|Honor Thy Masters
Author: gabriel blessing PM
Kenichi never really had much going for him. However, there was always one way Kenichi excelled: he was lucky in his Masters. A shame that those of Ryouzanpaku weren't the first he called his Master though.Rated: Fiction M - English - Horror - Chapters: 6 - Words: 181,691 - Reviews: 589 - Favs: 804 - Follows: 469 - Updated: 12-16-12 - Published: 02-25-12 - Status: Complete - id: 7870920
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Honor Thy Master
Author's Notes: So, did you really think I'd abandon this story?
For those wondering why this isn't In Flight again, well, after the last chapter I sat down to try and write and realized I stubbornly didn't feel like it. After tapping away at it and posting a few omakes on the forums to try and get in the mood, I realized what was holding me back:
Too much darn happiness! Most of the stuff I'd been writing lately has been cheery, or just humor. Where was the blood, the gore, the raw self destructive atavism?
With that revelation, I turned back to this chapter, which I had been planning for a while but put off when I got back into my 'In Flight mood'.
Now that this has been expressed, back to chapter 32!
Anyway, brief little focus on the chapter itself...
This is probably the chapter which focuses most on Martial Arts and not on monsters like the others. I still managed to work in some historic legends and myths, Oiwa comes to mind, but for the most part this is about Kenichi, and his friends, and what it means to carry out an oath at all costs.
I was aiming for a building, hopeless tension in this chapter. I tried to really express the emotions and thoughts of someone who was on edge, who had pressed themselves too far, who was about to snap, and who eventually did.
Let me know how I did on that, if you will. I'm eager to see if I managed to portray what I wanted to, or if I just got caught up in my own point of view and ended up flopping.
And so, here's chapter 4 of Honor Thy Masters. In it we get a glimpse of what happened in Kenichi's past, his friends learn that he's not alright, and in the end Kenichi proves that anyone can break.
Give a review if you have something you want to say, but as always, enjoy.
It was the vampire which showed me that there was no longer any going back from the path I had chosen to walk.
I was tired.
How many days had it been since I slept?
It didn't matter at this point. Sleep was just one of the things I had learned to do without. After so many months of training in Ryouzanpaku, after all the endless training and insanely dangerous battles I had been through, I had learned to deal with pain and discomfort. Still, it was in the back of my head as I walked, shrugging my hooded jacket a little higher so that I could pull the hood lower in front of my face. The crowd around me would occasionally give me odd looks, but I had the impression that they were originating from something besides my unusual state of dress.
The smell was probably the source of their attention anyway. It had been a while since I'd been able to bathe, after all. Longer even since I had the chance to change my clothes.
Who knew that being a homeless vagabond would be so unhygienic? I probably should have seen that coming. It wasn't like I hadn't seen others in the same state I was currently in before. The dirty and the desperate, the ones who had nowhere to go, no one to count on, the lost sheep of society; I had heard before that some people lived this sort of life of their own choice.
It was hard for me to understand those people. Then again, just how alike was I to them? I could tell myself that I still had home waiting for me, that there were still those who worried about me, but would I be lying?
Was there still somewhere for me to return to, and people waiting for me after I had disappeared on them like I had?
I shook my head violently, my hood flapping as I did so. What the hell was I thinking about? Focus, Kenichi. You aren't out here for the scenery.
It was probably just the sleep deprivation kicking in.
Gods, I was tired.
It was hot, the large open room packed with such a crowd that even if the owners had decided to try and air condition the place there was no way they would have been able to find a system strong enough to cool this mass down. The heat was only compounded by the late summer air, the humidity drawing even more sweat from the rolling crowd. Most of the other inhabitants present just seemed to ignore it, focusing more on the large rings set up throughout the warehouse. Maybe they seemed to think that showing weakness would only be a mark against them, or maybe they enjoyed the weight of humanity that was pressing down on them, or maybe they were just too drunk or drugged to care as they turned their attention to the struggles going on around them.
It was an underground fighting ring after all. Places like this weren't known for attracting the most hygienic or picky of crowds.
High above the open floor and seats there were a few rooms that were completely enclosed, no doubt with actual climate control within. These were the places where the rich would come, drinking champagne and loosening the ties on their suits as they placed bets and pretended that their money made them better than the rest of the masses. Most of the women that were present were in those rooms, dressed in slinky outfits or suits of their own as they interacted with their peers, seemed to think so judging from a few actions they were performing that I could make out even down here.
Below though, below was the madhouse that I was currently pushing my way through, glancing about as I tried to find my prey. Down here was where all the actual fighters gathered, an eclectic mass of people of all shapes and sizes. Here were the men with bulging biceps wearing vests and doing their best to look like rejects from 80's style shounen manga, or wore ridiculous ensembles that were meant to make them look sleeker, or cooler, or more attractive. Mixed in amongst the were those who had just gathered to drink and be merry or make bets on the actual fights, salarymen and yakuza in suits of all shades as well as punks and hoodlums all covered with spikes and leather.
Down here, one mid-teen boy in a too large hooded coat that stank a little was just another face in the crowd.
At least I hoped so. The last thing I wanted was to be recognized here. The last time I had come was with Sakaki, after all, and I had made a bit of a good showing before we had pulled out with our winnings. I distinctly remembered just how eager the owner of this fighting ring was to keep Sakaki happy, no doubt in an effort to keep my Master from destroying the entire place in a fit of annoyance. If word had gotten to the owner that Sakaki was looking for me then I had no doubt that eagerness to accommodate would translate over to me being ratted out.
If that happened than my only hope would be that they would try and hold me until my Master arrived and I would have enough time to knock them all out and run before he showed up.
I should never have come here, but this was where the signs had pointed, so here was where I had come. I could feel it too, the tingle of power on my skin, raising the hairs on the backs of my arms as I basked in the insubstantial presence.
It was here alright. No doubt about it.
I wondered just how the crowd would react if they learned that somewhere in the middle of this madhouse there was a vampire that was no doubt even now trying to decide which of the powerful and acclaimed fighters or happy and clueless gamblers would make for the best meal.
Most of the fighters would probably try and challenge it, now that I think about it.
You know, I honestly wasn't too certain how that would work out. On one hand, the vampire was no doubt an inhuman monstrosity that sustained its life by praying on the generally weaker humanity, feasting on their blood and then their corpses in a ghoulish display of macabre savagery.
On the other hand, some of the fighters gathered here were Master class in their own right, humans who had surpassed all sensible barriers of strength and possessing inhuman skills that could no doubt make them right at home fighting some of the Kai face to face.
Whatever. It didn't matter. All that mattered was that I found the vampire. Any hypothetical confrontation would be rendered moot at that point.
When I was done with the vampire, then it wouldn't be in any shape to harm anyone again.
Just like the four I had found before this one.
It was times like these that I was thankful that Tokyo was such an enormous and famous city. It was harder than I had thought it would be, hunting vampires. It's not like they grew on trees, after all. They were a species of Kai, and the Kai were rare even on the best of occasions. If vampires weren't such a relatively common species of the Oddities, then there would have been no way that I would have been as productive as I have been so far.
Despite that, maybe because of the popularity of Tokyo as an international destination or maybe just because vampires were a relatively prolific species, there hadn't been a shortage yet on prey.
Perhaps it was the sleep deprivation again, but the thought of seeing a fellow sentient creature as nothing more than 'prey', as a thing to be hunted and then dealt with, didn't even disturb me anymore. It helped, I think, that vampires as a whole were a dangerous and lethal type of Kai. A vampire didn't think twice about preying on humanity, and whenever a human met a vampire it rarely turned out as anything but bad for the human. After all, vampires fed on humans. First on their blood, to sustain them, and then they fed on the corpses of their victims as well.
There have always been a lot of stories about how vampires turned humans. Things like needing to drink the vampire's blood, or needing to be preyed on a certain number of times. The truth was, the only thing needed to be turned into a vampire was to be fed on until death and then time. After a human died, they would come back as a vampire themselves, usually the next day but sometimes a few days later. Thankfully, this potential exponential growth of the species was hampered by the fact that vampires generally didn't like other vampires.
So in order to keep more of their species from being formed, they simply ate the corpses of their victims immediately afterwards. This way they could get every last drop of nourishment from their prey while simultaneously keeping more of their kind from forming.
It was a sort of comfort that every vampire I came across and dealt with had at one point or another either murdered and cannibalized an innocent victim, or had been a victim themselves at one point or another. That with the four I had already dealt with, I had probably either avenged hundreds of deaths or put a hopeless victim out of their misery.
Still, even if it was a comfort, it was a cold comfort at best. It wasn't like I was hunting just for the sake of protecting humanity. If I was that noble in the first place, I never would have ended up in this position.
And if what I was planning worked out, then I could in the end create something so much worse than the four creatures I had already dealt with.
Shake it off Kenichi, I warned myself, trying to focus as a nearby gambler elbowed me by accident, spilling some of his harsh smelling drink on my already stained coat as he did so. Shake it off. Focus. You know what you're doing, and you already took the first step. You can't go back now, so just keep going forward.
It was a bitter mantra, but it helped me focus. Unfortunately, it wasn't like the focus was doing anything useful. I had tracked the vampire to this wild scene, had infiltrated without being noticed, and was ready to confront the beast.
But I still couldn't find the thing, which was a bit of a problem.
When I had been a vampire myself, the vampire exorcist specialists who had tracked me down hadn't seemed to have this trouble. Even when I had just been wandering around with no real destination, the three had honed in on me like it was nothing. However, whatever skill or trait the three had used to find me back then, I didn't seem to quite have the same talent for it.
I knew the vampire was here, that much I could say for certain. Those instincts that had been so long dormant and had begun to reawaken ever since a Shikome tried to kill a friend's Master were back for sure now. In fact, they were stronger than ever at this point, and would most likely only get even more so with time. But that didn't mean I could use them very well. It wasn't like I had ever gotten any training in 'mystic vampire powers'. I had barely been able to use even the most basic of them before they had been rendered dormant by my near return to humanity.
Which was what led me to my current position: standing in one of the rowdiest underground fight clubs in the Underworld, with a clock ticking down till someone recognized me and called in the cavalry, wondering just which of the oddly dressed rogues and combat junkies around me was actually an undead bloodsucking monstrosity.
Maybe it was a sign of my growing cynicism, but I couldn't help but feel that there was a punch line just waiting to happen with that statement, one which would end up with me as the butt of the joke.
So when from somewhere behind me I heard someone shout out, "Yo! Kenichi!" I wasn't even surprised in the least.
Even as the sound of my name cut through the haze of my tiredness, my mind was already beginning to race. What I did next would depend a great deal on just who it was that had discovered me. If it was a member of Ryouzanpaku, well, that was game over right there. There wasn't anyone in that dojo that I could probably handle in one on one combat, except for maybe Miu. If it was Miu though, then there would be no way I'd be able to fight at my full capability. However, there were probably other parties looking for me as well.
Yomi for instance.
Just because I had ran away from Ryouzanpaku didn't mean that I still wasn't technically their Disciple anymore. The organization of the Satsujin Ken had already marked me as a target before, and if anything, me being gone from Ryouzanpaku just made me all the more tempting. I had come across both Rachel and Ethan Stanley here as well, after all. It was the first time I had met either one of them, actually. It wouldn't be too unthinkable that they might have come back for their own amusements or personal reasons.
And sadly, those two groups weren't even the limits of who could potentially be looking for me at this point.
With all those thoughts racing through my head, when I finally turned my face towards my confronter I did so while deliberately mapping out the nearest escape points.
However, once I did see who had called my name I paused.
"Who are you again?" I asked, feeling confused as I tried to recognize the person in front of me.
When the boy who had been running toward me heard my question he tripped, apparently so surprised by my enquiry that he actually missed a step. He looked vaguely familiar, I'd admit that much. I could have sworn I'd seen those armbands before, and the great coat he was wearing half open was probably a clue as well. It did look a little too warm to be wearing in this swelter box, after all, but when it came to fashion I couldn't really be pointing any fingers either.
"Are you kidding?" my confronter snapped, pushing himself off the ground and back to his feet as he glared at me. "That's just what Kisara said! Come on! I'm going to cry if this keeps up!"
My ears perked and I heard this stranger so casually drop one of my friends' names. I turned to face the still complaining young man, and as I did I studied his features a bit closer. There was something about him, something which I remembered….
It was his hair that finally made the connection in my head switch. "Ah!" I yelped, raising a hand to point at the newcomer. He paused, and a hopeful look came across his rough face as he waited expectantly. "It's you! Sh…" I trailed off, narrowing my eyebrows as I tried to remember his name. "Sh…. Shaggy?" I finally settled on, somewhat certain that was what he was called.
Shaggy scowled, dropping his head so he could palm his face with one of his hands. "That's wrong," he growled at me, glaring at me from between his fingers. "It's Shinnosuke, you idiot," he snapped, putting one hand out so he could point at me as he stood up straight. "Tsuji Shinnosuke!"
"Oh yeah," I nodded, lifting one hand so I could drop it as a fist in the palm of the other. "I kind of remember you. Weren't you the first guy to ever pull a knife on me?"
"Pull a knife…? What the hell are you talking about?" the other young man growled. For some reason, it was as though the fact that I couldn't quite recognize him seemed to annoy him.
"No, you're right," I nodded, scratching my chin as I tried to remember who I was thinking about. "What was that guy's name? Uru… Uru-something Taka-something." I squinted as I turned away, knowing that trying to remember this name through the haze of my exhaustion was going to be annoying me all night. Maybe if I found the vampire fast enough I'd be able to put some serious thought into it.
"And you're just going to walk away?" the other guy, Shaggy I think he said his name was shouted, stamping one foot angrily as I paused, turning to give him a curious look. I wonder what was getting him so upset? "You don't even properly recognize me yet!"
"Should I?" I asked, honestly confused by what Shaggy was trying to say. "I'm sorry," I turned to give him a small bow, "but I'm really busy at the moment. Could you wait to introduce yourself until some other time?"
"Introduce?" Shaggy gaped at me. "You're going to make me cry if you keep this up," he muttered, looking very upset about something. "I just introduced myself! It was Tsuji Shinnosuke! Doesn't that ring a bell?"
Wordlessly, I shook my head in the negative. Shaggy slumped, a wounded look on his face as he did so.
"I was the guy who beat you twice, remember?" he muttered, though he didn't sound too proud about the accomplishment at the moment. One of my eyebrows cocked at his boast. I vaguely remembered something like that happening. "I told you that I was going to run away so that you would never get the chance to fight me again. Ring any bells?"
"Oh!" I snapped my finger, pointing one hand at him in accusation. "I remember now. You're that jerk of a mophead!" Finally, I was able to remember why Shaggy seemed so familiar. Despite myself, I narrowed my eyes at the sight of the man who I had lost to by a fluke and had then fled before we could have a rematch.
"Now it looks like you remember," Shaggy grinned as he took in my response. His eyes flickered up and down my body as he took in my slight change to a more aggressive stance. "Well, well," he taunted, adjusting his body to be more ready for combat. "It looks like someone might be wanting to take a stab at getting back their title."
For a moment, neither of us spoke, and a slight tension began to form in the air between the two of us. I suppose it said something for the bystanders that the impending fight seemed to spark some interest in those surrounding us. Then again, most of the people gathered here had some combat experience, so I guess being able to identify an imminent battle was probably pretty easy to them. Slowly, a few of the watchers began to back away, not far enough so that they wouldn't be able to keep an eye on the two of us, but away enough not to be swept up in the middle of a fight.
Still, it was attention, and I wasn't particularly looking for attention at the moment. More than that, I was here for a reason, and that reason wasn't settling a childish grudge. With a shrug, I relaxed my body, turning away from Shaggy.
"I already told you I was busy," I called over my shoulder, already turning my attention back to the crowd around me, trying to decide just which of the mix of eccentrics might be my bloodsucker. "I'll have to take a rain check."
"Wait!" Shaggy yelped, and he sounded so honestly surprised that I glanced back to see what he wanted. He had stretched one hand out to me as though he was thinking about grabbing my shoulder but was too far away to quite reach. "Are you serious?" Shaggy demanded, gawping at me as he did so. "You're actually going to walk away from a fight to reclaim your honor?"
"Well, it wasn't like it was a very serious fight back then," I reminded him, shrugging as I did so. "And the only reason you won was because I was being conceited and then you attacked me from behind. In the end, I guess it was a good learning experience for me."
"Uh… Wha…. Huh…?" It looked like Shaggy was honestly having a hard time trying to understand what I was saying. "But… But…!"
"So while it was kinda weird meeting you here again," I continued, my eyes still tracking around the rest of the room in an attempt to divine my target, "why don't we just accept this meeting as one of those strange things that happen sometimes, and go our separate ways?"
"But what about your honor as a man?" Shaggy demanded, pointing at me again while he stomped his foot angrily. It looked like he hadn't changed that much in the time since we last met. I kinda remembered him going on about that kind of thing in the past as well. "Damnit Kenichi! Every time! Every time we meet you end up looking down on the romance of man. First when you argued against gathering an army of punks, then when you wouldn't have a rematch with me! Now you're not refusing to try and reclaim your title?"
"I told you already: I'm too busy right now," I reminded him, not paying much attention to his ramblings. "I have more important things to do right now. We can play some other time."
"Play?" Shaggy shrieked, his voice high pitch as I brushed him off. "You think this is…? A sacred battle between men and you…?" Shaggy was an okay kind of guy actually, but it wasn't too hard to see that he tended more towards the simpler things like hitting and punching people then towards more intellectual inclinations. Still, it was so odd, running into him here. If I had a diary, I might have written about this fondly in it.
At least, that was what I thought of the whole thing as I turned to continue my quest before he had to go and drop the bomb on me.
"So you're just gonna run away like a coward, you chickenshit?" Shinnosuke snapped at me, the sneer in his voice obvious even with my back turned to him. I froze, and I couldn't stop a small twitch of my eyebrows.
"Say that again," I said, my voice dangerously soft. Behind me, I heard Shinnosuke chuckle.
"I thought that would get your attention," he gloated. Eyes still narrowed, I turned so I could look over my shoulder at him from the corner of my eye.
Shinnosuke was a tall boy, no, he was old enough to be considered a man by now. With his long hair and black coat opened to mid-chest he fit in well with the rest of the odd clothes that most of the fighters gathered in the underground fighting ring tended to favor. He had a physique which advertised that he too was someone who would fit in as well on the ring as around it, and though they were faint he had a fair collection of scars marking his body from some of his bouts in the past, the most obvious one a small cross shape low on his cheek.
Of course, the most important part of his appearance right now was the wide grin he was sporting as he watched the reaction his taunt brought out in me.
"I said, 'Say that again,'" I told him, giving him a chance to withdraw what he had just said to me.
"Didn't hear me the first time?" Shinnosuke grinned, folding his arms as he taunted me. "I called you a 'coward' and a 'chickenshit'." He leaned forward, a superior smirk on his face as he repeated his insults. "Now the question is, what are you going to do about it?"
I had put up with a lot over the years. Once, back during my first time through high school, I wouldn't have cared that much about insults like that. Back then, I didn't care much about people in general. I was always alone, and even if I really wasn't happy I was content at least. The insults and opinions of others never really mattered to me. That had begun to change after I had my initiation in to the Nightworld. More and more I began to take the opinions of others more seriously. That was only compounded after I began training at Ryouzanpaku.
I had undergone monstrous experiences, unnatural training, brutal battles, and horrors beyond the ken of most mortal minds. I had done so, so that I could stand up to the wrongs of the world and fight for what I believed in. I was proud of what I had gone through.
I didn't go through all that so that some punk with an ego could go around calling me names.
"Well," I told Shinnosuke, turning to face him directly. Around us, more people had begun to gather as the drama unfolded before them. It said something about the general atmosphere of the fight club that most of the watchers seemed to be calling jeers of encouragement rather than trying to break the two of us up. I think I saw some money change hands as some of the watchers apparently began to make side bets on the upcoming combat. "I guess I can take the three seconds I'd need to beat you before I get back to important matters."
Despite my return insult, Shinnosuke's grin only widened.
"Shinnosuke," I began, feeling my eye twitch from where it was concealed beneath my hood. "What is going on?"
"Forgotten already, Kenichi?" the other boy laughed boisterously, and I winced at how loud he was saying my name. "We're about to have a title match!"
"No," I shook my head, the twitch remaining. "I know that. I meant, what are we doing here?"
"Getting ready to fight, of course!" he continued to display an indecent level of cheer despite my obvious distress.
"I know that you idiot!" I snapped, the twitch coming faster now. "But how the hell did we end up on one of the rings!"
"You gonna chicken out now, scaredy-cat?" Shinnosuke grinned at me and his taunt was met with the jeers of approval from the crowd. I don't know how he had managed to arrange it, but somehow the rough boy had managed to appropriate one of the side rings, and as though the spectacle alone was enough a small crowd had already begun to form around us.
"Stop calling me names," I snapped at him, burying my face in one of my palms. One of these days my newfound pride was going to get me in trouble it seemed, and I could only hope that today wasn't that day. This wasn't the first time I had stepped into this ring, after all. Luckily, it didn't seem like I had been memorable enough for the announcer to recall the mysterious 'Child A' who had shown up in the shadow of the much more noticeable Sakaki.
At least, I hoped that was the case.
Well, as annoying as this little side trip was, it did present some opportunities that I hadn't had earlier in my search for the vampire.
"Enough talking!" Shinnosuke shouted, and the crowd roared in approval. With one move, the other boy somehow managed to simultaneously unbutton and then remove his great coat, tossing the garment aside with a flourish. The crowd seemed to love that too, and Shinnosuke leered in response to the approval. "Get ready Kenichi! Today's my first title defense!"
"If you haven't gotten stronger by now, then it's going to be a short fight," I told him, and settled into my own stance, legs shoulder width apart and arms up in the defensive 'Maeba no Kamae', the 'Front Wing' stance of Karate. It's a stance meant for absolute defense, and the one which Sakaki-shishou always tended to favor whenever he was fighting. Settling back, I waited.
And waited some more.
"….What's taking so long?" I finally asked, giving Shinnosuke a confused look. Though the crowd seemed to be enjoying the face off, my opponent was instead glaring at me, arms crossed as he tapped his foot.
"You are you idiot!" he snapped, thrusting a finger at me. "Hurry up and take off your coat! How are you supposed to look cool while wearing that baggy thing?"
"…Seriously?" I dead panned, giving him an incredulous look from beneath my hood. If he was trying to comment about my wearing loose clothes during a fight, then I could understand that. A lot of martial arts, Chinese ones in particular, tended to target loose clothes as a means of restricting an opponent, and my long sleeved coat was definitely thick enough to grip if an enemy tried. I could even understand if he was just worried about heat exhaustion setting in. In this sweltering arena I could definitely feel my body sweat, an unpleasant feeling only compounded by how long it had been since I had a bath. However….
"I'm not going to strip in front of an audience just to try and look cool," I told him, huffing as I did so. Shinnosuke's scowl got bigger as he growled at me.
"It's part of the romance of men!" he declared, stomping angrily. "How am I supposed to get in the mood for a fight if you aren't being dramatic!"
"It's stupid," I told him bluntly, though inside I paused, wondering.
Sakaki did tend to lose his own shirt whenever he got serious in combat, and there was that one time while I was fighting Boris and where I had stripped down. In my case, that had been because I didn't want the Yami member's combat Sambo to be able to latch onto my sleeves, but Sakaki didn't have that excuse. I had chalked it up to one of those crazy Master things, the whole 'inhuman ability meets fragile clothes', but Sakaki was old school enough that he might have just been doing it for the sake of drama…
Okay, I must be more exhausted then I thought if I was wondering what about the undressing habits of one of my male Masters.
"Stupid?" Shinnosuke yelped, and he scowled getting into his own stance finally. "I'll show you what happens to those who look down on the romance of men!"
There it was. It looked like he was finally getting serious about this fight. My eyes narrowed briefly as I took in his stance: body held perpendicular to mine, his back leg hidden behind his front, and with his near hand extended. That was the stance for his martial arts, Koppou. Koppou was an art which focused on using the center of gravity in specific movements, using the inertia of one's own weight to move. It was nearly the exact same as the last time we had fought.
He started by circling, a move which looked almost like he was sliding as he adjusted his weight. I held my ground in response, knowing what would come next. Once Shinnosuke was in range he yelled, striking fast with the palm of his hand in punches that were meant mostly to put me on my guard.
It really was almost exactly like the last time we had fought. Just like then, he quickly discovered the futility of his attacks. Shinnosuke is strong, no doubt about it. He trained hard to have a strong body, and his movements were quick and skilled. More than that, even back when he had been in Ragnarok, Shinnosuke always had a knack for fighting. He honestly enjoyed combat, and had probably been in more fights than I had, even now. That kind of experience was nothing to scoff at, and he knew all kinds of dirty tricks and methods for fighting.
However, what it came down to was I was just faster than he was.
It wasn't hard for me to dodge his blows, not even bothering to block them. Ducking and twisting I weaved through his offense as though he was standing still. Long training with my Masters had just accustomed my eyes to tracking ultra-fast movements. Compared to Apachai's mitt hitting this was nothing special. More than that, ever since I witnessed the fight between Sakaki and Hongou my perception abilities had increased even more. There was also the brutal training to my body in order to raise my physical capabilities and this fight was probably not even worth mentioning.
Add on my recently reawakened abilities as a Kai…
"Ha! You're as quick as I remember," Shinnosuke grinned, his battle joy showing as he laughed off his apparent disadvantage. "But I haven't been just sitting around either!"
I saw his kick coming before he launched his leg at me, but it was a close thing. Koppou's stance was designed to hide the back leg so it could be adjusted without the opponent seeing the movements. Once the back leg was in place, the front could be used without any apparent preparation making for an effective surprise attack. However, even as I dodged the low kick he threw at my knee, Shinnosuke was already moving, using the momentum of his strike to shift his body forward, prepping his next attack.
"Kougeki!" he shouted, and I had to toss myself aside to avoid the body slam that would have sent me flying. My eyes widened slightly as I realized that I recognized that attack.
"That wasn't Koppou!" I snapped, hopping backwards to get more space between me and my opponent. Shinnosuke grinned recklessly at me.
"You ain't the only one that can study multiple martial arts," he crowed at me, and with the same abandon as before he came back at me, doing his best to try and keep me off guard.
The audience was loving this. I don't know much about 'the romance of men' that Shaggy liked to go on about, but apparently it was something of a crowd pleaser. The jeers and shouts of the crowd watching us were starting to get louder, and more and more people were beginning to drift closer to watch. It looked like most of the audience seemed to be rooting for Shinnosuke, probably because he was the one who was on the offense, but I could make out some shouts of encouragement for me as well. My defense was dynamic with all my dodges, and since it looked like I was being pressed I probably had some fans hoping for the underdog victory.
Good. If I wasn't going to be able to slip by unnoticed, then I needed to get the biggest crowd possible.
I went on the offensive for the first time, and on Shinnosuke's next attack I blocked with my forearm, directing it up. With a large step I closed, and launched a side punch at his exposed side. The crowd ate it up as Shinnosuke gasped and was forced back by the blow. For a second I thought I might have over done it, but then he grinned, holding both his arms up as though to show the spot where he was hit to the crowd.
"That it, Kenichi?" he called. "You've been getting soft! That felt like a fly landed on me!"
I guess the romance of men really was a crowd pleaser, because the audience went wild as Shinnosuke got back in his combat stance and the fight resumed at the same pace. I didn't have the heart to tell him that if I hadn't held back I could have cracked at least three of his ribs with that punch.
The fight continued like that for nearly another three minutes, me seemingly on the defense until I launched a surprise counter, Shinnosuke letting loose bellows and shouts as he fought with abandon, and the crowd got ever larger as more and more people began to drop by to see what the fuss was about.
"What's this? It looks like ring B's fight is starting to get attention!" it was when the announcer came on over the loudspeaker that I decided it was time to end this.
When Shinnosuke came in for the next attack, a cross which was rather well hidden by the rest of his body which I countered again. This time, I didn't hold back as much, and the uppercut I threw buried itself into his gut and lifted him off the ground. His eyes widened as he gasped, spittle leaking out of his mouth and splashing against my coat. It should be enough to put him down, and while I still had the attention of the audience one of my hands dipped into the front of my coat, pulling out what I kept there in one quick motion. The crowd roared in anticipation as they thought I was pulling out a weapon to finish the fight, and they were mostly right. It just wasn't quite the weapon they thought it would be:
A bottle of water.
"And with his victory, the mysterious hooded fighter appears to be quenching his thirst between bouts!" the announcer broadcasted my actions, and it looked like the apparent distain I was treating my fallen foe with appealed to the blood thirsty masses as they jeered in approval.
While they might think I was just thirsty, I had another use for the bottle. With a light throw I tossed it into the air, and while it hung their midair I struck, kicking at it with all my might. The force of the attack was enough to rupture the plastic, and the bottle exploded appropriately, sending water flying through the air and misting across both me and the crowd.
"And look! The hooded challenger is telling the world that this fight wasn't even enough to work up a thirst!" the announcer proclaimed, and the crowd howled in joy almost as one.
With a careful eye I searched the crowd, and right there in the center there was one watcher who didn't seem to be enjoying the impromptu shower. It was a man, dressed in leather pants and a mesh shirt. He looked just like any of a dozen of other fighters that I had seen making their way around the arenas.
Unlike the rest of the fighters though, when the water struck him he flinched, staring down in shock as his skin began to bubble and redden as though boiling water had struck him.
His eyes came up, staring at me in confusion, and then they widened in shock as they found mine locked onto him. Then his eyes narrowed as realization struck in.
It wasn't just shyness that had kept me from tossing my coat aside at the beginning of the match. What kind of vampire hunter goes out without getting all the necessary tools to hunt what is effectively a superior predator? Weapons like holy water for instance. And where else would a vampire hunter keep those weapons out of sight so to prevent awkward questions? Why, in a coat of course.
That or a duffel bag, I suppose. But then it would be harder to get to them in time.
And I was rambling again, even in my thoughts.
Gods I was tired.
It must have been the exhaustion which distracted me, because even as the vampire seemed to realize what had happened, I felt a palm rest almost gently against my cheeks.
"What's this?" the announcer shouted, sounding excited as I glanced behind me to find that Shinnosuke wasn't as down as I had thought he was. "It looks like the hooded fighter's distain was enough to rekindle the fighting spirit of the challenger!"
"Gotcha," Shinnosuke put it much more appropriately as he grinned, and I scowled in response, glaring at him.
"Oh, not aga-" was as far as I got before Shinnosuke pivoted, twisting his body and adjusting his center of gravity in some weird way as he shot his left hand out, twisting it as he struck. What he landed wasn't quite a punch, nor was it exactly a slap.
"Tooshi!" Shinnosuke howled, as he landed the exact same blow in nearly the exact same way as he had last time we had fought. The Koppou no Tooshi, the 'Passing Through Blow of the Art of Koppou' was one of the many Martial Arts techniques which was designed to take advantage of the bodies frailty by bypassing through the usual impediments of a strike and deliberately attacking a vital organ.
Many martial techniques used a variety of ways to specialize in order to circumvent defenses. Some attaches used vibrations in order to damage a body covered by armor so that a blow to a breastplate could damage the chest beneath, some used side to side motions in order to shake the muscles which were being struck and damage them exponentially more than a straight on attack would, and some focused on specialized hits which had an accumulative affect. The variation in striking techniques found in the world of Martial Arts was so great that I don't think that I could ever fully describe them, or even know them all.
The Toushi was one such attack. The strange twisting motion of the blow, combined with the wide striking area of the palm in effect caused the skull to vibrate when it landed. The human brain is an unsurprisingly delicate organ, and vibrations like that can have a reboot effect, causing the brain to temporarily shut down and then restart almost immediately afterwards. This affect was what led rise to the 'glass chin' saying. No matter how tough someone is, if a blow lands just right on the chin than the skull would rattle and the person who took the punch would lose the ability to control their body as the brain tried to deal with the strange stimuli.
I could almost feel the way Shinnosuke's strike impacted with my cheekbone, the way the force dispersed and penetrated through the organ beneath my skull. I could make out the way the edges of my vision began to darken, the way I started to lose all feeling in my extremities as consciousness started to slip away…
And then the effect stopped and reversed itself, leaving me once more in complete control of my body as my consciousness reasserted before I had even fallen halfway to the ground.
It was about then that I decided that if a vampire and martial artist were to fight, it would probably be the vampire which would win. One of the most noticeable of powers a vampire had was their regeneration, after all. No matter what part of the body that a vampire might get hurt in, they would almost certainly recover, most often just in a matter of seconds. If a vampire's limbs were to be ripped off, they would simple regrow. If their heart was to be ripped from their chest, they would just shrug as the most a wound like that could do would be to cause the blood in their body temporarily stopped moving. Even the brain, the organ which meant near certain loss when damaged in a human was nothing more than an inconvenience for a vampire.
In fact, most vampires tended to deliberately harm their brain whenever they wanted to remember something. The vampire who had turned me, Kiss Shot Acerola Orion Hearts Under Blade had been fond of open skull lobotomies as a way to recall various bits of trivia.
I was still only a partial vampire, that weird unnatural state of lingering symptoms I had found myself in after the events of my introduction to the world of the Kai had ended, but for me in particular regeneration had always come easy. When I had been a vampire fully I had been able to survive being carved into hundreds of pieces. That regeneration had lingered when I had become mostly human, the last remnant of my strongest vampire trait. It had faded after the events which I had thought marked my full escape from the Nightworld, and I had thought that ability was completely lost before the meddling of a fox proved me wrong.
"Man," I heard Shinnosuke sigh, his voice unusually soft as he failed to notice me stopping my fall to the ground. From the corner of my eye I saw him lifting up his hands as though to celebrate his victory, the crowd around the two of us cheering at the turnabout from earlier. Even as he continued to pose for the crowd, I could hear him mutter. "I thought I was gonna lose for sure. Niijima better be damn thankful that I risked my title for this."
My blood ran cold at his soft words.
"What did you say?" I snapped, and Shinnosuke literally jumped as he whirled to face me, the realization that he hadn't just won, that apparently I shrugged off his best attack in a matter of seconds, and that more importantly I sounded pretty damn pissed causing him to give a small girlish yelp as he gaped at me.
"How the hell are you still standing?" he demanded, pointing at me in accusation. "Are you cheating or something?"
"Answer me," I snapped at him, my eyes narrowed as my mind raced. "What the hell did you mean about Niijima?"
"That weird alien has all of that gang of yours out looking for you," he admitted, the shock he was feeling at me having survived his attack unharmed probably causing him to answer when he really shouldn't. "There's a hell of a reward for information about you out there too." He grinned, as my features went white. "When I called him earlier, he put in a bonus to keep you distracted as well."
"Shaggy," I growled at him, not able to properly put into words just how furious that particular information was making me, or able to describe the enormous lump that had settled in my stomach. "You idiot!"
Why hadn't I noticed earlier? I berated myself furiously in my head. You idiot, Kenichi! He had said he was never going to have a rematch with you again just so he could keep the title! You hadn't heard from Shinnosuke in so long you had actually forgotten his name! And then he comes up out of nowhere and challenges you to a fight? What else could he possibly be doing! I should have just focused on…
I whirled away from the other boy, and I just managed to make out the vampire as he pulled free from the back of the crowd. The beast looked over his shoulder at me, and seemed to realize that I hadn't remained distracted long enough for him to completely escape. Still, he smiled at me once, bearing just a hint of his fangs as he turned, and with inhuman speed began to force his way past the scattered groups of people that were between him and the nearest exit.
I started to give chase, but was stopped when Shinnosuke's hand came down on my shoulder, gripping tightly.
"Oi!" Shinnosuke snapped, sounding entirely too smug for someone who quite possibly ruined everything I was planning. "Where do you think…?"
It was as far as he got before I backhanded him, not even turning to look. The blow came without warning, and I felt it connect as Shinnosuke let loose a grunt, and I heard him fall to the ground behind me as I raced to the edge of the ring.
"And what's this?" the announcer proclaimed, and the crowd continued to roar its approval. "Turn around after turn around between the two fighters! Will the challenger manage to get up anew, or has the hooded fighter managed to finally secure his victory- What's this? The hooded fighter is leaving the arena...!"
I ignored the announcer, though if I had stuck around I probably would be announced the winner at this point. I had put way more into that strike than I had into any of the other blows I had thrown at him when I had been playing for the crowd. And even if he did get back up, I had more important things to worry about.
I did feel kind of bad to have beaten him so casually, I'd admit, but he had struck me from behind, twice now, and he had effectively let loose the hounds on me, so I left him where he fell and threw myself into the pursuit.
The crowd around the arena was packed, but I had a convenient skill for making my way through it. I think one of the most useful things I'd ever learned from Ryouzanpaku was utilizing blind spots while in full sprint to avoid crashing into bystanders. I cleared the densest area in a matter of seconds, my eyes frantically tracking for where my prey had escaped to. It seemed that the vampire wasn't quite as good as moving through crowds so easily, and had only just reached the exit that would take him out of the fight club. Behind him there was a trail of angry and shouting people who he had tossed aside when they had gotten in his way.
The vampire paused at the door, his eyes finding mine again and they narrowed when he realized that I was covering the distance between the two of us faster than he could increase it. With a snarl like grimace he showed me his teeth, the slight elongation of his canines only barely visible, and then he kicked the door savagely, knocking it off its hinges before he darted out into the night.
Damn. Damn, damn, and double damn.
"And what's this?" the announcer howled behind me as I continued the chase. "It seems that the hooded challenger has abandoned the ring in order to seek his next match! What possible grudge could these two enemies have…"
I tuned the loudspeaker out, even as I grimaced. Not only had I been discovered by someone with ties to my friends, but they had also alerted Niijima of all people about my location! I hadn't even considered the meeting odd, and the idea that Shinnosuke might be in contact with my friends hadn't even crossed my mind. Not only that, but the vampire was alert to my presence now, and wouldn't go down as easily as the others had. And if that wasn't bad enough, now I had potential witnesses where members of the crowd who had watched my fight with Shaggy appeared to be detaching themselves so that they could follow me.
I did not want a bunch of muscle bound fight addicts to be a witness to a battle with a vampire.
I didn't want any witnesses at all, for god's sake.
I cleared the arena into the night in moments, my head frantically turning left and right as I tried to figure out which direction the vampire had gone in. There, on my right, I managed to make out a brief flicker of movement and caught sight of the vampire for only a second as the creature leapt over a wall which blocked off the end of the alley I had emerged into. At least, I hoped it was the vampire, and I took off after it fast, desperate to catch up with it. The wall was at least a dozen feet high, and it would have taken precious seconds for a normal human to get over it normally.
Luckily, even without my reemerging vampire powers my martial arts skills would have been enough for me to circumvent this. My first leap was dozens of feet before the wall began. It took me high, seemingly impossibly higher than a normal human should be able to make. It wasn't high enough for me to clear the wall on its own, but it did put my feet in reaching distance of the ledge on the wall nearby. The second leap also left me a few feet shy of clearance, but I had my arms up to force me the rest of the way over the wall.
It was while I was in midair, already over the wall and with no purchase to move, that I realized my mistake.
The vampire grinned at me again, a vicious leer as it waited for me at the bottom of my drop. Even as I began my descent it crouched, and then threw himself upwards at me, one of his hands drawn back, his fingers curled as though they were claws as he prepared a counter attack.
I hadn't even considered that the vampire would launch a counter attack this soon. When it had first noticed my holy water, it seemed to have panicked, and I thought that it was primarily in flight mode at this point. Vampires are powerful creatures, but they pay for that power with a large number of weaknesses too. Most vampires knew that if they were being hunted there was a good chance that their hunters would be prepared for them.
I had thought the vampire would just continue to flee, most likely prioritizing escape over confrontation. I definitely hadn't thought that the vampire would choose to confront me so soon, not so close to an arena that was packed with strong and potentially dangerous fighters.
Either this vampire was very confident in its ability, or it was very stupid. I'm not sure which the worst prospect was. If it really was as powerful as it seemed to think it was, then I could be in a lot of trouble. Vampires had a great deal of variety in the skill sets they could develop over the years, and if this one had managed to master a good number of those esoteric abilities than I might have gotten in over my head with this target.
And if the vampire was stupid, that was every bit as potentially upsetting. Stupid opponents couldn't be counted on doing the logical thing, the smart thing. Stupid opponents were potentially unpredictable, and dangerous in ways that smart opponents sometimes couldn't quite match.
Still, that wouldn't help me right now. As it stood, I was still midair and falling down towards a prepared vampire which was likely about to try and tear my head off.
Whatever the case with this vampire, it seemed that I would find out very quickly just which it was. It had chosen the place and arena for this fight, in this alley and midair, and with that choice in front of me this wouldn't be a drawn out battle. The first move would be the one that decides the battle.
The vampire struck with bare hands, counting on the pure rending power of a vampire's strength and regeneration to see him through this exchange.
On the other hand, between one breath and another my hand were no longer empty. This wasn't the kind of battle for me to stake my pride one, for me to show the skills my Masters had given me. This wasn't even a fight.
This was an exorcism.
The kusarigami that I had started training with not so long ago felt warm in my hand, a result of the heat trapped by my coat soaking into it. The chain was thin, but unexpectedly strong despite its size, no doubt a sign of the quality which Shigure sought after in all her weapons, even the ones she was giving to a no good Disciple.
But what made this weapon the perfect choice for the fight was the fact that I had removed the sickle from the end and replaced it with something else entirely.
"Kousaka Ryuu! Hien Sandan Giri!" I shouted, the modified weapon slicing through the air in one of the few techniques I had managed to learn from Shigure after I had finally accepted her tutelage. Just like with my other Masters, Shigure had refrained from teaching me too much in the way of special techniques or esoteric attacks. Instead, she had focused on driving the basics of wielding such an unruly weapon into my body. This had been the only technique she had truly taught me, though she had seemed unusually amused when it had taken me nearly a month to get it right.
Something about how even a child could learn it in a week, though I never got the full story out of her.
The vampire didn't feel a need to name its attack at all, not even deigning to shout during its assault. It didn't even have time to fully take in the modification I had made to my weapon before our blows exchanged.
His fingers caught my cheek, digging in deep and scraping across my cheekbone in an agonizing motion. He very nearly took my eye, and if I had been a second slower than my entire skull might have ended up like the frayed edge of my hood as it too was ripped cleanly along the side.
On the other hand my attack, the 'Flying Blaze Three Step Cut' cleanly separated its arms, and one of its legs from its body, the limbs tumbling away midair in a spray of blood.
The two of us landed, both with a thump though I managed to retain my balance enough for me to only go to one knee, my teeth aching at the force I was clamping my teeth shut with to keep the cry of pain within. The vampire just fell; it's rendered torso and remaining limb not enough to allow it any dignity.
Despite my injuries, I forced my teeth to clamp even harder, a brief worry about whether I might end up chipping them with the force, before I pressed my tired body to move. There wasn't time to just sit here, feeling dramatic. I still hadn't finished the fight, and with the ever increasing possibility of interruption I would still have to somehow manage to escape with my prize as well!
Whirling, I readied my weapon, using my free hand to claw at the ground for purchase as I spun myself towards the vampire who was actually bouncing across the ground as its one leg continued to flail. I could make out its expression of shock as it realized that its limbs weren't returning to it, that the regeneration power that it had been gambling on had been interrupted. It was then that it finally made out just what I was wielding, and its shock rose even further.
I didn't blame it. It had taken me a very long time to track down an actual cross made out of blessed silver. It had been even harder to sharpen the shorter of the intersecting bars to razor like sharpness as well, and it was already beginning to chip in places from where the combat I had put it through proved once more that silver made for a horrible base metal for a weapon in normal circumstances.
Against a vampire however, or even a number of other Kai, well, there was no other way to go but silver.
Two of its limbs, its other leg and its right arm, hadn't even hit the ground by the time I had closed, the sharpened cross flashing as I aimed at the thing's thigh. It tried to dodge, but with no purchase or balance it could only watch helpless as I completely rendered it into a quadriplegic lump, nothing but a torso and a head as its limbs fell to the ground around it. Though the initial spray of blood from the wounds was quite fantastic the flow on it's the limbs I severed earlier was already beginning to slacken as the silver acted almost like a cauterizing agent to the undead creature.
I was thankful for that. I didn't want too much of that blood flowing out of its body for a number of reasons.
The battle ended only moments after it had started, the creature rolling to a stop as it lay helpless before me, my improvised sickle glistening with its blood and moonlight. The thing only then realized that confronting a prepared hunter, one who had already shown he had martial prowess at that, was not the best course of action. It was most certainly the last mistake it would ever make. I could make out despair beginning to taint its expression before its eyes widened again in surprise.
Judging from where they were directed, it seemed that the thing had caught sight of my cheek, already half way healed from the blow it had managed to land. It was the vampire's turn to tighten its jaw as it realized that not only was I a hunter, but also something which wasn't quite human myself.
Finally, it let loose a resigned breath, and the creature went still, its eyes drifting shut. I wasn't certain if it was a sign of surrender, or if the vampire was planning something, but whatever the case, I would take what I could get. If the thing started to get loud, or continued to struggle, it might make my escape even more difficult than it probably already was going to be.
I didn't have much time, now, that much I was certain of. I would have to abandon the limbs and just take the body with me. It was the largest piece, and I would just have to make do with what I could get from this whole mess. Keeping the cross in my hand in case the vampire was indeed planning something, I reached out with my other hand to grab the thing by the throat, tightening my grip both to keep it from struggling and to make sure I didn't drop it. If it had been wearing something less flimsy then a mesh shirt, I would have gone for its collar instead for better purchase.
However, before I could get a proper hold and flee, a voice shouted out from behind me, causing me to freeze.
"Holy shit! Kenichi, is that you?"
"That's impossible!" another voice shouted, and though it sounded angry it had an edge to it, something which wasn't quite hysteria and not quite denial, but pretty close to both. "There's no way that's Kenichi! He'd never do something like this."
No. No, no, no.
"We never thought that Miu would ever go through something like she did either," yet another voice cut in, and where the other two had been laced with disbelief and outrage at the scene they had come across, this one spoke with a cold touch of logic in it. "If even someone like her could almost end up like that, then even Kenichi could be gotten to."
I hadn't gotten away in time. Slowly, with one hand around a monster's neck and a bloody cross in the other, I straightened. Without fully turning, I glanced behind me.
It had been a while since I had seen Takeda, Ukita, and Niijima, since before that day I had sought out a fox. The three looked well. That was the first thing I could think when I took in the sight of them from the corner of my eye.
Takeda the Striker, the boxing Captain of the Shinpaku Alliance had a strand of grass tucked into his mouth like always, and judging from his outfit it looked like he had just been called away from training with his own Master, James Shiba. He still had on that ridiculous spring based resistance harness that he wore in all but the most dire of battles, and the shirt he had apparently thrown on over it hadn't even been buttoned. Beyond that, he looked tense, his jaw clenched so hard that the grass held in it was shaking as he stared with shock at me.
Ukita the Throw, a former judo using delinquent and another Captain of the alliance was in his usual button down and slacks, the only outfit besides a judo uniform that I had ever seen him wear. It was he who had denied that the person in front of him was really me, and even now he was shaking in rage and denial.
Niijima, who didn't have a convenient title besides 'Alien', the Commander of the alliance was wearing his normal school uniform with collar loosened just enough to make it seem casual. The pointy eared mastermind of so many evil schemes which seemed to serve no other purpose besides annoying me was looking on with narrowed eyes, showing none of the disbelief or anger that the two he had arrived with were showing. Instead, he had the look of someone who was simply taking in all that there was to see, and using that information to draw the most logical conclusion.
"Wait, what are you saying, you alien?" Ukita demanded, growling as the larger boy turned to glare at Niijima. Those two never really got along that well. They were friends, I was fairly certain of that much, but Niijima was always the type that liked to antagonize those around him in the most absurd of ways, and Ukita was always the type who just let antagonism get to him too easily.
"You don't mean…" Takeda also turned to spare the smallest of the three a quick look, though it seemed the boxer had managed to divulge whatever it was that Niijima had been hinting at with his earlier cryptic statement. Whatever he thought it seemed that it was enough to bring the hesitating fighter some sort of relief as his jaw loosened slightly.
"We knew that Kenichi had disappeared," Niijima continued, though unlike the other two he never took his eyes off of me. The normally somewhat Machiavellian leader of a ragtag band of former delinquents and aspiring martial artists was unusually serious as he continued to study me and the scene he had stumbled on. "It was unlikely that he would leave on his own, so he must have been taken. It's been nearly a month since then. There's no telling what's been done to our friend."
"Oh!" Ukita's eyes widened enough for me to see his eybrows from behind the sunglasses he always seemed to be wearing, even at night. "So then Kenichi…!"
"It looks like we might need to have a bit of a fight before we can have that peaceful reunion we've been hoping for, and those answers too," Niijima finished off for the judo user, and despite the ominous words the little alien began to grin.
Maybe it was the exhaustion showing, but it actually took me a second to figure out just what my bad friend had been spelling out for me.
When I did, I nearly sagged in relief.
This might actually work out. I might actually be able to get away!
The last time anyone in our circle of friends had vanished, it had been when Miu had been abducted by Junazard, after all. The end results of that particular encounter had been her being drugged to the point of amnesia and then led to nearly walking the path of the Satsujin Ken. It wouldn't be too much of a jump in logic to assume that my own disappearance might have a similar tale behind it.
In other words, the three thought I was brainwashed.
So far I had remained silent, mostly because I had been so shocked at the three's appearance that I had no idea what to say. Now though I bit my lip and kept quiet so that I wouldn't accidently say anything which might make them doubt their new conclusion.
"So, in other words, it looks like Kenichi and I are going to get another rematch after all," Takeda declared, and despite the situation the boxer actually sounded pleased at the thought. Despite the lingering tension in his jaw he started to grin a bit. The two of us had fought two times in the past, and unlike Shinnosuke, Takeda hadn't managed to eke out a win on me yet.
I guess it said something about his spirit as a martial artists, but even though I was bloodstained and clutching a mutilated body, even though they thought I had probably been brainwashed into doing something which was detestable and wrong, the promise of having a third match seemed to ignite Takeda's competitive spirit.
"Careful," Niijima cautioned, his voice still calm and analytical. "If what's been done to him is anything like what happened to Miu, then this isn't a fight to play around in." He glanced at Ukita, and while the judo user didn't seem quite as excited over the chance to fight me as his friend was, even he seemed to be bracing himself for battle as well. "Both of you should fight together."
"Eh?" Ukita seemed flustered by the order, reaching up to point at himself in surprise. "Me too? But shouldn't a fight be one on one?"
"The longer this goes on, the worse it can get," Niijima snapped, a bit of his cool disappearing as something unfamiliar seeped into his voice. If I wasn't too tired to bother expressing it, I might have shown a little shock as I realized that the heartless alien was actually worried about me! "The quicker he goes down, the quicker we can get him some help!"
"Quick, eh?" Takeda's grin widened as Ukita scowled. It looked like while the larger boy was agreeing to something he didn't like, the boxer on the other hand was amused by something that Niijima had said. "That's the best way to do it!"
That was the only warning I got before Takeda shifted his stance slightly, and then launched himself at me, his resurrected left fist already cocked as he prepared to try and put me down. I suppose it was a sign of exhaustion yet again that it wasn't until that moment that I realized that I should have tried to sneak off while the three were arguing.
Heck, even though they had just been arguing about how to fight me, I hadn't even managed to move into a proper combat stance yet. I still had the cross in one hand and the vampire in the other. Takeda was fast, had always been fast. He was one of the other members of the Shinpaku Alliance that was receiving tutelage from a genuine Master class fighter, and unlike me Takeda had always had a natural talent for fighting as well. I barely had time to think before he was on me in striking range.
"Auto Rhythm!" Takeda's grin was fierce as he jumped into the fight with one of his fiercest attacks. I grimaced as his fist came at me, the power beyond it something I was well acquainted with.
After all, the sneaky boxer had stolen that move from me.
A derivative of my own 'Mubyoshi', the 'No Beat' skill that I had invented by combining Karate, Kempo, Jujitsu, and Muay Thai, it was an attack which combined multiple principles of martial arts including counter movement, penetration power, and the movement of the body in order to launch a devastatingly powerful blow. While not as powerful as my Mubyoshi, the Auto Rhythm made up for the loss of power by focusing all those traits on the upper body, making the attack faster, easier to launch, and simpler to use repeatedly.
It was an overwhelming opening move from the boxer, and the only thing I could think to do was to block it with the thing in my hands. Not my cross, no. The silver wasn't durable enough to survive that kind of power, and I didn't want the sharpened edges to damage my friend. With what was in my other hand.
Takeda's eyes widened as he found his blow interrupted by the torso of the vampire, and from the lack of power I could tell that the boxer had pulled his blow short, no doubt hoping to avoid hurting what appeared to him to be nothing more than an innocent victim. The force of the strike diverted, and with the sudden change in his momentum, Takeda lowered his guard.
I took advantage of the opening. My hands were too full for me to punch, but I still had my legs. It might be an old trick, but even if Takeda had come a long way since our first fight, he was still a boxer, and the primary weakness of a boxer was always their lower body.
I launched a low kick at the off balanced fighter. Takeda wasn't the only one who was off balance, with the weight of the wounded vampire tugging at me, so it wasn't the most powerful kick I had ever thrown. More than that, Takeda himself was well aware of the weakness of his style. He was being trained by a Master after all. Even if he couldn't defend against it perfectly, he still managed to shift his stance enough for the hard edge of his shin to meet mine. Both of us had undergone the typical body hardening that most martial artists endured, so the blow wasn't as painful to either of us as it could have been.
But even if Takeda was ready and managed to keep the attack from being a serious one, it was still an attack at his weak point, and now, more than ever, I was simply stronger than the other fighter. My Masters had long ago confessed that my lower body was the area they had focused on the most during my initial training, so my kicking power was probably my strongest area. Add into that the traits that my lingering symptoms of vampirism granted me, and the advantage went to me in that exchange
"Damn," Takeda grit out, and despite his fierce opening he hopped back, favoring his leg as he did so. Gingerly, he put weight on it, and then settled himself, the injury not enough to take him out of commission. His grin turned whimsical. "Well, so much for taking advantage of Kenichi being a slow starter."
Ah, so that was why he had attacked so hard so fast. It was no secret among my friends that it often took me a bit of time to really work myself up to my highest potential. Even if I was strong, I was still a person who didn't like fighting that much, most of the time. It was something that Yami had tried to take advantage of in the past, truthfully, and considered one of my biggest weakness.
It was actually because of that weakness that I was so tired.
The Elder had long ago showed me how to counter that negative trait. If I needed time to warm up to a fight, than just do it before the fight begins. He had kept me sparring for nearly eighteen hours before my duel with Ethan Stanley in order to make sure that I wouldn't be overwhelmed in the battle, a trick that even Chikage admitted that she had found ridiculous.
As much as I might have protested at the time, I had taken that training to heart. Especially considering what I was doing these days. Vampires were strong, and fast, and among the most dangerous of the Kai for a human to come across. I needed every trick in my book to make sure that I wouldn't end up falling victim to the creatures I was hunting. However, it looked like I might have taken the trick to far.
It was no good to be heated up for battle only to be too tired to do anything but gawk in confusion once the fight started.
"Good opening, Takeda," Ukita bellowed, and the judo user seemed to be preparing himself as well to enter the fight. He had his hands up and prepared to grab, an essential for any judo user, and he had already shifted forward so he could take advantage of his weight and size in a bull charge. It wasn't the most elegant of stances, but Ukita was probably the most normal and weakest of the fighters on the Shinpaku Alliance.
"Next time don't hold back because of the victim," Niijima snapped, already having analyzed my ploy. "If we're going to get him any help, then we need to win fast. And if winning means he has a few cracked ribs, he can still thank us for saving him afterwards!" Just like that Niijima showed why he was the leader of Shinpaku, already prioritizing just what sacrifices needed to be made in order for victory to be obtained.
If it had been a normal person that he had been advocating attacking through, I probably would have been outraged by his callousness. However, considering that he was just telling my friends to hit a vampire harder, well, I decided not to sweat it this time.
"Attack together this time," Niijima ordered, and Ukita paused in his preparations to glower at the smaller boy at his presumptuous tone. "Takeda, take the lead! Ukita, circle around and attack from the back!"
"Shut up, you evil alien," Ukita grumbled, but even as he verbally rebelled against the directions the judo user began to edge around, circling me wide as he moved to obey. Even if Niijima was a hard guy to deal with it didn't change the fact that just about everyone in the alliance had acknowledged that he was probably the smartest of us all and had a genius for tactics that was hard to argue against.
"Heh," Takeda grunted, starting to bounce on the soles of his feet as he prepared himself. "Ready for round two, Kenichi?"
No. No I was not.
I wasn't here to fight the three of them, well, fight Ukita and Takeda while Niijima supervised and then took all the credit anyway. I had already gotten what I wanted from this place, and lingering here any longer just made things more dangerous. The longer I was here, the more chances there were of people I wanted to see even less arriving. So instead of responding to the boxer's provocation, I instead turned and ran.
"Oi!" was as far as a startled Takeda got before I was already implementing my escape plan. The same wall that had originally set me up for the vampire's failed counter attack would serve me well here. I had no doubt that Takeda and Ukita would be able to get over it, Niijima too though it would probably take him longer, but it would buy me time, time to get out of here to escape and lose these three in the streets and back alleys that I had become more and more familiar with since I started wandering them.
It had taken me two jumps to clear the wall with a running start and unladened, but it only would take an extra one to get me back over it. Utilizing that same insane lower body strength that had driven Takeda back only moments ago, I bent at the knees and launched myself, aiming for another convenient ledge for my next purchase. Behind me I heard Takeda shout again.
"Oi! He's running away!" There was a bit of surprise in his tone, as though the action was so unexpected that he couldn't hold back his reaction.
"Don't worry," Niijima assured the boxer, a note of gloating in his tone as I made it to the second ledge. "Did you really think I wouldn't plan for that?"
Plan for that? His words had an ominous edge to them. Niijima with time to plan was nothing to scoff at. I could only hope that I would be able to put enough distance between us before his plan caught up to me…
Was what I was thinking before I made my third jump, the one which would have put me over the wall, and I discovered that his plan was already in motion.
"Mike Yopu Chagi!" Nanjou Kisara shouted, and once more I barely managed to react as the former Eighth Fist of Ragnarok, and more recent Captain in the Shinpaku Alliance appeared before me from behind the wall, already midair herself as she threw powerful spinning back kick that would have probably crushed a rib if it had landed.
In fact, I'm pretty sure it did crush the rib of the vampire that I had managed to get up in time as a shield again. The beast remained still, once more showing no reaction to the damage it had received even as its regeneration kicked in to heal the unblessed wound. But though I had managed to block that one strike, there was another one already coming at me.
"Kugataichi Ryuu Gokui: Sen Un!" This time the attacker was Kugatachi Kaname, though it was hard to think of her as anything other than Freya, another of the Eight Fists of Ragnarok that had been swayed by Niijima's devilish tongue to the forces of Shinpaku. It seemed like she too had been lying in wait with her former subordinate, Kisara, in order to cut off any retreat.
The 'Sen Un', the 'Shining Cloud' was a move from the Kugataichi school of Jou-jutsu, staff techniques, that was meant to strike the area around the base of the neck at the collarbone. If a blow like that landed it could just as easily rattle the skull as it could crush the collarbone. Either result was the equivalent of a one hit knock out for all but the toughest of fighters.
No good, no good! I didn't have time to dodge this one, and this time my convenient shield was too heavy to move! Why did it have to be weapons? It was always weapons!
With no other choice, I released my grip on both the dismembered vampire and my cross, whipping my hands backwards to toss them behind me. With the same movement I brought both arms back up, crossing them in front of my face. The force of the swing was enough for me to free the second part of my weapon, the chain trailing out of my coat sleeve and after the cross as it was freed from its resting place. With my arms crossed I gripped the cold steel links, pulling the length I held in front of me taught as I used it to intercept the staff strike.
It wasn't enough to stop the blow, not completely. In the air like this, I just had no purchase with which to resist the power of the strike. But even as the staff strike plowed through my chain, it was enough for me to defend myself. The force propelled me backwards, the chain yielding slightly as it did so. It was thanks to Ryouzanpaku's constant emphasis on basics that I almost unconsciously uncrossed my arms when it did so, the movement causing the chain to encircle the very tip of the weapon, a move meant to trap it.
It was also due to my relative inexperience with the weapon that I wasn't able to do much after that. My escape attempt had already been halted, and the two attacks had caused my momentum to reverse. Even as I was being forced back, Freya showed just who was the superior weapon user, twisting her body midair by somehow using the purchase her staff had given her to drive her foot at my chest. I wasn't able to stop this attack, and just like the vampire had before I found myself slamming into the hard concrete moments later, bouncing once myself before I managed to regain my footing.
"Oh!" Ukita cheered, raising a clenched fist in victory. "Great job, Kisara, Freya!"
"Tsch," Kisara clucked her tongue at the enthusiastic praise the judo user was giving her, but despite the dismissive nature of the sound the Tae Kwon Do user seemed pleased at the attention from her former subordinate. "Focus on the fight, idiot!" Even though she seemed happy with Ukita, it only lasted for a second before her eyes tracked back to me and her expression darkened. "Damn, kiddo," she muttered one hand coming up so she could bite her thumb, a trait I'd seen her use before when she was upset. "What the hell did they do to you?"
"Focus, Kisara," Freya chided, landing as well with her staff ready. The dusky skinned woman was always the type to remain calm in the face of battle, but even her eyes seemed narrowed as she took in the sight of me. "We can get answers out of him after he's been taking care of. For now, we just have to set our sights on the goal ahead of us."
"But are we even sure it's him, Freya-neechan?" Kisara demanded, the thumb she had been biting coming up to straighten that little beanie she seemed to favor. "I can barely make out his face under the hood, and there's no way that the kiddo would ever do something like that to anyone else!" Kisara nodded with a grimace at where the vampire had landed, taking in the grisly sight with narrowed eyes. "And he's even using a weapon! That's not like the kiddo at all!"
"Oh, but it's him alright," Niijima cackled madly from the other side of the alley. The alien pointed a finger at me triumphantly, his evil laughter getting louder. "Just look! He's already trying to avoid fighting you girls!"
Damnit. I hadn't even noticed the instinctual response of mine to back away from female fighters. As a man who had sworn to never lay a hand on a woman, those two were the worst possible opponents for me to face. Both Kisara and Freya were strong, possibly strong enough to beat me even if I were to fight them all out. Combined with my refusal to fight back against them, it would be better to face down Ukita and Takeda then go against those two!
"Heh," Kisara grunted, and despite her earlier expression a sly smile began to form. "Now that is just like the kiddo!"
This situation just getting worse and worse! Now not only had the number of my friends who had shown up increased from three to five, but both ends of the alley were blocked and the damn vampire had ended up falling closer to Niijima, Ukita, and Takeda than it had to me! Even if I wanted to just abandon the creature and flee, that would be leaving a cornered beast alone with five unsuspecting humans!
Could this situation get any worse!
"Lalalalala!" was the only warning I got before I realized that even thinking those words was enough to evoke the malicious gods of irony. "Prepare yourself, Kenichi-san, for my surprise attack!"
I don't know what it was that prompted me to leap away from where I had been crouching, but whatever instinct that had prompted it proved correct, as a second later a falling body plummeted through the air to land directly where I had been standing only moments ago. The body landed hard, with a thump loud enough to make me cringe, and then it proceeded to lay there, unmoving.
Many times in the past I had seen this new addition to the melee use these exact same tactics. Every time, I had to wonder just what was it that made the person he was fighting think it was a good idea to walk closer to a fallen body and touch it. This time though, I blearily realized just why they always engaged in such morbid curiosity. Even now, knowing exactly who this was and what he was planning, I still felt the urge to prod the body with my foot to see if maybe this time he really was as dead as he was acting.
"Siegfried, a surprise attack is no good if you give a warning!" Niijima groaned, palming his face as he did so.
"My apologies, my Demon Lord!" the body in front of me declared in a sing song tone, his voice muffled from where he was still lying face first on the concrete. "When I witnessed the return of Kenichi-san, I just grew so aroused that I could not stop myself from singing! Lalalalala!"
Kugenin Hibiki, also known as Siegfried the Immortal Composer, a fighter who specialized strictly in counters had always been a bit of an odd one. Frequently bursting into song, going on about the 'Melody of Friendship', and referring to Niijima with the title of 'Demon Lord' were just a few examples of how strange the older martial artist could be at times.
He was also considered one of the strongest of the Shinpaku Captains, and in the past my own Masters had acknowledged his potential to one day join them in that rank.
And anything else that might have gone through my mind at the newest arrival was cast aside as two meaty arms, each one the size of one of my legs, wrapped around me from behind.
"That's how you do a surprise attack!" Niijima's cackling returned, this time with the alien raising both arms to the side as he began to pose with a distinctly Machiavellian air. "Kekekekeke!"
"Dosukoi!" the one who captured me shouted, using the old sumo term in triumph as his grip tightened around me. It wasn't really an attack name like the others had been shouting, more of a traditional term used in sumo that was based off an old regional saying which loosely translates into something along the lines of 'Where'ya headin'?'.
And maybe it was another lingering symptom of my sleep deprivation that I chose to focus on that particular anomaly rather than on getting myself out of the grips of Yuuma Chikai, most commonly called Thor, a former Ragnarok Fist and current Shinpaku captain. Thor was easily three times my weight, even with the extra pounds that the Crab of Burden had blessed me with, and was so huge that he beat me half again on height and nearly four times as much in girth. As he was so fond of saying, that massive amount of meat acted as an armor of muscle and fat. It did more than that as well, and even as I started to try and struggle Thor took one step and then launched himself into the air, going horizontal with me between him and the ground.
"For all the chubby young men in the world!" I made out Thor's favorite battle cry right before his arms released me and I slammed into the ground, Thor's incredible weight pressing me face first into the cement so hard that I felt the air get knocked out of me and my nose get crushed by the asphalt. "Bear with it for now, Kenichi!" I could still make out his voice mostly due to me being pressed directly against his chest, not because they could reach my ears. "I'll apologize after we get you help! We can have sumo hot pot together!"
I could feel myself getting crushed as Thor's massive weight pinned me to the ground. I couldn't breathe, couldn't move, couldn't do anything but lay there, trying to gasp but not able to force my lungs to expand fully. This must have been Niijima's doing! Trapped here like this there was nothing I could do, and it was only a matter of time before either I passed out or was rendered weak enough to be restrained! If that happened then everything would have been for nothing! I had to get escape, to get out from under my prison of meat, collect my prize, and then run, or at the current rate it seemed like everyone I had ever met would end up showing up tonight!
So with a growl of frustration over these increasing delays, the first noise audible noise I had made since I had been interrupted retrieving the vampire, I began to do just that.
"Oi!" Thor's voice rumbled over me as I began to shift, pushing up at him. "O-oi! That's not possible! He's getting free!" I heard something else, a muffled voice that I think was Niijima shouting something, and then the weight on top of me increased drastically, nearly pushing me back down to the cement. "Hey! Don't just stand on top of me like that!" Thor bellowed, sounding outraged as presumably one or more of the other members of the Shinpaku alliance began to lend their weight to the struggle.
It shouldn't be possible for me to move Thor, not like this. True, when we had first fought I had managed to lift the enormous sumo wrestler and toss him out of the ring, but that had been different: we had both been standing, and I had been able to use my already developing lower body to help fuel that toss, as well as the edge of the sunken ring as leverage. There had also been that time when Boris had pinned me completely and I had lifted both of us off the ground using just one arm, but that had been different too: Boris had weighed nowhere near as much as Thor did, and even if I hadn't been able to attack from that position I had still had some mobility in my limbs.
Right now I was completely covered by Thor's body, even my arms and legs. I didn't have any leverage to move them, nothing to help adjust either my weight or the weight of the body holding me down.
Despite that, I was still forcing myself off the concrete, inch by painstaking inch.
Once, I had been a vampire. Honestly, back then, I had been a rather crappy vampire. I had been informed that it was rather typical for a human who had become the undead to undergo massive psychological changes, ranging from a berserker state to simply enhanced bloodlust. When I had been changed, I hadn't been affected at all by any of those mental transformations. That was what had made me such a bad vampire.
For a human who had turned into a vampire, their power was based on how monstrous they had become. Using abilities which were inhuman required someone to think like they were inhuman, to act inhuman.
In order to be a monster, all you really had to do was act like a monster. If you did it long enough, eventually it stopped being an act.
There was another reason I hadn't slept in so long that I couldn't recall when it had been. It was the also part of the reason I hadn't bathed or changed my clothes in nearly that long as well. I had just dismembered another living sentient being, and had been trying to drag its still living torso into the night so that I could use it for my own goals. And here I was, being painfully crushed into the hard cement, while fighting against my friends who were only trying to restrain me so that they could get me the help they understandably thought I needed.
Right now, I didn't feel much like a human at all. I felt like a dirty beast that had been backed into a corner, like an animal that was being threatened.
My growl grew; my tired mind flitting back to way the Shikome's clicking had escalated in much the same way for some reason, until it was a full blown snarl. The speed at which the inches between me and the ground appeared increased at an ever faster pace, until finally my momentum reached the point I needed to clear enough space to get my feet under me. My snarl turned into a noise that reminded even me of a howl, and with my new leverage I forced myself up, tossing Thor's massive bulk off of me as I bellowed.
"Holy shit," Takeda swore again, his eyes wide as I caught sight of him midair. It looked like he had also been one of the people who had contributed their weight to Thor's. "Are we really sure this guy is Kenichi?"
"He's the only one who's ever thrown me before," Thor grunted, as he hit the ground rolling as he did so. "Damnit! Not again!"
"Oi!" Freya snapped, giving a pained grunt as she too was tossed. Unfortunately for her it looked like she had landed before Thor had, and in his path as well. "How did someone that small manage to do something like this!" That was as much as she got out before her eyes widened in an expression which would have been comical in a different situation as Thor's rolling girth started to descend on her. "Eek!"
"Oof! Sorry Freya!" Thor seemed embarrassed to put his long time comrade and recent friend into the same situation that I had been in only a few moments ago, something which I couldn't help but feel was distinctly unfair.
No, enough of that. Focus! This is your chance, Kenichi! No more hesitating, no more delays!
The gathered Shinpaku Alliance was scattered, the result of my inhuman and bestial strength having shocked even those who hadn't been tossed into inaction. This was my last chance! Now, why they were distracted!
I launched myself, not at any of the gathered fighters, but at where the vampire was still lying motionless. This was it! Grab the creature, and then hightail it out of here! Use the roofs, use the sewers, use martial arts, use your own vampire powers, just go, now Kenichi!
I closed, trailing the links of the chain attached to my discarded cross and with my free hand outstretched so I could snatch the thing up by the neck mid step, when I was stopped by a feather in the wind.
No. Not her. Anyone but her.
Just like before, with Siegfried, I'm not sure what it was that warned me about the assault. It had been instinct to dodge when the Immortal Composer's voice crossed my consciousness. There must have been something which prompted me to move, maybe a scent in the air or a noise I hadn't consciously picked up but had heard none the less. Whatever the case, I barely managed to throw myself to the side, yanking the chain in my hand up desperately to clutch it to defend what had once been the back of my neck.
I made it up in time to stop the blur of a well-muscled leg from delivering a blow I wasn't even certain my regeneration would have been enough for me to recover from in time. Even as the force of it drove me back, there was a flash of purple, pink, and blond as the attacker somehow managed to completely rotate, reversing their momentum as though through some sort of magic.
"Fuurinji Benikawasemi!" my attacker shouted, her leg driving with unbelievable speed directly towards my head. The 'Furinji Red Channel', a technique used by none other than…
"Honey!" Takeda shouted in triumph as he named my attacker.
No, wait a second. That wasn't her name at all!
I barely got my shoulder up into a Muay Thai guard in time to absorb the kick, and even then it sent me spinning backwards, slamming back against the wall with bone rattling force. If she had pressed the attack, then I wouldn't have been able to do anything in time to defend myself, but instead my aggressor just froze, staring at me with an expression of shock, hope, and despair all at once even as she settled into a combat stance.
Miu. You weren't supposed to see me like this. You weren't supposed to know this side of me. Why, oh why did you come, Miu?
"Kenichi-san," the blonde whom I had feelings for whispered, her eyes flitting about me as they took in my appearance. Miu swallowed, eyes finally settling on my eyes where they were mostly concealed by my hood. "Kenichi-san, that is you, isn't it?"
I couldn't meet her gaze. With a grimace, I turned my eyes instead towards the vampire, settled behind her.
I should have called this whole thing off the moment I heard that idiot Shaggy's voice.
"Oh, Kenichi-san," Miu swallowed, her expression one of regret as she saw me react to her question. "What did they do to you?"
"Whatever it was," a new voice added, and this one chilled me even more than Miu's had, "we'll just have to get the Elder to fix it up again afterwards."
Miu, I hadn't wanted to meet so that she wouldn't have to see this side of her gentle and clumsy friend.
This voice just meant I had no chance left. This battle was over, and I had lost. As though to drive the last nail down into the coffin of my hopes, my eyes tracked to the final speaker.
"Yo, midget," Sakaki Shio, the 'Hundredth Dan Brawler' declared in a sardonic tone of voice. Despite the casual words, my Master did not look happy at all. The expression on his face was downright murderous, and it sent a chill through my spine. "Not quite sure how much of you is in there right now, but don't worry. Once we get you back to Ryouzanpaku, we'll get you back to normal. Then you won't have to worry about a thing. Once we get who did this out of you, well, I'll be sure to take care of them myself."
Considering the fact that the only one responsible for me being in this state was me, that declaration did not do anything to alleviate my worries at all.
"Ke! Kekeke! Kekekekeke!" Niijima at least seemed to be enjoying this turn of events. "Soon, you'll be back under my guiding wings, my beloved cash-cow! Kekekekeke!"
"You mean friend, you alien!" Ukita snapped, taking a halfhearted blow at the madly cackling Niijima which the alien avoided with his usual unnatural gyrations.
"I was hoping to get this all wrapped up before Honey arrived," Takeda grumbled, though he was grinning as well at the reinforcements. "Guess I lost my chance to look cool again."
"Let's finish this up quick, before the kiddo misses any more school," Kisara chimed in, cockily adjusting her hat once more. "It would be a shame if ended up having to repeat year like this lug." She dug her elbow into Ukita playfully, and the bigger young man flushed slightly, though whether at the playful jab or at the unexpected contact with his not so secret crush.
"It's time to sing the Symphony of Friendship!" Siegfried declared grandly, arms outstretched as he began to hum grandly in preparation for the fight.
"Well then, kids," Sakaki's face split into a feral grin as he began to crack his knuckles in anticipation. "Just don't let that meddling mustache know I lent a hand. He'd probably give one of those lectures about Masters not getting involved in their Disciple's battles!"
The implication that Sakaki himself was going to join the fight directly sent a chill down my spine that probably shaved a dozen years off my life. Fortunately for me, it looked like I wasn't the only one feeling that response.
"Sakaki-san!" Miu chided, glaring at the older man. "We're trying to help Kenichi-san, not kill him!"
"I know that," Sakaki grumbled, though in the face of Miu's stern disapproval his fierce expression crumbled into something sheepish. He scratched the back of his head awkwardly. "I just wanted to hurry this up…"
"No means no," Miu sternly informed him, before she turned back to face me, her expression resolute. "Besides, this time it's my turn to be able to help Kenichi-san, just like he helped me before!" An ominous air began to form around Miu as she began to gather her resolve. For some reason, the feel of her ki was made even more unnerving by the fact that when Miu tried to resolve herself she tended towards making expressions which were terribly cute rather than scary.
"Tch," Sakaki grunted, before settling back to watch what promised to be a short fight indeed. "I guess I can let you have this one, Miu." He gave her a lopsided, playful grin. "Guess you can be the one Kenichi will get to be grateful too this time. Betch'ya looking forward to that, eh?"
"Sakaki-san!" Miu yelped, and began to blush brightly at what the Karate Master was implying. Despite her apparent embarrassment, she didn't shift from her ready position.
"Kekeke!" Niijima was full on in his evil dictator mode by now. "Shinpaku Alliance, prepare to attack!" In a move I recognized but still couldn't get past the ridiculousness of my friend leaned forward, his hands coming to frame his eyes with his thumbs and pointer fingers with the rest of the fingers pointing downwards. "Niijima Scan!"
It was one of Nijiima's strangest abilities, to just look at an opponent in that stance and be able to analyze them so completely. I'd always attributed it to some sort of strange alien power, but only in a joking fashion. It wasn't like Niijima was really an alien or anything.
At least, I was pretty sure he wasn't.
Even if this battle was over, I wasn't going to let it go easily. There might still be a way for me to escape, maybe in a moment of inattention, or maybe through pure luck. Maybe a plane would crash nearby, causing everyone to get distracted. Maybe I would somehow develop magical teleportation powers. Maybe…
Yeah, I couldn't think of anything more ridiculous at the moment, but it would have to be pretty freaking improbable for this to turn into victory.
Whatever the case was, I pushed myself off the wall with my shoulders, settling myself into my customary karate stance. This seemed to be the signal to the rest to start spreading out, though they hesitated to attack at once. Most likely they were waiting for Niijima to shout some advice from the back after he finished his weird scanning ability. This group had worked together well in the past, and Niijima had proven apt at creating attack patterns which increased the effectiveness of everyone as a whole.
It came as a surprise when instead of beginning to give directions, Niijima instead froze. His fingers drifted down from his silly looking pose, his eyes narrowed. Then he brought them up again, once more shouting his technique. "Niijima Scan!"
"Commander," Siegfried sang out, literally. "What is the matter?"
Slowly, Niijima let his arms fall down. Eyes narrowed, back straight, he gave me a searching glance.
"We're going to lose," he announced, all his good cheer from earlier gone. "We've underestimated the situation."
Even I couldn't suppress a small noise of shock at the declaration. On his side, the outcry from the rest of the Shinpaku Alliance was less restrained.
"What are you playing at, Niijima?" Ukita demanded, apparently so outraged by the declaration of hopelessness from the side that was holding all the cards that he didn't even use his favorite nickname for the other boy.
"What did you figure out, Niijima-kun?" Miu broke in, the blonde not taking her eyes off me for a second despite the surprised looks being spread among the rest of the gathered fighters. The only other two who continued to devote their whole attention to me was the one who had made the declaration, and Sakaki. My Master's eyes had narrowed, some of the seriousness he had shown when he first arrived returning. Miu's eyes widened as something occurred to her. "Has something else been done to Kenichi-san? Maybe some experiment to make him so strong?"
It wouldn't be the first time we'd come across a technique which could drastically increase a person's fighting potential. Asamiya Ryuuto, the Odin of Ragnarok, for instance had used one. He still suffered the consequences to this day, and most likely would never walk again.
"No, it's not like that," Niijima shook his head firmly. "We were wrong about why he's fighting. He's not brainwashed at all. Instead, he's fighting to protect someone."
"Protecting?" Kisara scoffed, though the moment Niijima finished those words the former delinquent boss tensed, the cool look of confidence in their victory faltering at the declaration. "But, like this? How is this protecting anything?" Kisara half turned, her eyes flickering to the still body of the vampire, disbelief clear in her expression. "How the hell could cutting up some stranger in a dark alley protect anyone?"
"You'd be surprised," Freya spoke up, though the cool older girl was also tensing, the knuckles of the hand clutching the staff whitening as she did so. "There are many reasons that something like this could be considered protection. Perhaps this stranger isn't as innocent as we thought?" The tension in her limbs increased as her eyes narrowed. "Or maybe… something else."
"What do you mean, Freya?" Thor bellowed, the big man still squatting even further in his customary sumo stance, his eyes narrowly flicking between me and his long time comrade. For some reason, he too seemed even tenser now that Niijima had made a declaration of my motivation. He had even begun to brush his douji off his shoulder, exposing his massive upper body even further to the night air.
I had yet another strange moment at wondering at the odd habit of those I knew to undress during tense moments. First Shaggy, then Takeda, now Thor. I knew such odd people these days.
"As one who has already played the role of a hostage, I can understand just what the one being threatened can be forced to endure," Freya grimly declared. "If someone you care for is in danger, many things which once seemed inconceivable become possible."
"So what, someone's threatening Kenichi to do this kind of thing?" Takeda growled, a good deal of his earlier joy in combat having vanished as my confronters once more showed their skill at leaping to confusion. "Shit. There goes the fun in this." Takeda's eyes narrowed, and even his tension began to grow.
"If so, lalalala," Siegfried trilled a few odd notes in the middle of his sentence, "then this situation has become much more dangerous. Lalala! After all, Kenichi is his strongest when, lala, protecting someone!"
He said the words so casually, that I almost brushed them off as just another of the composer's exaggeration. I was actually surprised when a round of grim nods announced the agreement of just about everyone else present.
Was that really how they saw me? That when I was protecting someone my strength was at my highest? Was that why even now the cocky air of certain victory was disappearing to be replaced by even more tension and nerve?
I… I had never seen myself in that light. The fact that all my friends seemed to have no doubt of the truth of that statement… I had no idea what to do.
I had good friends, it seemed.
"It wouldn't be the first time," Niijima, muttered, eyes still narrowed as he turned that fierce intellect of his to good instead of evil for once. His eyes glanced about, as though taking count of all those present. "They've threatened every one of us at one point or another." His eyes widened suddenly, and then narrowed even fiercer. "Has anyone heard from his sister recently!"
"Hanako-chan is fine!" Miu declared, shaking her head quickly. "She still comes by to see Shigure-san and Apachai."
"Well, if he's not actually brainwashed," Ukita began, looking confused at the way everyone else was starting to wildly speculate, "can't we just ask him why he's doing this instead?"
The moment of chagrined silence which settled on the rest of the fighters gathered would have been comical if the situation hadn't been so dire. It appeared that no, none of the other members of Shinpaku or Ryouzanpaku had actually considered that idea.
It was understandable. Like I had noted in the past, fighting usually really was more effective than talking in the Underworld.
"So midget," Sakaki began, the sheepish look on his face when he glanced to the side revealing that even he hadn't considered conversation. In his case, that made sense, I suppose. "Want to tell us what's going on?"
"No," I admitted, shaking my head slowly, reluctant to break my silence. It would be easier to fight these people right now than to talk to them, but if I was going to accomplish my goals then it looked like my only option was negotiation. "I don't suppose I could convince you all to go home and pretend you never saw me here?"
"Like hell," Sakaki told me, snorting as he did so. It had been such a wildly improbable chance that I don't think either one of us really had taken the question serious.
"What are you doing out here, Kenichi?" Takeda was the first to jump in on the opening my verbal response had created. "Disappearing out of nowhere, reappearing looking like a bum, and that…" Takeda's eyes flickered to the vampire. It still hadn't moved, and at this point I think that most of the gathered fighters had come to the conclusion that it was dead. "I don't understand what's going on!" Takeda growled, eyes closing in frustration.
"Let it go, Takeda," I told him, my voice tired as my exhaustion crept up on me once more.
"No!" the boxer snapped back, eyes flashing open as he glared at me, anger showing up in his voice. "If something is wrong, then why did you just disappear? Haven't we proven it already, that you don't have to do this alone? We've already stood against Yami together, and we're already involved! If you're just doing this to protect us…"
"There's more than just a left arm at stake here," I snapped, eyes narrowing as I uncomfortably pulled my hood lower over my head. "And there's no reason that anyone else should have to be at risk for this!"
Takeda flinched at my harsh words, his right hand coming up to cradle his left arm. A long time ago, Takeda had been a promising boxer. Then one of his friends had gotten in trouble, and when Takeda had come to help he had ended up with a paralyzed limb while his friend had gone on to a successful career. It was the reason that Takeda had become a delinquent in the first place. When I introduced him to Akisame, the mad doctor had been able to heal the damage to his arm. It had probably been the happiest moment of the former delinquent's life.
Ever since then, I had considered Takeda to be one of my friends. Maybe even my best friend, disregarding whatever it was Niijima counted as.
"Even if there's no reason, that's no reason not to ask!" Takeda shouted back, his frustration turning into anger at my refusal to accept his offer of aid. "Aren't we your friends, Kenichi?"
"It's because you're my friends that I don't want any of you here!" I grit out, my eyes narrowing as it was my turn to feel frustration over this. Why was this happening now? Why couldn't they just leave me alone!
"Kenichi-san," Miu cut in, and I flinched back, my anger flickering when I saw the hurt look on her face. "How can you say that? After everything you did for me, for all of us," she hastily corrected herself, flushing slightly as she glanced down in embarrassment for a moment, "after all the times you helped everyone here, how could you not want us to repay you!"
Despite her brief misstep, her voice gathered strength and speed until at the end Miu also was shouting back at me.
"Because this has nothing to do with any of you!" I shouted, and then I slapped a hand over my mouth, instantly regretting what I had said. I don't know if it was my frustration, or my exhaustion, or if I was just hungry and angry and disappointed or… or anything. I didn't know why I had said, that but I instantly knew it had been a mistake.
Miu flinched back as well, her eyes widening at harsh words, my complete dismissal of their relevance to this part of my life. "How can you say that, Kenichi-san?" Her hurt only lasted for a second, and then it was replaced by anger. "How can you say that! Aren't we friends? Aren't I maybe more… no," Miu cut herself off, her eyes narrowing as she puffed her cheeks in anger which was only comical in appearance, but not in emotion. "This must have to do with HER," she hissed like an angry cat. "That other woman, that Shinobu…"
It was Miu's turn to freeze, both her hands coming up to clap over her mouth as though to snatch back the words she had just said. My own hand fell, my eyes widening as I heard that name from her lips.
"How do you know about…" I began, and then my eyes narrowed. "Shigure-san told."
I didn't know what to feel about that. That the Master whom I had been becoming closer to, who I had shared a singular aspect of my life with, whom I had come to trust so much, had so brutally violated that faith. I should feel angry, or disappointed, or betrayed.
I just wanted to sleep. To find a corner, somewhere dark and quiet, and curl up in it and not wake up for a long time.
"Oi," Sakaki hastily interrupted, his eyes flickering between Miu and I as he picked up on the new tension which had sprung up at that name. "It's not like that, Kenichi," he hastily continued, one hand coming up to rub the back of his head as he shifted uncomfortably. Sakaki was always more at home on the battlefield, not in emotional scenes like this. "It's just, after you and Shigure came back in that state Miu and I were worried. When you left right afterwards, we kinda followed you…"
Blankly, I looked at the inappropriately nervous Master as he confessed to having spied on me during one of my most private moments.
Then, I couldn't stop a dry, self-deprecating laugh from bubbling out.
"Ha. Haha," I slouched backwards, one hand coming up to press against my forehead as I did so. "I guess all debts really are repaid. This has to be karma."
It had to be. It was the only thing that made sense to me at the moment. Just as I had listened in on Sakaki's story of his past told only to the Elder, just as I hadn't been able to stay away from his fight with his rival, so too did he get to intrude on my past.
Miu as well. For concealing the truth I knew about her father, the truth about my past friends could no longer be contained.
Was this fate, or just irony? I didn't believe in coincidence anymore not since even meeting up with Shaggy had proven to have hidden meaning, so it couldn't be that.
"Shigure is worried about you, you know that, Kenichi," Sakaki continued, eying me cautiously as though he didn't know what to do about my strange reaction. "Everyone at Ryouzanpaku took you leaving pretty hard. We must have torn down a dozen Yami bases trying to find you before we figured out that you weren't with them. But Shigure, well, she took it the worst. I think she blames herself."
I flinched again, the already familiar feeling of being the world's biggest heal returning with reinforcements. "How is she doing?" I couldn't help but ask.
"She spends a lot of time in her room now," Sakaki admitted, frowning as he did so. "She's stopped taking meals with the rest of the house again. And she goes out on more trips and comes back with more injuries as well. We're not sure if she's looking for you, or just doing more sword hunting."
"Sword hunting I hope," I muttered eyes drifting closed for a moment. "She's still might not be ready for anything else."
"You mean that 'Nightworld' thing you mentioned?" Sakaki shrewdly guessed, and my eyes opened immediately, my jaw setting as I stubbornly prepared to shut up. Sakaki seemed to recognize my impending obstinate mood, and instead changed the subject. "You look like shit, midget," he instead told me with characteristic bluntness. "When's the last time you slept?"
"It's Tuesday, right?" I narrowed my eyes, glad that he hadn't pressed any further. "So I guess three days now?"
"Kiddo, it's Saturday," Kisara pointed out, disbelief in her voice as she corrected my slipping sense of time. Blankly, I gave her a look, honestly surprised at the true day of the week.
"Oh," I added dully, not sure what else to say to that.
"How can you just sit there saying things like 'oh'?" Takeda demanded. It looked like the hot blooded boxer wasn't able to hold back his annoyance anymore over not being able to follow the conversation. "Just what is happening? Who is this Shinobu? What's going on!"
"Don't say that name," I hissed, my irrational anger at hearing someone else bring up my zebra, I mean trauma rising up, sudden and unstoppable. All the frustration at the delays, all the tension of the past month, it was though it had been boiling up inside of me without me even noticing. And hearing that name, it felt like there was a key scrabbling at a lock that would release things I had been holding back for a long time.
"Why not?" Takeda demanded, honest frustration seeming to overtake his anger as he continued to bat his head against the wall of ignorance that was keeping him from understanding. "If she's so important, than why haven't we heard anything about her before?"
"Because she was dead!" I shouted, and with those words it was like I could no longer hold back the tirade that had been buried deep inside of me for so long. "Because they were all dead, and I wasn't!" My eyes snapped open, too wide, like those of a cornered beast as I glared at the ground in front of me as the unexpected force of my voice caused me to double over. "They were killed, right there, without a second thought, and I couldn't do anything about it! Senjougahara, Hanekawa, and Kanbaru, and even Shinobu, but not me!"
I couldn't express my rage at that thought, not vocally, so I took my free hand and slammed it into the wall behind me. The concrete shattered, and I felt my hand crack as well. It wasn't enough, so I did it again, chips of the brick wall flaking off and bouncing against my hood as I snarled.
"And I couldn't do anything about it! I couldn't kill myself, they wouldn't have wanted that! They made sure I couldn't! And I couldn't get revenge, either! They wouldn't have wanted that either! All I could do was live, and move on, and that's exactly what I did! For three years, I moved on! Until that damn fox…"
"I think we just heard something outrageous," Kisara hissed, sounding horrified at the rant I couldn't stop.
"Hmhmhmhmmm," even Siegfried sounded subdued, his normal singing reduced to a slight hum. "Such a powerful melody of despair!"
"What about the fox?" Sakaki at least seemed prepared for my venting. His eyes were narrowed, and he had that same tenseness that only showed up when he was contemplating doing something to terrible to someone who had hurt a member of Ryouzanpaku.
"She told me the truth!" I hissed, not sure if I wanted to hate the fox, or if I should be grateful to it for that fact. "All this time, I thought they were dead. But one wasn't! Shinobu had survived, injured, weak, in a coma, but alive! And what have I been doing all this time? Moving on? Making new friends? Ha!" My fist came back down at the wall, my voice a portrait of self-loathing. "I should have been helping her! I should have checked, searched, found out, anything! All this time I should have been helping her, and instead I've just been 'moving on'!"
"Kenichi-san," Miu sounded like she was about to cry, no, there were already tears in her eyes as she heard my story. The hands that had been put to her mouth lowered, and she took a hesitant step forward, reaching out with one of them as though to comfort me. "Kenichi-san, calm down…"
"No!" I screamed, turning my glare on her for lack of any other target. She flinched away, her hands coming back up to her mouth as she took a step back. "I said that I would take up Martial Arts so that I wouldn't have to turn my back on the things that others pretend not to see! But that's all I've been doing! I've been doing nothing but turning my back all this time on the one who needed my help the most!"
There was no doubt in my mind that the fox had told me the truth. Because the one thing the Tamamo-no-Mae loved was hurting people, and there was nothing in the world that could have hurt me more than this one, inescapable fact. Even if I had wanted to deny it, if I had tried to convince myself that she was lying, she had provided proof as well.
Proof, and a method for me to help Shinobu recover.
The shame, the anger, the frustration, the loathing, both at myself and the world, it was all welling up in me. With no other way to vent it I turned, taking my slowly recovering hand and slammed into the wall again, this time knuckle first. It sank nearly an inch into the hard concrete, the knuckles shattering even more. I ignored the pain, instead pulling it out. It hadn't been enough.
It wouldn't be enough until I had done everything I could to help Shinobu.
"Oi, Kenichi," Sakaki's voice was sharp, though I could hear the worry in it as he took in my self-destructive attempt at relieving my frustration. "If that's all then we can just ask Akisame and Ma to take a look at your friend. If it's those two, they can find a way."
"I've already found a way," I hissed, wheeling to face my Master, tearing back my hood as my frustration returned, even fiercer then before. "And it's right over there," I pointed my broken fist at the still vampire. "And you all are standing between me and it! Now move!" I shouted, turning to glare at the thing I needed to help Shinobu.
"Kenichi-san," Miu began, swallowing as she took a step forward, concern on her face. I shook my head wildly, not able to think, just wanting them to go so that I can do what I needed to do.
"Move! Move damnit!" I shouted, clenching my fists, moving almost by instinct into a fighting position.
"Kenichi-san, your eyes!" Miu screamed back, dropping her fists to her side and closing her eyes as she matched my fury with her own.
"What about my…" I scrubbed my uninjured hand across my face in instinctive response to Miu's words, bringing it up so that I could see it, and then I froze.
Blood. There was blood on my fist.
Where did that come from?
Oh. From my eyes. My cheeks were wet. Was I crying? When had that started?
Blood was coming from my eyes. Did that count as crying blood, or was it that I was bleeding tears? I couldn't figure out which was the appropriate response. My mind felt to fuzzy, to heavy to puzzle it through.
Shinobu had cried blood once, when we first met, when she had begged me to die for her and it had appeared that I was going to refuse. She had begged, and pleaded, and howled, and wept her frustration over her impending death.
And now I was bleeding tears as well.
My plan was working.
Somehow, in my strung out state, that struck me as terribly amusing. I began to laugh, still staring at my bloody tears on my healing hand. It wasn't a happy sound. It was something desperate, something hysterical. I realized that if this kept up, I might not be able to stop. So I took the blood covered fist and hit myself with it, hard enough to knock me back a few stumbling steps until I rested against the wall again, my head leaning back against it as I looked up.
The feel of concrete was cool, and outside in the night air I could feel the wind in my hair finally. When had my hair gotten so greasy? It felt oily against my skin, and dirty. For the first time that night, I truly paid attention to my own smell, and it was enough to make me cringe.
What was I doing, out here? What was I doing to myself?
"I'm so tired," I muttered, repeating my mantra out loud for the first time. It seemed to give the words an impact, and I had trouble ignoring the ache in my body that sleep deprivation had been spawning.
"That a boy with such clear eyes could have such a thing in his past," Thor murmured, sounding aghast. I could barely make the larger fighter out of the corner of my eyes, but couldn't bring myself to give him any more attention as I stared up at the night sky. It was so clear out. Even with the light pollution of the city, I could make out stars. When was the last time I had looked at stars? I couldn't remember
"Regardless of whatever happened, you know that you can't keep this up, don't you Kenichi?" it was Niijima who chose to actually address me, the alien sounding unusually serious. "If you keep this up, then not only will you destroy yourself, but you won't be able to help the friend you're working so hard for." He paused, his voice lowering. "Unless destroying yourself is what you want as well."
"Ah," was all I could bring myself to say. Was he right? Was that what I was doing here? Was this really the best choice, the only option, or was it just self-deception, using this as a way to punish myself for my own failures? I didn't know anymore. Maybe I had never known.
"Kenichi-san," it was Miu this time, her voice no longer hesitant, or angry. "Let's go back, to Ryouzanpaku! We'll help you save your friend, no, I'll help you! Together, we can save her, no matter what is wrong!" Her voice was so confident, so sure, that I found myself lowering my head towards her. She had her hand out, and she was smiling. She looked so beautiful like that. "This time, let me be the one to protect you, Kenichi-san!"
Slowly, I felt my hand rising as well. I wanted to believe; in Miu, in my Masters, in my friends. Maybe they were right. My eyes tracked down dully, to look at the vampire once more. Maybe there was another way…
My eyes flashed open, adrenaline flushing through me. "Miu! Get away from it! Now!" My tone was different from earlier, my order to move not being fueled by confused rage and exhaustion. Now, my words were laced with panic.
The vampire had opened its eyes, and when they met mine a cold grin grew on its face. At some point, Miu had backed up until she was too close to the creature, her bared ankle only a foot away from its head. As though it could read my fear, the vampire gave an insolent lick to its fangs, before facing towards the unaware girl.
"Keni-?" Miu, confused by my sudden shout, not understanding my panic, took a half step backwards.
Backwards, and into the limited range of the creature's fangs.
Instinct was moving me then, pushing off the wall, racing towards Miu, desperate to get her away from the thing. I'm not sure if it was the adrenaline, or some vampire power, or just one of those moments where emotion caused the senses to work in one of those super human states, but it felt like everything was slowing down. The opening of the vampire's mouth, the craning of its neck as it sought to get the blood it would need to help recover from the holy wounds, the way Miu was flinching, arms raising to a defensive position as she hesitated to react to my aggressive movements…
I didn't know what would happen if that thing got its fangs into her. How fast could it drain her blood? If it did, would there be any lingering side effects on the innocent girl? She was strong enough to shake it's jaws off, that much I was sure of, but what kind of damage would that thing's fangs do to her leg in the meantime? There were so many tendons in the ankle which were important to fighting, and Martial Artists have had their careers ended by wounds in that region.
I couldn't let that happen, not to Miu.
And then, things got worse.
It was thanks to that same heightened state that I caught it, the exact moment when the light in Miu's eyes dimmed. Her eyelids narrowed over empty orbs, and her body tensed, the leg shifting even closer to the vampire's mouth as she prepared to try and kill me.
No, not now. Not here! Of all the times to revert to Junazard's spell!
I was still shouting, but only a distant part of me noticed it. The rest of me was frantically racing through the situation. Miu was about to be attacked by a monster, just like I had so long ago. She was currently reverting to a primal state where she wouldn't hesitate to launch a lethal attack at me. Like this, she wouldn't listen to my pleas to move, and calming her down to a state where she would pay attention would take too long.
If she wouldn't move on her own, then I would have to move her myself.
But how could I get her out of the way?
The fact was that Miu was better than me, in just about every arena I could think of. Faster, stronger, more skilled, in all those areas she surpassed me. There was no guarantee that even if I were to just tackle her that would be enough to get her out of range of those fangs. She could probably stop even my greater mass without budging an inch.
There was only one move I had that was strong enough, fast enough, that I could possibly use to get her clear. My tired mind latched onto it, and instinctively I moved to set it up.
Without a word, Miu's fist came carving at me, slicing through the air so quickly it was almost a blur, even in my heightened state of awareness.
In response, I planted my left foot into the ground so firmly that I might as well have taken root. Some instinct seemed to warn the bloodthirsty Miu, and her other hand came up, even in mid strike, to defend her body.
My right foot met that defense, and with all the power that my Masters had imparted to me, I crushed that guard like it wasn't there at all.
"Kurui Nuki!" The 'Without Weakpoint' technique, passed down to me by the Elder. It is a technique which deliberately targets the weakest point in an enemy's guard, and then uses the overwhelming power of my lower body to simply smash right through it without being stopped. The blow landed, and I watched, eyes desperately tracking the movement as she was lifted, the vampire's fangs clamping shut only a fraction of a moment too late to find her flesh.
It had worked! The force of the technique continued to propel Miu backwards, sending her out of range of any further attempt of the vampire to get her blood.
"You bastard," I growled, using the derogatory term 'Kisama' as I glared my hatred at the thing which had nearly wounded my most beloved friend. This must have been why the vampire had been so docile. It had been biding its time, hoping to lure either me, or one of the other humans present close enough for it to attack from its apparently helpless state. "You son of a bitch!"
My leg had still been extended high in the air, and I used that position to bring it down, in a stomp which also used all of my power. The thing's eyes widened and blood erupted from its mouth as my foot shattered many of its ribs, probably crushing some of its organs as well. I kept my foot on its chest, grinding my heel down into it. I could feel its regeneration kicking in, but I wouldn't give it that relief. I was going to make it hurt for what it had almost done to…
Done to Miu.
Behind me, I could hear voices, voices I could understand but couldn't pay attention to.
"Honey!" that one was Takeda, the outrage in his voice obvious, but unimportant to me.
"Shit, is the dairy cow alright?" Kisara that time.
"Why would Kenichi attack her like that?" Even Freya sounded shocked.
"The other one moved first," Niijima noted, the alien's tone tense. "It tried to bite her. Kenichi got her out of the way…"
"And hurt her far worse than any bite would have," Takeda snapped back, not wanting to hear Niijima's analysis.
Neither did I, for that matter.
All I could do was stand, frozen, staring at where Sakaki was cradling Miu. Had he caught her midair? I had been too busy punishing the vampire to notice. Even the Karate Master seemed shocked by what had just happened.
"Ken..ichi," Miu gasped, arm wrapped around her ribs as she cradled the spot where I had…
Where I had hit her.
A woman. I had hit a woman. The one thing I had sworn not to do, and I had just done it. Not just any woman, but Miu. Miu, my first friend since the others were killed, the one who had given me the conviction to start really living again, the girl that I had grown to love…
And I had hit her.
That laughter from earlier, the one I had punched myself to stop returned. I couldn't breathe, the hysteria overcoming even that biological urge as I tried to wrap my mind about what I had just done and found I couldn't. So in order to stop the laughing, I screamed instead.
I screamed all the doubts, the anger, the fear, the regret, the rage, everything. But I wasn't able to stop that either.
So instead I just cut it off. Everything I was feeling, everything, I swallowed it, forcing it down deep inside where it couldn't affect me, and then I locked it away.
"Is that the Ryuusei Seikuken?" Sakaki asked, eyes narrowed as he took in my sudden and probably disturbing calm. The Ryuusei Seikuken, the 'Flowing Water Control of the Air Sphere' was one of the highest techniques of Sei, 'Silent' techniques. It was one of the pinnacles of defense, involving the creation of a territory around the user wherein they could instinctively react to any intruder.
Whereas the Seikuken involved making a sphere around the user as the territory, the Ryuusei Seikuken condenses that territory to just around the surfaced of the user's skin. In order to use it, the wielder must have a perfect calm. Normally, it is only after the calm has been achieved that the technique can be used. However, for me I had in the past used the Ryuusei Seikuken in reverse. After having practiced the technique for so long, by simply beginning the opening set up of the technique I can enforce the necessary stillness by instinct.
"Yes," I admitted, and the cool and unwavering tone of my voice was a far cry from my earlier screaming and shouting. Sakaki's eyes narrowed as he took in the change in my posture.
"Damn," he muttered. "It looks like things have gotten complicated." Gently, he helped Miu shift until she was lying on the ground. Judging from the expression on her face even that movement seemed to cause her pain, though when she saw me looking at her she scrunched up her face as though to try and hide it. "No more complaints about me interfering," Sakaki announced, face set. "I need to get both of them back Ryouzanpaku fast now, and I can't afford to take the time to be gentle about it. I'll ask you just once, Kenichi. Will you come back willingly?"
"No," I responded flatly. It was too late to go back to Ryouzanpaku. It was far, far too late for that. It was better if I never went back there. I had already gone too deep into the Nightworld now, and there was no need to involve any of the others anymore. They didn't even realize just how close one of them came to maybe dying or becoming a monster only seconds ago. I had been right not to involve them in the Nightworld.
It would be better to leave them behind while I finish what I set out to do. There were no longer any other paths for me.
"It looks like you made a man's choice," Sakaki noted, and despite the gravity of the situation he seemed almost proud about that. "If you've made your choice, then you have no complaints about me treating you like an adult, right?"
"Thank you, Master," I told him, kicking the vampire's torso out of the way. It probably wouldn't make a difference considering the power difference between Sakaki and I, but every little bit might help in this upcoming fight. "But I can't let myself get stopped now."
He snorted, rubbing his nose idly with one hand. "When the hell did you grow up so much?" he grumbled before refocusing himself. It was probably just a means of acknowledgement, but rather than just beat me he made a show of assuming a proper stance, arms up in the Maeba no Kamae, the 'Front of the Wings', stance.
This fight had no chance of victory in my favor, but that didn't mean I would surrender.
However, even as I resigned myself to a meaningless battle and a swift defeat, I was saved by a descending fairy.
No. Not a fairy. A descending onryou.
The first hint I had of the new presence was the way Sakaki's eyes suddenly shot open, a look of shock appearing on them, before his body tensed, his muscles expanding so rapidly that his denim jacket seemed unable to keep up with their new size and shredded itself apart in an explosion of fabric. Yet another example of stripping to add to my list. Then he was moving, so fast I could barely track him, even with my Ryuusei Seikuken active. He charged, and I barely had time to begin moving before he had passed me by. It wasn't me he was attacking I realized as I spun to try and follow his movements.
It was the pale skinned figures dressed in white haori and blue hakama pants which had appeared simultaneously behind every gathered member of the Shinpaku Alliance without them even realizing it. All of them had been reaching out with one hand, some about to close on the necks of their targets, others on their skulls, but all in various states of attack. Somehow, Sakaki was managing to move between all seven of the only now reacting Shinpaku Alliance members, his fists and feet slicing through each of the figures, causing them to disperse.
Bunshin, I realized.
"Well, well, boya," a voice I behind me clued me in that it wasn't just Shinpaku whom had someone sneak up on them. "It seems you've been up to some rather charming things lately."
I at least could recognize that voice, both by its tone and its choice of words. However, since it seemed that this was the rest of Shinpaku's first chance to meet the speaker, one of them at least jumped to a wrong conclusion.
"Ah!" Ukita yelped, frantically pointing his finger at me and cowering backwards, not even realizing that Sakaki was there dealing with an attack which would most likely have killed him instantly. "It's Yotsuya Oiwa!"
"Good evening, Kushinada-san," still wrapped in the enforced calm of the Ryuusei Seikuken I turned to greet the Bewitching Fist of the Nine Shadow One Fist. I cocked my head to the side as I caught sight of her, understanding Ukita's case of mistaken identity. "You've changed since the last time we met."
While her outfit was much the same as it had been, the traditional Miko garments that had been modified to show off even more of her body through the use of creative stitching, there had been changes there. For one, the color of her hakama had been altered, being changed from their previous dark red to a much paler blue. Traditionally, this coloration indicated a rank of seniority among actual Miko. Also, just like Chikage, Kushinada had apparently begun to carry a nusa as well, the wand tucked loosely into her belt so that it would be out of her way for the most part.
But all that paled in the face of the change which had occurred on the woman herself.
It had been almost six months since this lady had paid me well for a consultation on how to deal with an irate goddess. I had given her five options to avert the anger of the divine: to ignore it, to kill it, to worship it, to appease it, and to join it.
Kushinada Mikumo had made her choice.
The left half of her face was no more. In its place was only a wreckage of twisted scars and hideous flesh. Starting at just below her hairline and tracing all the way down her face and to her neck it was as though someone had bathed her skin in acid, causing it to melt away and solidify in obscene waves. It managed to avoid all but the edge of her eye, but the flesh there was drooping, as was the left side of her lips as well. The wreckage went further, down her neck, and thanks to the exceedingly low cut nature of her top it was shown that not even her breast had been spared the damage. Whatever had been done to her had even affected her hair as well, a few wisps of ragged and coarse white strands joining the rest of her otherwise smooth and luxurious black hair.
Somehow, despite this maiming, it only made the woman before me even more striking then she had been before. She held herself with such grace and confidence, that it felt as though she bore what would otherwise be a hideous mark of shame as a badge of pride instead, and the juxtaposition of the damaged half only made the still unblemished half that much more alluring.
"I've you to thank for such a change," Kushinada informed me, raising one hand up to cover her mouth as though to conceal a smile. "It has been most effective so far."
"I'm pleased that you have found my advice satisfactory," I informed her politely, before my eyes narrowed briefly. "You have remembered to make a pilgrimage to the Myogyou temple, haven't you?"
The name Ukita had called, Yotsuya Oiwa wasn't just some random one. Oiwa was considered one of the most active and malevolent onryou in all of Japan. Her story was a famous one, the 'Yotsuya Gaidan', the 'Ghost Story of Yotsuya', and had been in the past made into a Noh play and even over a dozen different movies.
Oiwa, who had received poisoned skin cream by a girl who had been in love with her husband, and been maimed by the evil gift. Her face had been deformed, the flesh being so damaged that the drooping of her left eye had become her most famous characteristic. Her husband, unable to bear the sight of her, had tried to convince a friend to rape her to give him an excuse to divorce her, but the friend had been so disgusted that he had just used a mirror to show the woman what had happened to her. When she tried to take her husband's sword to kill the girl who had maimed her, they had fought over it and eventually she had tripped and fallen on it, cursing her husband as she died.
Afterwards, she returned as one of the cruelest spirits in Japanese legends. She tricked her former husband into killing his new fiancée who was Oiwa's sister, and her father, and haunted him endlessly. Eventually, he retreated to a temple, but even 'God's Country' wasn't enough to stop her grudge, and he died a madman, slain in pity by one of his former enemies.
Now, Oiwa was most infamous for haunting productions of her story. Just like western plays and productions feel that 'Macbeth' is a cursed play, refusing to speak the name Macbeth unless it's required by the script, so too is Yotsuya Gaidan haunted. There have been many accidents and strange incidents on the sets of companies trying to produce the story, and even deaths have occurred at times. Consequentially, any actress that received the part of Oiwa always made a pilgrimage to her shrine in order to ask for her blessing.
"I have promised to go once a year for the rest of my life," Kushinada assured me, still concealing her lips, "and to donate generously to its upkeep."
"Who is she?" in the background I could hear Kisara demanding answers from Ukita, and despite the fact that Kushinada was usually the type that Kisara couldn't stand, the type with large breasts to be specific, there was none of her usual jealousy at the sight of the other woman. "And what happened to her face?"
"Damn, the old man is gonna be disappointed that his old squeeze ended up like this," Sakaki leered, though despite the light hearted tone of his voice it looked like he hadn't lost any of his tension. He had fought against Kushinada before, after all, and though he had sat out half way through in order to let Shigure take the lead, he knew damn well that for all that this newcomer appeared to be nothing more than a fallen beauty, she was a martial artist in the ranks of the Elder as well.
"Why are you here, Kushinada-san?" I had to ask, giving the woman who could destroy me with probably no more effort than a glance a frank question. In the depths of the Seikuken, that was all the emotional response I could spare for her.
Kushinada was silent a moment, one hand still up to conceal her mouth, and then without a word she reached out with her other hand towards my face.
"No!" Miu shouted, before she doubled over, apparently having forgotten about her injuries as she reacted to Kushinada's advance on me. Miu had been on the boat where we first had met this particular Master, and my fellow Disciple knew just how terrifying this inauspicious Miko really was. "Kenichi-san! Get away!"
Something in me fluttered, and my Seikuken nearly shattered at the feeling. Even now, even after I had attacked her, hurt her so fiercely, Miu was still worried about me.
Again, my heart nearly wavered, the feeling of shame almost enough to pull me from my calm. I forced it down. There was no time for that anymore.
Instead of attacking, Kushinada's fingers just found my cheek, gently brushing against them for a moment. She was using her left hand to do so, and this close I could make out the maiming which was present even there. Despite the gruesome nature of the injuries, there was no stiffness in her movements. Whatever she had done to herself, it seemed her wounds were purely cosmetic. I was willing to bet that she had been in no way diminished in the use of her art.
Her hand lingered a second, before pulling away. I realized that all she had done was capture one of the drying tears of blood on one of her ruined fingers. She gazed at it a second, and then her fingers returned to my face, forcing my chin up so she study me more closely.
"Hmmm," she finally hummed, sounding pleased about something. "You're making some good eyes, boya." Her concealing hand moved just enough for me to see the un-ruined side of her mouth, and the small smile that was forming there. "Yes, you're shaping up quite nicely."
"La! What are you doing to Kenichi, lala?" Siegfried demanded. It looked like out of all of the gathered Shinpaku, he was the only one who seemed unaffected, either by Kushinada's beauty or by her hideousness. Instead, the Immortal Composer just stood tall, arms outstretched in his customary battle stance as he began to advance. As a counter attack specialist, it wasn't like he could just charge in feet or fist first like the rest of us. He had to provoke his enemy into making the first blow.
"Oh, what an uncouth lad," Kushinada murmured, giving the musician a glancing look. That was all the warning he got before an apparition appeared before him, the ghostly shape already launching an attack directly at his eyes. Before the bunshin could strike, it was Sakaki's turn to appear, picking the kid up and bodily throwing him back and away even as a ham sized fist dispersed the ki strike. Siegfried spun through the air, still singing as he did so to land in an ungainly tumble, limbs sprawled all about him as he did so.
"Down, kid," Sakaki ordered, eyes narrowed as he continued to remain tense. "This one is Yomi."
"But what is a Yomi member doing here…" Niijima protested, then his eyes shot open. He whirled on Ukita, who flinched back at the alien's wide eyed look. "You! You called Chikage, didn't you!"
"Well, yeah," Ukita admitted, the poor delinquent having no idea why Niijima would bring that up now. "The little squirts been so worried about Kenichi, that when I heard we had found him I gave her a call to let her know."
"You idiot!" Niijima hissed, hands coming up to clench his hair in frustration. The only ones in Shinpaku that actually knew that Chikage was a member of Yami and a Disciple class Martial Artist were Niijima, Miu, and I. It looked like this secret had finally worked in Yami's favor.
Still, Kushinada spared the gallery no more looks. Instead, she turned to give the vampire a once over. The beast had recovered from the damage I had inflicted on its ribs by this point, and now that it's ploy to play dead had failed, it only glared at the gathered humans, its lips quirked in contempt. It still hadn't said a word yet, and even if its first attempt had failed it looked like it was still biding its time, hoping for a second chance.
"So," Kushinada mused, her own eyes narrowing slightly as she seemed to realize something. "Just what are you planning to do to this thing? Kill it, I hope?"
It looked like the Bewitching fist had made some real strides in Nightworld if she was able to tell with just a glance that the creature sprawled on the ground wasn't even human.
"No," I shook my head calmly. "I won't kill it. I'll take what I need from it, and then let it go free."
"A Katsujin Ken, even with this thing?" Kushinada's tone was displeased. She cast another disdainful eye at the vampire, whose lips had parted into a mocking smile when it heard my plan. "Would not letting it go free indeed go counter to your very nature, Shirahama-kun?"
For a moment, I was silent, my own gaze turning to the vampire. Finally, I asked the much older woman a question.
"Do you know what a taboo is, Kushinada-san?"
"Taboo?" Kushinada's eyebrow, the one she still had anyway, quirked slightly. "Boya," she began, sounding displeased at my seemingly inconsequential inquiry. "Are you perhaps having trouble focusing again?"
"A taboo is act which is abstained from in order to gain something," I cut her off, eyes still lingering on the vampire. "They can be social or just personal. Either way, the act of obeying a taboo or breaking a taboo is something which can give a person power, one way or another."
Kushinada seemed like she was about to say something, but paused, her gaze settling on me with almost palpable weight. Her expression had shifted into something I recognized, the same expression she had right after she had survived an encounter with a goddess and looked to me for answers. At this moment, Kushinada seemed to have resigned herself to once more being my student in the Nightworld.
"For the Katsujin Ken and the Satsujin Ken, that taboo is killing," I went on focusing on the philosophical point which was the source of so much conflict between Ryouzanpaku and Yomi. "The act of killing confers power on the killer. It lets them finish fights quicker, use more dangerous moves, and makes them stronger, in a way. For the Katsujin Ken, the same is also true. The act of not killing means that the fighter must work harder, be more in control and more skilled in order not to end their opponents life. They take the burden of having to protect all those around them, and that responsibility can inspire them to grow even stronger."
It had been that way for Apachai, after all. Raised from the youngest age to be a powerful fighter, the Death God of Underground Muay Thai, it had been harder for him not to kill then to kill. The very act of holding back, of learning how to control himself, had been the drive which eventually led him to be able to surpass even his old teacher Agaard Jum Sai, even if the act had almost cost Apachai his life.
"You speak of killing and not kill only in terms of the power it grants," Kushinada noted, sounding both pleased and amused by my words. I shrugged.
"Morality is often in the eye of the beholder," I admitted, not even caring how the others would take that statement. "For me, whether or not a taboo is considered just, or whether it should be obeyed is up to each individual." Even in the calm of the Seikuken, I felt my heart skip a beat. "I've already violated one taboo that I believed in. From here on out, I can never again be 'a man who will not hit a woman'. I don't want to add 'a man who has killed' to that list today."
"God, that's a relief," I heard Sakaki hiss, and despite the way things had turned out my Master seemed pleased to hear that for all that had happened, I was still a member of the Katsujin Ken. His eyes were flickering between Kushinada and I rapidly, narrowed in consternation. It looked ike he honestly had never thought that two so dissimilar people would be able to converse so freely.
If he knew just how much this woman had paid me in the past for services rendered, he probably would have fainted.
"Besides," I added, more for the vampire's benefit than anyone else's. The thing had a disdainful look on its face as it apparently heard my moralizations and found them beneath it. "There are fates worth than death. What I'm going to do to this one counts. By the time I'm done, it will beg me to kill it. It might just die from what I will do to it anyway. But if it does, it won't be at my hands."
That wiped the smug smile of the dirty things face.
"Hmmm," Kushinada definitely seemed satisfied with my last little addition to my impromptu lesson. "I've missed being able to rely on you, Shirahama-kun. Please hurry and complete your business so that we can continue ours." As though the words were a dismissal, the Jujitsu user began to walk, passing me by without a second glance. "Now, shouldn't you collect your prize and be on your way? I doubt that you will have any pursuit now."
"Damn," Sakaki muttered, eying the approaching Kushinada with a scowl. I could understand his worries. He had fought against Kushinada once before, after all, and that had been with only Shigure and myself nearby. The woman had proven to be a terrifying foe in the past. More than that, Kushinada had proven twice now that she had no problem using ki feints on bystanders to disrupt the flow of combat. Not only would Sakaki have to fight Kushinada, but he would have to do so while simultaneously protecting the rest of the gathered Shinpaku alliance. He wouldn't have time to worry about one wayward Disciple, not in with this kind of foe.
"Kushinada-san," I couldn't stop myself from asking, a hint of concern all I could force out through the Seikuken. "Are you planning on helping me?"
If she was, then it could definitely turn the tides in my favor. With her on my side, I would have a counter to my Master. Hell, with her on my side, the hardest part would be to keep her from killing any of my friends, if they could still be called that after what had happened.
"Help you?" Kushinada seemed amused, though she didn't bother to turn around to face me. "I'm just a passerby who happened to come across a member of the Katsujin Ken, and acted accordingly. I don't recall offering some random boy any help."
Despite myself, I felt a small smile twitch on my lips. To hear the same line I had used to dismiss my interference with the Shikome returned to me…
It seemed I wasn't the only one with a talent for sophistry.
"You," an entirely new voice broke in, and this time it got the attention of everyone, even Kushinada. With a start, I realized that the vampire had finally spoken. "I've heard of you," it continued, its eyes narrowed as it studied me with recognition finally appearing on its face. "You're the Wicked Blossom, aren't you."
The thing's voice was rough, and its Japanese was heavily accented. It used a very crude conjugation form, the kind which would normally only be used by a superior addressing someone several stations below them. This obviously wasn't a creature used to being polite to its food. It couldn't even phrase that last sentence like a question, the words coming out more like an accusation.
"Yes," I nodded, my own voice growing as hard as my cooled temper would allow. It was funny, but I had finally figured out what the title meant. It really did fit me.
The thing gave me one last look over, and then turned to Kushinada. "You. Priestess. Kill me," it ordered, still using its rough tone.
Kushinada paused, glancing between the vampire and me, her expression cool and showing no confusion despite the outlandish request.
"Why do you hesitate?" the thing spat, eyes narrowing as it did so. "Are you not a holy woman? Is it not your duty?" Its eyes glanced in my direction, and if I hadn't been fortified I might have been shocked by the emotion in its look: hate, anger, and surprisingly enough fear as well. "Well, hurry, you sow," the thing growled, glaring at Kushinada as the woman unsurprisingly did not leap to follow its order. "Or are you naught but an aruki-miko…"
That was as far as the thing got before Kushinada drew her nusa and seemingly disappearing from where she was and reappearing directly in front of the vampire, the papered wand being forced into the things jaw, choking it and blocking any other word it might have said.
"Aruki-miko?" it was Ukita who voiced the confusion that the others were probably feeling at the unfamiliar phrase. "A walking priestess?"
"It comes from during the Kamakura period when the Shogunate cracked down on religion," I explained in a bemused tone of voice. Wow. That thing really did not know when to shut up. "A lot of the Miko of the time had no homes, and were forced to wander. Most of them ended up becoming prostitutes."
"You mean he just called her a…"Sakaki gave me an incredulous look, before he started laughing, the humor of the situation apparently enough to overcome the enormous dramatic tension which had lingered.
After all, there weren't many people stupid enough to call one of the most powerful fighters in the world a whore.
"Shirahama-kun," Kushinada began, her voice seemingly unaffected by the fact that she was currently choking a dismembered torso with a stick. "My nusa seems to be ineffective in this instance. Do you know why?"
"It's Christian," I informed her, not wanting to be to direct when mentioning the specific weaknesses of a vampire. Instead, I just held up my cross, the sharpened silver glistening in the darkness. "Think something more like this."
"I see," Kushinada nodded, once more accepting my experience graciously. "In that case." Without another word, she pulled the nusa free, reversed it in her grip, and then shoved the wooden handle into the things throat, piercing through its Adam's apple and voice box without another word.
"Shit!" Takeda swore, the sudden and completely unexpected violence having caught him by surprise.
"That's one way to shut it up," I simply noted, approaching the creature. It would be far easier to transport it if the thing couldn't start shouting at an inopportune moment and gather more attention while I was trying to bring it back to my lair.
"Would you be interested in selling your current tool?" Kushinada addressed me, still watching with cold eyes as the thing squirmed. The weapon in its throat would do nothing but stop it from breathing. For a vampire, while painful and uncomfortable it was in no way a lethal wound.
"Well," I began, eying the cross carefully. It might be time for me to track down a new one, seeing as how the battle damage was starting to accumulate on my current weapon. "If you throw in the its limbs, I'll trade it for your nusa." Even if it wasn't effective against vampires in particular, it was still a holy tool, and if the change in Kushinada's attire and her recent interest in the Nightworld was anything to judge by then it seemed likely that it just might be a consecrated one as well.
"That is an acceptable deal," Kushinada nodded, once more flickering as that godlike speed of hers made her vanish from sight only to reappear as though she had never left, the creature's limbs cradled in her arm. Carefully, I began stretching the last link binding the cross to the chain in order to separate the two properly.
"Kenichi," it was Niijima's voice that caught my attention then, and I glanced at him even as I continued my task in preparing my end of the deal with Kushinada. "Are you really going then?"
It was the seriousness in his tone which gave me pause, the usually maniacal alien standing still, watching me with those all seeing eyes of his. Surprisingly, I could make no condemnation in his gaze, no betrayal. He was simply watching me, waiting for my response to his question.
"Yes," I nodded. Niijima closed his eyes for a second. Then he opened them, and nodded once.
"Good luck, weak legs," he told me, using the old nickname he had for me back when I had still been a bullied repeater freshmen.
"Oi, alien," Ukita snapped, wheeling to face the leader of Shinpaku, disbelief in his face. "You can't be serious…"
"Our friend is going to help someone," Niijima simply stated. Idly, he began to dig into his ear with his pinky, a show of unconcern at the way things are shaping up. "Someone he thought he couldn't help before, someone he wants to help now. He's willing to do anything to do it. If it means that much to him, then do we have a right to stop him? As his friends, shouldn't we support his decision?"
"But…" Takeda hissed, still staring at the sight of the mutilated vampire. "But like this?"
Wordlessly, I studied Niijima for a moment, then my gaze extended, taking in the rest of all the gathered young men and women who had come out here, desperately hoping to have the chance to help what they thought was a comrade in need.
"You all are good friends," I finally concluded, before my eyes turned back to the vampire. I handed the blood stained cross to Kushinada. Wrapping the gathered limbs in the chain that had been attached to it, I tied off the bundle. "I'm sorry I couldn't be a better one in return."
With the bundle of body parts secured, I reached down, and once more secured the vampire in my grip around its neck. The thing glared at me, unable to do anything in response to my manhandling, not even able to complain about it now that it had learned the hard way not to mouth off to Kushinada.
As I turned to leave, one last voice made me pause.
"Kenichi-san," Miu muttered, and from the corner of my eye I could see the way the still injured girl forced herself from her prone position, rolling until she could kneel, and then forcing herself even further until she could stand. She couldn't straighten all the way, arms still wrapped around her chest.
Around the wounds I had given her.
My Seikuken fluttered again, but I clamped down on it, forcing it to remain.
"Was this what it felt like?" she panted, and even in the Seikuken I worried at the effort it seemed to be taking her to breathe. Had I cracked one of her ribs when I had attacked her? Was she going to be alright? "Was this what it felt like before, when you saw me on the back of Kano Sho's bike?" she asked, and there was pain in her voice that had nothing to do with her injuries. "Was that why you tried so hard to stop me from going with him? If so, then I'm sorry, Kenichi-san," she sniffed, but gave me a watery grin even as tears welled up in her eyes. "I didn't realize how much it would hurt to see the one you care about go to someone else."
I remembered that time, when the two of us had gone to visit the grave of her mother. I had taken her to a botanical garden to try and get her mind off her loss. I had been worried that it would be uncool back then, but she seemed to have liked it despite the fact that it was just plants.
Then I had lost sight of her, and when I found her it was to see her about to drive off with another man. I hadn't known the situation then, that he was someone who had knowledge of her still missing father, that she was willing to do anything, even go with a stranger whom she had never met before, in order to find out the truth. All I had known was that the girl I had been with was leaving with someone else without so much as a word to me.
It had hurt, but I had pushed through that, perhaps selfishly, but I had fought for the girl I had liked, whom had inspired me so much back then.
And now I was leaving to go to help another woman, someone whom I was willing to do anything to aid. And in her current state, Miu couldn't do what I had done for her then.
It seemed all debts really were repaid, in one way or another.
"You stopped me then, Kenichi-san," Miu continued, then coughed, a fleck of blood appearing on her lips as she quickly brought one hand up to cover her mouth. I saw it though. It was me who had made that blood appear. "Just like you stopped me back in Tirat. I won't give up, Kenichi-san!" Her voice rose, as she made her oath. "I'll find a way to help you, somehow! I won't let anything stop me! Do you hear me, Kenichi-san! Just like there are words you want to say but can't yet, I have something I want to say too! Once you're back, and safe, then I'll say them! But I won't just let you disappear!"
All debts were repaid. What a sick joke.
It took everything I had to walk away from Miu as she called out to me. But in the end, that's what I did. I had sworn that one day I would be strong enough to protect her.
I had failed that oath. Instead, I was the reason she was coughing up blood in a dark alley.
But before all of this, I had sworn to another that if tomorrow they died then I would die too, and if today they lived then so would I.
I had thought I had failed that oath. Now I had a chance to make that one at least right.
This time I at least noticed when the blood began to leak from my eyes as I left.
The Noble Minds Tutorial School.
Once, long ago, I had woken up from death in that place. I had fought for my humanity there. Afterwards, I had helped pay off my debt to my savior there. Once he had left, I would frequently find myself going there, back when the others were still alive for any number of reasons. It was just a place I felt calm in, someplace comforting and familiar.
Even if it was a rusted out decrepit hulk that should have been condemned years ago.
It had once been a preparatory school, but when hard economic times came, it had eventually gone under and been abandoned. It had been gone so long, that rot and ruin had started to take its toll on the old school. There were places in there were walls had fallen down, where the ceiling and floor had collapsed. There were stairs that led to nowhere, and classrooms that now only held rubble.
It had been abandoned so long that vegetation had started to grow in it; most notably, the giant tree which had sprung up, pushing its way out of the very roof of the old school.
This place had always been comforting to me for some reason. It was no surprise that once I couldn't return to Ryouzanpaku or my home that it was this place I eventually ended up settling in.
It wasn't like there was anyone else left alive who knew of my connection to it.
Back in the old days, it was always the fourth story that I tended to gravitate to. It was in one of those classrooms that I had been reborn as a vampire, where my savior Oshino Meme had made his home like some sort of itinerant priest or aloha bum. I had many fond memories of the fourth floor.
Now, it was the basement that I made my way to. There was something about the dark yet spacious confines, the rubble of various stored away school supplies interspersed with open spaces where important things had once been stored only to be removed once the school closed that called to me.
More than that, it was private. No searching eyes could find me here.
I didn't speak when I arrived, close to dawn. I had had to stick to the shadows and back alleys in order to keep anyone from seeing me carrying my grisly parcels. At times, I had to back track and use the sewers in order to avoid detection.
Still, once I finally returned, there just didn't seem to be a reason to speak anymore. It felt like there were no words left in me. The calm of the Seikuken remained, but it had to stay for now.
I still could feel my buried emotions, and I don't think that the scream I had been forced to cut off was over yet. It would take a long time until that dangerous thing had calmed.
So instead, without words or any particularly significant action, the moment I returned to the Noble Minds basement, I unceremoniously tossed the still muted vampire to a corner, only taking the time to make sure the nusa remained undamaged in its grisly resting place.
Then, unwrapping one of the vampire's limbs, an arm to start with, I just as unceremoniously brought it to my mouth and bit down on it, sinking my teeth into its flesh.
My teeth were too blunt, and even though the canines were sharper than a normal human's, they still weren't sharp enough to pierce through the flesh of the limb easily. In order to break the skin properly, I had to chew on it a bit first. The flesh was cool, none of the taste of salt or sweat that might be found on a normal human's skin, but the taste of the meat I could only assume was the same.
I didn't press any further, once the protective layer of skin had been penetrated. Instead, I focused on doing my best to draw out what I really wanted from this grisly task:
The vampire's blood.
Long ago, when I had still been a vampire desperately fighting to return to being a human, Shinobu, then Kiss Shot, had warned me never to let another vampire drink my blood. For most vampires, this was the most surefire means of exorcising them. A vampire's power resolved around their blood, after all, and if one blood sucker ingests the blood of a different blood sucker than that blood and their strength would be theirs from then on.
That was the normal way it was, for all kinds of vampires. But for me, things were a little different. I had been the subordinate of Kiss Shot Acerola Orion Hearts Under Blade, whom was called the Kai Killer.
She hadn't gotten that name just because she had killed a few abnormalities that had gotten in her way in the past. Rather, Kiss Shot had at times actively hunted other types of Kai before. She did that because unlike other vampires, it wasn't just her own species she could drain power from. I'm not sure if it was because she was so powerful as a vampire that she could drain other Kai of the energies, or if she had become so powerful because she could drain them, but in the centuries of her life Kiss Shot had absorbed many different types of Kai, eating probably as many of them as she had humans in her time.
When my vampiric power had gone into dormancy, and I had returned only to a mostly human state, I had thought that all my powers except for my regeneration had been lost to me. Once the events which had supposedly severed my ties with the Nightworld had occurred, I had thought that even that ability was gone.
What the Tamamo-no-Mae had proven to me was that I had been wrong. It hadn't been they were gone, it was just that they had been so drastically reduced as to be near nonexistent. After she had whispered those poisoned words into my ear, she had proven it by kissing me and forcing me to drink some of her own blood, willingly given.
And with her blood had come some of her power, strengthening my inhuman side.
It made me shudder at times to think of just how strong the Tamamo-no-Mae must be if only a mouthful of her blood, and only the smallest fraction of that blood which my reduced abilities had been able to absorb, had been enough to effectively jump start my inhuman abilities from near absolute dormancy to being visually observable.
But that wasn't enough. Not yet. Not for what I planned to do.
What I had told the others about Shinobu's condition had been true, in a sense. She was still alive, helpless and unable to respond. I'm not sure if the state she was in now would be called a coma, or just sleep, but in the end it was still a state that she needed to be awakened from. So far I had determined that there were three keys needed to properly wake her up again, and the most important of that key was power.
And so, in order to gain that strength, I hunted. I wasn't certain if any other type of Kai might give me greater boosts in strength, but I also wasn't certain if any of the other Kai might deserve to be drained like that. Vampires though, vampires I could reasonably assume would most likely deserve what I would do to them.
Still, if it was that easy then I would have already been done by now.
I had managed to squeeze maybe a third of the blood from the already partially drained limb when it happened. Even if I was still somewhat a vampire at the moment, I was still mostly human, even now. And humans just weren't meant to drink blood, not in this kind of quantity.
So pulling my mouth free from the limb I turned to the side, hunching over on all fours, and vomited out most of what I had just swallowed. The coppery fluid tasted just as bad coming up as it had going down. It took me three good heaves before my stomach had emptied itself. Panting, I wiped my mouth, spitting to clear the taste of bile from it.
Once I was sure that I wouldn't throw up anymore, I turned back to the limb and repeated the process.
The next time I puked, just a little less came up then before.
I could only absorb a little bit at a time for now, but each time I drank it was a little more than the time before, if only by a fraction. Slowly, my strength was growing. No, more than my strength, my ability to utilize that strength also was increasing. Hunting and attacking creatures that might indeed prey on humans but still had done me no harm, drinking their blood, repeating the process: that wasn't the kind of thing a normal person would do. Most would find the very thought horrifying. Hell, I thought it was disgusting.
But I was still doing it.
To be a monster, you needed to act like a monster, after all.
When the first limb was completely drained of blood, already beginning to flake away and dissolve with the energies that had sustained it removed, I held up my own arm, pulling my coat back so I could look at my bare skin. In the depths of the Seikuken, I focused, willing for a change to happen.
Under my skin, I could feel something move at my will, the flesh distending and writhing as the power I had absorbed continued to more and more effectively manipulate my flesh to my will. No, not just the power, but the increase in my inhuman sensibility as well.
After tonight, I felt much less like person and much more like a monster.
"Still not enough," I noted to myself, letting the changes in my flesh settle down. I glanced at where the vampire lay, helpless to do anything but watch as I continued my grisly work. For the first time since I had tracked it down, it seemed scared, no, terrified.
It knew what I meant to do to it, after all.
I had promised I wasn't going to kill it. Instead, I was going to drink all but the last drop of its blood. With so much of its power gone it wouldn't be able to use any of its normal abilities. It would barely be able to maintain its physical shape, most likely reverting to something smaller and easier to sustain. It wouldn't even be able to feed, after I had taken so much of its blood.
And then I would let it go. It would most likely starve to death at that point, but it wouldn't be me that killed it. Not directly.
Okay, so maybe I did have a talent for sophistry.
I turned back to the remaining collection of limbs I still had to drink. This time, it was a little easier to penetrate the skin and find the blood left within the other arm.
And so I drank until I vomited blood.
Then I did it again.
I was so tired.