Species: Hemolithus Zephromorphous Sapien

Common name: Blood Angel

Class: Demon (?)

Subspecies: None

Sentience & Intelligence: Relatively high. There is little data on common variation due to an unusually small sample population, but the species seems to be on par with other angels, if not humans, as far as their intellectual development is concerned.

Physical biology: Blood angels show an unsurprising similarity with angels in their biology, with a few notable and very profound differences. The most obvious is that the species possesses wings despite the fact that they are completely unusable for flight; the black, bony spines that jut from their backs seem to serve no useful purpose, and are only a nuisance in the field of aerodynamics. The other main difference is that whereas an angel's bones are hollow, a blood angel's are filled with an ultra-dense compound which seems to fulfill the same biological purpose of bone marrow. Not only does this make the skeleton more than six times as heavy as a human's, but it makes the individual bones extremely resilient; blood angel bones will only break under enormous levels of trauma.

Mana resonance: Extremely high. Blood angels can naturally leech mana from their bodies and the atmosphere in order to use various magics, most commonly in the form of explosive energy projectiles. Other forms that have been noted are energy shields and a persisting form of necrotic corruption which, when deployed, can spread over an area and have disastrous effects on all living creatures that come in contact with it. It is also widely surmised that blood angels use their magic to enhance their bodies for combat purposes.

Lifespan: Blood angels, unlike other demons, do not live longer than normal humans. Perhaps because of the persisting chemical or magical corruption caused by their need to absorb blood plasma - if not the absorption itself - a blood angel's health and sanity seems to degrade rapidly after half a century. Judging by uncomfirmed reports, this corruption either manifests in a physical way, mutating the creature beyond its body's ability to sustain, or the creature flies into a permanent state of psychotic madness, requiring it to be destroyed.

Diet: Omnivorous. Blood angels seem to have very human-like diets, although unsurprisingly they tend to favor meat.

Biological anomalies: The most curious and interesting biological anomaly - for there are many - that concerns the blood angels is that their blood absorbs other creatures' blood plasma. Unlike other blood-drinking creatures, the blood angel does not need or get nutrients from the blood, and it is unknown what, exactly, the blood contains that the blood angel consumes. It is known that if deprived of blood for an extended period of time, a blood angel's brain wave activity begins to drop, and eventually they enter a violent and psychotic state of mind (if you could consider their normal state of mind to be peaceful and sane, which this researcher cannot). This has been dubbed by others as a "blood riot". The blood angel's "wings" are actually threaded with hundreds of blood vessels which absorb the blood right through the curiously permeable surface, usually via some sort of magic effect that draws spilt blood to the creature. Once the foreign blood has entered the body, the native blood cells immediately attack it in a manner not unlike that of white blood cells targeting incompatible blood types. The foreign blood cells are destroyed, and presumably consumed, but it is not known how or why this occurs. It is known, however, that this form of consumption acts as a stimulant to the blood angel, and seems to temporarily stabilize their otherwise dangerous auras.

Reproductive type: Sexual. Their mating patterns and tendencies seem similar to humans, although this is based on a small sample of interviews and speculation.

Social structure: Blood angels are very rare, and have banded together in tight-knit tribes for survival. This is not because blood angels are in any way weak individually, but rather because the angel civilizations and their allies seem quite intent on the species' extinction. Blood angel tribes are extremely militaristic, with a strict chain of command based on combat ability and combat record. Warfare is considered to be the only profession available to a blood angel, and literally all other tasks that don't directly involve battle, whether that be forging weapons or hunting, are considered annoying but sadly necessary chores. Because of this, a fully trained blood angel warrior is usually completely self-sufficient, able to make his own armaments, find and cook his own food, and tend to his own injuries. As a society, however, this is desperately inefficient, and ensures that all blood angel goods, dwellings, and even their weapons are of ramshackle quality. Wealth is highly prized among blood angels for this reason, as they much prefer the products and services of other races, and are enthusiastic traders. One would also expect them to make excellent mercenaries as well, but except in the case of large-scale warfare in which an entire tribe might be hired at once, they are loathe to leave their tribes.

Combat analysis: Very high. This is based largely on rumors and stories, as there have never been any reports of human forces in Earth realm engaging blood angels, but based on those rumors and stories blood angels are savage and nigh-unstoppable. In addition to their formidable magical powers, there are many stories that depict blood angels suffering mortal injuries and still fighting on, and sometimes even surviving after emerging victorious. This is at least partly because of the blood angels' absorbing a foe's blood in combat, and the positive effects it seems to have on them. Besides that, it has been noted - and may I suggest that an investigation be launched as to HOW Beta Team found this out without butchering our specimen - that a blood angel seems to retain consciousness and even mobility when suffering dramatic blood loss or major organ failure. The mechanism that makes this possible is completely unknown, unless the aforementioned research team is holding out on us.

Misc. notes: The biggest mystery behind the blood angels is the dramatic emnity between them and true angel tribes, and the idea that they may not be true demons at all. Certainly they possess many of the same traits as demons, but their bodies don't seem nearly as resilient to magical energy, and they have startlingly civilized societies and behavioral patterns when out of combat, which is of course uncommon amongst demons. It seems obvious, given the biological similarities, that the blood angels are somehow related to true angels, although any explanation for how they are related is mired in uneducated guesses and unverifiable legends. As for the war between the angels and blood angels, it is curiously one-sided, both in terms of victories and efforts. As far as our research has pieced together, blood angels aren't in the habit of assaulting angel strongholds, and the true angels have waged war against their much rarer and darker kin to the point that the species is presumed effectively extinct; our one specimen, Selene, is unaware of any other living members of her race. It is unknown why such animosity exists among the true angels, although it seems as if they're not the only ones committing systematic genocide: many of the blood angel tribes' most recent losses can apparently be attributed to the Third Brotherhood, which began a campaign against the species more than two decades ago. It is, naturally, unknown to us why the cult suddenly targeted the blood angels, but it is known that they were enormously successful. It is doubtful we'll be finding another specimen to keep Selene company.

US Research Division Omega - Survey File D2301

Nexus II
by Black Dragon (black_)

All the characters in this story are mine! All MINE! MWA HA HA HA HA HA HA!

Chapter 18
Roots of Madness

Ranma yawned mightily as he pushed himself up off his blanket, blinking lazily into the sun as it crested the bleak, barren horizon.

Scratching his arm, he promptly got up to wash before he recalled that he had no idea where to find fresh water.

That thought prompted him to recall where he was, and whose fault it was.

"I feel really bad thinking this, but I should listen to Rayden more often," the pigtailed warrior mumbled. "Well, nothing for it now."

Stepping past the cold remains of last night's camp fire, and deliberately ignoring the net of fish meat that wasn't fish meat, Ranma looked around the spot where they had made camp, his gaze moving past the still-sleeping forms of K and Kaze.

As was his usual practice when he woke up in the morning, his first act after washing (which wasn't an option at the moment) was to find Rayden. As the demonic paladin never slept, Ranma often worried about what kind of mischief a fairly psychotic dark warrior might get into if left to his own devices for eight hours or so. Thus far, Ranma hadn't found anything to be TOO concerned about: although the shrines formed from fresh, bloodless corpses and malevolent-looking statues and symbology were creepy enough, thus far there had been no indication of mass murder or rampant destruction on his watch.

There had been some when he had left the dark paladin with Kaze, but it really wasn't cause for concern. Besides, the lizard-skin cloak Rayden had made him was actually pretty cool.

Ranma ran a hand over the smooth, glossy cape he now wore over his shoulders fondly as he found his friend and subordinate kneeling in the dirt next to a rock outcropping, his hands busy scrawling something into the dirt.

"Well, haven't we been industrious lately," Ranma mused as he walked up behind the larger man. "So what's all this?"

Rayden, having long since grown used to Ranma's casually stealthy movement, turned around calmly as he realized who was behind him. "Oh, hey. You're awake."

Ranma could see that Rayden's sleeves had been rolled up, and that blood was leaking slowly from an obviously self-inflicted wound on his forearm. On anyone else, this would have warranted alarm, but for Rayden Ranma was content to patiently wait for an explanation.

"I've been messing with the living weapon all night," Rayden explained as he stepped back. Ranma could see that there were several rings drawn in blood on the ground, all of them interlocking each other and simultaneously encircling Gehenna, who was still in her inert sword form and stuck point-down into the dirt.

There was also a pile of suspiciously humanoid bones embellishing the ritual markings.

"Anyone I knew?" Ranma asked blithely.

"Just the elf," Rayden mumbled as he stood over the macabre assemby. "Figured there was no point in hunting down the materials when we already had a body."

"You didn't strip his flesh to make breakfast or anything, did you?" Ranma suddenly asked warily.

A vein popped up on Rayden's head. "No, I didn't. Are you STILL hung up on the merfolk? How was I supposed to know that you guys consider those overgrown tuna to be people?"

"If you DID know, would you have spared them?" Ranma asked.

"Well... not all of them. I've gotta eat, ya know."

Ranma grimaced. "Whatever. What can you tell me about that Gehenna thing?"

Rayden shrugged. "You know most of the facts already. Sentient weapon, demonic nature, devours souls... Though not the souls of whoever it's killing, which is different."

"It is?" Ranma asked as he leaned over to stare at the weapon. He wasn't that familiar with demonic weapons, despite having seen Darkrune in action several times.

"Yeah. Most demon weapons that are into souls go the economy route as far as spirits go, absorbing those of its victims." Rayden crossed his arms over his chest. "This one instead fuels itself with magic while building up the soul of its bearer with its power. Kind of like a farmer eating bread while fattening up livestock for slaughter. I'd guess the souls are 'tastier' that way or something."

"Great," deadpanned Ranma. "So what do we do with it? I'm not leaving it here for some clueless shmuck to find."

The Dread Knight shrugged. "I can break it, if you'd like."

Ranma considered it for a moment. 'I WAS just thinking about how I should let Rayden break things more often. His instincts on what to kill are usually pretty good.'

"Okay, yeah. Go for it," the pigtailed rogue said. He felt a little bad about killing the living blade, but reasoned that the deceitful, soul-sucking weapon was just a tool; it wasn't like he was really ending a life in this case.

As Rayden nodded and started drawing Darkrune, Ranma noticed that Gehenna was trembling in the ground.

"Hey, what's wrong with that thing?" He asked.

"Well, it can hear us, you know," Rayden said as he touched the tip of his greatsword against Gehenna's hilt and causing a crackling burst of red sparks. "It's probably just freaking out."

"It fears death?" Ranma asked, intrigued. Now that he thought about it, he recalled that Gehenna had shrunk away from Rayden before, right before he killed the elf.

"It's not a very good weapon, is it?" The demon said contemptuously as he raised Darkrune above his head.

"Wait, hold on," Ranma said suddenly, leaning in toward the intelligent weapon.

"Seriously? Again?" Rayden complained as he put down his sword. "You always regret these decisions, you know."

Ranma rolled his eyes as he circled Gehenna. "Why isn't it saying anything? It wouldn't shut up yesterday."

"It can't speak without a user. I guess it's part of the contract or something," Rayden said, shrugging. "The ritual circle there is actually supposed to feed it enough power to let it act on its own for a bit."

Ranma raised his head to regard the taller man. "Why would you set up something like that?"

"I was going to fight it. You know, in ritual combat," Rayden expained. "Maybe use its power to enchant a sword or something. You know, wizardy stuff. It's kind of a hobby of mine, like the cooking."

Ranma considered this for a minute before he stood up. "Okay, power up the circle. Let me talk to it," he ordered, "and be ready to kill it the moment I give the okay."

The ritual proved short and decidedly unglamorous. Smoky tendrils of darkness crept up from the spell circle and seeped into the weapon, occasionally prompting a burst of the black electric arcs that seemed to accompany all of the Dread Knight's magic.

The result, however, was profound. The moment that enough power flooded into Gehenna, she changed into her human form in a bright flare of light. Unike before, when Ranma and his lackeyes had assaulted her in her fairly pilfered mansion, her hair now looked unkempt and her eyes were panicked and wild as she glanced between the two men.

"Wh-What in the abyss were you planning to do to me?" She demanded angrily. The way she kept looking between Rayden and Ranma indicated clearly that she wasn't sure who to be more afraid of.

"We were going to kill you," Ranma admitted, somewhat perturbed by how much Gehenna resembled an ordinary, terrified human, "any particular reason we shouldn't?"

"I am the Kingslayer Gehenna!" The redhead shouted, her back going straight as she glared at Ranma. "Emperors and demon lords across the realms would give their entire fortunes for a taste of my power!"

"I'm the everything-slayer Rayden," the aforementioned demon deadpanned, "and right now I'm wondering what your power looks like while spilling out into a puddle on the ground."

"Now, now, let's have none of that," Ranma chided as the two demons glared coldly at each other. "You said you're called Gehenna, right? Why is something like you-"

"Do not refer to me as 'something' or 'it'," Gehenna snapped, interrupting the pigtailed man. "I am not a piece of cold, senseless iron like the blades up your sleeve. I am a living being, much as you."

"Not for long, if you don't watch your tone," Rayden warned.

"All right, fine, have it your way," Ranma allowed, shrugging. "So what is SOMEONE like you doing in a dead-end realm like this one, if you're a big deal?"

Gehenna frowned. "Trying to obtain some measure of peace for myself, actually, and escape my reputation."

"Well, congrats on a job well done," Rayden mocked. "I've never heard of ya."

Gehenna raised an eyebrow. "That may be so. I have heard of you, however: wielder of the bloodthirsting blade Darkrune, the feared Prince of War." With obvious reluctance and no small degree of fear, the living weapon inclined her head. "I'll never forget that sword. It is the badge of the avatar of the Third Brotherhood, devoted of Kharak."

Ranma was about to ask what all that meant when a pair of choked gasps came from behind him.

"Whoa, what? Avatar? Him?" K said, his small draconic face twisted into an expression of plain disbelief. "You have the wrong guy, babe."

"You should be more careful, Lady Gehenna," Kaze warned from where he stepped up while holding the metadragon, "the fanatics of the dark cults don't take blasphemy lightly, even if an innocent mistake."

"I see you're up early," Ranma deadpanned.

"As soon as we sensed a hot chick near the camp, we were wide awake," K explained shamelessly.

Gehenna looked upset as she glared at Kaze. "I blaspheme no one. This man IS the avatar. No other may wield the blade."

Kaze shook his head. "You are mistaken. Shikodan, I'm sure you can explain how you came across your weapon."

At this point, the men other than Rayden noticed that he looked distinctly uncomfortable, which was an odd expression for the dark paladin under any circumstances.

"Yeah... it's a little complicated," Rayden grumbled. "But anyway, this isn't about me! Answer Ranma's questions or I'll break you like a chopstick!" The demon snarled.

"Hold on a sec!" K shouted before Ranma could continue. "What do you mean 'it's complicated'? You're not actually the avatar, are you?"

Kaze took a step forward, slightly tense as he started to consider the possibility. "Shi-Shikodan, is she mistaken?" He asked, his voice cracking. "Back in Greken's territory... I made up that story about us representing our religions, but I never once actually imagined..."

"Hey, can we not talk about this now?" Rayden asked, scrubbing the back of his head. "We were in the middle of threatening the living sword!"

"Screw the sword, I'm friends with TWO avatars!" K said breathlessly. "Holy crap! I should be a bard! Our travels are gonna be SO epic!"

"It's true, then?" Kaze asked, his eyes wide with awe. "You're the Prince of War? The bloody call to oblivion? The crimson slayer?"

Ranma and Rayden winced badly as a distinctly unpleasant "Squee!" noise came from the party's cleric.

"I must have your account at once! I have to make a diagram of your cult's hierarchy! Oh, and a timeline of-"

Thwack! Clang! Both Kaze and K fell face-first in the dirt as an annoyed Ranma smashed them in the back of the head.

"Now, if Ray would kindly stop Gehenna from sneaking off, we can get back to the topic at hand," the pigtailed man said irritably.

Rayden promptly seized Gehenna by her glowing red tresses as she tried to scramble into the trees, and then threw her painfully onto the ground between him and Ranma.

"But I just wanted to-" Kaze's protest was cut off as Ranma planted a foot onto the back of his head, plowing it back into the ground.

"So Gehenna the Kingslayer," Ranma said, rubbing his chin, "out of curiosity, were the kings you've slain your targets, or your wielders?"

Gehenna shrugged, obviously not making much of the question as she stood up. "A little of column A, a little of column B." She dusted herself off, throwing a nervous glance at Rayden.

"Fair enough. I just wanted to get a feel for where on the ethical chart you were," Ranma said as he lifted his foot up off his party cleric. "Not that all of us are models of responsible behavior." He mumbled as he stared down at the evon.

Gehenna looked confused. "I am a weapon. I kill those marked by my wielder as his enemies. Ethics are the domain of politicians and elders, not warriors and swords."

Ranma took a long moment to decide whether or not he liked that answer, and then spoke again. "All right, I'm going to go back to my first question: do you have any good reasons for us not to destroy you?"

Gehenna twitched. "You killed my servant and removed me from my home. And then you seek to pass judgment on ME?"

Her haughty expression faded when Rayden's hand gripped her shoulder tightly, practically surging with malevolent power.

"Funny how that works out, huh?" The demon said darkly. "If you're not strong enough to hold on to your life and property, what right do you have to complain when it's taken away?"

"I was under the impression that things worked differently on Earth realm," Gehenna said bitterly. "But you are correct."

"No, he's not," Ranma admitted with a sigh. "You are. We did screw up, didn't we?"

"I believe that primary responsibility must lie with Rakkyo, as the deliberate instigator of the conflict," Kaze noted as he dusted off his robes.

"Sure, but that doesn't change the fact that we were dumb enough to fall for it," Ranma insisted. "I was going to just break her when I thought she was just some evil weapon before, but..." He trailed off uncertainly.

"She IS just an evil weapon," Rayden insisted, "Well, maybe more apathetic than strictly 'evil'... But she IS a soul-sucker. That's reason enough to destroy her."

"That was before I was released from my contract," Gehenna insisted, "now I have tasted freedom, and I care little for the bloody existence of constant battle and pointless killing. I desire only to live as the humans do, to eat and play and create," she said wistfully as she pushed off Rayden's hand. "A life without purpose, but full of meaning! Is that too much to ask?"

Ranma and the others stared silently at the shapely redhead as her fierce, glowing eyes looked upon them defiantly.

"Nope, I guess it's not," Ranma admitted before he turned around. "Well, have a good life. We're heading east."

Gehenna blinked in shock, taken completely off guard. "What? But..."

"I hope there something that needs murdering that way," Rayden growled. "This 'not killing people' thing is starting to get on my nerves." He started off toward the camp, kicking a rock that was next to his path; it promptly shattered into dusty chunks.

"You're not murdering ANYONE until you tell me all about being an avatar," Kaze said, turning after the demon knight. "I can't believe you kept something like that from me!"


The party stopped and glanced back at Gehenna, who was sweating nervously as she leaned over the edge of the black circle on the ground.

"What now? You said you wanted to be left alone, so we're leaving you alone," Ranma said, clearly annoyed.

Gehenna looked distinctly embarrassed as she whispered "I need a wielder."

"Huh?" K mumbled. "Didn't you JUST say you were tired of being wielded and wanted freedom?"

Gehenna gulped. "I... I do! Truly I do! But... I can't function without a master!" She cried, collapsing into a sitting position and staring down at her lap.

The pose looked incredibly sad and pathetic, and Ranma fought off half a dozen male instincts urging him to run to the redhead's side and comfort her.

After reaching out and yanking Kaze back by his hair as the priest ran to the redhead's side to comfort her, Ranma massaged his forehead with his hand. "Look, if you need one of us to use you, you're outta luck. I'm not letting you take anyone's soul."

"I don't need your soul!" Gehenna claimed. "I just need your magic power!"

"Why should we give you that?" Rayden demanded, sneering.

"You can't just leave me here to rust! That's cruel!"

"Oh, for the love of..." Ranma groaned as the sentient weapon sat on the ground sniffling, and then he waved his companions in toward him.

"All right guys, huddle up," Ranma said as Kaze and Rayden flanked him, lowering their heads to listen to their leader. K landed on Ranma's head and stretched his neck in as well.

"So what are we looking at, here? How can we make this problem disappear?"

As Rayden opened his mouth, Ranma added, "WITHOUT murder."

"Well if you take away all the best tools, don't be surprised that you can't build a house," Rayden grumbled.

"Actually, I support Shikodan's viewpoint on this matter," Kaze said, surprising Ranma, "it would be safest, fastest, and relatively merciful to simply destroy her. A weapon that does not wish to fight, yet needs a wielder, is little more than a dangerous parasite."

"Wait, weren't you the one running up to help her just a second ago?" Ranma demanded.

Kaze gently rubbed his head where his long, glimmering hair had nearly been yanked out of his skull. "Yes, well... I'm far more rational when I don't have to actually look at her. She's quite lovely for a demonic weapon, is she not?"

"So that's two votes for the nuclear option, huh?" Ranma mumbled before tilting his head up slightly. "And what about you?"

K was silent for several seconds. "I say take her with us."

"You CAN'T be serious," Rayden groaned. "Would you try thinking with something besides your-"

"That's not why!" K snapped, interrupting the Dread Knight. "Think about it: she's a magical creature who operates on a spiritual contract, right? Contracts can be negotiated! Even magic ones!"

The metadragon grinned. "Right now we have every advantage: she can't leave without us, she's desperate to leave her usual existence of killing all the time, and she's TERRIFIED of Rayden. If we renegotiate her spirit contract, we can get her to work for us without offering up anybody's soul!"

Ranma felt a bit queasy at the thought. Not just at taking advantage of someone who was pretty much at their mercy and might not deserve it, but also at the idea of having to put up with another weirdo going forward. "Koz? Would that actually work?"

The evon nodded slowly. "There's nothing wrong with the principle... and we can always fall back on termination as plan B."

Gehenna watched curiously as the group mumbled to each other just outside of earshot, and squirmed impatiently while she waited for a judgment to be reached.

This was an unusual situation for her, to be sure. As a powerful weapon in one form and a devastatingly attractive woman in the other, she usually had adventurers scrambling to possess her, no matter the eventual cost to themselves. Of course, none of those men and women had been an avatar or traveled around with one as some kind of hired goon, but Gehenna still felt she was being severely undervalued.

The living weapon shuddered as she again locked her eyes on the greatsword at Rayden's back. She wondered if it was gazing back, hungering silently for her the way she hungered for most magic weapons.

"Why are we even discussing this? She tried to kill Ranma!" Rayden suddenly shouted, his voice easily projecting out of the huddle.

"That didn't stop us from taking YOU," K pointed out.

"That was different!" Rayden protested. "You just want to let her live because she has boobs!"

Ranma raised a hand up suddenly, and the demon paladin relectantly fell silent.

Ranma turned away from his comrades and silently approached Gehenna, his arms crossed over his chest.

"So... Gehenna. We have an idea of what to do with you."

"Then you're taking me with you?" She asked hopefully.

"Well, do we really have to?" Ranma asked. "Is there any way to give you a little magical jolt and just have you wander off by yourself?"

"That WOULD be possible, actually," the redhead mumbled as she glared at Rayden, "if someone hadn't deprived me of a soul that belonged to me fairly. I can subsist on such a bounty for some time, but right now the magic from this crude ritual barely grants me enough energy to speak, and I expect it to peter out in minutes."

Rayden stuck his tongue out at her while Ranma sighed.

"Yeah, I figured that. Not that we're going to apologize. So what we've decided on is to have a look at this demonic contract you want us to join in."

Gehenna blinked, and then she spoke.

It was not in the fierce, slightly sultry tone she used normally, but rather a thunderous booming noise that filled the air.

"The pact demands sacrifice," Gehenna's voice was a rumbling snarl that caused Kaze to jump back and K to cover his head with his wings. "Blood spilled demands blood shed. For the gift of-"

Thonk! Gehenna was silenced as Rayden suddenly clubbed her over the head with his fist.

"Knock it off, dimwit," the other demon growled. "Give it to us in English, not Dark Prophecy."

"Fine. Ruin the whole bit, why don't you?" Gehenna grumbled as she rubbed her head before speaking again, but this time in a bored monotone. "The wielder - that refers to whomever makes this pact with me, presumably Ranma - takes the demon weapon Gehenna - that's me, of course - as his or her charge, and is thereby obligated to abide by the following responsibilities: the constant maintenance of a sustainable quantity of magical power, to be transmitted at a constant rate from within a radius of six kilometers. The upkeep of said weapon's biological necessities while maintaining human form. The defense of said weapon from other weapons that may cause her explosive and catastrophic organ failure and/or breakage, most notably Darkrune."

Rayden grinned and straightened pridefully as Gehenna shot him a wary glance, no doubt pleased by the fear he had inspired.

"In return for abiding by said weapon's wishes to lead a life free of constant battle and having conflict forced upon her for so long as this pact is in effect, the final obligation, that of surrendering your soul to said weapon upon your death for her personal consumption, shall be waived." Gehenna sighed as she finished. "Any questions?"

The adventurers' expressions ranged from disbelief to anger.

"Wait, that's IT?" K asked, sound indignant. "What do you give us in return for feeding, caring for, and protecting you?"

"Maybe she'll give us unwanted criticism and snarky comments. That's the deal that you worked out," Ranma deadpanned, causing K to wince in embarrassment.

"It does seem an awful lot of trouble, particularly the part about preventing Shikodan from killing you," Kaze explained as he shook his head.

"Can I break her now?" Said dark paladin asked as he started cracking his knuckles.

"See? It's a far greater chore than you probably imagined."

Gehenna planted her hands on her curvaceous hips, refusing to be cowed so easily. "It is your group that is in the wrong from getting me ejected from my home, killing my previous wielder, and then even depriving me of the spirit he had willingly bequeathed unto me! And I should point out that he had no problem taking similar terms when he agreed to wield me."

"Yeah, well I don't think he was imagining fencing practice when he thought of all the 'swordplay' he was going to use you for," K mumbled.

"Okay, so here's how this is going to work," Ranma began. "You're going to make your pact with Rayden."

Gehenna blanched. "The avatar? Why?"

"Well, he's really the only suitable one, when you think about it," Ranma explained, approaching the redhead. "Neither Kaze or K are weapons-users, and you'd just manipulate them whenever you wanted. Ray has magic power to spare, he seems to hate your guts, and I'm pretty sure it's impossible for you to eat his soul even if you trick him."

"But wait! What about you?" Gehenna demanded. "I'll do the pact with you instead!"

"I doubt that," Ranma deadpanned as he reached out and took the demon weapon's hand. He smirked as Gehenna gasped in shock. "You might not have noticed earlier, in the mansion, but..."

"You have no magical power... Not even a drop," Gehenna mumbled, her voice equal parts wonder and horror. "How is this possible? Even the normal flow of magical power should... But you can't even..."

Ranma shrugged. "Yeah, it's a little weird. Anyway, if we're gonna do this you'll be leeching Ray's magic for the forseeable future."

"I already have Darkrune, though," the demonic warrior noted. "I mean, I guess I can dual-wield 'em, but I'd be much better with just my sword."

"Don't worry about it," Ranma said, smiling as he turned his head. "She'll be my weapon, not yours."

Kaze raised an eyebrow. "So... Shikodan takes on the maintenance and risk of bonding with a demonic tool... and you actually use the tool for your own benefit?"

Ranma nodded. "That sounds about right." Then he glanced at Rayden. "That okay with you?"

Rayden hesitated, frowning. "Can I kick her whenever I feel like it?"

"NO," Ranma said firmly. "You can only kick her when she's being legitimately annoying."

"You're the boss," said the dark paladin, turning toward Gehenna. "All right, let's do this."

"I object!" The demonic tool in question shouted. "This one is COMPLETELY unsuitable as a master!"

"Right, that reminds me," Ranma said, snapping his fingers, "if we're going to do all that crap you said we had to do, then you're going to have to work for us, too. Meaning you're going to have to get used to being a weapon again, at least some of the time."

The redheaded demoness clenched her teeth. "And why should I, the aggrieved party, have to agree to such terms?"

"Two reasons," Ranma said simply. "One, while it's true that you got a raw deal when Rakkyo tricked us, you ALSO ate my sword." The pigtailed man glared as he crossed his arms over his chest. "So right now I have NO magic weapons, and it's YOUR fault."

Gehenna scoffed. "You should be thanking me for ridding you of that eyesore. No self-respecting warrior would use such a thing."

A vein popped up on Ranma's head as he continued. "That brings me to the second reason: Rayden would really rather break you here and now, and I'm trying my hardest to come up with reasons to stop him," the pigtailed man growled, "it'd help a lot if you were less of a pain."

Gehenna turned to stare pensively at the Dread Knight, who in turn stared back expectantly. "I don't like the idea of forming a contract with the man the killed my last master and then cheated me out of his soul."

"You have a valid point," Ranma admitted. "On the other hand, you don't have a lot of options, here. Either take it or we'll shatter you so you can't run around draining other people's souls."

"Tch!" Gehenna clicked her tongue irritably as she approached the other demon. "I truly do have no choice, then. Very well. I shall submit to this indignity for now. However, don't be surprised if I find a far more suitable master in short order."

"So long as you're not surprised when we fail to give a damn," Ranma agreed. "Now hurry up and do your magic mumbo-jumbo so Ray can make breakfast; I'm not going to give up my meal for this nonsense."

Gehenna hesitated a long while before finally and reluctantly placing a hand against Rayden's chest. "I assume you're familiar with this sort of pact?"

"Yeah, I know how this goes. Not the first time I've offered up a chunk of myself to some freak in exchange for power."

After clearing his throat, the dark paladin spoke again. "I, Rayden Shikodan, first among the Dread Knights and chosen of Kharak, do swear by the pact of the demon blade Gehenna, and bind myself to the contract of souls. Insofar as this contract WON'T actually take my soul, anyway. Serve me, Gehenna, and I shall serve in turn as a master does."

"Wow. Ray wasn't kidding when he said he knew this thing," K murmured.

Kaze raised an eyebrow. "Is it just me, or does this pact somewhat resemble a... marriage ceremony?"

Ranma shuddered. "REAL glad I don't have to do this with her."

Gehenna nodded as the two demons continued their ceremony, ignoring the spectators. "Rayden, I accept your patronage and offer you my subservience... where srtictly necessary. Henceforth I shall call you - er, wait, I suppose that would be Ranma, actually - Master, and reap a bloody tally in his name. Henceforth, until such a time as your wasted bones lie bare in the sunlight, broken, twisted and frozen in a grim pantomime of your painful, agonized demise, I am in your care."

Rayden frowned. "That part about the bones isn't supposed to be there."

"It's simply my creative take on what your death will hopefully be like," Gehenna said through a happy smile.

"Wow, it IS like they're married," K murmured.

Rayden shrugged off the verbal hostility of the other demon, and then took her by the shoulders. "It is done. Let the pact be sealed."

And then, to the utter shock of the spectators, the two demons kissed.

It wasn't a long or passionate contact, nor did it seem like either of them enjoyed it, but still the sight of the pair locking lips so soon after affirming that they each wanted the other dead caught the others competely flat-footed.

Rayden broke the kiss first, and then sighed as he turned away from Gehenna. "Well, glad THAT'S over with. Who wants breakfast?"

Shocked silence greeted his question. "What? You guys aren't hungry?"

Gehenna cocked her head to one side. "YOU can cook? How amusing," the redhead murmured, sidling up next to the swordsman.

Ranma was the first to shake off his surprise in favor of sating his hunger. "Right! Breakfast! Right..." He started to walk off, looking uncomfortable. "I'll go find some edible plants to go with the rations."

"Thanks!" Rayden said obliviously as he started to rummage through their supplies mounted on the back of the hover bike. Gehenna glanced between the two men, and then slinked off in the direction Ranma went.

Just as Rayden was withdrawing some salted meats, he noticed that K and Kaze were standing right behind him, staring intently.

"So... how was it?" K asked when the Dread Knight gave him a questioning look.

Rayden frowned. "Eh, not too bad, actually. There was a little bit of an energy drain at first, like that feeling when you fire off a really big spell, but after-"

"No, no, we were referring to the kiss," Kaze said quickly.

Rayden's expression darkened. "Really? I just completed an ancient ritual binding my fate to that of a soul-devouring demon sword, and your question is about the kiss?"

"You know, you could have given a full answer in the time it took you to state the obvious like that," K pointed out.

The Dread Knight rolled his eyes. "Fine. To answer your question, I've had better," he said blithely as he started unwrapping the food.

The two lecherous scholars recoiled at the response, each one pale with shock.

"Y-Y-YOU'VE had better? As in better k-kisses?" K stuttered.

"So... many... questions!" Kaze said, clutching his head as if in pain.

"Well, keep 'em to yourself," Rayden said as he took out a carving knife and a water jug, "I'm in this group strictly for the purposes of taking and causing damage, not swapping gossip."

Kaze stepped up next to Rayden. "Gossip? But your rank in the Third Brotherhood is no mere gossip! Why didn't you tell us that you were an avatar?"

"It's not THAT important," the demon grumbled.

"Of course it is!" K shouted, landing on Rayden's head and curling his neck to stare upside-down into the swordsman's eyes. "There's only one of you, right? You're like the boss of the whole cult!"

"Not really, no," Rayden said sharply, swatting the metadragon off of his head. The tiny beast yelped but righted himself in the air, swooping around to land onto the flat cargo section of the hover bike where Rayden was trying to cook.

"Really? Fascinating. Tell us more," Kaze asked, steepling his fingers.

Rayden growled as he started cutting the meat. "Look, is this really necessary? Why do you even care?"

Kaze took a step back, gesturing to himself grandly. "Why do I care? Because I aim to be a hero of justice, Shikodan!"

"You've got a bloody long ways to go," K said bluntly.

"Indeed I do!" Kaze agreed. "And one field I wish to specialize in is the recognition of demons as productive and useful members of society!"

"So you want to specialize in lying?" Rayden asked sarcastically. "Demons are killers and marauders. There are exceptions, but they're just that: exceptions."

"I'm not convinced that's true," Kaze said firmly, resting on his staff as he leaned forward. "I have seen demons willing to sell their lives for ideals and individuals rather than personal gain, and seen others act as law-abiding as any elf when constrained by civilization. Demons are generally rather intelligent; surely it can't be that hard to teach them the benefits of law and order."

The evon looked off into the distance, as if in deep contemplation. "Before one can affect change of any significance, one must have understanding. I did not set out to learn the ways of the demon and bring them enlightenment, and I certainly don't know if it's within my abilities, but I wish to try."

He turned around again and pounded his chest. "That is now my mission! I wish to learn all about you and your upbringing in order to further my understanding of the demonic elite which rule your savage settlements."

Rayden snorted as he finished with the meat. "Well, then you're wasting your time. I'm not one of the elite."

K snorted right back. "Don't give us that! You're a freaking avatar!"

Rayden said nothing as he started building a pit for a fire. "It's not like that," the demon knight finally mumbled. "I'm a fallen avatar."

"A what now?" K asked, edging closer.

"A fallen avatar. Or false avatar, or disgraced avatar, or whatever. I was chosen by the blade Darkrune to be the next Prince of War, but I wasn't strong enough. I failed again and again to prove myself as a Dread Knight, and eventually the others cast me out until I become worthy."

Kaze and K seemed rather taken aback by the explanation; not so much because Rayden was exiled, for they could easily imagine the belligerent demon getting into ill-advised fights, but rather because he was exiled for being weak.

"Yeesh, seriously? What kind of freaks do they have that can look down on YOU?" K asked.

"All kinds," Rayden said seriously. "So now you know the story: I'm a failure of an avatar who's lost any right to the title besides having this sword."

"No, we do not know the story," Kaze objected, slamming his hands onto the table. "We know the ending. I wish to know more! How were you inducted into the cult? How did you come across Darkrune? In what way did you fail your obligations?" The priest seemed more and more excited as he listed his queries, to which Rayden seemed to get more and more annoyed.

"All right, all right, FINE," Rayden groused. "Let me tell you the short version, at least." He started rummaging through the supplies again to find a cooking tin. "So, first off, let me tell you about my mother, High Priestess Tellana... and how she bought me AND Darkrune from this guy named Doppler Thaeramon..."

"Something the matter?"

Ranma glanced behind hims to where Gehenna stood, her arms crossed under her breasts and a curious expression on her face.

"No, not really," Ranma mumbled as he gathered some sort of wrinkled green fruits that had fallen from a tree.

"You looked slightly upset at the end of the ritual. Surely you're not feeling jealous already?" The redhead quipped.

"No, I think that's just when it really hit me that we're actually going to have to put up with you from now on," Ranma replied with a sigh. "I was really expecting the whole magic dealie to fail and for Ray to break you on the spot."

A vein popped up on Gehenna's head. "You do not seem pleased by my company."

"Nothing personal," Ranma mumbled as he finished packing away the greens into his inexplicably voluminous pockets, "but picking up a greedy demon who happens to eat useful items wasn't what I had in mind when I imagined topping off the team. It's like you're a combination of all our group's worst traits."

Ignoring Gehenna's mounting indignation, Ranma sighed again. "Plus you're a woman, which doesn't bother me, but it means that Kaze and K are going to be hounding you while Ray will probably be looking for reasons to get rid of you."

He glanced back at the demonic weapon. "Actually, I don't suppose you have a different human form available and only used that one to trick Rakkyo, do you?"

"NO, I do NOT," Gehenna snapped. "This is my true form, the base from which I become the weapon sought by my wielder! I have no other body save the forms of the weapons I consume."

Ranma filed that tidbit away for later as he shrugged. "Worth a shot. So why'd you follow me, anyway? Not much to do here."

"It was... abrupt and rather coercive, but our pact is legitimate and our bond has been forged," Gehenna admitted, walking past Ranma as she looked the human over. "We're going to be together for some time, so I thought we should get to know each other better."

'Great, she's the talkative sort,' Ranma grumbled in his head. He had gotten that impression before, but having her here with him, alone, drove the point home.

"I don't see why you'd want to know more about ME," Ranma mumbled as he searched some bushes looking for edible roots, "isn't Rayden your pact master or something?"

"Rayden is an incompetent thug," Gehenna snapped. "I can't fathom why I should have to be tethered to that one. Really, he's little better than a common beast!"

"Well, considering that our other options were the pervert or the UNcommon beast, you got off lucky. Besides, Rayden isn't half as scary as he acts."

"He's the blooming AVATAR of the ancient of destruction," Gehenna deadpanned.

"Yeah, about that," Ranma mumbled as he started digging, "I'm not so sure that's true. Rayden seems pretty... clumsy for an avatar. Maybe he's new or something, but in any case you're making way too much of it."

He dug out some plump-looking roots and then stood up before wiping off the knees of his pants. "Besides, I've fought Rayden. If all the talk about how powerful the Third Brotherhood is has any truth to it, Ray's WAY too weak to be any kind of big shot."

Gehenna was silent for several seconds after that, observing her master carefully.

It was difficult not to wonder what kind of power Ranma possessed to dismiss the Dread Knight's strength so easily. To say nothing of the way that the human so casually bossed the larger warrior around.

'He's strong, certainly. Stronger than Diegon,' the demonic weapon thought. 'But he and his lackeys seem to regard me as an annoyance that's been forced onto them, rather than an ally. That will have to change.'

"Hey, can I ask you a question?" Ranma asked suddenly, drawing Gehenna's attention.

"Certainly. I am at your beck and call," the redhead replied with a smirk.

"That... ritual you did with Ray..." The pigtailed man started, uncertain of how to continue. "Well... Koz said it reminded him of a marriage ceremony. And it did kind of look like one, especially with the kiss at the end. So, uh... Is there some connection?"

Gehenna snorted as she clasped her hands behind her back. "Perhaps. Although I've never actually seen a 'wedding,' my understanding is that such pacts have only been around for ten thousand years or so among human societies. The demonic pact's history stretches back much farther, so if one is derived from the other, it would be the wedding ceremony that came from the pact."

"So... The concept of marriage came from ancient ritual for tethering someone to a demon that would eventually get him killed and devour his soul?" Ranma asked, scratching his chin.

"And with considerable penalty and hardship if the pact were ever broken," Gehenna agreed.

Ranma shook his head as he dashed forward, running up the side of a tree and bouncing up atop a thick branch. "There's another thing that's been bothering me..."

"And what would that be?" Gehenna asked. "The pact was actually rather-"

"Not about the pact. About this place," Ranma mumbled as he scanned the horizon. Dead, leafless trees seemed to stretch out in every direction, creating a bleak gray canopy over the empty wasteland and scattered brush. "Why did Rakkyo send us here?"

Gehenna looked confused. "Because he didn't want us where we were? What makes you think he put any thought into it?"

"Teleporting people isn't a little thing, right? You don't just zap somebody away to some random location," the pigtailed man mused. "Even if he didn't care where we ended up, he had this place set up as a destination, right?"

Gehenna looked uncertain. "Probably... I'm not terribly familiar with the particulars of spellcraft."

"So if we can assume that this place actually has some significance to the old bastard, it makes me wonder if there's something important here."

Ranma jumped down from the tree, grimacing. "But more importantly than that, I'm pretty sure we're being watched."

"Watched?" Gehenna glanced about uncertainly. "I can't claim to have any notable skills of perception, but I don't see anyone other than us."

Ranma frowned as he walked around a large rock outcropping, his eyes scanning the horizon repeatedly. "When I was in China, I came up against these weird invisible zombies. They could stalk their targets for a good amount of time before they attacked."

Ranma spent several more seconds searching the empty wasteland before he turned around. "Then again, I could sense them, so it's probably this thing, here." he grumbled.

Then he kicked the rock pile next to him.

Gehenna's eyes widened as one of the massive, oblong boulders immediately shifted up, as if flinching back from the impact. "What is it? An elemental?"

Ranma frowned, noticing that the rocks didn't respond any further to his attack. "Dunno. Let's find out."

Ranma snapped his wrist to the side, and a small metal cylinder slipped out into his hand.

"What's that thing? Some sort of magic item?" Gehenna asked, moving closer to her master while keeping an eye on the rock pile.

"I guess it's what you clueless demons would call 'steel magic'. I'm not limited to using swords and stuff," Ranma explained condescendingly as he tossed the cylinder into the air and then caught it. "Specifically, this is a concussion grenade. Now we-"

TWANG! Ranma jerked his arm out of the way as a shard of stone struck the grenade in his hand, sending it flying behind him and almost cutting open his bicep in the process.

The pigtailed man leapt back as Gehenna did the same, their eyes locked on the suspicious rock pile.

"Well, it's a lot more livey than it looks, isn't it?" Ranma quipped. "All right, we know you're alive, so come on up! I've got more explosives where that came from!"

A rumbling groan came from the outcropping as the boulders began to shift, and then a booming, surprisingly eloquent voice spoke up.

"And why, precisely, do I have top suffer this indignity?" Said the boulder pile with a distinctly British accent as it slowly rearranged itself in front of them. The largest boulders became four bulky, single-jointed legs that supported a base and torso made up of smaller stones haphazardly mashed together. The torso built up to a triangular plane, and three bulky arms floated next to each corner, tethered by a mysterious and evidently invisible energy. Each arm ended in a blocky fist formed from a loose collection of smaller pebbles that constantly swirled and shifted, as if trying to maintain its shape while fighting reason itself.

Its head was a single, mishappen piece of obsidian, notably different from the other stones, and had a single large ruby sunken into it, which Ranma guessed served as an eye.

"I'm asking seriously, now," the golem said as it rose up to it's full height, at nearly twenty-five feet. "I was just laying there. Not bothering anybody! And then some slanty-eyed wanker comes along and starts kickin' things and tossing explosives around! Who do you think you are?"

Ranma and Gehenna stared upward for quite some time, utterly silent.

"That's... That's a golem, right?" Gehenna asked uncertainly.

"Pretty sure," Ranma mumbled as he scratched his head.

"You could ask me, you know," the golem said bitterly. "I'm right here! I speak the queen's English! Bloody hell, you could NOT be more rude!"

"I've never heard of a chatty golem before," Ranma admitted. "Maybe it's actually some kind of elemental demon?"

"Oi! What did you call me?" The golem snapped as it raised the arm facing Ranma and Gehenna. It immediately crumbled and reformed in the air, creating a long gun barrel that it pointed right at Ranma's face. "Say 'at again! Say it! I dare you!"

The pigtailed man said nothing for several seconds, staring up into the golem's eye.

Then he finally turned toward Gehenna again. "Well, we should probably get this stuff back to Ray."

"Yes," Gehenna agreed solemnly, turning her gaze away from the massive stone construct, "I'm rather hungry as well."

"Wait, so let me get this straight," Ranma said as he started walking away, "you consume magical power, magical weapons, souls, AND food? Isn't that a bit much to fuel one person?"

Gehenna shrugged. "I am hardly responsible for the peculiar nature of my metabolism, it's just-"

"STOP IGNORING ME!" Screamed a booming voice from above before a huge, boulder-like leg slammed into the ground between the two.

Gehenna and Ranma both jumped back away from the impact, and ended up bouncing directly into the golem's hands before it closed its fists tightly around each of them.

"Ah HA! Gotcha now, you wily little-" the golem stopped speaking abruptly as Ranma twisted within its grip, slipping through its fingers before dropping down and landing on its leg.

"Oh. Well... I've still got your lady, so don't even try-"

Once again, the golem fell silent, and it felt the mass within its fist vanish before a tiny dagger fell through its fingers and dropped onto the ground.

"Oi, oi... You aren't any ordinary wankers, are ye?" The golem mumbled as he opened his hand, finding no sign of Gehenna.

"Well, you don't seem to be any ordinary golem," Ranma countered. "What are you supposed to be?"

"My NAME is Jeremiah," the golem growled, two of its arms swiveling about to encircle the martial artist.

"Don't be ridiculous," said Gehenna's voice, sounding particularly snide. "A mere doll like yourself has no need for a name."

"Says the talking dagger named Gehenna," Ranma snapped back, pre-empting Jeremiah.

"Whot? Dagger?" The golem asked, backing up as its single eye scanned the ground. "Oi, there it is! Blimey, is that really her?"

"Yeah, it is. Don't worry, you can ignore her," Ranma said. "So. Jerry. What is-"

"The name's JEREMIAH," the golem boomed. "Call me 'Jerry' again, and I'll be calling you 'Spot', if you catch my drift."

Ranma considered this as he scratched his shoulder. "Well, I don't really mind, but I have this thing I do where I change people's names to whatever I feel like to show how much I look down on them. You really feel like one of those kinds of characters."

"Oh, really?" Jeremiah said dangerously. "You're a mite short to be looking DOWN on me, lad."

Ranma's lips quirked into a smile. "Well, we can fix that."

And then he jabbed a finger down into Jeremiah's leg. "Bakusai tenketsu."


Jeremiah yelped as one of its four legs suddenly exploded, and staggered to one side as it tried to keep its balance.

Ranma fell to the ground throught the shower of bursting rock, holding his cloak against the shrapnel.

"Ha! I knew that breaking point would be handy!" The martial artist crowed as he leapt to the side, dodging a leg that tried to smash him into a paste.

Ranma snapped up Gehenna from off the ground, and then tucked into a roll as one of Jeremiah's hands reached down to grab him.

"Too slow, Jerry!" Ranma yelled as he leapt away from the stone fingers, landing out of the golem's reach.

"The name..." The golem mumbled furiously as one of its arms shifted into the long gun barrel from before, "IS JEREMIAH!"

BLAM! Ranma was, of course, expecting the gun barrel to do something gun-like, and it didn't disappoint as a huge shotgun-blast spread of rock shards tore through the air toward him.

Even though he was already moving, Ranma still caught the edge of the blast, and the wanderer grunted as several stone shards cut through his arm and shoulder guard and scored cuts over his side.

Thunk! A large, cylinder-shaped chunk of granite popped out of the back of Jeremiah's weapon as the golem barked out a laugh.

"Ha! Not so cocky now, are ye?" Jeremiah taunted, though Ranma noted that it seemed to be wobbling unsteadily as it tried to keep its balance on three legs.

"Hmph! I've had about enough of this clown!" Gehenna said from within Ranma's grip. "Let's finish him off!"

"No, I don't think so..." Ranma mumbled. Then he shouted up at the golem. "Okay, okay! You got to show us your neat giant rock shotgun! You happy now?"

"It IS neat, innit?" Jeremiah said happily, holding up the gun-arm. "But seriously now, you detonated one of my legs."

"Aw, don't be like that, Jerry!" Ranma said, an insufferable grin on his face. "We were just fooling around, right Jerry? You shoot at me, I dismember you, it's all in good fun, eh JERRY?"

The golem had no face as such, and therefore no way of expressing the incandescent rage it was feeling beyond simple speech and body language.

In making a decision between the two, Jeremiah chose body language. And all concerned could agree that the three huge gun barrels being leveled at Ranma made its displeasure abundantly clear.

"It's been a pleasure, lad... Is what I would say if I wasn't programmed to never lie," Jeremiah spat. "But since I am, I must say that I'm just sorry that you're going to die quick."

This time Ranma swung the cape over himself, hiding his body before the trio of cannon blasts gouged a ragged hole in the earth. Jeremiah laughed as it watched the cloak get smashed into the ground; even though its shots hadn't penetrated the accessory - naturally it was enchanted somehow, they always were - the force behind the shots were enough to turn even obnoxiously tough humanoids into mulch.

"Oi, you still alive?" Jeremiah asked as three stone shot casings were ejected behind it.

Thunk! "Ow! Careful where you toss those things!" Ranma said as he rubbed his head, frowning at the casing that had just fallen on him.

"Oh, sorry guv'na," Jeremiah said as it glanced back behind it. "Didn't see you... there..."

The golem trailed off as Ranma walked up behind it and calmly grabbed one of it's remaining legs.

"Bakusai tenketsu," Ranma said blandly as he flexed his fingers experimentally, "again."

BWOOM! Jeremiah yelped as another of its legs vanished into a cloud of shrapnel, and it windmilled its massive arms uselessly in an attempt to stay upright as gravity relentlessly pulled it backward.

"No no no no nonononoNOOOOO!" Thwud!

Ranma smirked at the stone construct, and then leapt onto the golem's base before rebounding off onto an arm and walking up its length onto a shoulder.

"Well, did Jerry learn his lesson?" Ranma asked as the dagger in his hand glowed brightly and shifted into a heavy maul.

Jeremiah grunted bitterly. "My name is Jerem-"

The golem stuttered in a panic as Ranma raised the maul into the air.

"Jerry! I'm Jerry! Nice to meet you!" Jerry said desperately. "Sorry about the violence! Didn't mean it! Honest!"

As Ranma lowered Gehenna, he heard a snort come from the demon weapon. "A golem that knows fear? What an absurd concept."

"Yeah, really. Who makes weapons with a sense of self-preservation?" Ranma deadpanned as he tossed the maul down onto the ground. Gehenna shifted back to her human shape before landing lightly on the ground and sticking her tongue out at her master.

"Whatever. You beat me. Blew half me bloody legs off. You happy now? Can you leave me in peace?" Jerry asked irritably.

"No. First tell me who built you, why, and where we can find he or she," Ranma demanded.

"Interrogatin' the construct, are we? Bloody brilliant," Jerry grumbled. "Very well then, if you want to interrogate me, you must answer a riddle."

Gehenna clicked her tongue. "Really, now? We already have you at our mercy, why should we let you make demands?" She asked.

A vein popped up on Ranma's head. "Gehenna, are you familiar with the word 'irony' at all?" He snapped. Then he turned back to the golem. "All right, fine. Lay it on me."

Jerry made a noise that simulated it clearing its throat, and then spoke. "What sounds like a duck, looks like a duck, and swims like a duck?"

Ranma was dead silent for nearly five seconds before he asked back. "Wait... it's not a duck, righ-"

"Duck is correct!" Jerry said, clapping two of its massive hands together. "You've solved Jerry's riddle! I may now answer any and all questions you have."

"Okay, first question: what kind of stupid riddle was that?" Ranma snapped.

"Hey, I don't make the rules, I just enforce them with an obsidian fist," Jerry explained.

"Fine, then who DOES make the rules?" Ranma asked.

"Same guy who made me, of course. Lord Genex Karl," Jerry said, its voice rich with pride. "I'm a master golem of the golem master, as it were. Heh heh."

Ranma glanced down over the edge of the golem's body. "Gehenna, that ring any bells?"

"Not at all, though I'm hardly the one to ask," the demon weapon admitted. "We should question the others back at camp."

"Blimey, there're more of you wankers?" Jerry groaned.

"Yeah, and they're WAY more annoying than me, so you'd better answer as best you can," Ranma warned. "Why are you out here? What's your job?"

"I'm a sentry. I sit out here in hidin', and then jump on folk that I think might start a tussle," Jerry explained. "Funny thing is, you lot looked pretty safe to me... until you attacked me and blew off me legs."

"Yeah, that is funny," Ranma said, chuckling lightly. "So when you engage an attacker, you just fight 'em off yourself, or do you have any buddies out here?"

"Nothin' besides the jakku. Nasty little beasties. Whenever me cannon fires, they always swarm the area and drag off the bits of intruder."

Gehenna raised an eyebrow. "What are these 'jakku'? I've never heard of such creatures."

"Undead, lass, and not the slow, stumbly kind, either!" Jerry warned. "They're fast, and armed with necroblades! What's more - and really, this is the important part - they're completely invisible!"

"Aw, crap," Ranma said suddenly, massaging his head. "Those are the freaks I ran into in China that I was talking about. Not too tough, but tricky bastards."

"Well, if you don't care for them, you'd best leg it, because usually they would have arrived by now," the golem said, its single eye moving back and forth. "Actually... where the hell are they? Their response time has never been THIS bad."

Gehenna shrugged. "Maybe they ran into trouble along the way."

Ranma looked skeptical. "Trouble? Out here? There's nothing around for miles."

Then he frowned. "Well, nothing except for our camp."

Ranma was silent for several seconds as Gehenna stared at him expectantly.

"Uh oh..."

"And that's most of the story. Most of that angel tribe is gone. Maybe all of it. I never bothered to look for any survivors," Rayden explained as he slathered a marinade over some chunks of meat roasting over a fire. "After that I was taken back into the cult, but I still failed all my trials, so the ecclesiarchy got tired of looking after me and Mom got tired of my constantly disappointing her. I was booted out and told not to return to the cathedral until I was strong enough to be a proper avatar. Soon after that, I get my ass kicked by some teenage kid facing off against dragons, and here I am."

Sitting behind him, their bodies stiff and their expressions dark, sat Kaze and K, the latter having returned to human form.

Neither said anything immediately, each of them completely overwhelmed by what they had just heard.

"I... I can't... imagine..." Kaze mumbled, his voice leaden as it trailed off.

K groped for something to say, but was even more lost for words.

"Does... Master Saotome know about this?" Kaze ventured.

"Nah. He doesn't care. And I like it that way," the Dread Knight said bluntly. "He doesn't need to hear my sob story or about how much of a loser I am. He's seen enough of that since we met up."

"Also, he might be a little upset at all the genocide," K said, still sounding dazed.

"Yeah, that too," Rayden admitted. "Anyway, that's the short version. Now you know why I don't toss around the 'avatar' title or really talk about my past. And hopefully you've given up on that nonsense about teaching demons to be civil."

"Not at all!" Kaze said sauddenly, standing upright as his voiced flushed with emotion. "Your... society, if I may call it that, is clearly capable of law and order! Well, actually, you already have a fair bit of that already! It's just a bit... too lethal and indiscriminate!"

Rayden sweatdropped as the evon looked even more determined. "Besides, even if demons are inevitably inclined to violent behavior, that still doesn't preclude civil coexistence! There are many legitimate applications for savage violence! What army doesn't employ a few demonic shock troopers nowadays?"

Rayden rolled his eyes as he stepped back from his cooking. "Yeah, okay, whatever you say."

"I'm serious! And why should someone like yourself have to suffer for failing to meet the pointless and absurd expectations of your peers?"

Rayden growled slightly as he turned to the evon. "Look, don't start preaching to me, all right? I told you the stupid story because you wouldn't stop bugging me, not because I wanted your sympathy! My 'peers' judge me to be weak because I am! I don't need to be told that I'm strong enough, I need to stand atop a mountain of corpses and PROVE it!"

SHUNK! As if to punctuate the exclamation, a trio of talons burning with a strange green energy suddenly burst from Rayden's stomach, having impaled him from behind.

"Ooh... That's not a good start," K mumbled, grimacing as he watched blood and bile seep from the wound as the magical blades withdrew from their target.

While Kaze seemed stunned by the sudden attack, Rayden released an inarticulate cry of rage and swung around, sweeping a backhand blindly at roughly shoulder level.

His fury was rewarded by a savage cracking noise, and a shabbily-armored corpse shimmered into visibility as it went sailing through the air, eventually skidding across the rocky ground and leaving a long furrow in the dirt.

"We're under attack!" Kaze shouted, activating a series of prepared spells that instantly erected a series of magical barriers around him.

Those barriers crackled and seethed as a pair of claws brushed against the exterior shield, causing glowing runes to flare brightly as sparks of green danced across its surface.

K, being by far the most vulnerable, quickly shrunk back to his draconic form just as a trio of bright green arcs sliced through where his human throat had been.

"It's those things! Those things from the village!" The metadragon cried as he took off, gaining altitude as quickly as he could.

"What the hell're you talking about?" Rayden demanded as he drew his sword, glancing about but seeing no targets. Blood still seeped freely from his abdominal wound, but he ignored it with ease as his mind concentrated fully on the battle at hand.

"Invisible zombies!" K shouted. "They'll surround you before they attack!"

"Invisible ZOMBIES? That's ridic-" was a far as Rayden got before a curling trail of emerald flame drilled into his throat.

The Dread Knight wasted no time in guessing the location of his assailant, as a broad horizontal sweep sent two halves of the iron-masked abomination spinning wildly through the air.

"Augh! Klaugh!" Rayden promptly staggered after the strike, grasping his neck and gasping painfully.

"Invisibility, is it?" Kaze muttered darkly as more claws brushed lightly across his barriers, leaving shimmering trails of dissipating green. The creatures assaulting him weren't committing to an attack yet, seeing that he wasn't as vulnerable as his larger ally yet.

"Hmph! Don't think such simple illusions will work on me!" Kaze boomed as he held his staff into the air. "Those who hide behind deceptions and within shadows, let the light of your judgment be your undoing! Reveal yourself, scum! Illumination of Agoth!"

A corona of light surrounded the Eye of Malakai, and it swiftly built into a shimmering halo that exploded across the field all around them.

The effect was instantaneous: dozens of thin, shriveled-looking humanoids with their faces masked with iron and their hands replaced by three-taloned claws staggered backward as they were revealed to mundane sight, as if physically clubbed by the undoing of their crucial magics.

Blinking away the magical light, the jakku swiftly shifted back into their attack formation, not making any adjustements to account for their sudden exposure. Formed up in loose packs that hunched down roughly ten feet away from their prey, Kaze could now see that the undead assassins had been making attack runs at them one at a time, no doubt testing their reactions.

Unusually cautious for undead. He couldn't help but wonder if there was a directing influence among the creatures.

"Shikodan! Can you still fight?" Kaze shouted as he pulled a book from beneath his robes.

Rayden held up three fingers as he continued holding a hand over his bleeding throat, still gasping painfully.

"Understood," Kaze said as the book floated from his hand and opened before him, the pages flipping of their own accord until they reached the appropriate page. "Blighted undead! May the searing light of Heaven cleanse the flesh from your wasted bones! Astral Cutlass!"

With a sharp horizontal arc of his finger in front of him, a thin beam of bright white light blasted from the priest's fingertip and swept across the line of skulking zombies. Blinding flares of light bloomed where the beam gouged deeply into the dank, twisted flesh of its targets, and great pyres of radiant flame sawed across the ground from the sweeping arc.

Kaze quickly started flipping through the book once more to the next spell, subconsciously aware that the jakku were reorganizing themselves after the last attack. "K! Go find Master Saotome, would you? We may need the help if they have reinforcements!"

"Right! On my way!" the metadragon shouted as he took off away from the battlefield.

Kaze turned his hand out toward Rayden as he saw four of the jakku break their line to finish off the wounded swordsman. "White Wing!"

Bolts of sparking light burst from Kaze's hand and flew in wild, unpredictable arcs around Rayden, slamming into each jakku and eliciting a hollow, gasping scream from behind the plates of metal bolted over their faces.

As the creatures staggered, however, one of them regained the initiative and darted for its target, unheeding of the wisps of mystical smoke that poured from its side. Twisting as it approached the gasping demon, it brought its claws up toward the abdomen to tear at the wound that already existed there.

Instead, it found its wrist caught by an impossibly strong grip as a pair of crimson eyes glowered at it.

"Annoying little bastards," Rayden growled as he hauled the jakku up by its wrist and then grabbed its hip. His throat, which had previously leaked blood profusely, was whole once more, the wound covered by a seething black substance that resembled pitch, but melded with Rayden's skin as if it was a part of it.

With a contemptuous grunt, Rayden tore the jakku in two, and then threw each body part into one of the other jakku that had been charging him. The last one earned a backhand that sent it flailing through the air as the Dread Knight recovered his sword.

Kaze unleashed another volley of light bolts as the jakku began to scatter. "Ah! You're back early! I thought you were going to need three minutes!"

"What are you talking about?" Rayden growled as a sweep of his blade launched an energy wave into the assassins. "Three fingers means three seconds!"

Kaze blinked. "Oh... well, in that case, you're a bit late, aren't you?"

"Deal with it!" The Dread Knight snapped as he charged recklessly into the swarm of undead, his fury burning in his eyes as black whips of electricity seethed around his arms.

Kaze sighed as he thrust out a hand to the side. "Light Nova!" Another few jakku screeched as they were incinerated by the brilliant magical energy, but the priest of Malakai couldn't help but notice that they weren't as bunched up as before, and were therefore harder to destroy en masse.

Of course, that made it easier for Rayden to butcher them one by one, and Kaze could see out of the corner of his eye that the demonic paladin was taking up the challenge with gusto, reducing jakku after jakku to piles of chopped meat and shredded metal.

'But why aren't they attacking?' the evon mused as he moved on to his next spell, the book before him flipping rapidly through its litany of rituals. "Well, it's a bit conventional for my taste, but still effective. FIREBALL!"

A sphere of roaring flame erupted from his outstretched palms as the Eye of Malakai glowed softly, lending its power to the deadly magics and turning the flames from a furious red to a purifying white.

BWOOM! The explosion was intense as its washed through the dry trees and rock outcroppings, sending flaming bodies every which way as magical fire cleansed rotting flesh from enchanted bone.

Kaze once again took a moment to review the battlefield, and frowned as he found himself surrounded, with the dozen or so surviving jakku slowly circling him at a range of about thirty feet.

'Are they really going to just stand there and let themselves be destroyed at range? Hmph. The strategy of the dead, I suppose,' the priest thought as he once again summoned motes of light to his hands.

Crack! It was only his precautionary barriers that saved his life. A thick length of wood, capped by a barbed spearhead, shattered in front of his eyes as his outermost shield collapsed.

The evon stumbled backward as the spell's patterns slipped from his thoughts, his attention now focused entirely on the battle before him. "Wh-Where did that come from?" He gasped. The shot had come straight at his face, and yet it had appeared out of nowhere. That meant...

All became clear as a vile, giant creature stepped within the magical field that bared the invisible to mortal eyes. Its mask was an all-encompassing helmet, devoid of vision slits, and thick plates of metal were bolted directly into its undead bulk. On its arms Kaze saw the source of the unexpected attack: a huge repeater crossbow bolted directly onto its grubby arm. Its other arm ended in a maul rather than a hand, and this appendage hung limply as the huge zombie lumbered forward.

"Even in ambush, the undead are foolish and predictable," Kaze mumbled as his hands blazed yellow with power. "Fires of the justicar, become... my... uh..."

The priest trailed off as three more of the massive undead stomped into the radius of his enchantment exposing themselves to bare sight. Each one bore an oversized crossbow, though their other arm seemed to be a large melee weapon chosen somewhat at random: a massive butcher's knife, an axe, and the remaining two had hooks and sickles crammed into their ragged wrists to approximate claws.

It was, however, the crossbows that most concerned Kaze as the massive zombies stopped where they were and took aim.

"Shield! Shield! SHIELD!" Kaze called out as a trio of heavy bolts went flying toward him, smashing against his barriers with such force that Kaze staggered and was forced to lean against his staff in his efforts to keep his defenses up.

The fourth bolt was a wild miss, most due to the creature's arm being sliced off and sent rolling onto the ground.

"Hey, it's those hammaku things!" Rayden said as he drew Darkrune around for a second swing, slicing deep into the zombie's side before hauling the blade up and separating its shoulder from the rest of the body. "Haven't seen one of these since China!"

The hammaku, now bereft of its weapons, tried to simply trample the Dread Knight, but as it barged forward Rayden smashed it out of the way with his free hand on his way to the next target.

As Kaze tried to keep his shields up to defend himself, he suddenly felt a new pressure on his barriers, and as he whirled around he saw that the smaller jakku that were left were now assaulting him en masse, scraping their claws against his barrier and climbing over themselves to batter his shields.

"Shikodan, please dispose of the large ones, please!" Kaze requested as he took a deep breath and shifted his mental focus once more to offensive magic, his shields crumbling swiftly.

"Devastating breath of the eastern winds, cold reaching from every corner of the land, become my weapon! Rimehammer!"

Miming a haymaker with a glowing fist, a surge of needle-covered hailstones blasted forth in front of him, pushed by a fierce wind that staggered the oncoming jakku even as the ice cut and bludgeoned them.

Kaze pulled up his staff, calming his mind as he searched for another incantation to stem the tide of enemies.

BLAM! One jakku's chest burst outward as a bullet tore into its back and exploded out through its breast plate, sending it to the ground once more.

"Oops, sorry. Zombie. Forgot. I need a head shot, don't I?" Ranma asked as he hopped down from a rock outcropping.

"Master Saotome!" Kaze cried. "You're just in time! I was very nearly at the end of my rope!"

Ranma casually fired off two more rounds that send two more trembling jakku back down permanently, and then raised an eyebrow. "Really? It looks to me like you two have this handled, actually." He glanced back at Rayden.

Clang! The hammaku grunted blandly as it chopped down with its cleaver-arm, the rust-caked and obnoxiously heavy blade banging uselessly against Darkrune's edge as the Dread Knight blocked.

Pushing aside his foe's weapon, Rayden promptly speared the hammaku straight through its chest plate, laughing as he heard the tip erupt from the zombie's back and punch through a leather binding there.

With an inexplicable burst of black lightning, Rayden sliced upward through the hammaku's body, ripping his sword free amongst a fountain of rot and gore.

Ranma turned away as the dark paladin descended on the last hammaku. "I'm sure you would've done fine."

The pigtailed man deflected a slash away from his face with a long knife, and then sunk a handaxe into the jakku that split its iron mask and skull alike straight open.

"As I've said before, the acceptable margin of error that separates life and death just becomes so much more... forgiving when you're around," Kaze offered, looking quite happy to take a step further back as he prepared his next spell. "Light of Voma!"

A beam of light crashed into another jakku, causing it to convulse briefly before disintegrating on the spot, its flesh burning away from the leather, metal, and bone that remained once the spell had run its course.

Ranma grunted disapprovingly as he dashed under another attacker, and then planted the long knife into the back of its head before grabbing the hilt of a katana at his hip.

"I've got the last one," Ranma said casually as he started to draw.

"Hey, whoa, wait!" the sword called out, "don't use me to cut down one of those grimy corpses! I don't want that thing all over me!"

Ranma halted as a vein popped up on his head. "Well, too bad! It's time to show what you can do!"

Dodging backwards from a claw that trailed green fire, Ranma leaned forward and then drew Gehenna from the katana's sheathe that he had kept her in, aiming to decapitate the jakku in one motion.

He failed utterly in this endeavor as he found that the blade extending from the hilt was little longer than a butter knife.

"Hey! What do you think you're doing?" Ranma demanded as he blocked the jakku's lunge with his gauntlet.

"You wanted to see what I can do, right? Well, I can keep you from mucking up my edge when there's no point to it," Gehenna snapped. "You have plenty of ammunition and blades, you don't need me to kill that thing."

Ranma kicked back at the jakku as it tried to claw at his face, knocking it onto its back. "That's not the point, damn it! You can't just decide not to work when you don't want to!"

"Don't treat me like some rusty, expendable dagger!" Gehenna shouted back.

Zyow! The jakku screeched as Kaze hit it with a light beam, disintigrating it on the spot.

"There. I got it. Please, stop fighting," Kaze deadpanned as he lowered his hand.

"What kind of useless weapon refuses to kill worthless mooks like that? What're you going to do when I'm actually fighting something important?" Ranma growled.

"Don't call me useless!" Gehenna shouted. "If you don't need me, then don't bother me!"

"Who would need a useless weapon that doesn't want to fight?" Ranma countered.


Kaze sighed as he started rubbing his forehead. "This doesn't bode well going forward," the evon grumbled as he turned away from his master and his master's new headache. "Shikodan, are you well?"

Rayden had apparently chopped the arms off of the last hammaku and was now straddling the undead beast and punching it in the face again and again, slowly reducing the creature's head into a stinking pulp.

"Are you having fun?" the priest deadpanned as he walked over to the dark avatar.

"Eh, a little," Rayden admitted as he pulled his hands back. Writhing darkness seemed to wrap around his fingers and palms, and the Dread Knight grasped either side of the hammaku's head as he mumbled an incoherent chant.

BWOOM! Kaze winced as the hammaku's head exploded between Rayden's hands, sending a deep shudder through the rest of its flabby body before falling still.

"Undead aren't much fun to kill," Rayden said as he stood up, smoke trailing from his hands as he wiped his face with his forearm, "they don't bleed much, they don't scream or get mad, and Darkrune won't consume their blood."

"Quite troublesome. The Third disparages necromancy on principle, does it not?"

"Yeah, well, it's mostly because..." Rayden trailed off as he noticed Ranma standing a ways behind the evon, seemingly arguing with his own sword. "Wait, hold that thought."

"I don't think it's too much to ask that I get the same respect as the others," Gehenna insisted as the knife in Ranma's hand started to glow brightly.

Ranma let go of Gehenna as she reverted to her human form, clearly frustrated beyond all reason. "The others don't GET any respect. They're a bunch of overpowered idiot children who can barely set up a camp site without my help. If there's any difference between the way I treat them and the way I treat you, it's probably because they actually do their jobs!"

Gehenna shifted into her human form, promptly crossing her arms uner her breasts. "I'm not going to budge on this issue. Things like this are the reason I didn't want to continue being a mere weapon in the first place. I despise being constantly thrust and smashed into disgusting and hazardous bodies."

"You turn into a SWORD! What the hell else am I going to do with you?" Ranma protested, throwing his arms up in the air.

"I do not object to your use of me earlier, against the golem," the redhead said firmly, "in fact, you should-"

Any further lecturing was cut short as the demonic weapon felt her head being seized from behind, and her breath caught in her throat as her expression darkened.

"My, my, first battle and already trying to nag him to death? Isn't that just like a woman?" Rayden said acidly, leaning over Gehenna's shoulder as he glared coldly at her.

"S-Second battle, actually," Gehenna corrected, sweat starting to roll down her brow. "Not that it really matters, I suppose, but it should-" she yelped and stopped talking as she felt the fingers around her skull dig into her.

"Ray, give it a rest," Ranma said, sighing. As annoying as Gehenna was being, seeing the larger demon bully her didn't make him happy either. "And as for you, why are you so afraid of Rayden, anyway? You eat magical weapons, don't you?"

Gehenna nodded silently as Rayden snorted and let go of her. "I do. But the dread blade Darkrune is... different."

"It is kind of a big deal," Kaze agreed, nodding as he walked by. "The creations of mere wizards and artificers, however wonderous, pale in comparison to the devices granted to us by the gods."

"Okay, fine, so you're saying that you can't eat Darkrune, so you're afraid of it?" Ranma asked.

"I'm saying that if I so much as touched that blade, it's essence would tear me apart, or at least corrupt me beyond recognition," Gehenna grumbled, "the results are almost beyond imagining. I might take on some of Darkrune's traits, or start generating energy discharges, or simply become insane..."

She trailed off once she realized that the two avatars were now looking at her intently, and not in the way that men usually looked at her intently.

"I'd like to see that, actually," Kaze mused, rubbing his chin. "I've only seen one actual case of magical corruption before, and it proved very difficult to observe. But in this case..."

"I'll bet she'd stop complaining as much, that's for sure," Rayden said as he drew a finger along Darkrune's edge. A creeping blue glow followed his touch, and Kaze could swear he could hear someone nearby whispering faintly.

As Gehenna gaped helplessly, Ranma stepped in front of her and casually smacked Rayden in the forehead. "I SAID give it a rest. You're not going to corrupt, kill, or otherwise hurt her, all right? You don't have to treat her like part of the team, but she's no guinea pig."

Kaze bowed immediately as Rayden nodded reluctantly.

"Fine, you're the boss," the dark paladin mumbled. "If we're not going to be tormenting Gehenna, then we should get on our way. Where's K?"

Ranma shrugged. "We left K with Jerry."

Rayden blinked. "Who's Jerry?"

"So you're telling me that construct consciousness is a result of enhanced behavioral programming rather than logic programming?" K asked as he perched atop the massive stone creature.

Jerry nodded slightly as he lumbered along the path, walking on two of his hands as well as his legs to make up for those limbs he had lost. "The spell involves patterning a 'false soul' in the image of a true, biological mind, not threading together dozens of possible stimuli and determining certain responses. It only seems that way because of the difficulty of properly fashioning emotional responses within the construct's nascent consciousness."

K nodded, fascinated. "It makes so much sense... but you seem perfectly capable of emotional responses. Was your consciousness created using a different method?"

"Same method, higher quality!" Jerry said proudly as he began scaling one of the larger rock outcroppings, pulling himself up over a huge spire of obsidian. "Lord Karl is an artificer of the highest quality! Even a construct of my level, one in a million, is but a minor chore for Master!"

Jerry finished cresting the rocks, his head gazing out over the empty wasteland that stretched out before them. "Still, I would dare say I'm a bit special, even to him! Giving golems emotions can be dangerous, after all, and I was widely considered one of the more stable creations."

K felt the body underneath him shake slightly as Jerry chuckled (which was curious, given that the body wans't at all involved in the process of speaking).

"So really, I suppose I really am one in a million!"


K wasn't entirely sure what had happened; one moment he had been sitting atop the suspiciously English golem, speaking about artificial consciousness theory, and the next he was bouncing along the ground, his arms and legs numb from an energy surge and the massive concussive force that had followed it.

He skidded to a stop atop a patch of hardened dirt, his ears ringing as he tried to piece together what had just happened.

The picture became abundantly clear once he heard Rayden's voice.

"Ha! Lookit that burst radius! Perfect casting!" the Dread Knight said as he stepped past a dead tree. "Oh, hi K. What's wrong?"

Ranma frowned slightly as he came up behind the demonic swordsman. "That was Jerry."

Rayden blinked. "What? Jerry who?"

"That thing," Ranma said, gesturing vaguely to the bits of scorched rubble that had been scattered all over the devastated outcropping. "That was Jerry."

"Oh... was I not supposed to do that?" Rayden asked sheepishly, glancing back at Gehenna and Kaze.

The redhead just shrugged. "Eh, it doesn't make much difference. It's just a golem."

"Yeah, sure. Who cares? They're just sentient dolls, like living swords," K grumbled, still laying on the ground.

Gehenna frowned and then glanced at her fellow demon. "Why do people keep comparing me to that obnoxious magic doll?"

"Now, see, the REAL question you should be asking," Rayden deadpanned, "is how you can avoid meeting the same end."

"All right, all of you shut up," Ranma said as he picked K off the ground and started dusting him off. "I found out where those jakku things are coming from, so with or without Jerry, I have our new destination."

Kaze's eyes lit up. "Oh? Where are we headed, then?"

"Upper Mongolia, and then to the bone fortress of Genex Karl!" Ranma said, stabbing a finger northward as his cape billowed out behind him.

Rayden and Gehenna smirked silently at the sight, imagining the plunder and bloodshed that awaited them.

Kaze looked embarrassed and rubbed the back of his head. "Uh... actually..."

Ranma broke his dramatic pose and glanced backwards as K crawled up onto his head. "Yeah? What is it now?"

"Oh, it's nothing important... persay..." Kaze hedged as he found himself the center of attention. "It's just that Karl's territories were actually going to be the first target of my own campaign."

"The one that you called off because of a dragon attack?" Rayden asked. "So what?"

"Well, it's not a big deal or anything," Kaze ventured, fiddling with his hands, "but there may be a SLIGHT chance of... complications... because of that."

Ranma raised an eyebrow. "Complications? Like what?"

"Bishop Saima!"

Belmarinkal Saima barely glanced behind her as a human in gleaming white armor pulled open the flap opening to the command tent, bowing deeply as he did so.

"A moment, paladin, I am busy," the elf said firmly, still facing forward toward the other occupants of the tent waited calmly for her. "Please, continue."

A high priest with bright golden skin stood at the other end of the table, flanked by a pair of elderly monks leaning on staffs. He too was elven, and his hands were slowly moving in intricate patterns as his fingers trailed glittering motes of light, although the man hardly seemed aware of what he was doing.

"As I said, the avatar is alive and well. Perhaps... too well," the male elf said, stiffening somewhat. "My divinations have revealed a wealth of information, and yet it makes no sense. The avatar Toren is alive and well, in sound health and mind, and free from black spell or artifice."

One of the monks coughed roughly before he spoke. "And yet he makes no attempt to contact his church or give word of his condition."

The other monk shook her head. "There may be factors beyond our detection that bar communication or attempt to deceive us."

The golden elf straightened. "This is the result of our deliberations. The visions press us forward to the east, among the demon lord Karl's bone fortress. There the light of Malakai will cut through the darkness and cast down the shambling horrors of the demon."

Then the diviner frowned. "And there are... other concerns. A lingering, bloody darkness follows behind the beacon, lurking in the shadows of another that walks in the light. It is... strange."

The elf shook his head, and his hands fell still at last. "What are your thoughts, Belmarinkal?"

The bishop tried to hide an annoyed twitch in her eyebrow. Unlike the prophets and advisors, she knew Kaze personally, and could easily believe that the imbecile would get distracted by exciting circumstances or some winsome maiden and forget all about his associates in the Circle that have been looking for him ever since his departure. At the same time, however, it was still possible that the prophets were right, and that Kaze's apparent safety was a ruse to slow them down.

'Even after he outranks and leaves me, I still have to play babysitter to that idiot,' Saima thought bitterly.

"I will think on the best course of action, but for now we should make ready to advance, as planned," the bishop said with an edge of frustration.

"The situation may be more dire than that. We still cannot contact the avatar via magic," said the female monk.

Saima couldn't help a slight growl from escaping her lips. "The Eye of Malakai reacts unconsciously to the will of its user, and protects, often without the user's express intent, them from scrying and other such magics that need to search the astral sea blindly for one soul among billions. Of course, Toren didn't wait to learn the exact properties of the Eye, so he probably doesn't know how to drop or modify such defenses to allow benign effects."

The other elf looked slightly perturbed, and his hands started moving again. "You seem somewhat upset by something, bishop. Are you well?"

"It's... nothing. Almost running into that charnel house that remained of Greken's territories has me on edge," the bishop grumbled, forcing calm into her voice.

The other monk nodded. "Understandable. However, I advise that we force march the army for as long as our troops can bear it. We MUST reach the bone fortress before something happens to Toren."

Saima stopped herself from rolling her eyes and nodded seriously. "Very well. I will consider this information at length. For today, however, the troops rest," she insisted. "High Priest Seth, you are dismissed."

Saima sighed deeply before finally gesturing over her shoulder. "Speak, paladin."

The man grunted unpleasantly, annoyed that she still hadn't turned around, even after he had waited for her. "Bishop, there is an intruder at the camp's edge. He calls himself Kais, and demands to speak to the individual in charge."

Saima grimaced. "I have no time for nonsense like this. Take the matter to... Chiima, I guess."

The paladin sighed and nodded. "Yes, Bishop. By your leave."

Leaving the tent and mumbling irritably the whole time, the paladin trudged across the camp toward the periphery, where the guard detail was currently holding the intruder.

The camp was very elaborate, with an air of opulence that honestly didn't sit well with some of the more battle-hardened soldiers; great white tents stood high above the trees, brightly colored pendants whipped about in the wind, and servants constantly rushed in and out of the rear of the camp to the train of supply wagons that were parked behind the main force. These wagons contained more in the way of fine clothing, books, and personal treasures of the clergy than supplies and weapons, and the rangers hired to guide the force had pointed out frequently that they were a prime target for raiders and thieves, especially if the nobles and ecclesiarchs wouldn't let the wagons clutter up the center of the camp where they would be much safer.

The paladin squared his shoulders, banishing his petty resentment and finding focus in the task at hand. For good or ill, he would do his best to resolve the situation without the bishop's guidance or authority.

When he walked up to the circle of paladins surrounding Kais, he noticed that they seemed to be arguing heatedly about something. The paladins all looked very annoyed, although none of them looked poised to harm the golden-haired man.

As he moved closer, he could hear the tail-end of a squad sergeant's argument.

"-has been involved in a dozen campaigns in the last year alone! We have as much right to be here as anyone else!"

Kais snorted as he looked around at the men and women in gleaming armor. Three of them were elves, one was an evon, three more were angels, and the last was one of the blue-skinned, thick-haired harlock demons.

"None of your kind should be here," Kais said imperiously, crossing his arms over his chest. "You're not part of the plan. You weren't born in this realm, were you?"

The harlock stepped forward, jabbing an armored thumb into his chestplate. "I'll have you know that I completed my training here on Earth realm, fighting the raiders in Turkey! My future is in this realm!"

"My wife is having a child here!" Said another paladin, snorting. "So should my firstborn leave this realm too?"

Kais' eyes narrowed. "Of course. You are not needed. You are not wanted. Your presence here is an aberration, and it would be best corrected willingly."

"Hey now, what's this about?"

The other paladins stepped back as the human paladin approached, and Kais brightened.

"Ah! Human! I was just telling these individuals-"

"I heard what you were telling them," the paladin murmured, "and it makes no sense." He turned to one of the angels, and nodded. "Go get the captain."

Kais shook his head as the winged paladin left. "Of course you are not aware, but the state of this realm is not right. These creatures should not be here. This is a human planet."

"I am quite aware, actually," the human mumbled. "Earth is new to the realms, and it has a history of complete isolation. Its primary species is human, and until recently they were unaware of other sentient races."

Kais frowned. "I see. This was not forseen."

"I'm sure the humans of Earth realm share that sentiment," the paladin drawled. "The discovery of the demons and mystical races was accompanied with much bloodshed."

"You speak as if you're not one of them," Kais said, gazing at the human paladin critically.

The human shrugged. "I am not. My name is Demeter Loken, and I grew up in Kelmath realm. I just happen to like it here."

Many of the other paladins nodded in agreement, their earlier irritation abated. Although Earth realm was dangerous and lacked much of the magnificence of many of the realms, it also had the most amazing and convenient technologies available for ease of living and entertainment; it was amazing how little Earth humans seemed to appreciate, say, a refrigerator, which would have been a marvel of tremendous value nearly everywhere else.

Kais shook his head. "Then you too do not belong. How did this happen..."

Demeter snorted. "For all your complaints, you do not seem like a mundane human to me, Kais. Do you belong here?"

"I do," the golden-hair magi said simply, "I am the architect."

The paladins waited for several seconds for him to elaborate. They were disappointed.

"Did you mean 'an' architect?" one of the elves asked.

Kais frowned, looking irritated. "Never mind. It's not a matter to discuss with your kind. What of my request? Who is in charge of this force?"

"Bishop Saima has refused to see you," said the human paladin bluntly. "Instead, you may speak to Captain Chiima of our order of pala-hey! Where are you going?"

Kais didn't bother to look over his shoulder as he walked away. "I have no need to speak to some warrior. If your leaders will not see me, then I'm wasting my time here. There are many pieces yet left to collect."

"Pieces? Pieces of what?" mumbled the harlock. Kais didn't answer, however, and the paladins watched the magi's back until they finally lost sight of him amongst the sparse woods surrounding the encampment.

"Demeter! Report!" called a voice from behind the group, and the man in question jumped slightly before he whirled around and bowed.

"Captain Chiima! My apologies, but it seems that the intruder has left already."

Chiima frowned as he glanced over the heads of his subordinates, into the forest. "He escaped?"

"He was not detained," explained an elf. "As he was unarmed and seemed to have no harmful intentions, we thought such measures would be frowned upon."

Chiima considered the reasoning and then nodded. "Very well, then. If there's nothing else, I want you all to retire to the barracks early."

Demeter blinked. "Captain? Is something happening?"

"We're going to be marching all the way to the bone fortress through the night and should arrive by tomorrow evening, and I intend to volunteer my squad as a vanguard for any assaults that may become necessary once the enemy is in sight. Though I do not doubt that your valor would not falter from missing a night's rest, we need to be at our absolute best when we meet the foe, and inspire the rest of the force to push forward."

All of the paladins straightened at their captain's words, each one feeling pride and fervor well up in their hearts.

"Yes, Captain! We will offer our thanks to Malakai and then proceed to the barracks as ordered!"

Chiima nodded, gazing out at the mountains that lay ahead of them. "Indeed. Much rests on our shoulders, paladins. Avatar Toren's life is in our hands!"

"Yes, Captain! For Malakai! For justice!"

End Chapter 18