Hello, everyone. It has been too long.

What can I say that I haven't already said before? After so many months of silence, there isn't much else I can say to excuse myself. Not that I plan to.

I do want to say there have been some major changes in my life. I made another cross country move and am now living in Boulder, Colorado. It is absolutely gorgeous here, and my partner and I like it much better than Miami already. Although I never mentioned it, in Florida there were a lot of complications and things weren't quite working out. Hopefully this move will be our last for a long while.

Also something I want to mention is I've seen a lot of readers telling me their first language isn't English. It honestly blows my mind. Being essentially American (half-Italian, half-Scottish if that counts), I'm not nearly as talented as you all are haha. To know you've gone to such great lengths to read my writing is beyond remarkable to me. I really don't feel as if I'm deserving of all the time and effort you must have spent.

Thank you to everyone, regardless, for allowing me to be a small part of your life.

I'm sorry there's been so much time between uploads. I sincerely want to do everything I can to update a bit more frequently. Adjusting to a new life out here hasn't been as challenging as Miami was, so hopefully I can make better use of this time.

Chapter 26

"Get Killua out of there!"

Morel started running, as soon as he heard Knov's frantic order through his smoke soldier.

Time slowly ground to a halt as Morel came within view of the abandoned building. The night breeze died, dissipating into desert sand. A distant rush of scraping metal dimly met Morel's ears. The distressed echo of hybrid Nen caused him to lunge forward, racing into the huge empty building without thinking.

He summoned a heavy plume of smoke, encasing Killua before Illumi's pitch-black energy could reach him again.

Morel felt the assassin zero in on him the moment he made his presence known. Dark, menacing flames of Nen and deep black eyes threatened him instantly, every surge of aura promising him a fate worse than death if he didn't stand down.

But Morel wasn't going anywhere. He dug his heels into the dusty floor, using his intricately-carved smoking pipe to brace himself. He challenged Illumi through his Nen, preparing to materialize more smoke if need be.

As Illumi tried to turn his full attention to him, Morel felt an unexpected force slam all its ethereal weight against his smoke barrier, from the inside. Each blow caused thick rings of energy to flare out from under the smoke itself. It was enough to throttle the very foundation of Morel's Nen.

A monstrous power was building within the dome of smoke. Unrefined and raw in the purest sense, its sheer brute force cried angrily for retribution. It grew, shifted, changed . . .

Morel's vision blurred as a chain broke though his impenetrable Nen ability and pierced right through Illumi's chest, constricting around what appeared to be his slow-beating heart.

Morel surrendered his futile hold on this power, knowing it was a fool's errand to try slowing it down.

What was unleashed was a tidal wave of energy, drowning Morel with all the strength it commanded. He grasped at his throat, suddenly unable to breathe. His senses were smothered, leaving him more vulnerable than he'd felt in years.

In Morel's numb, blind shock it occurred to him: the Chimera Ants' king would have been all but a plaything to this colossal, godlike fusion of Nen. It could kill both himself and Illumi . . . no, the whole capital if it so wished. It could even extend far beyond that, eliminating every living thing on the continent.

Once the asphyxiating sensation waned, Morel blinked the epicenter of this otherworldly energy into view. Killua stood as if he had never collapsed, his silhouette radiating a bright, lethal energy that flooded the room in white. An outstretched right arm was fitted in chains as he stared Illumi down with luminescent scarlet eyes.

Killua's life energy howled in Morel's ears as it whipped around the building, nearly deafening the older Hunter. The structure itself creaked and the walls splintered. Shattered windows expanded and contracted, the crumbled glass within them unable to fall. The rhythmic push and pull of Killua's energy was all that kept the entire building standing. If not for the swirling, pressurized vortex, it would have deteriorated when Morel retracted his smoke barrier.

All of Killua's fury was directed at Illumi, who dangled by a singular glowing stretch of chains protruding from his chest. The elder Zoldyck remained perfectly still, surely paralyzed but appearing calm as his younger brother's Nen resided forcefully within him. His dark eyes were wide, looking surprised, impressed even.

Suddenly, Morel heard a voice. Killua had not once opened his mouth, but it sounded as if he and Kurapika were together, speaking in unison.

If you touch either of us again, you will die. If you use your Nen against us, you will die. When we release you, you will leave and never return.

Killua released his brother in a massive pulse of Nen. The older Zoldyck kneeled instantly, bowing his head and clutching at his open, bleeding chest with his remaining arm. Struggling to breathe as he shuddered uncontrollably.

Killua's Nen still coiled itself around the elder Zoldyck's heart. It was likely a permanent affliction unless Killua decided otherwise.

Killua watched the assassin with undecipherable red eyes for a brief moment. Waiting for Illumi to give him any excuse to strike. When none came, Killua slowly turned toward Morel.

Being the focus of that stare was enough to make Morel seize mid-breath. He would not stand a chance if Killua turned on him.

But something unforeseen happened: Killua's burning red eyes pleaded with Morel . . . then he opened his mouth, presumably to speak. But instead of words, a bright streak of blood fell from his lips, rolling thickly down his jaw.

The crimson in his eyes along with all signs of consciousness faded. His weakening Nen released the building, and everything began falling to pieces.

Mizuken held on to Kurapika's dead weight, his firm grip the only thing keeping his student from hitting the white tiles beneath them. The pristine blankness of the Nen dimension was marred by dark red splotches that grew every time Kurapika coughed. It didn't matter how little he was breathing or how still he was. The red grew, uneven spatters morphing to a small pool.

It was alarming how much his condition had deteriorated since Killua left.

Every one of Kurapika's shaking breaths was inevitably punctuated by red. It flowed from his mouth in drops and streams alike, beginning to soak into the blanket wrapping his ice-cold body.

Mizuken spoke to his student the entire time, unsure if he was heard. There was no recognition in Kurapika's eyes when he did open them. He had since lost the ability to respond . . . But Mizuken continued to speak, occasionally jostling a slender shoulder when Kurapika got too quiet. The Nen master took the shaky inhale that always followed as a good sign.

Proof that Kurapika was still fighting.

The man's mind strayed to how wet his robes were becoming, the dampness seeping farther through layers of fabric until it stuck to his skin.

Kurapika took a deep, shuddering breath that unfurled into endless coughing. More blood followed. More than Mizuken had seen since Kurapika first collapsed. He coughed and hacked, stiffly curling in on himself. And then an eerie stillness.

A final exhale.

Mizuken shook him again.

The Nen master's head was spinning. Where was Morel? Where was Killua?

Knov had left in an attempt to find them. But he hadn't returned.

They needed to find them. Mizuken couldn't allow himself to think of what would happen otherwise.

An eruption of Nen from miles away left Knov's ears ringing.

He didn't need to get any closer to know it was Killua. Nor did he want to risk it. If Killua was able to shake the atmosphere from such a distance . . .

It was horrifying and intriguing all at once, that this power was more overwhelming than the Chimera Ants' royal guards . . . and yet it was still distinctly human.

A supernatural strength transcending its vessels, and yet retaining the humanity from which it came.

Killua's energy continued to bombard Knov's senses, even from so far away. It pulsed and angrily blazed, surely unleashing hell upon whatever was responsible for awakening it. It was destroying the entire structure everyone was in, and yet simultaneously keeping it standing . . .

But the energy soon slowed, stopping altogether. It faded to nearly nothing, and only then could Knov sense a terrified Morel and a very injured third presence attempting to escape the disintegrating building.

Morel scrambled to get a hold of Killua in time and ran, desperately fleeing the scene.

Knov took off in their direction, readying himself to bring them both back to the Nen dimension as soon as they were within range.

Morel caught a glimpse of Knov's aura speeding toward him before it had enveloped both himself and Killua in a glowing portal of Nen.

Upon a sudden transition from the dead of night to a bright, gridded room, Morel was met with the sight of a limp, bloody form hanging in Mizuken's arms.

The man had shouted something as soon as he saw Morel. But he didn't hear him. His ears rung as he panted and stumbled forward. He dropped to his knees, laying Killua down right by his partner. They were both so red . . .

He sat back, dazed. Mizuken was saying something again. Morel never heard it. He felt Knov attempting to pull him away from the two bleeding bodies.

Again Mizuken's mouth moved, and Morel heard nothing over the pounding in his ears.

The overbearing scent of blood tainted the air. Morel's eyes were frozen on the bonded pair's ashen, lifeless faces.

Mizuken leaned over them, grasping one of their wrists and holding it beneath his fingers. It was an eternity before he peered up.

He looked as if he would collapse right where he kneeled.

"They're still alive."

Mizaistom wished the silence in the empty conference room, no matter how tense and uneasy, could go on forever. But it couldn't be so. It was with anguish he turned his gaze to Beans, who had taken to mechanically sipping at already-cold tea.

"I know what I have to do." The Vice Chairman began, almost immediately averting his eyes. "Honestly, I . . . wish it didn't have to come to this."

"Have you seen her recently?" Came Beans' hushed voice.


"Please prepare yourself." At Mizaistom's puzzled look, Beans continued, "This ordeal has taken its final toll on her."

Mizaistom's heart sank. "I have to do something."

Beans small, gloved hands clenched his mug. "I know how difficult this is. But you must accept that you might not be able to save her."

"I can't let that stop me from trying." The Ox left his seat, suddenly finding the will to leave the room.

"I never said we shouldn't try." Beans clarified before Mizaistom could reach for a polished door handle. "But she is not the same person anymore. Don't expect that of her."

Without responding, Mizaistom left the conference room.

The gaping maw of endless oblivion surrounded her.

It breathed down the fine hairs on the back of her neck. Tasting her fear. It loomed over her, mocking her. Trying to make her feel small. Like she would rather die than face this limitless thing they still knew nothing about . . .

But Cheadle knew better. Better than all the others.

It had to be destroyed. That was the only way, and no one could see it but her. She had to prove them wrong. Tell them they were out of their minds for thinking talking would stop an unstoppable force.

She felt it. The sheer force that dominated everything in its presence and beyond. This gateway to hell that blazed before her eyes. The world's punishment for not knowing any better.

So this was true judgement.

But Ging promised! He would find them. He would find them and hunt them down. And all would be right again.

Until the next anomaly. And so the cycle would continue.

. . . No, not now . . .

Not this again. Get ahold of yourself. Wait, please . . . not now . . .

You've long been in over your head.

You can't escape this. No one can!

Not even death stops this! You've seen that for yourself!

You think you can fight this. Someone with no power of her own, slaying an almighty demon the likes of which no Hunter could ever conceive.

You're a fool, Yorkshire! A damned fool who can't save anyone, let alone herself!

What an appropriate end for you.

Mizaistom couldn't bring himself to watch as the 14th Chairman of the Hunters' Association was forcibly removed from her office. What were once her security guards held her firmly by her upper arms, the metal cuffs on her wrists rattling with every sluggish step.

The Ox didn't know if it was good or bad that Cheadle went down without much of a fight. Either way, it felt wrong. He wished he didn't have to do this to someone he had so much respect for . . .

Mizaistom waited for the guards escorting Cheadle to pass him in the hallway. He held his breath when she deliberately made the officers stop in front of him.

Her head was resolutely bowed until it snapped up. A fanged scowl twisted the Dog's features as wild, enraged blue-green eyes bored holes into the Vice Chairman.

"Are you happy now?" Cheadle seethed, her voice a hissing whisper. "Did you finally get what you wanted?"

Mizaistom's words were lost when he met his former colleague's stare. Seeing someone he'd once called a friend in such a state . . . Someone he'd admired for her patience and quiet strength, reduced to a paranoid and vengeful shell of herself. It was hard to maintain eye contact, but Mizaistom couldn't allow himself to look away.

"We want to help you, Cheadle."

"Some help you are." Cheadle snarled, still baring pointed canines. "I was the only one willing to do anything . . . And now we'll all die." A growl resonated deep in the Chairman's throat. "I hope you know that . . . I hope you're happy, now that you've damned us all to hell."

Mizaistom simply looked away from his former friend to address her escorts. "Please see that the doctors take care of her-"

The Vice Chairman was interrupted by Cheadle lunging forward and spitting directly at him, spattering the front of his suit jacket.

"You monster!" She screamed, thrashing in the guards' grip as they began pulling her away. "You've killed us! You've killed us all! I hope you're happy!"

She continued shrieking and fighting security every step of the way down the hall to the nearest elevator. When the doors slid closed and Cheadle was gone, a sad weight rested atop Mizaistom's heart.

He knew the hospital Cheadle was being taken to was one of the best, specializing in psychiatric care. But the core of his chest twisted painfully knowing he had to force her away to get her the help she needed.

He had to remind himself to breathe and stay calm. Now that Cheadle was going to a safe place, he could reunite the Zodiacs and they could focus on moving forward.

"How are you feeling?"

It was the first thing Neon could think to say. It jumped out of her mouth without permission, out of sheer worry. Her heart hammered in her chest the longer there was no response.

She hadn't expected Biscuit to wake up so soon. She had only come to check on the woman . . . girl? The information her agents gathered confirmed that Biscuit was currently sixty-three years old. Which made little sense, judging by her appearance alone. A little more research revealed this dainty form was a Nen glamour, an ability of hers. Which again, made little sense. Wouldn't this glamour have been dispelled the moment Biscuit was attacked?

Senritsu eventually explained that Biscuit's attacker could have placed her Nen in a stasis. Meaning she was stuck in that form. For how long? That had yet to be determined.

But she was awake now, sitting up in bed and fiddling with the saline drip attached to her arm.

"Where are they?" she asked with a rasp, as if Neon had never previously spoken.

Regardless, Neon answered, "I made sure they got to Kakin safely. But I haven't heard anything beyond that."

Biscuit's hand fell away from the line in her arm. It rose to thread through her short blond bob. She lifted her head, and Neon watched in silence as her mouth began to twist into a frown. Her magenta eyes glistened for only a moment before she blinked it away.

"They've been gone too long." Biscuit determined, her head slowly shaking as she spoke. "I have to find them."

Neon stepped forward. "You're not in any shape to go anywhere."

Biscuit looked ready to argue as she prepared to leave the bed. But when her lower half didn't respond, she froze.

Again, words leapt fruitlessly from Neon. "Biscuit, I'm sorry."

The older woman remained frozen for a long stretch of time, her eyes alight with shock as she stared off at a far wall. She seemed trapped in her own mind; as if Neon was no longer in the room.

Biscuit's head suddenly fell to her hands. And she sobbed.

Neon stood in the doorway, unsure if she should say anything else. She could scarcely imagine what chain of events brought this poor woman to such a desperate and vulnerable state.

The woman cried for long minutes, wiping away large, shining tears that only came right back.

Eventually, the sobs quieted and slowed. Biscuit used a corner of her sheets to dab away wet tracks on her cheeks. She hiccupped slightly, catching her breath. Neon patiently waited for her to calm down, expecting to be told to leave. But the order never came.

After regaining her composure, Biscuit raised an arm, staring at its outstretched palm. Neon immediately recognized it as an attempt to gather her Nen in her hand.

It failed.

And then came a bitter laugh. "I'm effectively useless."

Neon held her tongue. There were so many things she wanted to say in response. But they weren't important. What was important was the task ahead.

"We'll find them."

Biscuit paused at those words. She regarded Neon cautiously. "It's bad enough we've gotten you this involved."

"So why not follow through and let me help you." Neon stated, rather than asked. "You said it yourself: you can't do this alone."

The women let silence fall between them. It stretched on, Biscuit deep in thought while Neon watched her. Eventually, the elder of the two seemed to make up her mind.

"Only if you're absolutely sure."

Botobai forced himself to stay awake, despite the exhaustion that threatened to consume his consciousness. For the past few hours, nausea, headaches, and all manner of vague pains plagued him. A feeling of slipping in and out of his own head always loomed. And every time he closed his eyes, he saw her. The one he was bound to.

Glimpses of her cloaked form lying on its side in a metal cell surfaced. Vertigo overtook her when she attempted to rise. So she stayed where she was, a hand gently coming to her head when the room began to spin before her. Her jagged Nen ebbed and flowed in unstable waves, threatening to cut even the thick metal surrounding her into ribbons. Botobai felt her heart race as she struggled to steady each shaking breath. She suffered just as he did, perhaps even more so.

And yet they were both so calm.

The former Zodiac made himself sit at a small, sturdy table, beside the narrow windows of his kitchen. He caught his breath and relished warm evening rays that spilled in through thick glass panes. The warm, peaceful atmosphere provided the perfect amount of golden light to write by. And that was just what he planned to do; while there was still time.

The Dragon felt M listening intently to the muted scratch of ink pen on ivory paper, if for no other reason than to help her stay awake. He had to admit, it was serving the same purpose for himself. They both wanted nothing more than rest.

Their shared fatigue caused his grip on the pen to falter. The dark ink would smear from the page to his hand, but thankfully not enough to obscure his words. Despite the pain, he continued. These words needed to be understood.

My friends,

I'm sure you know the truth about my declining health now. I never wished to hide my condition from you. I only meant to serve our council and our Association with my entire being. But I did not write these words to discuss something you already know.

M's time is at hand. Her life energy leaves her even as I write. As does my own strength, which fades more with every passing hour. The end to both our suffering is coming very soon.

Before that time comes, I want to make certain that you receive a vital piece of information. It is a file included in my will, which you will find beneath this letter. I'm sorry we were not able to get it to you sooner. Please make use of it in any way you can.

This letter marks my last words to you. There is no easy way to admit that. But know that I am at peace. I have known this would be the result since the very beginning, and am well prepared for this day. I urge you to stay strong and focused. Never forget your humanity.

I have never been prouder to serve alongside such a talented and capable council of Hunters. I trust you will do what needs to be done.

Always your faithful friend,

Botobai Gigante

The ailing Dragon set his pen down, leaning back in the tall wooden chair. He sensed M gathering what little was left of them in that moment; at least she had a bit of strength to sit upright now.

It was almost over.

A sense of tranquility swept over them. Botobai looked to the vibrant, gleaming sunset beyond the narrow kitchen window that warmed his weakened bones.

This moment marked the beginning. Of what, they would never truly get to find out. But the two of them were at ease, knowing with this last act they had given all they could.

Mizaistom and the others would see through what was started four long years ago. And it was with that knowledge that Botobai could finally leave the rest to them.