26

Hot air blasted into Salome's face. She opened eyes the same color as Seedle's blood and picked herself up from the hot rock. A yellow fog spread all around her, punctuated by blazes of fire in the distance. The rotten smell of sulfur flooded her throat. She glanced around. People were lying all around her, as they had the first time, hundreds of unfortunates who had died at the same moment she had. A few of the stronger ones were sitting up, wide-eyed and staring blankly at the surroundings. Salome knew she didn't have time for that.

Salome stood, blasts of heat nearly beating her back down. She almost ripped off some of her clothes, but then decided she'd better not lose the little protection she had. A sword blade could get caught in a cardigan, if she were lucky.

Salome briefly examined herself and sighed with relief. Death once again had covered her with agelessness. Her muscles were firm and strong again, her hair untouched by gray. She ran her fingers across her suddenly long pointed ears, then remembered she had to hurry. She jerked up her skirt, drawing a few preoccupied looks from the male dead, retrieved the Immortal Edge, and moved off, hugging a low line of boulders, red and smoldering as coals.

Salome didn't know how soon Seedle would realize she was in the Underworld, but she was sure she didn't have enough time to gather sufficient Mana to overwhelm him. As she passed a clump of hideous Makai flowers, she spotted a row of the sentient logs that patrolled -and contributed fuel- in hell. She decided, weak as she was, she could handle logs.

She could.

Pulling some splinters out of her hair, Salome grimaced at the small pittance of Mana she'd gleaned from that. She sighed in frustration. There was no quick way to win a lot of Mana, not unless someone was willing to give it. She eyed the legions of newly arrived dead, then looked away. She couldn't bring herself to harvest among the helpless. At least the demons were generally reincarnated.

Speaking of which, there was a lone archer now.

When finished, Salome picked up and discarded the archer's small low-level rifle. Guns had never been high on her proficiency list, and such a weak one would do no good against an Overlord as powerful as Seedle.

Salome tensed, ducking behind a thorn bush. Several demons were marching by, hulking guards in spiked black armor. Leading them was a damned human, a samurai, one with long silver-streaked black hair. Salome raised her eyebrows, but she let Gar pass without a word. He was probably just as loyal to Seedle in death.

Once the unit had passed, Salome studied as much of the Underworld as she could see. She was on a high ridge, an enormous lake of fire far to her left and down a slope. In front, the road down the ridge switchbacked into a bowl-shaped valley. It looked fairly wild, overgrown with more thorn trees and blood-oozing flowers. At the far end of the field, Salome saw a white blue light. She started. A Makai gate. Salome drew a deep breath. She probably didn't have the Mana to get herself across the cosmos to Zetta's Netherworld, and she didn't think she had time to acquire it. Seedle would know she was here sooner or

Pain burned down her back, ripping through her shirt, blouse, and skin. Salome swung around, ignoring the blaze and the swift trickles of blood rippling down her back. She shifted into a parry just as Seedle's short katana came up. Salome jumped back and to the side. She barely dodged the long katana as it swiped for her middle. Salome sidestepped several more paces, knowing that she had every disadvantage. She also knew that Seedle wouldn't let this opportunity pass without some sort of speech.

Seedle lunged. Salome dropped to one knee, the short katana passing over her shoulder, the other slashing down her arm, sheering off thin layers of blouse, sweater and skin. Salome buried the Edge to its hilt in his abdomen, then reeled back, dodging two more strokes. Though Seedle's blood now coated her right hand to the knuckles, she hadn't harmed him much.

Seedle laughed. "You thought a trick like that would work twice?"

Salome didn't have to study him long. She remembered him far too well.

"Well, Lady Salome," Seedle said pleasantly, "finally you're back where you belong. Now I-"

"How do you know I'm really Salome?" she taunted, edging her feet until they were on the relatively unbroken surface of the road.

Seedle snorted. "I admit, you're dressed pretty bad, but-"

Salome made a lunge for his chest. He blocked it, his katana radiant silver in the light. His teeth flashed in a mocking smile as he shoved her smaller blade away. Salome tried to regulate her breathing. That test had showed her that Seedle wanted to toy with her. She'd deliberately opened herself for an attack by his other blade, and he'd let it pass.

All right.

Salome smiled sweetly, the same smile she'd given Zetta before inviting him to kill her. "I might not be Salome." She took several steps back down the road. It didn't help her position, but she had to keep moving. "I might be A Bao A Qu, taken on the one form you still fear."

"Hmph," was all Seedle said. Salome guessed he didn't want to be reminded of those days any more than she did. He took an experimental swipe at her midsection, and let her parry it.

Salome continued to give ground, and continued to smile. "I see you still have the scar from where I stabbed you last time."

Salome gasped as Seedle's katana swiped across her front, tearing her shirt. The plain white cotton blossomed red. "Would you like a scar too? I'll have to stab deeper." Swallowing, Salome continued to retreat. Now Seedle was the one smiling. "So, have you been practicing your fighting in the human world? It hasn't done you much good. And you can back as close to that gate as you want, but you won't get through." Salome parried the long katana. The short katana sliced the side of her left wrist. Salome jumped back and stumbled, righting herself just as the long katana swooped towards her head. Dodging, Salome was grateful that it only nicked her shoulder.

"You used to be so protective of me," Salome said, voice hard-edged with contempt. "You'd throw fits if anyone so much as waved a sword in my direction."

Seedle made a jab at her ankle. Cursing, Salome hopped backwards. "And you," he replied, his expression suddenly distant, "used to burn your Mana almost dry to see that I was cured."

Salome's left foot touched the level. Thorns and hideous flowers rose up around them. Salome made a thrust for his right arm, hoping to numb it with the flat of her blade, but she was much, much too slow. "I learned a lot in the human world," Salome puffed. "The historians claim you loved me, that I killed you out of insanity." She blocked the long katana with the Immortal Edge. Seedle smacked her left arm with the short katana, almost numbing it. "No one will ever believe what you really are."

Seedle's eye was dark, still slightly preoccupied. He parried several of Salome's blows, but, for the moment, didn't advance any his own. "Salome the Ingrate is a better name for you," he growled.

"'Ingrate'? I'm an ingrate because I said 'stop'?"

Seedle made a lunge for her ribcage. Salome could only block one sword at a time, and the short katana pierced her side, not too deep, but deep enough. Salome gasped, retreating, backing into a thorn bush. She jumped away, blood shimmering down her hip and leg. Her hand shook with rage. "You are a helpless beast. I refused you, and the only way you could cope was by forcing me!"

Seedle's katanas flashed at once, striking two deliberately non-fatal blows. One sheered off another streamer of flesh from her arm. The other sliced a leaf of skin down her stomach. Salome gasped, unable to look at the naked blood and muscle. She kept her eyes on Seedle. I killed you once.

Seedle's eye was narrowed, almost totally opaque in its hatred. "There are so many ways to kill you, Salome. I'll have to try each one."

Salome panted, continuing to retreat. "I'm glad you've given up the whole raping idea."

The long katana slammed into the Immortal Edge, rattling her right arm to the shoulder. "You're no longer the woman I wanted. Now you're just the traitor I'm going to kill."

Another parry, both blades now forming a bloody cross. "Sorry to disappoint you."

Seedle eyed her. Then, he lowered both katanas into guard positions, waiting for her strike. Panting, Salome did the same. It was all she could think to do. For a moment, they stopped moving.

Salome took a deep breath. "Why did you do it? If you needed to satisfy your desire, you could've grabbed any girl off the streets of Azthayo City." Her hands were shaking again. "I was a priestess! And I'd trusted you with my life! Why did you try to take everything away from me?"

Seedle's eye was unreadable. "Why did you follow me for two years, giving up the safety you could have found in hiding? Why did you cure me and support me and fight for me for two years?"

Salome hesitated a long moment. "Because I had things to fight for, just as you did."

Seedle narrowed his eyes. "Because you loved me."

Salome didn't bother correcting him. "I still have things to fight for. You have nothing but revenge."

Seedle bared his teeth and lunged for her heart. Salome fell to her knees, avoiding the first strike. With the Immortal Edge, she blocked the second stab to her neck She thrust her bleeding left hand into the wound she'd made in Seedle's side.

There was a flash of red light, then Seedle shoved her away, backing several steps, his eye gleaming with hatred. "What did you do?" he rasped.

Salome closed her left hand into a fist. "I withdrew some of your Mana," she said evenly. "I know a lot about taking and giving Mana."

"Hah! I still have enough to kill you."

Salome swallowed. "But you don't time." She jumped backwards through the Makai gate, blacking out, hoping, hoping she'd stolen enough Mana to take her home.

Xxxxxxxxxx

Consciousness rolled on and over Salome, flickering light and dark. She opened her eyes several times and didn't recognize what she saw. She felt the blood cool on her body, felt her nerves smarting, felt thick nausea in her throat. The world blanked out again, flickered in, time after time after time. She did not know where she was, whether she'd live, whether she even still had the Mana for a simple curing spell. She tried to speak, moving her lips and her throat, feeling the breath pass her teeth, but she couldn't hear her own voice.

Consciousness rolled on and over Salome, flickering light and dark.

Consciousness rolled off Salome, leaving her in the darkness.

Consciousness blazed into her skull, burning a black-edged hole in the fabric of her vision. All she could see in the hole was stunning brightness.

Salome could no longer feel any blood. Was she still bleeding? Was she bandaged? Was she cured?

Darkness soothed her, let her forget her questions.

Consciousness fell on Salome. She was awake. Incredibly heavy, her eyelids didn't seem able to open. Her hand was resting on leather.

"Zetta."

"Dammit!" came a voice, as if from miles away. "Salome, are you-?"

Salome moved her fingers on the leather, tracing the lines of a wrist and lower arm. She worked her way down to his knuckles, then slipped her hand under his.

"Salome!"

"Zetta," she whispered. She felt awful, incredibly ill. "Am I dying?"

"You'd better not! If you do, I'll kill Trenia. You're supposed to be cured."

Somewhere, leagues, countries, universes away, Trenia giggled. "It takes awhile, Lord Zetta, even for me. She lived through a duel with one of the most powerful Overlords, after all."

"Zetta...am I...am I..."

"Yes, you're going to live. I told you."

Am I still wearing that awful outfit? she'd meant to say, but she couldn't string that many words together just yet.

"Damn." She felt Zetta's hand sliding down her face to her neck and shoulder. "It's going to take forever to get you fighting again."

"Good," Salome whispered.

"Excuse me?"

"I'll...have to stay...here."

Zetta's hand stopped. "What? Wait, don't tell me this was another plan?"

Salome smiled just slightly. "No."

"Good."

"Still...it worked."

"Gog and Magog."

Salome sighed. "Zetta..."

"Don't talk. Rest."

"But I-"

"I said don't talk."

"But I wan-"

"Why do you never listen to me?"

Trenia sighed. "Come on, Lord Zetta. If you can't guess what she's trying to ask, you're even more fat-headed than I thought you were."

"Huh?"

"Zetta... can't I please ask-"

"You think I'm fat-headed?"

"Let her ask the question!"

"What? Salome? Did you want to say something? Speak up."

Salome took a deep breath. "Do...you love me?"

There was a long silence.

"He's surprised," Trenia mentioned. "He didn't see that coming."

"I'm sorry," said Salome. "I'm...sorry I always ask that. I...know you're a demon."

"And that I never answer?"

Salome sighed.

"Oh hell," said Zetta. "Fine. Fine. Open your eyes and I'll answer."

Salome opened her eyes.