fool dragged me out of the mirror to begin with.”

“Incendria didn’t just run away after the explosion,” Ember said. “She specifically said she had to get to Colander before ‘he’ did. Which means…”

“Incendria knows. She knows who handled her staff last. She knows who’s behind all this,” Pan said. “That’s why I didn’t feel her energy. Of course she’s going to be hiding it, trying to take them by surprise.”

“We need to find Incendria,” Ember said. “It’s our best bet right now.”

That decided, Pan made for the door, then she remembered Frieza had destroyed it and opted instead for the window, hoping the others would follow her. For the most part, they did.

However, once they reached the forest outside, Bonpara hesitated.

“There’s just one thing bugging me,” Bonpara said. “When you brought us in here, you kept referring to your rescuers, plural. So far, you’ve just introduced us to Frieza, and I get why you’d want to do that separate and all, but where are the others?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

It wasn’t Pan who’d answered. It wasn’t any of the warriors on the ground. Instead, the voice issued from the trees.

Dropping to the forest floor, the Ginyu Force presented themselves.

ooo

The branches twisted overhead. The wind howled. Leaves glided to the ground like dirty rain. And in black silhouette, one mountain of a figure spread his arms.

“Recoome!”

He was joined by lithe streaks of blue and red lightning. “Burter!”

“Jeice!”

They were obscured… from the knees down, anyway… by a rotund green man with four eyes. “Guldo!”

Last of all Ginyu himself stretched his hand towards the sky. “Ginyu!”

“Together, we…”

“Want to cut you,” Guldo giggled, brandishing his rusted knife.

The other four stopped and stared at him.

“Yeah!” Jeice said.

“Oh, give it a rest,” Burter whispered. “He’s going to keep screwing up until lord Frieza fixes him.”

“He’s supposed to go back to normal on his own eventually. In the meantime, I’m not going to let him ruin a perfectly good pose,” Jeice whispered back.

“I hate to break it to you, but this one’s already ruined. We should have taken the environment into account.”

Ruined might have been an overstatement, but the wind had swept the leaves over them, and now Guldo was so covered with prickly maples he looked like a shrub, and enough had stuck to Recoome’s left that he looked like he’d side-slammed into a raked pile. He was big enough to have mostly shielded the others, though.

Bonpara tapped a button on his spacesuit. “Cool those cannons, Captain Ember, they won’t do you any good. I’m getting massive readings from these beings. Computer, do you have anything in your databases about them?”

The voice issued from the speakers on his suit. “Life forms identified as the Ginyu Special Forces, Emperor Frieza’s cruelest and most prolific mercenaries…”

Recoome stomped so hard, the ground cracked. It at least knocked some of the leaves off, but Jeice and Burter had to jump out of the way to avoid falling into the fissure. “And the most stylish. Your computer forgot that part.”

Ginyu crossed his arms. “Besides, there’s only room on this planet for one captain.”

Ember cracked his knuckles. “Feel free to leave. I’ll even help you out the door.”

“That’s a smart mouth you’ve got. Maybe I should help you shut it.”

Gelata stepped between them, but Guldo stepped between her stepping between.

“I’ll feed you to the worms whole,” Guldo said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Gelata said. “True worms are rare in this part of the moorland. You’d have much better luck looking for arthropods than annelids.”

Jeice sighed, eyeing Donpara and Sonpara. “And once again, Burter and I are stuck with the twerps. Fine, but I want a second helping of dessert at dinner.”

“What makes you think you’re going to be around that long?” Donpara said.

Frieza tried to hide that he was blushing. He didn’t do a very good job, but happily, Pan was also blushing and trying to hide it, so she didn’t notice.

“Should we say something?” Pan asked.

“You’ll forgive me for not foreseeing this. I never imagined you had some, too,” Frieza said, “But no. I think anything we say would only pour gas on the fire, so it’s best not to interfere unless they actually start trying to kill each other.”

“Kill each other?” Pan asked. “I think it’s worse than that. I think Bonpara’s about to start singing.”

In the time that short conversation had taken, Recoome had struck his Ultra Fighting Bomber pose. Bonpara switched on his speakers again; this time, it was not the computer’s voice that issued forth, but music. He mimed Recoome’s every flourish, at least until the last twist, when he struck off in a different direction… and Recoome found himself unwillingly dragged along.

“You’ve got the moves down and you’ve got the style, now give it a spin, and don’t forget to smile!”

Which were instructions Recoome would have been better off not following, but he couldn’t help doing it; and he ended up twisting straight into Bonpara’s oncoming fist and hitting the ground. Bonpara didn’t have much time to celebrate the victory, though. He hit the ground a second after Recoome, chopped to the back of the neck by Burter.

“Apparently, your computer forgot to tell you Burter is the fastest in the universe!”

He sped away again, leaving a series of afterimages behind him.

Guldo circled Gelata. “This isn’t even a contest. I’m the most powerful telepath on record, and seeing beyond the abyss and living to tell the tale has only increased my power.”

Gelata tried to dodge, but one second she was clear of Guldo and the next, he was throwing her into a tree with a tree.

“I can do better than predict your every move. I can rip your next move straight out of your head.”

“Good,” Gelata said. “I’m counting on it.”

He launched another tree at her, and she dodged again. He froze time once more, thinking to ambush her a second time, but instead he fell through the thin layer of leaves that had covered the fissure Recoome had made.

Gelata stood at the ledge and laughed. “As I suspected, you were too focused on me to pay attention to where your feet were going… or would end up, if you followed me. It just goes to show that all the power in the world benefits you nothing if you have no strategy.”

“I agree,” Burter said, and then he knocked her right into the fissure after Guldo, leaving a blurry line of afterimages.

Blurry lines of afterimages were something Burter was used to leaving, so he didn’t think anything of them, until one of them didn’t fade with the others; and when he figured out what that meant, not even he was fast enough to stop it. His own afterimage picked him up and tossed him into the fissure after Guldo and Gelata. They scurried out of the way to avoid being hit, but only Gelata made it, and even her tail got smashed.

The afterimage faded, leaving Donpara. “If you had a computer, it could have told you about our holographic camouflage capabilities. But you don’t, so it didn’t.”

From the sidelines, Frieza said, “They’re falling like the universe’s stupidest set of dominos.”

“This isn’t going how I wanted,” Pan agreed, “But at least Ginyu and Ember are having a proper fight.”

They were, too. Their punches exploded mid-air, flashes of light that sent splinters and dirt spinning into the atmosphere. Strike for strike, they were evenly matched.

Ember must have been getting sick of it, too. He landed and folded his hands. “Red Wave Paralysis!”

That was the move Ember had used on Pan. Before she’d found a way to deflect it, the Paralysis had worked instantly and perfectly on her; and it worked that way on Ginyu, too. It forced him to the ground, feet from Ember and yet unable to reach him.

“I have to admit,” Ember said, “It’s been fun, having an adult conversation with a mature enemy for once. But it’s gone on long enough.”

Ginyu had more control than Pan did. He managed to lift his head and smile the wickedest looking smile she’d ever seen.

The morning was clear, but lightning flashed, or something like it. Everything went white and faded to normal. Ember grabbed Ginyu’s collar… only there was something very off about his expression… and pulled him out of the field of Paralysis he’d just put him in.

“A funny thing happened to me on the way out of hell,” Ember said, only Pan realized with horror that was not Ember; his voice, his mannerisms, were all Ginyu’s. “I came back stronger, too. Do you know I don’t even have to say the password to swap bodies anymore? I just have to hold your gaze for at least ten seconds and will it to happen, and it does. If you’d worn patches over both your eyes, I might have been in trouble. But I don’t see any reason to stay like this, so…”

There was another bolt of not-lightning, and Ginyu (in his own body this time) grabbed Ember by the wrists and threw him into Donpara.

“It looks like it’s just you, me, and the Captain,” Jeice said to Sonpara. “Two against one, those are good odds. Good for me, that is. I don’t want to tell lord Frieza his business, but how are the sorry lot of you supposed to be protecting his girl if you can’t even get past us?”

Perfect stillness reigned. Everyone stopped fighting, astonished.

“Oh, crap. That was supposed to be secret, wasn’t it?” Jeice said. Then, completely unable to put down the shovel, continued, “He didn’t want her to know he was in love with her ‘cause he didn’t know how she’d take it.”

“You idiot!” Ginyu yelled, so loud that Gelata and Guldo, who’d called a truce long enough to use Burter as a ladder to crawl out of the fissure, both fell back in.

The silence was split by a loud slap, but that was just Frieza slamming his face into his palm.

“It’s okay,” Sonpara said. “He doesn’t need to worry about that. Pan feels the same way about him, too. I’m pretty sure. Just the other day she had this ‘hypothetical’ conversation with Donpara, from that transparent I’ve-got-this-friend angle, and the ‘friend’ was ‘hypothetically’ in love with Frieza. She was really upset Donpara said he didn’t think it would work. I wondered why, and why she was being so specific, but it all makes sense now.”

“You idiot!” Bonpara yelled.

Pan didn’t bother with one palm. She buried her face in both hands.

Both Ginyu and Bonpara reached for them, looking murderous; and the others weren’t far behind (except for Gelata, Guldo, and Burter, who were still stuck in a crack, although they were making marvelous progress towards remedying that). Jeice and Sonpara had managed to do what nothing else could. They’d united the Ginyu Force and the Para Brothers, even if it was just towards the common goal of shutting them up.

Before they could do anything, Frieza himself stormed into the center of them, and they scattered.

“Well? Did you catch all that?” He asked Pan.

“Yeah,” She said, wandering to his side. “You?”

“I didn’t miss a word.”

“I must sound like a silly little girl to you.”

“What does that make me?” He relaxed his hand, trying to keep his voice even. “Right now, we have pressing concerns to deal with, so I suggest we continue to Colander. That’s the best course of action, isn’t it?”

“I think so, too,” Pan said. “Come on guys. Don’t fight anymore.”

In a daze, Pan began to walk into the forest. She was confused and in thought, and honestly, not sure what had just happened was even real; and then she couldn’t go any further, because Frieza caught her by the hand, pulled her back, and kissed her.

It must have been an impulse on his part, because he tried to break it off and back away, but this time she caught him and kissed him back.

“Does this mean I’m not in trouble?” Jeice asked.

Ginyu rapped his knuckles on Jeice’s head. “You’re in trouble. Also, be quiet.”

At least for the rest of the way out of the forest, nobody fought.

 

Chapter Text

The air was heavy with danger, and Pan half-expected to teleport into a repeat of Blendarr, with its flames and screaming and fleeing masses. She and her friends did surface in a crowd, regaining hold on reality in a tumultuous din, but it was just the kind of traffic Colander always had. Reizomorphs, Brenchians, and Sutova strode with purpose through the streets, nearly shoulder-to-shoulder. Conversation became a garbled hum of background noise. Pan squeezed closer to Frieza.

“This rules out splitting up to search. We’d never find each other again, let alone Incendria. At least this means our mystery killer hasn’t attacked yet,” Pan said.

“Does it?” Frieza asked. “Crowds this thick can hide malice as easily as the dead of night. Do you see that?”

IF Frieza hadn’t pointed, Pan wouldn’t have; but she had a perfect view as a nondescript Brenchian pushed past a woman carrying a basket of apples, slipped his hand into her pocket, and removed her purse. He disappeared into the multitude. The woman noticed nothing.

“Hey…” Pan said.

“Don’t let the Great Saiyawoman get the better of you. If we stop what we’re doing to interfere, we may not be in time to stop the Backlash, and that woman won’t be losing her purse, she’ll be losing her life. Which do you think she’ll miss more?”

Pan relaxed, but the grimace remained on her face.

Bonpara had resumed his Sutova disguise. He was joined by Donpara as a gangly Brenchian and Sonpara as a rather convincing first-tier Reizomorph. Bonpara tapped his arm, which looked nonsensical thanks to the holograph, but Pan knew what he was doing.

“The computer’s scanned the pedestrians. No faces matched Incendria’s,” Bonpara said.

“I’m not picking up her energy signature, either,” Ginyu said, “Although we expected as much, with her hiding it.”

“There must be some way to find out where she is,” Gelata said.

Abruptly, Frieza dashed between the rows of walkers. Pan and the others had little choice but to follow him.

“What happened? Did you see her?”

He stopped in the town square. The effigy had been taken down, with the scent of smoke and a sprinkling of ash mixed with snow left as evidence it had been there. Now Pan could see the bonfire had been started in a garden. Flowers and round stones littered the ground beneath where it had hung.

“I know what to do,” Frieza said.

Frieza knelt and rearranged the stones.

They’d been in the square only for a few seconds, and already Frieza pulled them away, in the direction of a kiosk surrounded by customers.

“I suppose that little exercise had some purpose,” Ember said. “But I’ll be damned if I can figure out what it is.”

“A good thing, too,” Frieza said, “For we developed it to fool you… and the other guards, of course. When I was imprisoned in the palace dungeon, Incendria wanted to speak with me, but feared doing so would make her father suspicious. We developed this code to pass brief messages. It’s much like the Morse code on your world, Pan.”

“How can we know she’ll see it, though?” Pan asked.

“You remember how long it took you to get here from Blendarr, don’t you? As far as I know, mama can’t use Instant Transmission, and would have to find shelter in the night against the Vile Wave. Even if she ran the whole way… and she couldn’t have without making her energy signature traceable… we’ll have beaten her here by at least ten minutes. She has to pass that garden to get anywhere in Colander, so she’ll see it.”

“What kind of message did you leave her? Did you tell her to meet us here?” Gelata asked.

“For fear she’d think it a trick, I identified myself and told her to leave us directions. We’ll wait for them.”

“Even with the Para Brothers’ disguises, won’t we look suspicious, standing together in a big group?” Pan asked.

“Who says we’re standing here doing nothing? We’re in line like everyone else,” Frieza said.

Pan tried to peek around the line, but a few people thought she was trying to cut, so she backed down. “In line for what?”

She found out when their turn finally arrived. The kiosk was selling flowers, and Frieza presented her with one.

“This is customary, is it not?” He asked.

Pan took the bloom and stroked the petals, yellow flecked with crimson.

“It’s an asphodel. The capital was named after the flowers.”

It was beautiful, and her first gift from someone she cared about, but perhaps because she was already on edge, the red looked like droplets of blood. Hoping it would calm the ghoulish thought, she closed her eyes and smelled its perfume. There was nothing ominous about that. “Mm, nice. Thank you.”

When they returned to the square, the stones had been rearranged.

“She left us a location,” Frieza said. “This way.”

The buildings were as packed as the people, and the throngs made the already-narrow roads even smaller. They had to walk single-file in places. It was difficult for Pan to see where she was going in this maze of high walls and apathetic faces.

Then one emerged and stood out for not being a face, but a veil; and its owner stood motionless at the corner. She lifted her eyes, and Pan recognized them. A moment later she lowered the veil just enough to reveal the rest of her face.

Frieza slowed his approach.

“Mama?”

Incendria didn’t move. Neither of them spoke. Notes passed in the dungeon did not make them anything but strangers. There was nothing to be said that was not business, and they both knew and regretted that.

“You’ve figured it out, too, then,” Incendria said.

“All I’ve figured out is that you know who did this,” Frieza said. “And truth be told, I had help with that.”

“And yet it’s been in plain sight this whole time. It’s about Magmast. It’s always been about Magmast.”

Her cloak billowed as she turned towards the count’s manor.

After a weighted breath, she looked back over her shoulder.

“News from the North Quadrant makes its way to Ketchyn in pieces, if at all. I heard so little about you. Even so, when they brought me news of your death, my heart broke. It knows you, even if I do not, my son. And Pan? I do hope we can finish our battle when this is over.”

As they left for the count’s house, Pan felt like a spring uncoiled in her chest. Tension had built so quickly she hadn’t been aware of it until it released. She’d been so certain something horrible was about to happen, but now they’d found Incendria. Soon they’d have their culprit. The dread didn’t fade, but lost power with every step.

Until Pan felt a familiar ki seconds before its owner stepped out of a side-street and blocked Incendria’s path.

“Hello, sister.”

She spun around. “Were you followed?”

King Sulfuri laughed. “Oh, my dear Incendria; as if there was any need! All that trouble you went to just to stay hidden, all that subterfuge. I must admit you’ve gotten very good at it. Every bit was for nothing, though. I found you instantly just by looking in the nearest mirror.”

“It was you!” Frieza said.

Every one of them readied themselves for combat. All around Pan felt energy flaring, saw stances changing…

Except for Sulfuri, whose ki signature remained as dismal and his vitals as open as ever.

“Did you expect your trap to kill me?” Incendria asked, “When I’ve always been the stronger of the two of us?”

The king sighed, acknowledging a fact that rankled. “Yes, you have. You still are. What are you going to do now? Incinerate me on the spot, in front of all these people? I have no doubt you could. Will you?”

Incendria’s back blocked Pan’s view of Sulfuri, so she could not see what the king did. His dull energy did not spike or even hop, not even briefly. Yet he did something with his hands, ending with touching Incendria’s shoulder. He retracted his hand, and that instant, the Princess was on her knees, then her face. She opened her mouth but no words came out, only blood, splattering the pavement.

“You should have,” Sulfuri said.

Pan and Frieza sprang into action at once; Pan to pursue Sulfuri, Frieza to tend his mother. Neither accomplished anything. Sulfuri had disappeared into the masses he’d come from as surely as the pickpocket had, and Incendria was dead.

Ember didn’t believe it. He pushed Frieza aside and checked the princess’s pulse, her breath. He wove his healing magic. She remained still. He unleashed a gargled scream and left the Prismasphere, compressing her chest like an Earth doctor. This was when the crowd finally noticed what was happening, though they did nothing but gather around. Still, Ember didn’t stop until Gelata pulled him away.

“It’s too late,” Gelata said.

“That’s impossible,” he said, voice still rough. “I didn’t see anything! He didn’t do anything!”

“We’ve got to catch him,” she said, pulling his arm harder.

“The computer already scanned the area,” Bonpara said. “He must have hidden his face as soon as he got away from us.”

Frieza, who had kept quiet through all of it, returned to Incendria’s side. He brushed the cloth from her face- her stranger’s face, so like his own- and closed her eyes. “We don’t need to chase him down. We know where he’s going. Didn’t you hear? It’s about Magmast. Sulfuri brought me here, murdered his sister, and risked waking the mirror and destroying all of Ketchyn just to kill one man.”

Her robes dusted the ground as he picked her up, cradled her against his chest.

“I never understood why your father and grandfather insisted on burying them,” Frieza said. “The bodies I left behind me on Namek. I do now. I know we must hurry, but please, we can’t leave her like this.”

“They’ve called for help,” Gelata said. “They’ll… take care of her.”

He spread her on a bench and crossed her arms over her chest, as if she were lying in state.

The crowd looked for them, but they were gone. One transmission later, and Count Magmast’s manor stood before them.

ooo

Magister Bustion barreled down the stairs, whiskers flying. Sulfuri stood the picture of steady calm. With a bound, Bustion threw every bit of his weight and strength at the king. It appeared to work, too; Sulfuri tore a rift through the carpet all the way to the door he’d come from. Pan and company dodged and scattered as he slammed into the wood and cracked it in half.

Pan had been right on his heels. That ended. The moment Sulfuri passed the house’s threshold, a line of violet flame shot across the floor, and a barrier bust between her and the anteroom. She skidded, the carpet rumpling beneath her feet, and stopped inches from its cackling surface.

Still, she was close enough when Sulfuri hit to see a glint of red in his hand. The Prismasphere hadn’t stirred, and she felt no spike in energy. Was it a blade? A concealed cannon?

“What’s in his hand?” She asked the man next to her.

Unfortunately, the man next to her was Captain Ginyu, and he and Bonpara whispered so furiously to each other they wouldn’t have seen a firecracker being set off inches from their noses.

“Never mind,” Pan said. “Ember and Gelata, how long until you can get that Vile Barrier down?”

“We’re working on it,” Ember said.

Bustion shredded the carpet even further closing the distance between them fist-first. Sulfuri slumped against the door. He raised his head, flatted his palm against thin air. There was no strength in that hand to stop the bum’s rush, and yet on contact, Bustion lost momentum. He fell over Sulfuri’s shoulder.

Sulfuri tapped his chest. Red glinted, and Bustion slid to the floor like a rag doll. Sparing him one last look of disgust, Sulfuri stepped over him and strode to the stairwell.

Magmast himself appeared on the balcony atop it, face sour. Shivor stood at his side in his fourth form. Behind him, in the shadows of the doorway, Pan caught the outline of Lucia’s shadow.

“Climb out the window and run into the city,” Magmast told her. “I know you know how.”

“Ah, Magmast,” Sulfuri said. “Did you think you could buy the lives of your household with your own? I don’t know whether that makes you an optimist, a fool, or both. I won’t leave a single person breathing here. I promise you that.”

“You’ve no quarrel with anyone but me.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Sulfuri said. “I certainly have a quarrel with you, but I’ve amassed quite the collection over the years, and haven’t forgotten a one. Why, there have been days the pain of all those grudges was the only thing getting me out of bed in the morning. You will go first, though. You should have been dead a hundred times over by now. When I brought Frieza back, I was certain he’d eliminate you that very night to avenge Polrene. How was I to know he’d neglect his duty to his family and prioritize…” Sulfuri gave Pan an impassive once-over, “…whatever it is he brought that monkey here to do with it? He’s always been a self-centered wretch, but that’s worse than I would have expected, even from him.”

Frieza shook his head. “Hurl as much abuse as you want, uncle, but I know you must harbor some affection for me. Why, the things you were willing to do with a rusty knife just to see me again.”

Sulfuri lost his composure and found his feet instead. “I don’t want to talk about it. It was a waste in the end. I have to do everything myself. I always do.”

Shivor landed beside him. “Consorting with the Vile Wave? Attempting assassination? This filth doesn’t deserve to die by your hand, my count. Allow me.”

He didn’t bother offering Sulfuri the first strike. Like Bustion before him, Shivor hurled himself into battle without another word. He was as fast as he’d been when Pan fought him; he drove his knuckles into the king’s jaw before the echo of his challenge had died. He didn’t stop to let Sulfuri respond, either; he jabbed Sulfuri’s throat, his solar plexus. His blows rained down hard enough to distort the king’s shape and paint the walls with flecks of his blood.

“Be careful!” Pan yelled. “I know you’re getting weak readings from him, but he didn’t just kill Bustion, he killed Incendria, too! You know how strong she was, don’t you?”

Magmast gasped. “You… Incendria… how could you?”

Sulfuri licked his lips and the blood on them. “How could I? How could you? In my hands, she died instantly. Painlessly. You’d have murdered her a little more inside each day over the years if you’d had your way. Were you after the throne destiny bequeathed to me even then, or did you really fancy yourself in love with her? Either way, you were so mad she wanted that grub king instead of you. You really bought it, didn’t you? My father’s delusion of noble Sutova fighting evil grubs for control of the monkey and creamer cattle? I knew as a child it was all garbage. Don’t misunderstand, it’s garbage I fully plan to exploit to keep my kingdom together. It makes the people so easy to frighten and enrage and manipulate. And, really, what is life itself, if not cosmic detritus given value only by mass delusion?”

Sulfuri, Pan decided, did not sound like he’d just memorized that. He sounded like he believed it. She turned to ask Ginyu what he thought, saw that he’d switched from whispering with Bonpara to whispering with Gelata, and decided it wasn’t that important compared to the rest of the circumstances.

“Speaking of monkeys, our Saiyan friend is just dying to know how I slew her benefactor. I’ll do better than tell you, my sweet. I’ll show you.”

Shivor wiped his hand on the wall. “All I’m getting out of this is that I didn’t hit your mouth hard enough.”

This time, when he struck Sulfuri, Sulfuri struck back; but it was only a cuff to Shivor’s head, and it didn’t even turn it. Shivor responded with a beating so brutal it was hard for Pan to watch, even when its recipient had executed two people in cold blood in front of her. It made her think back to her mother’s scariest professional fight, the one where unbeknownst to her or the competition’s organizers, she’d gotten in the ring with an assassin who’d really meant to beat her to death and had only survived because his own partner pulled him off her.

“Don’t close your eyes now,” Sulfuri said. “It’s just starting to get good.”

Shivor growled and pulled Sulfuri into a half-Nelson, digging his knee into his back. How his spine didn’t snap was a mystery to Pan. Come to think of it, with all the damage he’d absorbed, Sulfuri should have been unconscious several punches ago, if not dead, but he was still talking, still smiling.

He took two fingers and jabbed Shivor’s shoulder. Shivor winced. Red flashed.

“You see,” Sulfuri said, “Each man is governed by three things: his head, his heart, and the arm of his strength. In Shivor’s case, his left arm. At the epicenter of each lies a vital pressure point. Suppose one were to cut them all off. What do you think would happen?”

“Shivor!” Pan screamed. “Don’t let him touch you again! Get out of his range!”

Sulfuri had planned his attack well, though. Shivor was too tangled in his hold to just break free and retreat, and within a breath, Sulfuri had jabbed his chest. He flailed with his hands to keep grip of Sulfuri as he slid down him, leaving bloody handprints on the king’s body. Shivor hit the floor and did not move again.

Sulfuri spat blood onto his corpse.

“Chilling, isn’t it?” Sulfuri asked. “To know that, ‘weakling’ though I may be, to stand before me is to stand before death? I call this technique the Dark Triad. It’s half the reason I’m still in power.”

Pan fired a Masenko, hoping to at least force him away from Magmast. The Vile Barrier absorbed most of it, but some got through. She could smell his flesh singe as it hit, and solid swirled among the ashes; still, when both the scent and the decay cleared, Sulfuri remained. He was covered in his own blood and flecks of his own burned flesh, and yet beneath them, he had every appearance of being totally unharmed.

“That’s the other half,” He said. “Incendria had her wish, and I had mine. Now it’s time for you to feel the touch of the Dark Triad, Magmast. The rest of you will have your turn.”

“Pick on someone your own size, you big bully!” Pan yelled.

“You mean you? Or him?” Sulfuri looked from Pan to Frieza and back to Pan again and said, “What are you going to do, stand on each other’s shoulders?”

“Sure, why not? Trunks and Uncle Goten used to fight that way. Come on, lower this barrier!”

He didn’t listen. Magmast stepped into a tentative defensive stance. Pan’s strategies turned from winning to getting her friends away from this frail grim reaper.

A new voice shattered her train of thought.

“Wait!”

Lucia darted down the stairs and planted herself between her father and Sulfuri, arms thrown out.

“I want to make a deal with you,” Lucia said.

“I don’t make deals, and you’re in no position to negotiate.”

“Hear me out, please,” Lucia said. “I didn’t hear everything, and I didn’t understand much of what I heard, but I understand that you’re angry and that you want revenge on father. I’m offering you that. You’re still the king, Sulfuri. I’m petitioning you as your subject to let Count Magmast go. I’m his daughter, right? If you need to spill his blood, it runs through my veins as surely as his. Let him go, and in his place… execute me.”

“Ember, the barrier!” Pan said.

“I’m trying! He’s positioned the thread on the other side of it! I haven’t been able to catch it!”

Magmast didn’t bother speaking. He grabbed Lucia and tried to force her out of the way. What she lacked in strength, she made up for in struggling; he couldn’t keep hold of her. She slipped from his arms and threw her head on the king’s chest.

“You’re braver than I thought,” Sulfuri said.

He hit once, twice, three times, and Lucia fell at Magmast’s feet.

“But you must not have heard that I always meant to kill you both.”

“You bastard!” Magmast charged Sulfuri, fully aware it was suicide, not caring anymore.

He hit something, but it wasn’t Sulfuri. He fell against the wall, but not dead. A purple forearm and ashen gauntlet dug into this throat under his chin, pushing him into the door frame. That arm’s and gauntlet’s owner was Cooler. Sulfuri was stunned at the sudden loss of his prey, but Cooler barely appeared to notice the king. His eyes were fixed on Magmast in pure loathing.

“Do you know,” he said, “If Sulfuri had asked me, not Frieza, to kill you, I’d have done it gladly? There was a time I wanted nothing more than to see you on the floor choking on your own blood, just like you left my mother.”

He dropped Magmast and turned to the bloodied carpet where Lucia lay.

“I’ve changed my mind. That barrier of yours is draining the mirror at a horrifying pace, Sulfuri. I’m going to have to ask you to remove it. I’m not going to ask nicely.”

Sulfuri was so enraged, he trembled. “How are you here? You can’t get through a Prismatic barrier with Instant Transmission.”

“When I felt Incendria die, I came straight to the manor. I was already in the house when you wove the barrier. The basement.”

Sulfuri screamed. “Is every damned Cold determined to defy me? It’s futile. When our father used to work out his rages on us, and Incendria wished to be invisible, I wished that I’d never feel pain again – and mine was granted as surely as hers. It’s how I found Chilled’s Mirror in the first place, wondering just how that had happened and tracing the phenomenon back to Cold Manor. You can’t hurt me. If you can’t hurt me, you can’t kill me. If you can’t kill me, you can’t stop me. No matter where you run, no matter how deep into those worm holes you bury yourself, I’ll find you.”

“So you’re the one who taught my brother to prattle like that,” Cooler said. “I knew he didn’t learn it from me or papa.”

“Hmpf,” Frieza said, but there was a slight smile on his face.

Cooler called to Pan. “I’ve got the barrier’s thread and I’m going to pull it. Gather your friends and get ready to jump when I tell you, where I tell you.”

“Understood,” Pan said.

“Follow me. Now!”

Sulfuri charged them, hands blazing, and the outstretched death’s fingers over Lucia’s corpse was the last Pan saw of Magmast’s manor. Following Cooler’s trail deposited her into a green field of winter wheat. It cushioned her fall, but not so much the brunt of all three Para Brothers falling on her head. At least Gelata tried to change the directory of her fall, choosing instead to fall on Ember, who’d landed right beside Pan.

Frieza helped her to her feet.

“Is everyone here?” Pan asked.

Frieza counted the Para Brothers, the Ginyu Force, Ember and Gelata, Cooler, and Magmast, who’d fallen to the dirt sobbing quietly.

“He has to pay for this,” He whispered.

Bonpara, Gelata, and Ginyu stepped forward.

“He will,” Ember said.

“My old friend, this is no time for platitudes,” Magmast said, sounding even worse than he had on his deathbed.

“It’s no platitude,” Captain Ginyu said. “That king thinks he’s unbeatable? Gelata, Bonpara and I made a plan to defeat him while he was running his mouth. We’ve just got to lure him somewhere open, where we can keep a decent distance between us until it’s time to strike. Somewhere sound will travel nicely. Somewhere like…”

He looked around him at the swaying green blades.

“…well, right here, actually. How do we let him know? He can’t read energy.”

Pan wiped her eyes. “Does anyone have a mirror?” Before Cooler could protest, she explained, “Sulfuri’s going to use Chilled’s Mirror to search for us no matter what. If we let him find us right away, he won’t spend enough time on it to wake it up. We need a mirror, though.”

Magmast pulled a small hand-glass from his cape. “Please be careful with it. It belonged to Lucia.”

Pan held the mirror to the side to make as much of the backdrop behind her visible as possible. Her face was tear-streaked, and she knew Sulfuri would find it, but how identifying would a field be? Identifying enough, she hoped, that the king would recognize it.

“Here we are, Sulfuri,” she said. “Come and get us.”

 

Chapter Text

A jagged line of dirt marked where the field ended and the moorland began. Green faded to pastel and gray to silver under the frost. The sky pulsed blue. Patches of young trees sprung from the heather.

It was a perfect arena, Pan thought, and not a bad stage, either.

“I feel the king’s energy approaching,” She said to Bonpara. She sat in the branches of a tree, legs and skirts dangling, but Bonpara stood in the field. He’d dismantled his suit and rearranged the pieces into an amp; Sonpara and Donpara built theirs into speakers. “It’s slow progress, because I don’t think he can fly, but we should be able to see him any second now. Are you ready?”

Bonpara, Donpara, and Sonpara posed aside their equipment.

“I don’t know if this will be the fight of my life or the concert of my life, but we’re as ready as we’re getting,” Bonpara said.

Pan called to another nearby patch of trees. “The Para Brothers are set up. How are you doing?”

Captain Ginyu and his Force also struck a pose. “As soon as Sulfuri puts one foot in this field, we’re going to make him regret it.”

“He’s going to be regretting it soon, then,” Pan said, holding her hand over her eyes. “There he is.”

Sulfuri lurched over the horizon, so black against the Prismatic light he looked like a shape cut from paper.

Bonpara powered up his suit.

The three reassembled conjoined suits didn’t just look like an amp and speakers. They functioned like them, too. Upon activation, the computer pumped steady bass through them hard enough to vibrate the material. Pan shoved cotton-plant blooms into her ears and knew the others were doing the same. The music was still heavy and loud enough that, though Pan couldn’t properly hear it through the earplugs, she could feel the resonance shake the tree below her.

Bonpara popped one arm and threw the other to the sky. He leaned back, stepped forward. The other two moved in perfect synchronization with him. As they moved, the dull metal of the suits glowed in matching rhythm.

Sulfuri was close enough to see them. Pan could tell because his expression matched, perfectly, the expression she’d once worn on her ten-year-old face the first time she’d seen the Para Brothers do this. She hadn’t known that stunned uncertainty was part of the Parapara Boogie attack.

Sulfuri, on the other hand, had all the suspicion of a life on Ketchyn informing his instincts, and he guessed right away something was wrong, that he had to stop that music. The Brothers had positioned themselves that no matter which direction he approached from, there’d be distance enough between them; and when Sulfuri made to run it, he was met with a new, equally horrifying sight.

The Ginyu Force leapt from the trees and posed before him, reciting their names. Even Guldo got it mostly right this time, although he still giggled and waved his knife.

“Lean to the left! Put your hands in the air! This sick beat’s more than you can bear!” Bonpara said.

“Maybe you don’t know how the Ginyu Force does things,” Captain Ginyu said, and the Force behind him snickered with utter malevolence. “But you can ignore our cheerleaders. You think you’ve got a score to settle with Lord Frieza? Nobody bothers the Emperor without going through us first. We’ll be your opponents.”

“Tou!” yelled the Force together.

“Go through you, I shall, then,” Sulfuri said, his hand glowing.

Weak though he may have been, Sulfuri was not untrained. Recoome engaged him first, pushing the king across the dirt boundary with his strength. His earth-shaking blows had power, but they were slow, and Sulfuri wove through them. He pulled back his arm, preparing to apply the first of his three deadly touches.

Guldo darted between his legs and knocked him off-balance. Sulfuri pitched backwards. He barely caught his balance, but his hand came up short of Recoome’s chest and gave the giant time to step out of the way.

Jeice took his spot, forming and spiking a Crusher Ball at the king. Sulfuri ducked it and flattened his hand against Jeice’s chest. He clutched it, staggering back. Red flashed. But when Sulfuri pressed him to hit his arm, Burter tackled him from the side, throwing him to the ground. They both disappeared below the grass. Burter emerged and sped away a blur.

Ginyu planted his hands on his hips and laughed. “We spotted a flaw in your Dark Triad. Now you see it, too. You only developed it to work on one enemy. It’s useless against a group coming at you from all sides. Which of us do you aim at? Who have you already hit? Where have you hit them? You’re getting overwhelmed already. I don’t know how you are at math, but flagging all five of us three times apiece, accounting for repeats and errors; ouch. Can you keep standing that long?”

“I can keep standing as long as it takes,” Sulfuri said. “If you recall, the Dark Triad is only half my strength. The other half is… is… to the right, right, left, left, turn and spin, with a great big grin… what the hell…”

The Para Brothers flexed, and this time, Sulfuri flexed with them. When they launched back into their moves, so did he.

“You’re one tough customer, it’s true,” Bonpara said.

“But it turns out that’s got its glitches, too,” Sonpara said.

“You can’t be harmed by fists or blasts,” Donpara said.

“But the Boogie don’t hurt,” Bonpara said. “It just makes you dance. Bonpara para!”

“Bon papa!”

Sulfuri struggled against the pull, but it was useless; he’d listened to the music without disrupting it, watched the flashes and the flourishes, and that was all it took to become the Para Brothers’ prisoner.

“Your move isn’t foolproof, either,” Sulfuri said. “You can’t dance forever, and that means you can’t keep me trapped forever. What are you going to do when you wear out, I break free, and you’re winded and I’m not?”

“They don’t need to hold you indefinitely. They just need to hold you in place for ten seconds.” Captain Ginyu finally took his place before Sulfuri. “Nine, eight, seven… catchy tune, isn’t it?…six, five, four, three, two, here we go… I don’t strictly have to say it, but for old time’s sake… change now!

Captain Ginyu’s trap had closed. This was the one situation he, Bonpara, and Ember had set this elaborate stage to push him into. Pan thought it would have looked more impressive. Like before, it was only a bolt of lightning from the cloudless sky, one that faded to leave Ginyu and Sulfuri facing each other just as they had before.

The Para Brothers stopped moving and stood in place.

Captain Ginyu… or at least, Captain Ginyu’s body… regarded its hands like it had never seen them before.

Beaded in sweat, Sulfuri’s body cracked its neck.

“What… what’s going on?” Captain Ginyu said in Sulfuri’s voice.

Sulfuri, in Captain Ginyu’s voice, replied, “What’s going on is that you’re not invulnerable anymore.”

The Ginyu Force snickered again. The sound was disturbing enough, and then the Para Brothers joined in. Locked in their rhythmic state, even their laughter was perfectly synchronized. The effect was uncanny.

Magmast stepped one foot into the field. “Let me.”

Cooler caught him by the shoulder and pulled him back. “Captain Ginyu is a professional and he knows what he’s doing. You’d get in his way.”

“I can still kill you just by getting my hands on you!” The purple man said, lunging.

He got two steps before Recoome blocked his path.

“Recoome Eraser Gun!”

The light that poured from Recoome’s mouth tore a canyon through the wheat. The ground cracked and poured in on itself, blackening by the second. Stone, dirt, and germ erupted in a cloud. Sulfuri-in-Ginyu’s-body would have fallen into the collapsing earth and been crushed, had there been anything left to crush by that point; but the white-hot energy burned him away, leaving a silhouette that dissolved into ashes and settled with the rest of the dust.

King Sulfuri, who’d first found and used Chilled’s mirror, who’d murdered so many people, was dead.

ooo

Pan stood at the edge of the ravine. At its rock-bottom, small curls of smoke rose. Dirt and wheat heaped around it. The wind blew grains off the top in a light mist, but the apart from that, the dust had settled. There was no body left. Sulfuri had been atomized.

Ginyu stretched, the members of his Force surrounding him.

“Brilliant move, boss,” Jeice said.

“It almost felt like the good old days.” Ginyu threw back his head and laughed. It was equal parts disconcerting and funny, seeing an expression like that on Sulfuri’s face, hearing so loud a laugh coming from his throat. “I don’t think I’m keeping this body, though. Invulnerability is nice and all, but the guy obviously thought that was all he needed. This has to be the most out-of-shape host I’ve ever occupied. I’m getting a pain in my side just trying to pose. Besides, this pretty-boy face isn’t me.”

“I could score you a holographic projector,” Bonpara said. “You could look however you wanted until you found something to your liking.”

“Thanks, but it’s be better for me to wait until I’ve formally transferred the kingdom to… what, you?”

That was the furthest thing from Magmast’s mind. Ever since Pan had returned Lucia’s mirror, he’d sat in place, cradling it in his lap. Still, he forced a response. “A provisional government, I think, is our best chance for avoiding more bloodshed. There’s been enough of that.”

“It can be done,” Ginyu said. “Lord Frieza would send me to conquer planets that way when he needed the infrastructure intact and didn’t want to risk an invasion. I’d just take the leader’s place and sign power over bit by bit in a series of trade deals. It’s real easy.”

“That’s…” Magmast said, “Actually somewhat terrifying, Captain Ginyu. I think I’m going to have nightmares about it. As for you, Cooler; I know you don’t want my gratitude for your hand in this, but…”

“You’re right. I don’t. I saved your life to avoid a civil war. You’re the only indisputable successor to the Asphodel throne Sulfuri didn’t manage to take with him.” Cooler almost sounded like he admired Sulfuri’s ability to take his enemies with him.

“That’s not strictly true,” Magmast said. “As the eldest living descendant of Cocytus’s royal family, you’ve got more than enough claim to it yourself. Why aren’t you making a bid to expand the infamous Cold Empire into the East Quadrant?”

“Rule a city that did what it did to us? I’m more likely to raze it, and frankly, I don’t have the time or the resources for that right now. Besides, I’ll be busy enough running our territory in the North Quadrant.”

Cooler found his way to Frieza, stood inches from him with his arms crossed.

“You have no objections?” He asked.

Frieza squeezed Pan’s hand. “Not a one, brother.”

Cooler glanced down, then back up, sour. “You’re abandoning your place at the head of the organization? For her? First you lose to Son Goku, then you botch your attempted coup of Hell, and now this? Did you make a checklist of every possible way you could embarrass us? Oh, wait; you’re going to try to tell me she’s different.”

“Different?” Frieza scoffed. “Pan’s the most Saiyan Saiyan I’ve met since that brat of Paragus’s.”

“I’m kind of sorry I didn’t get to fight Sulfuri myself,” Pan was saying. “An enemy that can kill you in three moves no matter what you do? Could I have won under those conditions? It would have been thrilling to find out, and now I’ll always wonder. Still, Captain Ginyu called first dibs, so interfering would have been rude.”

“See?” Frieza said.

“Rude or not, I kinda wish she had interfered,” Ginyu said, scratching his side. “If just to tell me not to toy with Sulfuri so much. It’s starting to hurt to breathe.”

“Maybe Ember can numb it,” Pan said. “I’ll go get him.”

Ginyu snagged her by the arm. “Not right now. It’s not like I’m dying. I can wait until he gets back.”

“But he’s just over… oh, I see what you mean.”

Away from the crowd, Ember and Gelata walked along the field.

“It’s time to return to the palace,” Gelata said. “Search the archives.”

“Destroy the mirror,” Ember said, staring into the distance.

Gelata wrapped her arms around her shoulders. “I almost wish we didn’t have to go back, captain. All the best moments of my life have been with you. Being on the road, where I didn’t have to hide that, or worry palace drama or Asphodel propriety would wedge itself between us… I don’t know if I can give that up again. I don’t know if I can pretend like I used to.”

“We may not have to, officer. I have a feeling things are going to be different from now on,” Ember said. “Besides, where would those kids be without us?”

She laughed. “You’re right. Let’s go get them.”

Pan watched from the crevice. “They’re coming this way now.”

“Good,” Captain Ginyu said, “Because I feel… I feel…”

He doubled over and started hacking.

“Geeze,” Pan said, patting him on the back. “Are you sure Sulfuri didn’t have a cold or allergies?”

“It’s not that. There’s something in my throat.”

Ginyu covered his mouth with his hand, but the next time he coughed, purple overflowed it and ran down his knuckles. He turned his back to Pan so he could wrap his fingers around something and yank. More liquid splashed out, hit the ground, and Ginyu took a deep gasping breath.

He opened his hand. In his palm was a Vile sentry. The kind Gelata had found inside Char.

Pan took a running jump and flew towards Ember.

“What is it?” Frieza asked, taking flight beside her.

“We have to tell Gelata. This isn’t over. I should have known, should have wondered if Sulfuri could just walk into his rivals’ houses and Triad-spam them to death, and if he wanted to do that so badly, why he hadn’t before now. That thing Ginyu vomited up killed his inhibitions and drove him to it. He was a diversion!”

Ember heard Pan’s call. He her speeding towards him. He waved.

The death beam went straight through Ember’s back, pierced his heart, and shot from the front of him. Pan had to bank to the side so it wouldn’t hit her, as well.

“Captain!” Gelata screamed, throwing herself down at his side. The next death beam struck her, tossing her small body across the field. She left a streak of blood in the wheat.

As Pan and Frieza landed at the fallen Asphodel guards’ sides, thunder- real thunder- sounded overhead. The blue sky darkened with clouds, but more than that, its color drained, shifting from blue to indigo to violet as if the day had been put on fast-forward. Lightning forked through the heavens. With the racing clouds and encroaching night came whispers, tantalizing whispers calling out to Pan and anyone else who’d listen.

“The backlash,” Cooler said. “The mirror is awake!”

The storm grew in anger. The heavy pile of wheat blew over, floated on the wind. It traveled in a cyclonic circle, an unnatural and hypnotic shape, until it converged and braided itself together in thick and jagged plaits. Two arms emerged. Two legs. A body with a long and ropy tail. A head with horns but with no face. The space between its chin and forehead collapsed and frayed as if some unseen hand had taken a file to it.

Still, the straw homunculus could see, or do something like it. It turned its faceless hole of a head to her.

It came to her in an arrhythmic line. Pan had never seen anything move so wrong, listing from side to side, bending its arms and legs as if it didn’t have any bones (and it didn’t). It raised a shaking hand and pointed its finger at her chest.

“Don’t you dare.”

Frieza had spoken, and now he appeared, standing between Pan and this strange new intruder. He wasn’t making himself a human shield, as Lucia had, though; she could see in every line of his face he meant to kill this creature.

“You,” He said. “It’s your energy I felt creeping from that mirror, watching me every moment of every day, judging me, scorning me. Who are you?”

Pan had doubted the thing could speak, but she heard a groan from the Vile Wave, one voice rising to the forefront of its tangle of whispers.

“Who do you think?” It asked.

A memory burst in Pan’s head. Gelata, sitting with her in Cold Manor’s basement as she examined a mutilated portrait. After Kuriza’s murder, she’d said, he had every image of himself defaced… and I mean that literally. De-faced. Paradoxically, that’s how I know whose portrait this is.

“It’s Chilled,” Pan said. “King of Cocytus.”

And as the whispers in the Vile Wave turned dark and its energy cruel and cloying, Pan knew she was right… and that it didn’t do them any good.

ooo

This was not the first time Frieza stood before an opponent he could not defeat. He’d never felt quite so serene about it before, though. Behind him, Pan checked Ember’s pulse, then Gelata’s; for convention’s sake, he thought, since she must have felt their energies snuffed out even more acutely than he had. Chilled had taken out the healer first and the strategist next. It’s what Frieza himself would have done. What he had done.

“I’m hurt you didn’t recognize me first, grandchild,” The wicker-Chilled said.

“You haven’t made it easy, you must admit.”

“You’re uncomfortable. Let me help.”

Chilled scooped a lump of clay from the ground. He worked it between his fingers, flattened it, sculpted it, and fitted the finished product to the patch where his face should be. The result was more lifelike than should have been possible, down to the smile.

Frieza blinked. “That’s supposed to help?”

“It’s an improvement, isn’t it?” He patted more clay to his arms, making something like armor.

“That’s debatable.”

“I’m not here to debate.” Chilled looked past Frieza to Pan, who Bonpara was pulling from her fallen friends’ sides. “Step away.”

“I’ve heard moving me takes a spot more effort than just beating me.”

Chilled folded his hands. “You know what your refusal means, don’t you? What’s going to happen next if you persist?”

“All too well,” Frieza said.

“It doesn’t have to be like this. I put so much into you. You’re my greatest creation. So perfect in your hatred, a being incapable of loving and being loved, my means of destroying Flare with his own favorite weapon. At that, you succeeded admirably. Letting your father take the blame was a master stroke.”

“I don’t know why you’d think so. I ended up banished along with him. Sulfuri punished the right man after all, if only by mistake.”

“I’d hate to throw all that away over this… one small breach. Not when it’s so easily mended,” Chilled said. “Let me kill her. Whatever you think you’re feeling now, you’ll forget it, perhaps even grow to despise it as you once did. Weakness doesn’t become the likes of us. In an hour at most, this world is going to be a void. There’s still a place for you to rule that void with me.”

Frieza said, “You lecture me about weakness, grandfather, but you’ve given me two more chances to back down than I gave Vegeta, by my count.”

“I’ll kill her anyway once I’ve finished with you. It won’t be a quick death.”

Pan stood between Bonpara and Captain Ginyu. The wind whipped her hair and dress. Her eyes were darker than the sky. If this was the last he was going to see her, if he was destined for another eternity in Hell, he wanted to take this memory with him.

Frieza raised his hand and fired a white-hot ball into Pan’s chest.

It exploded, lifted her from her feet and tossed her into the air. She landed on her back between Ember and Gelata. Bonpara and Ginyu dashed to her. They looked to Frieza like they moved in slow-motion. He didn’t expect the cyborg to figure out what happened, but he hoped Ginyu would, otherwise there could be quite a bit of collateral damage.

“There. Quick death,” Frieza said. “We can end this discussion now, I assume?”

That wiped the smile off Chilled’s mask. It distorted into a look of hate so beyond the proportions of what a face should be able to reach, it could only have been made with clay. “What a disappointment,” He said. “At least Sulfuri was loyal.”

Chilled struck him across the face with a Death Blade.

Something crunched, and something warm ran down his chin, but to Frieza the most offensive thing about it was that he got dirt in his mouth. He back sprung to a more defensible position. From every direction, Vile Lacerations cut a spider web of paths through the air, honed on him like the center of a target. He deflected them as fast as they hit. Chilled threw a kick at the shield, hoping to rob Frieza of control over his own defensive maneuver; mindful of the trick, Frieza dropped the shield and blew vapor. The pressure pushed him back without putting Frieza within his reach.

Frieza took the opening dutifully, starting with an uppercut that grew into a fusillade. He snapped straw and hardened clay. The dummy doubled over.

Instead of feeling satisfied, Frieza was angry. Chilled wasn’t using a fraction of his own strength, let alone tapping into the mirror’s amplification abilities. He wanted to give Frieza hope before he crushed him. Frieza had played the same joke on so many people. Now he could only ask… why? What had the point of this unproductive intimidation theater ever been?

Not that Frieza didn’t have hope. It simply was not tied up in the outcome of his fight against Chilled, which was a foregone conclusion. He spared a look at the field where Pan lay, giving every appearance of being out of commission. Captain Ginyu had Bonpara by the wrist and tried to drag him away from her, yelling. The rest of the Force hadn’t bothered deliberating; Recoome had picked Sonpara up by the head and carried him off, while Jeice and Burter herded Donpara.

Oh, good. They had figured it out.

Now he just had to keep Chilled toying with him until Pan… woke up.

That brief look cost Frieza dearly. A Vile Laceration carved right through his left, cutting bone and flesh and muscle with equal ease. He watched the blobs of magenta follow it through him and into the distance before he fully processed that was his blood, a lot of his blood, and by that time it had thrown him into a second Laceration that gave him a matching gash on his right side. The pain hadn’t even caught up to him when Chilled appeared above him and hammer-struck him to the ground. Dust gave way and rock broke beneath him. The dirt ground into his wounds and that was even more unpleasant than swallowing it had been.

It was a struggle to sit up. Frieza had to prop himself up on one elbow first, shaking, and then the other. His vision blurred from the blood loss, but he could still make out enough to find his way half-upright.

Chilled’s foot slammed into his throat, erasing his progress in one swift blow. The cuts ignited. The rocks felt like internal sandpaper.

He pulled back his hand as if for a slap, but what he unleashed was another Vile Laceration, and then another.

“Does everything I make go wrong?” Chilled asked. “The mirror was supposed to bring my grandson back, and it didn’t! The death of Flare was supposed to be the final wrench in the machine that killed him, yet Asphodel still stands! And you… you were supposed to be my vengeance personified.”

Frieza laughed, even though it meant coughing up blood. “Did you truly believe you could rid Ketchyn of evil by killing one man? That’s more gullibility than I’d have expected from you, thinking Flare was the lynchpin of all the malevolence in the universe and you were one good pull away from eternal peace…”

Chilled hauled him to his feet just to get a better angle to punch him in the gut. “I am one good pull away from eternal peace. Soon everyone but me is going to be dead.”

Frieza sensed something that brought a more genuine smile to his face. Pan’s energy spiked. It was erratic, not the power he’d felt from her Super Saiyan form, but there was a lot of it building.

“I commend you, though. After hearing you begged that Saiyan for your life, I expected you to grovel much harder before me, especially since I’m actually trying to hurt you. You’re unusually quiet, though. Mourning your monkey girl? I’d say she’d thank you for the pain you spared her in the afterlife, but let’s be honest; you’re never going to see her again.”

Frieza whispered, “I know.”

“I missed that. Did you have some last words for me?” Chilled relaxed his grip on Frieza’s throat. “Let me hear them, grandson.”

“When I said that blast was a quick death, I didn’t mean for her,” He said. “Those were Blutz Waves I fired at Pan. She isn’t dead. As we’ve been fighting, she’s been absorbing them. You want my last words to you? Here they are: burst open and mix.”

Pan sat up, her eyes vacant and unfocused.

She fell to her hands and knees, clawing the earth. Her fingers stretched. Grew. When she stood, she stood twice her normal size, and still she expanded.

Chilled dropped Frieza and backed away as the shadow stretched over them both and darkened. Changed shape.

“Oh, dear,” Frieza said. “Saiyan transformations can be such a surprise, can’t they? Even I didn’t see this one coming.”

“That…” Chilled backed away another step, “That is not a great ape.”

Spreading its russet wings, the Shadow Dragon unleashed a roar, and the earth shook.

 

Chapter Text

Pan had been upset a second ago, but now she couldn’t remember why. She couldn’t remember much of anything, really. She had never sleep-walked before, but it must be like this. Everything inside her head felt underwater; everything inside her chest, still and light. Her hands were tipped with long black claws like a mole’s, and she wanted to dig in the shaking dirt, play in it like she did when she was a little girl making mud pies.

After some time of confusion, she noticed people. Some of them lay around like broken toys. Others scattered. Some of them had black suits and others had red, and one was a funny thing made of straw. Pan wanted to play with them, too. She trudged after them, humming a song.

I’m digging a hole

And making an earthquake

Rocks fall in my wake

They did, too. She stepped and they bounced into the air, even boulders, and they crashed behind her.

Below, Bonpara screamed, “What was he thinking?”

“That her power would be increased and she’d stop Chilled from killing us,” Ginyu said.

“What’s going to stop her from killing us?”

“This is a move elite Saiyans developed so their great ape transformation wouldn’t be limited to whether or not they could find a native source of Blutz Waves on unfamiliar worlds. It’s inherently temporary. It’ll run out on its own. How long that’ll take depends on how concentrated a blast it was. I doubt it’ll be a full hour, because that’s all we have before the Prismasphere blows, and he’ll have given her time to escape.”

“We might not have any time!” Bonpara said.

“If it gets too dangerous, we can always cut off her tail.”

“Which one?”

That was as far as their conversation got. They noticed Pan watching them and fled. Instinct told Pan to chase them. That running things were supposed to be chased.

Something more deeply-rooted than that told her to chase the straw doll.

She lumbered towards him, mashing wheat beneath her claws.

The doll-creature threw energy at her. The prismatic blade stung where it hit. Pan roared again, throwing her head to the sky. Instinct changed its mind; everything in her focused on the being that tried to do her harm.

Its attacks grew more frequent and more frantic as she approached. They hurt, and she didn’t like it.

So she opened her mouth wide and bit the doll in half.

She didn’t unclamp her teeth right away. She shook it. Bits of straw and pieces of mud crumbled off. She lowered her head to the ground and threw one of her claws over it so she could fray it more with her front teeth. Its half tore in half, and that was the point when the doll stopped moving. She continued to worry it, though, spitting out chunks of straw and reaching inside for more.

When there wasn’t anything left that resembled a full body part, Pan swayed, torn with confusion. The doll’s destruction nagged her. Even the starless night was too bright for her. It was hard to think. She roared, and that made the ground shake, but not enough that she couldn’t curl up, wrapping her dual-tail around her body and tucking her head under her wing.

She was vaguely aware one of the fallen figures had crawled to her and leaned against her scaly side. She didn’t interpret this as a threat. Its presence was comforting. Head clearing…

ooo

The quaking hadn’t stopped. If anything, it had grown bolder. It was the cold that woke Pan, though. She wore a layer of frost, and beneath that, a layer of gray fur. Between the two her dress was reduced to stray thread; it was made with a great ape in mind, but a great ape was not what she’d become. She curled on her side, arms wrapped around her chest, watching her breath float through the heather in a cloud. The Vile Wave howled around her and scrubbed the day from the sky.

Frieza crawled to her side and pulled his cloak- the one Chilled had given him- over her, tight around her shoulders. Without it, she could see how badly he’d been injured. She’d tried to tell herself he’d survived worse. He’d been in half on Namek. But the Vile energy he’d been struck with was corrosive, and the mirror that had sustained him was angry with him.

“That thing you turned into,” Frieza said. “Goku fought seven of those, you say? And it was only through sheer attrition the last was able to strike a mortal blow?”

Pan’s eyes glittered. Her tongue wouldn’t unstick itself.

Frieza turned onto his back and chuckled, leaving a pool of blood behind. “I still could’ve taken him.”

He coughed and she reached for him. He wiped his palm on the heather, leaving the petals dark. He looked at his fingers. They hadn’t come clean. Still, he took Pan’s hand.

“I’ve only been alive a week. That’s got to be some kind of personal record. How embarrassing. I think in the end it was worth it, though. I’m not afraid this time, and who knows? Maybe they’ll get that machine of theirs working and send me back as someone who’s actually worthy of your affection.”

“You are now,” She finally got out of her throat. Her voice sounded as dry and rough as it felt. “Just like this.”

“It’s kind of you to say so. I’ve never seen the use of kindness. Honestly, I still don’t. It looks to me like I’m getting the better end of the deal here. Your eyes are glowing gold. Did you know that?”

Grandpa said that Frieza was prone to rambling, and Pan had found that true, but now she clung to every sentence; this time, when his voice went quiet, she would never hear it again.

“Get off this planet, Pan. Get on your friends’ ship, or Cooler’s if you don’t think theirs will clear the Prismasphere, and flee while you still can. Chilled has wanted Ketchyn for so long. Let him have it. If I can deny him your life, that’s enough for me.”

His fingers relaxed. Pan held them tighter but that didn’t warm them.

The seconds ticked by, and she didn’t move, didn’t blink, just held his hand. The quaking had gotten so much worse, but she didn’t feel it.

She felt something, though. A small, tight ball of flame inside, in the same place where her Super Saiyan power dwelt; and the longer she lay there, watching Frieza not breathing, the hotter it burned. There were tears in her eyes, but they were much different than the kind she spent so frequently. They felt like acid on her cheeks and in her throat. She twisted to her knees. Her hair fell black in her face like a mane. Her breath hurt; it felt like in contracting and expanding, her chest fought against a thousand blades, blades of all her friends Chilled had slain, with Frieza’s the biggest and sharpest.

Her scream sounded little different than her dragon’s roar. She tore her backpack open just enough to remove her grandfather’s gi and replace what was left of her dress with it, and the moment she had her belt tied, she touched her forefinger to her head.

In the confusion wrought by the Vile Wave, she couldn’t feel Chilled’s energy, or at least, she couldn’t pick it out from the rest of the screaming violet siren that now had command of Ketchyn. She didn’t need to, though. She knew where he’d gone; or, more appropriately, where he’d always been.

The first time she’d fought Frieza, he’d told her he’d set a trap for Goku, a trap that was supposed to bring his nemesis right to him just as the Vile Wave crested. Because of the Para Brothers’ meddling, that trap had been triggered early, and she’d arrived on Ketchyn while it was still indigo outside. She remembered where she’d landed, though. Kuriza’s tomb. And thanks to the Vile energy strangling the planet, she didn’t need Chilled or anyone else to act as her anchor. She had the Vile Wave clearing its own little path through Teleportation Space for her.

Chilled liked to destroy his enemies with their own favorite weapons, did he? Well, she hoped he appreciated the irony, that Pan was riding his Vile Wave straight to him… and that when she got there, for every life he’d extinguished, she was going to bury him.

ooo

The walls and towers of Asphodel stood in the distance. Tranquil under the blanket of night, if it weren’t for the echoes of voices around her, Pan would not have known there was anything wrong.

An army of Vile Wraiths poured from the tomb with the intent to change that picture.

They tumbled over each other, climbed and trampled and fell and stood to surge again, each one listening to the lament of Asphodel’s survivors through the Vile Wave and hearing, not tragedy, but prey.

Pan tore through the first that engaged her. The mist of its remnants clung to her knuckles as she felled another. They gathered around her, trying to surround her, but a well-placed burst of energy sent them flying. She moved like an android, smooth and efficient, but with a cold and focused lifelessness. The tomb’s entrance was her goal, and they were in the way.

And yet… the city rose behind her, and for all her power one person could not make an effective barrier against so many invaders. Furthermore, if she were to stop long enough to try, the Vile Wave would consume the citizens with or without their help. Her only hope of saving Ketchyn was getting to that mirror, and to Chilled, whose body it had been constructed from; but saving Ketchyn meant giving up Asphodel and everyone inside it. She thought of the chatty shopkeeper, and of Tundra and his mother. She couldn’t leave them to the Vile Wraiths. She just couldn’t.

A wraith at her side exploded into sparks, and she hadn’t blasted it.

Two more went down before she found the source: Cooler, taken to the sky, fighting alongside her. One of the wraiths got its arms and claws around him; he tore it in half, and attacked the next in line through the middle of its falling corpse.

“When the quaking stopped in the field, I followed you,” He explained.

He dodged as an aftershock almost caught him. Instead, it vaporized the wraiths around him.

More explosions ripped through the air, and between them and the aftershocks, ripped a hole through the mass of wraiths. Cooler was joined by the Para Brothers and the Ginyu Force.

“When we saw Cooler taking off, we grabbed on,” Bonpara said.

“You don’t need to waste your time or energy with these pawns,” Captain Ginyu said. “We’ll handle them. You put a stop to all this. I wish I could watch you fight, but you’ll just have to tell me about it when you get back.”

Pan, safe in the knowledge the city would be guarded to its last gasp, plunged into the tomb.

It was darker than she remembered underground. Vile mist clogged the catacombs. The torchlight had been swallowed up. She couldn’t have navigated by energy if she’d wanted to; it was everywhere. The Vile Wave’s song was another matter. It grew louder the closer she drew to its source. Finding Chilled would be as easy as following the screaming.

It helped, too, that the tomb was so close to the surface. Pan remembered it hadn’t been a long trip out. It wasn’t a long trip there, either.

An aftershock tore from the ground, sealing the tunnel behind her.

Pan couldn’t worry about that. There was only one direction that mattered anymore: down. That was where she found the tomb of Kuriza.

The headstone had been knocked on its side, its carving of the boy’s death cracked in half at the legs. Beneath it was a hole. The atmosphere down there was pitch and vapor. Pan couldn’t see the bottom. Past the rim, she couldn’t even see the sides. The cries of pain that issued from it were so loud, she thought she’d have to clasp her hands over her ears.

Instead, she jumped.

With bukujutsu on her side, this was not such a blind and deadly jump. She floated down, testing with her feet for the walls and ground she couldn’t see. When she did land, it was with a splash in shallow water. At her touch, the surface rocked as if it had been storm-stirred.

What a strange crypt Pan was in. It was spacious, and decorated; although most of the sculptures lay in piles of gravel. The stone was ghost-pale and the slabs without feature. Not even names identified these coffins’ tenants. Even for a grave it was morbid. If empty oblivion could be given form, this was the form it would take.

She found one inscription on her journey to its center: on the base of one of the overturned statues, “FC + SP” had been carved. She traced the letters, their rough texture.

“You should have taken my grandson’s advice and left with your hide while it was still on your bones.”

Pan faced the mirror. It would’ve been impossible not to. It glowed from within, opaque and gloomy, and yet everything it touched adopted an unnatural luminescence. Even her reflection looked like it was under a carnival blacklight. Before it stood Chilled. This was not a doll, but the very flesh and blood that had been preserved in the mirror’s frame, strengthened in slumber and fed with the malice of the ages.

“You have no right to call Frieza your grandson,” Pan said. “You killed him. You were supposed to protect him, not use him as an emotional trash can and then murder him when he wouldn’t swallow any more of your garbage.”

“Protect him,” Chilled repeated. “I blew that one a long time ago. I never could make it right. Perhaps that’s because some things can’t be made right, only…”

The mirror belched another cloud of Vile energy that rolled over the floor.

“…washed away. Let me guess what you’ll say next. I’m no different from Flare, right? Flare, who slaughtered my children, who erased them down to the memories of their names?”

“Whether you and Flare are different is a question for somebody else,” Pan said. “I only know what you’re doing is wrong. I’ve walked the length of Ketchyn. I’ve seen the scars on this world and the wounds they hide. I won’t let you destroy what little Flare left.”

“And yet you bring with you the negative energy of Earth. Tell me, girl, how you intend to fight shadow with shadow. You can’t. I’ve tried. One will never overcome the other. They can only mix and grow denser until there’s not a light left that can escape them. Whatever life you’ve brought here will be snuffed out, if not by me, then by your own poisonous heart!”

Chilled rose up in all the shrouds of the grave and crashed down upon her.

He expected little resistance, but instead, he slammed into something as solid as unmoving stone. Pan held his fist in one hand. It was inches from her face, and struggle as he might, he could move it no further.

He’d wasted no time attacking, and Pan wasted no time retaliating. She kicked him, and he went flying, shrouds and all. He skidded only so far before he flipped to his feet and bloodied her lip with his tail. She felt an aftershock coming. He charged her, swathed in violet energy. She let him. He slammed into the pillar of pink energy and made it halfway through it. Bits of cloth and decayed flesh burned away.

None of this slowed him down. He came out the other side trailing flames and smoke, slamming into Pan.

Throughout his reign as the Planet Trade Organization’s “emperor,” Frieza had become famous for toying with his enemies. Chilled must have gotten bored with that already, though; he’d come out fighting her with his full power, and now that she’d stopped it twice, he didn’t bother with a third try. He launched straight into the Prismasphere.

She stopped her ankle a millimeter away from a Red Wave Snare. The floor was covered with them; he hadn’t even had to speak to set them. Pan levitated, weaving through the snares that appeared, not just below her but above her, and at her sides, threading the cavern like a spider web. They flickered blue, and then each one flared blue and burst into a Razor Rain. Pan started to deflect, but the second she tried to reach the Green Wave, all she got was the screaming and groping of the Vile Wave; changing course, she fired a Masenko at each group of blue razor-lights. The strobe effect stifled the Vile Wave, albeit briefly.

After that, he threw both at her at once. Punches. Death blades. Vile Lacerations, meant to drive her into razor wire or snares. She destroyed or blocked them all. One line of Lacerations dissolved under a mass of aftershocks. More of the tunnel collapsed. Rock fell from the ceiling.

Enraged, Chilled threw his hand to the air. Energy seethed over his palm, the energy of a Supernova.

“Now you’re just desperate,” Pan said. “You’re hoping you can bring the catacombs down and bury me.”

“You were doing a fine job of that yourself. I’m just putting the final nail in the coffin,” Chilled said.

Pan closed her eyes. She felt the death ball’s energy building.

Chilled threw it.

The red-hot sphere tore the ground. It burned away the stone, the debris. It burned away the bookshelf with Chilled’s notes atop it. It boiled the frothing water and left a trail of steam.

Pan caught it. She drove her hands into its center. Its life force shot through her fingers but did no harm.

Swift, Pan delivered a spinning roundhouse that launched the Supernova straight up. It flew through the catacombs, erupted like a volcano. She saw the night sky through the hole she’d made, and the attack faded and pierced it. It exploded harmlessly above Ketchyn, its power absorbed into the Prismasphere.

Pan left the water and landed on the torn ground. Chilled slumped before the mirror, breathing hard. He was still on his feet, but he didn’t have another attack like that left in him.

“Do you give up?” Pan asked.

He could barely catch his breath to answer. “Excuse me?”

“You’re defeated, Chilled. This fight is over. It’s only fair I give you the chance my grandfather gave Frieza. Give up and stop the backlash.”

“Stop the backlash?” He said. “I won’t, you sentimental brute; instead, you can choke on it. Vile Wave Suffocation!”

The mirror spotted as if it had been splashed with water, and then it spewed forth wave after wave of fog. It didn’t just obfuscate the tomb this time, it swallowed it completely, plunging it- and Pan- into a kind of lightlessness normally only found at the bottom of the ocean.

Pan tried to fire, but the solid void swallowed her energy. She tried to call, but it swallowed her voice. She’d thought Chilled had been right in front of her, but dashing in that direction, even at full speed, was like not moving at all; she met nothing but more nothing.

She’d been so close. Chilled had been beaten. It didn’t matter now, though; wherever she was, there was no way out, and all he had to do was keep her here until the backlash completed and Ketchyn died. She would die with it. He would win after all.

For the first time since touching down on this world, Pan felt the hopelessness of the Vile Wave seeping into her. She heard its screaming and thought of simply letting it in, letting the end come. She wouldn’t, of course; she’d fight to her last breath. What more could she do, though? What kind of fight did this nowhere leave her?

She put one foot in front of the other, thinking at least that was doing something, and then she felt it. The last answer she expected.

ooo

A familiar life force hovered beyond the wall of void. As soon as Pan felt it, a pinprick of light broke through, and she could see it. The Vile Wave drying up and crumbling away. Standing where it had been, the broad back of a tall man in a sleeveless gi.

Her walk stumbled into a run, then a full-on sprint, as fast as she could move. The Vile Wave clawed at her but could not stop her now.

He turned and smiled at her, the unmistakable innocent smile of Son Goku.

“Hey, Pan.”

Pan hugged him, burying her face into his chest. It brought with it so many memories of him cradling her, carrying her on his hip; memories of the beach, of space, of Kame Island. The warmth spread through her. From the start, she felt its hum, and the longer she held him, the stronger it became, driving away the Shadow Dragon’s corruption, putting everything back into place.

“Grandpa,” she whispered. “You came after all.”

He tucked his hand behind his head and laughed nervously. He did that all the time, and yet Pan had forgotten the gesture until now. “I came as soon as I felt your energy disappear from Earth and reappear in a different quadrant. Getting to you once I made it to Ketchyn was the hard part. I don’t want to scare you, but did you know this planet is wrapped in dead people? Not even the Kais could crack it open.”

“Smacked into the Prismasphere, huh,” Pan said. “I did, too, going the other way. How’d you get through?”

He shrugged. “I waded right in. Most of the dead people in the Prismasphere wanted to fight.”

“You fought your way through the Prismasphere,” Pan said, deadpan. How like him.

“Not all the way through,” Goku said. “Some of them were upset about how they died and wanted to talk. They told me all kinds of things. About themselves. About Ketchyn. Even about Chilled.” He squeezed Pan’s shoulder. “I’m really proud of you for stopping him.”

Pan wiped her eyes. “But I haven’t. The backlash is still happening. If I can’t find my way out of here and do something about that mirror, it doesn’t matter that I beat him. Ketchyn and everyone on it will die anyway.”

“We’ll just have to break out of here, then,” Goku said. “The Vile Wave is a lot like negative energy, right? I’ll shatter it with a blast of positive energy. That should give you a straight shot to Chilled and his mirror.”

“If we’re going to do that, we have to hurry,” Pan said. “I don’t think the people here have much more time.”

Goku didn’t spend any more time on planning. He fired a blast at the dark, and it cut through it like a knife.

ooo

The light tore through the cage of Vile Energy and the quaking stopped. The ground calmed. The surface of the water stilled. Dirt clods stopped raining.

Pan emerged from the violet mist, her aura and her eyes golden.  Her tail lashed and her gi and gray fur rustled in the updraft of her life force. The negative energy was gone from her, her form finally stable; and behind her, his hand still on her shoulder, Son Goku stood.

For all the trouble he expended to hide it, Pan could see Chilled’s face now, and the terror written across it. “No. You can’t escape that. Nobody could escape that!”

“Show me how strong you’ve gotten, Pan,” Goku said. “You’re ready, right?”

“I’m ready,” Pan said.

Her form was fluid, every stroke the result of a lifetime of preparation. Golden energy surged like pale flames in her hands.

“Kamehameha!”

The energy erupted from her hands, driving away the Vile Wave where it touched. Chilled didn’t have time to counter, dodge, or even cry out; it collided with him. He could not stay in place, either. It threw him. Pan saw her new Super Saiyan form in the mirror for a split-second, the bristling dark hair, the fur, and her grandfather’s old gi, and then Chilled split the middle of it back-first and slithered across the floor behind it.

The glass shattered into flecks of light.

Pan had never seen anything so beautiful. It was like fireworks, the spinning mirror-glass catching the light as it spun away from the point of impact, blossoming and raining to the stone.

As it cracked and fell to pieces, smoke rose from Chilled’s body. He smacked at it, as if it could be put out, but the light inside him only glowed stronger. Cracks formed in him, as well. His skin greyed and flaked away, and then all that was underneath it.

The glass rained to the floor with a sound like bells.

By the time it landed, Chilled was no longer there for it to land on. He’d crumbled and dispersed, laid to rest in his own family tomb.

Above the hole his last attack had torn through the catacombs, the sky pulsed, the heartbeat of Ketchyn racing. The Vile Wave splintered, and rose spread in its place, bringing the planet a morning that was, by this time, long overdue.

Pan turned to her grandfather. He was exactly as she remembered him, big and goofy and loveable and the strongest man alive.

“I told Frieza,” She said. “You were always here when I needed you, no matter what.”

“Wow, Frieza’s here, too? I thought I felt his energy, but I figured it must be Chilled. I bet he didn’t give you too much trouble, though.”

For a moment, Pan’s joy was undercut by a bolt of grief that shot straight through her heart. “He helped me, grandpa. He died helping me. Everybody else wrote him off, but you didn’t, and in the end you were right about him. I wish you could have seen it. I wish… I wish he had more time…”

She couldn’t help it. She choked. Goku held her again, just like he had when she’d been a child.

“You saw it. I believe you. Now hurry home, Pan.” He released her and backed away. “I’m already dead, but Chi-Chi can still kill you.”

With those words, Son Goku disappeared into the dawn light, leaving Pan crying and laughing all at once.

 

Chapter Text

The soft wind had its own whisper, its voice a soothing and honest contrast to the Vile Wave. It blew through Pan’s hair as she landed on the lip of the crater. Other than the hole plunging straight to the bottom of the catacombs, the moorland before her looked much like it had when she’d first seen it. The heather bloomed pink and swayed. The lichen crawled over the stone, tinted pastel by feathers of frost. In the distance, Asphodel stood. Energies gathered inside it, weary but alive. Pan smiled. Now that her hair had returned to its normal length and consistency, she was able to tie her bandanna back into place.

The Para Brothers ran to greet her. That didn’t surprise her. What did was that Magmast was with them, but Cooler was not.

“Are all the wraiths gone?” Pan asked. “Did any reach the city?”

“Not a one,” Donpara said. “We were a line they couldn’t break. When dawn finally came and the Vile Wave cleared, the rest died on their own; melted and fizzled away as soon as the light touched them.”

“What about Cooler? He wasn’t… I mean, they didn’t get him, did they?”

Sonpara snorted. “As soon as the wraiths vanished, Cooler dropped this guy off with us, then he grabbed Frieza’s body and split,” He pointed his thumb to Magmast. “I have no idea where he was going in such a hurry.”

Frieza’s cloak still wrapped around Pan’s shoulders. She gathered it and hugged it. She wished Cooler would have let her see Frieza one more time before he took him away. She decided then and there, if she had to steal Trunks’s spaceship again to do it, she would find out where he was laid to rest. She would visit him. And if it meant jumping off Snake Way and giving up everything it led to, someday she would find him. He’d never see her again, Chilled swore. She’d take that curse as a challenge.

“We’d better return to the city,” Magmast said. “After the long night we’ve had, it’ll be chaos. Someone must step up and restore order. I mean you, of course, Captain.”

Ginyu said, “Not a problem, Count. You remember when that moon got hit by an asteroid, scorched half of Polaris? Frieza never took any interest in that, and he certainly didn’t funnel relief onto the planet through underground channels. But if he had, he’d have put me in charge of it. I can do crowd control, is what I mean.”

“I don’t know,” Pan said. “You need to stop smiling and start punctuating everything you say with withering contempt, otherwise I’m afraid you won’t fool anybody.”

“You’d be surprised how much leeway you get when people aren’t expecting an imposter,” Ginyu said. “Besides, I’m walking in there with Count Magmast.”

“Yeah, Sulfuri’s mortal enemy. That might be the most suspicious part of all.”

“Tragedy has a way of uniting enemies, does it not?” Magmast asked. “Sulfuri and I have had to fake smiles at each other in the past. We’ll be fine. What will you do now?”

“We need to get back to Earth as soon as possible,” Bonpara said. “Only, our ship isn’t outfitted to make that kind of trip.”

“Say no more. I’ll get you everything you need,” Magmast said.

It wasn’t a long walk to Asphodel, but the cold air was exhilarating, the colors brilliant, and Pan memorized every short minute of it. She photographed the flowers. She photographed a pterodactyl soaring in a circle. She photographed a shiny bug she thought must be a naif beetle. At last she could leave Ketchyn without feeling like she was abandoning it.

ooo

When Pan saw the cream domes of her house before her, she didn’t know if they were a dream, or if Ketchyn had been, but it seemed the two could not mutually exist. Home looked so much like it had when she’d left, from the smoke floating off the top of the chimney to the clothes drying on the line, Pan couldn’t have been away for a whole week. She couldn’t have been in a blizzard when the summer sun beat down overhead, or under a sky closer and more uniform than the pale blue above her. She inhaled. The trees, the cut grass, the loam and the water; it all mixed together and gave Mt. Paozu a scent like nowhere else in the universe.

After the Para Brothers’ ship had breached the Prismasphere, they’d decided to forgo the extended trip and just get back with Instant Transmission, setting the autopilot to catch up. Much as she loved space, when Pan approached the house, the Para Brothers trailing behind her, she knew it had been the right decision.

But when the door opened with a slam, she did briefly reconsider.

“Where were you?”

Pan found it was not so pastoral inside. From the look of it, everyone was crammed into the place. Her parents and Uncle Goten, she’d expected; but they’d leaned on the sink to make room for gramps and Uub at the table, and they were joined by Bulma, Vegeta, Trunks and Bulla; and Marron was there with her parents. Even Master Roshi was there, although he mostly occupied himself with a glossy magazine Pan was glad the glare through the window prevented her from seeing.

“Where are Tien and Yamcha?” She mumbled. “Upstairs?”

It had been a joke, but Chi-Chi yelled, “They’re still out combing the desert for you!”

“Oh,” Pan said, starting to feel guilty. “I didn’t think I’d cause that much trouble.”

“Didn’t think you’d cause trouble?” Chi-Chi pulled out the Para Brothers’ note and waved it under her nose. “Do you know how this sounds?

Come to think of it, Pan didn’t know exactly what the Para Brothers had written. She took it and unfolded it. “Dear grandma, don’t be sad, I’m better off where I am.”

“And then your energy just vanished!”

Pan crumpled the note against her face. “Oh, brother, guys. I’m stuck on a planet where I can’t get messages out to anyone but you, and when I ask you to tell my grandma what happened, this is how you do it?”

“It sounded all right to me,” Sonpara said.

For the first time, her father managed to get a word in. “You couldn’t reach us? Why not?”

“Ketchyn has a live atmosphere woven from the life forces of its dead founders. I couldn’t get through it with Instant Transmission or call out without special equipment I didn’t have. It probably dampened my life force, too, to the point you couldn’t read it. The only thing it didn’t at least muddle was telepathic messages, which is why I called the Para Brothers.”

“That is fascinating!” Gohan said.

Pan pulled out her phone and called up the shot of Asphodel with the pterodactyl circling. “Here, I got some pictures. You can see the sky in the background, how it’s so monochrome.”

Not only Gohan, but Marron, Bulla, and Trunks gathered around to see the shots Pan had taken.

“What a unique texture those flowers have,” Marron said. “I should put some in the garden, shouldn’t I, mother?”

Eighteen shrugged. “It’s your garden.”

“Is it still snowing there?” Bulla said.

“Yes, but the dinosaurs are out, even in the cold, and I’m not seeing any signs of torpor,” Gohan said. “I wonder if they’ve adapted differently because of the climate or…”

“Are you all encouraging this?” Chi-Chi said. “You think it’s all right for Pan to jet off to some east quadrant hell hole whenever she feels like it and leave us vaguely threatening notes as long as she brings back nice photos?

“I didn’t ‘jet off’ to Ketchyn,” Pan said. “The Colds wanted revenge again, so they used a teleportation device disguised as a bug to zap me there. I’ve been trying to get back, honest, but obviously I couldn’t leave until I’d stopped Chilled from destroying the planet with me on it.”

“You were fighting Colds,” Chi-Chi said. “The most sadistic family in space.”

“Not on purpose. They didn’t know about grandpa and were going for him. They got me by mistake.”

Vegeta thumped the table. “And you fought them all and didn’t leave me a one, did you!”

“That’s not what we should be concerned about,” Uub said.

“Finally, a voice of reason,” Chi-Chi said.

Uub continued, “It’s first come, first serve, after all, and Pan got there first. We just won’t save her any next time, right, guys? Now tell us the really important stuff,” Uub said, “How strong was Chilled?”

Trunks pulled one of his mother’s improved scouters from his jacket and punched in a few numbers. “Can you give me a ballpark estimate of his power level on the standard scale? Just off the top of your head?”

“And how much did you have to power up to defeat him?” Uncle Goten asked.

“Wait until I tell you about the Vile Wave. He could attack with it in ways I’d never seen before. I think my transformation’s finally been fixed, too,” Pan said. “I fought at full strength without a single earthquake.”

“All right! As soon as we’re back to the academy you have got to show us,” Goten said.

“Sure. I might even be able to muster up a Green Wave Deflection, although this far away from the Prismasphere it won’t be very useful.”

Chi-Chi may have gotten famous for yelling, but at this point, she had to raise her voice just to be heard. “I can’t believe this. You leave… don’t tell us where you are… we think the worst… and it turns out you’re off fighting? Did you spare a second of a thought for anyone but yourself?”

Pan handed her phone off to Master Roshi. She faced her grandmother.

“I’m sorry I frightened you.”

“I…” Chi-Chi’s face lost its edge. “You’re turning out just like him.”

“There are worse ways I could turn out, though, right?”

 “I can’t think of any better,” Chi-Chi said. “Well, since you’re back, get on upstairs and get your things put away. Goten brought us home some frogs yesterday. I’ll fix seven-seasoned chicken-fried toad. There’s plenty for everyone. Y’all are staying, right?”

“I already ate,” Bulma said, queasy.

Sonpara had to jump out of the way as the door opened and Yamcha stepped through.

“Oh, there you are, Pan,” He said. “I guess we don’t have to look for you in the desert anymore if you’re here. I’ll go tell Tien.”

He left again, whistling.

Donpara elbowed his brothers. “See? What did I tell you? Bunch of weirdoes.”

“You wouldn’t be here with us if you weren’t weirdoes, too,” Pan said.

She thought that was it. She was ready to unload the rest of her backpack. However, at the top of the stairs she found Master Roshi, blushing and giggling as zoomed in and out on an image on her phone.

“Don’t use my devices to watch porn,” She said, swiping it back.

“Hey! I’m just looking at those lovely pictures you brought back from Ketchyn! That’s what you took them for, right?”

Pan flipped the phone over. “That’s funny, because I don’t remember visiting the webpage Oops, I Lost My Bikini Top In Public on Ketchyn. I distinctly remember not having Internet access there. I also don’t remember meeting anyone named…” She squinted at the print, which was by several measures the smallest thing on the page, “…Velvet La Voom.”

She turned to storm away with her phone, but Roshi slipped it through her fingers and danced down the hall with it.

“Too slow! You’ll have to do better than that to pull one over on ol’ Jackie Chun!”

Pan thought about chasing him, but left for her room instead. “Fine. Just don’t brick it.”

Her bed was still made. The bedspread wrinkled as she threw the satchel onto it. There wasn’t much to unpack, and Pan didn’t think much of where she put everything; at least not until she got to the bottom and unrolled a speckled yellow flower. It was the bog asphodel Frieza had given her. Pan sat on the edge of the mattress, staring at its blood-flecked petals and the green stem against her palm. Across from her, a wanted poster bore a caricature of her face, made to look as villainous as possible. For some reason, they’d drawn her holding a knife. She looked from the sketchy knife to the real flower.

Maybe I should take that poster down, she thought.

“Ahem.”

She hadn’t even heard the door open, but Master Roshi stood in the door frame, holding her phone. He handed it back to her.

Facing upwards, the picture she’d taken of herself with Frieza in the Tower of a Thousand Eyes.

Pan didn’t know what to say. All she could manage was a weak, “I forgot about that one.”

He lowered his sunglasses and stared in her face, then folded one gnarled hand over her shoulder.

“You don’t have to tell me what happened,” He said. “But you can. You know that, right?”

Pan turned the phone off. She threw it on her dresser and, after one more look, placed the flower next to it.

“I know,” She said. “Maybe when I feel more like talking, I will. Right now, I just want to get back downstairs. I miss everybody.”

“Well, then,” Master Roshi said, “Let’s go back downstairs.”

He motioned and she followed, closing the door behind her, leaving the asphodel’s petals fluttering in the breeze from her open window.

Chapter Text

Frieza had no idea how long he’d been waiting. Time became a nebulous concept in King Enma’s domain. It could have been a few hours or a few days. Nevertheless, when the ogre in charge of monitoring the line cleared out an old cobwebby room and told him to stay there while his case was audited, he knew it had been too long.

He couldn’t decide if this bland place was better or worse than the garden. On one hand, there was no pastel, no upbeat music, no forced participation in tea parties, and the air didn’t smell like allergies incarnate. On the other, the walls were beige, the furniture and floor a slightly darker beige, the overhead track lights a slightly paler beige, and there wasn’t a sound to be heard; not even the ticking of a clock, since it would have been a worthless way of tracking that kind of time. Frieza was beginning to wonder if any distraction might not be welcome, even if it meant a toy bunny playing I Stepped on the Cat on a slide whistle.

That wasn’t exactly the distraction he got, but the door did open to admit a visitor: the little garden gnome who’d overseen his hell and had met him beyond the mirror.

“So the whispers I heard were true,” She said. “They did open up one of the waiting rooms. I didn’t believe it. I don’t think we’ve used these for a millennium.”

“Why are you using it now?”

“The line has to keep moving. We’ve only got so much staff we can devote to digging through the archives looking for forgotten rules and precedents. I don’t think we’ve had such a hard case for a long time.”

“I’m not a hard case. I thought last-minute sacrifices had no bearing on placement.”

“It’s not how you died,” The gnome said. “It’s where you died. The garden’s an earthly hell. You expired on Ketchyn, so I’m sorry; we really wanted you back, but you aren’t in our jurisdiction anymore.”

“Whose jurisdiction am I in, then?”

“We don’t know. Ketchyn doesn’t have its own hell. Its inhabitants live so long, and the Prismasphere absorbs some of the dead for itself, traffic isn’t high enough to merit one. Normally, wicked dead who make it here from Ketchyn are sent to the Bloody Pond, but you’re considered too high-risk; so the next step would be throw you into the hell of the world where you caused the most trouble, but because you caused so much trouble on so many worlds, it’s hard to determine which one has the most legitimate claim to you. We’ve been stuck for days trying to figure out whose problem you are.”

“Bureaucracy,” He mumbled. “Bane of my life, and apparently, my afterlife. Now it’s gotten me stuck in an office with nothing to do.”

“You could reflect.”

“On what? Beige?”

“I think that one curtain might have faded to a golden custard.”

“Really?”

“No, it’s beige. It’s in my nature to be optimistic,” the gnome said. “Hey, Grumpy Gus, you’ve been in here too long. You’re starting to look beige yourself. Either that, or you’re turning see-through.”

Frieza held a hand in front of his face. “If you’re seeing things after being here a few minutes, there’s no hope for… say, I think you’re right.”

His hand had adopted a translucence. It wasn’t that it matched the horrid color of the walls, but that he could see those walls through it.

“What’s going on?” He asked.

“Uh, oh,” The gnome said. “King Enma’s going to be mad. He hates it when people take up space in the line, make him go through the process of booking them, and then just go back to living again. But at least he can recall the staff from the archives…”

Frieza distinctly heard the voice of Cooler saying, “Stand clear.”

Then he felt like he was drowning, inside and out. He was submerged in viscous liquid, and it was in his throat. He couldn’t decide if this was better or worse than the beige room, but then he recognized it as a regeneration tank. A moment later the door opened and the liquid drained. A hawk-man in a medical uniform pulled him out of the harness, and Frieza was so occupied with getting the gunk out of his throat, he didn’t take any special care to miss him.

From across the room, Cooler rolled his eyes at the drenched medic. “I told you to stand clear.”

Frieza looked around, trying to figure out where he was. The room was white, sterile, and small, the wall concave. A second tank sat next to the one he’d just left, and several cots lined the walls next to it. The wall curved slightly, and there was enough window to see black sky and stars outside. It was the infirmary of one of his flagships. They were in space.

Confused, Frieza patted his chest. Nothing hurt. Nothing felt out of place. “This must be some new torment. There has to be life left in the subject for the regeneration process to work, and I know I was dead. They could have at least told me who was in charge before booting me out of the office.”

 “I’m in charge, and at your request. Did you forget what you said before Chilled attacked us, or are you merely reconsidering? I’d keep that to myself, if I were you. It would be no trouble to send you back to the hell I pulled you from.”

“This isn’t a trick?” Frieza asked. His blood raced through his veins at a speed that threatened to open them, and that confirmed his body was intact; he was really alive. “Then where’s Pan? I didn’t see her in the afterlife queue. Does that mean she made it off-world before Ketchyn was destroyed?”

“Ketchyn wasn’t destroyed. Pan won. Chilled is dead. His mirror is in pieces.”

Frieza slumped on one of the cots, exhaling hard. That was good news, so he didn’t know why it took him a few breaths to calm down.

“I never doubted her for a moment,” He said. “Good riddance to both.”

“I’m astonished to hear you praise the loss of a power source as potentially infinite as Chilled’s Mirror. Our ancestor really did come close to creating a Ketchian equivalent of dragon balls. Incendria was able to wish herself invisible and Sulfuri genuinely invincible through its glass. Its only flaw was in its scale and mercurial nature. It could only grant wishes that affected one person, to one person, and only if… for lack of a better way of putting it… if felt like it. Perhaps that weakness could have been subverted given enough study.”

“Enjoy speculating,” Frieza said. “I, for one, plan on treating it like every other defeated foe and pretending it never existed. In fact, I’ve already forgotten what we were talking about, so let’s not talk.”

“You’ll want to hear this part. She called for you.”

“What?”

Cooler said, “Through the Vile Wave. Just after the mirror was destroyed, just before the Vile Backlash cleared, there was a massive Prismatic surge. Perhaps it was one final bid to defeat her. I heard her voice amidst all the others. She wished you ‘had more time’ in front of the fragments of a mirror that can grant wishes. Not a minute later, I returned to the wheat field for Magmast and discovered you had the faintest of heartbeats. I don’t know if Chilled forgot about our regeneration technology and wanted to play a cruel joke, or if he had one last shred of decency tucked away somewhere and decided to waste it on you. Either way, here you are.”

Weak as he still felt, Frieza left the cot and forced his way to the door. He opened it, picked up as much speed as he could on his way through it. By the time he made the hall, he was recovered enough for a full run. Cooler had given him much to think about, and he wasn’t thinking about any of it. He had one refrain playing in his mind: getting to the bridge and ordering them to change course.

Cooler caught up with him and wrestled him to the wall. Frieza tried to wriggle away, and if he were at full power, he probably could have succeeded. As it was, his brother was able to hold him in place long enough to speak.

“We’re already en route to Earth. That was where you meant to tell the captain to go, correct?” Cooler asked.

Frieza relaxed.

“I assumed that would be the case.” He released him. “Good riddance to you.”

Cooler continued to the bridge and left Frieza to his own devices.

“Thank you, brother,” Frieza said, but if Cooler heard him, he didn’t acknowledge it.

ooo

On a plaque in the gym, there hung a picture of the tournament grounds as they had once been: a modest two-story temple, a square of dirt with a mat and some paint for boundaries, and a wooden fence cobbled together from whatever was on hand.

Pan turned away from it and could hardly believe she stood in the same place. Where there was once a small stone building and mat, there now rose a massive stadium, and she had never seen it so packed. The paved roads that tangled through the skyscrapers beyond it had been backed up for miles, the crowds shoulder-to-shoulder, all on account of the World Martial Arts Tournament.

“I remember when we used to sneak around the top of the wall,” Goten said, warming up with a punching bag. It wasn’t so much to work out his muscles as to remind him how much he had to hold back in the ring. “Now people are using it for seating because the bleachers are full.”

“There’s a lot we pulled off back then we couldn’t get away with now,” Trunks said. “But you’re right. It seems like every time Hercule puts out a new film, we get a few thousand more spectators.”

“Oh, don’t remind me,” Marron said, hugging the wall. “I’m nervous enough as it is, fighting in front of all these people.”

Pan stretched across a bench, tucking her hands behind her head. She’d brought Frieza’s cloak and was resting on it, folded up like a pillow. “When we train on Kame Island, you fight in front of birds and squirrels, and you don’t mind them watching.”

“That’s not the same!”

“I know, but maybe if you pretend the bleachers are full of birds and squirrels, it won’t be so scary,” Pan said.

“Those birds and squirrels are wearing a lot of Papayaman gear,” Goten said to Uub, who was still trying to pull on the last boot of his Papayaman costume. “I found Krillin and Vegeta in the nosebleeds. The others are probably in the surrounding bleachers. We won’t be able to see them unless the match creeps into the air. Speaking of which, why didn’t either of them sign up?”

“Dad was going to, but he had to break up a bank robbery the day before his preliminary match, and conceded because he was too burned out. Mom didn’t push him as hard as she usually does because I’d already made the competition,” Marron said.

“And my dad hasn’t been interested since Goku died,” Trunks said. “He says there’s no point.”

A large man whose head barely cleared the ceiling stalked by. His hide boots shook the floor, and when he sat on a bench, it creaked and bowed under his weight. Nothing of his face was visible behind his legionnaire’s helmet save his glinting eyes.

“Let me guess; that’s your opponent, right?” Goten asked Pan.

Ever since she’d first entered the competition at age four, Pan had somehow always wound up fighting the biggest man there in her first match. “Believe it or not, I broke the curse this year. That’s Augustus Stercus Maximus, and he’s up against Marron. I’m fighting the guy beside the window. I think his name’s Kendrick.”

She pointed to a young boy with chunks of spiked hair, a leather jerkin, and a bandage on his left cheek.

“How are either of them getting away with armor? Isn’t it against the rules?” Trunks asked.

“They’ve narrowed down the definition of ‘armor’ so much, it might as well not be,” Goten said.

“At least my opponent is following the rules.”

“Who are you fighting?”

Trunks pointed. “Hydei.”

Hydei relaxed against the doorframe, both arms tucked behind her tousled pink hair. Her pose highlighted every curve, even the ones her clingy halter top and short bloomers barely managed to cover.

“That’s one of Ran Fan’s students, isn’t it? I heard she accepted a few,” Goten said. “Be careful not to lose to her. You promised me a rematch, remember.”

The announcer’s voice boomed outside. With the crowds’ applause forming a black hole from which no sound could escape, his was probably the only voice that could be heard.

“And for our next match, returning fighter Pan faces off newcomer Kendrick!”

Pan hopped off the bench. “I’m up. See you guys in a few.”

“Good luck!” Marron said.

The cheers became deafening as Pan stepped into the light. It was a perfect day, sunny and without even a feather of a cloud in the sky. In the very first row, in a VIP box, Pan spotted her gramps, Hercule, wrapped in his flamboyant white cape and championship belt. Beside him sat his new girlfriend, who Pan thought was named Pershing, but honestly, it was difficult to keep track sometimes.

“A privilege it is, to fight so fair a maiden,” Kendrick said stoically.

Pan tried to gauge his strength. She started with a right hook, pivoting into the strike; he blocked and absorbed it with his forearms. He moved to return the uppercut without fully dismantling his block, and that gave her room to slip one hand beneath his arm and the other over his shoulder, rolling him over her hip. He rebounded easily and took to the air. Pan wondered if he could fly, but it was only a well-executed jump, and she had plenty of time to spin out of the way and deliver a kick to his back that sent him teetering on the edge of the ring.

He might have righted himself, but his armor did him in. A ladybug flew down his collar, and he had the double job of trying to regain his balance and itch at the same time. In the end, Kendrick wasn’t up to that kind of multitasking. He fell into the grass.

“And the winner is Pan!” The announcer said. “We’d expect nothing less from one of the Network’s most popular trainers. It’s no secret the Champion means for her to take full ownership of his academy some day! Next up…”

The sky went black and the arena was plunged into shadow.

“Do you feel that?” Krillin whispered to Vegeta, but he needed no answer. Vegeta’s face told him everything.

Pan had just been thinking how cloudless the sky was, and now it had grown so shadowy the temperature dropped. She looked up for the source of the change. The announcer said it at the same time she saw it.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it appears a UFO has stopped over the tournament grounds.”

“UFO, nothing!” Vegeta said. “That’s a Planet Trade flagship!”

The hatch opened and something jumped.

Pan didn’t trust her eyes. She thought the lighting might be playing tricks on her. He landed on one knee, stood in one quicksilver motion, just as she remembered. She almost tripped on her way to him. She reached out to touch his face, but stopped less than an inch from his skin, afraid to make contact for fear she might find this all some illusion.

“Frieza?” She said. “How?”

“The usual,” He said, with that cocky inflection of his. “Heaven didn’t want me, hell was sick of the paperwork.”

Pan wanted to speak, but the moment felt so fragile. She’d been so sure she’d lost him, and here he was alive, and that choked off any possible coherence in her head or response from her throat.

“I don’t know if this is part of the show, but what appears to be an alien has emerged from the UFO,” The announcer said. “It’s confronted the winner of the match. She’s approaching it… they’re speaking, but I can’t hear what’s being said… perhaps it’s a challenge?”

“We have to do something!” Vegeta said to Krillin, clenching his fists at his side.

At that point, Hercule leapt from his VIP box and charged the arena floor.

Vegeta’s hands relaxed, and he mumbled, “But maybe not right this minute.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Krillin said, although he wasn’t exactly stumbling over himself to reach the champion’s side, either. “There aren’t any dragon balls. If Hercule gets killed, we can’t wish him back.”

“I have no intention of letting this escalate to the point we can’t fix it without the dragon balls. But I brought some senzu beans with me…”

The champion’s voice rang out, squelching the conversation.

“Listen up, you costumed freak!” Hercule said, jabbing his finger directly under Frieza’s nose, “We’ve got a rule around here: no evil alien boys! And you, sir, are the evilest-looking alien boy I’ve ever seen!”

“What stunning powers of observation you possess. I hope you haven’t taxed them too much,” Frieza said. To Pan, he whispered, “Stagger.”

“Huh?” She asked.

Pan figured out what Frieza meant when he gave her a push that wouldn’t have knocked a gnat off-course. After a half-second’s confusion, she faked a stumble, and without so much obvious thought or delay the audience would have noticed.

“It can only mean one thing. You must be Hercule, Earth’s famous champion.”

“If I’m famous, you should know not to make your landing in my arena! Didn’t they tell you on whatever evil alien planet you came from I’m the strongest man on Earth?”

“They could have told me any number of things,” Frieza said. “I must confess, I stopped paying attention to you once I caught sight of your charming granddaughter.”

“I can’t believe what I’m hearing!” The announcer said. “The alien has been enchanted by Pan!”

“Really?” Someone in the audience said. “She’s such a tomboy. There are a lot of girls on Earth prettier than she is.”

“Maybe evil aliens think tomboys are pretty,” Someone else speculated.

“But she’s got those scary bride-of-the-monster eyebrows.”

“WHO SAID THAT?” Pan yelled, but the crowd was chatting too loudly to hear her.

“I’ve come to make her my empress, so stand aside,” Frieza said. “You may be the strongest man on this planet, but that means nothing to me. I am Emperor Frieza, the strongest man in the universe.”

Pink energy glinted in Frieza’s hand. He hurled a death saucer at Hercule; or rather, at the ground before Hercule’s biggest toe. It made an impressive grinding sound as it sawed over the tiles, and when Hercule jumped back a few seconds too late, it still looked like he’d dodged it.

It was difficult for Hercule not to break character, though, when Frieza materialized out of nowhere next to him, fist pulled back. Hercule didn’t move in time and got cuffed, but he caught the next punch and held it in place.

“Is Hercule beating Frieza?” Krillin asked, dumbfounded.

“No, you idiot! Frieza’s telegraphing his punches,” Vegeta said. “He’s losing on purpose!”

And Pan was grateful they’d had that silly coffee fight, because now Frieza knew what Hercule’s moves looked like. He could tell which one was coming his way and make a spectacular show of taking it; or, in some cases, evading it. After that buildup, the ‘most powerful man in the universe’ couldn’t lose without putting a few marks on his opponent. There were plenty of times Frieza broke free of holds, counterattacked with perfect form (if a fraction of his power); to the spectators, it would have looked like Hercule was in the fight of his life and struggling to keep his head above water.

But the fight had gone on long enough, and it was time for the hero to win. Frieza had picked exactly how that victory should occur.

“Psst,” He whispered. “Megaton Punch.”

“Are you telling me how to…”

“Yes. Now. I’m giving you a shot, and if you don’t take it, you’ll end up with a broken jaw. Possibly worse.”

There was no more negotiation. Frieza kicked.

Pan knew from experience Frieza’s kicks hurt when he meant them, but this one, he didn’t. He’d left his mid-chest wide open, guarding too high with his right hand and too low with his left. Hercule saw it. With a slow windup that must have been agonizing for Frieza to wait on, he thrust his fist into the breach.

“Megaton Punch!”

Frieza sailed out of bounds, landing hard enough on his back to carve a hole in the dirt. The flagship must have been monitoring his progress, because it departed, letting rays of sunlight fall into the stadium once again.

Silence reigned in the arena.

Then someone shouted, “Hercule singlehandedly stopped an alien invasion!”

“Did you see that?” Another spectator exclaimed. “Mr. Satan defeated Frieza!”

“Hercule’s saved the Earth from the Emperor of the Universe!”

The divergent cheers jointed into one voice as the crowd chanted the Champion’s name over and over again. They grew louder and more enthusiastic, and as it did, Hercule grew more confident. He thrust his arms into the air in a victory sign.

“And now, mister Emperor, I hope you see Earth isn’t a planet you want to be invading… not while Hercule is here to defend it! Bwa ha ha!”

Krillin and Vegeta stared at the disgusting scene, and then each other.

“I don’t care how you do it, but it’s long past time you got your tail off my planet,” Hercule said, jumping off the floor and rolling up his sleeve. “Otherwise I might have to…”

Pan squeezed between the two of them. “Okay, okay, Gramps, I think he’s had enough,” She said. Louder, so the announcer could hear, she added, “Besides, he came all this way just for me. That’s kind of romantic. Maybe I should give him a chance. After all, if he gets out of line, I’ve got you to protect me, right?”

Out of words, Pan threw herself over Frieza and kissed him. It was the first genuine thing to happen since he landed.

“Incredible!” The announcer said. “Even though he lost the fight for her hand, Pan is still agreeing to a date with the alien emperor! I can’t tell you how this is going to turn out, folks… but I will remind you Pan’s late paternal grandfather proposed to her grandmother in this very venue!”

Chi-Chi didn’t need the reminder right now. She fainted, and Bulla had to not only catch her but also look like she hadn’t.

“All right, you two,” The announcer said, as Frieza held Pan and kissed her harder, “There’s plenty of room for that in the gym. We need the mat back now. The Augustus Stercus Maximus-Marron fight is about to begin.”

Pan broke free and made a show of ‘helping’ Frieza back to the gym.

And when she held him there, she didn’t have to let go.

Even though Uncle Goten said, “Did I eat too much cheap vendor anpan, fall asleep during the Kendrick fight, and dream all this?”

Even though Trunks said, “I shouldn’t have left my sword at home.”

Even though Marron’s nerves got the better of her and she knocked Stercus Maximus out of the arena.

There would be a lot of explaining to do. There would be adjustment.  There would be moments that felt suspiciously like work. None of that mattered right now. All that mattered was that he was here, he was alive; and if they’d survived everything that had brought them to this point, they could survive anything.