-- Happy One Year Closer To Our Inevitable Doom!! Well, it's been said that I only update once in a blue moon, so I guess that makes this perfect. I must give thanks to Hotshot14, who provided a character that is mentioned in this chapter. I may actually use the character later, as Hotshot has given permission to do so, but for now, I just needed a name. Many thanks, shipmate. Also, Buhiro the freaky pig makes a brief cameo in this chapter. I couldn't resist. The opportunity was so perfect. Sorry if some people are annoyed. Anyway, what say we get going?--
--Disclaimer- If I owned Busou Renkin, do you think I'd be a pirate for a living!? .......Well, even so, that's not the point!--
Part 6- Ally or Foe? The Nameless Stranger
"I'm telling you, she was there!" Gouta shouted, for what had to be the eighth time that morning. Everyone had gotten up a bit late thanks to the extra time it had taken to drag Takeshi out of his sleeping bag and the party had resumed their search for the other Alchemist Warriors, trekking once again through the dense woods. The night had passed without any problems, excepting Takeshi trying to peek into Tokiko's tent around midnight and failing horribly as the Battle Girl beat him senseless yet again. The thing was, both alchemists had been so worn out by the day's battles that neither could remember the incident happening at all. The result of this was Tokiko feeling more annoyed than usual with the Assistant Commander, but unable to figure out why, and Takeshi wondering what could have happened to give him even more bruises than he'd gone to bed with as well as a throbbing ache in his jaw. Ah well, he'd figure it out later. At the moment, he had an argument to win.
"And I'm telling you," he sneered at Gouta, "that you're still wrong. There was no girl in the spring after Tokiko got out. You were imagining things, Rookie-san."
"You think I imagined getting smacked across the face!?" Gouta raged, stabbing a finger at his own left cheek. "You all saw the handprint! Why would I bother making this up!?"
Takeshi turned to face him, his eyes opening slightly in an incredulous glare. "Good point, Rookie-san. However…if this mystery-girl of yours really exists…then where did she go? How is it that nobody saw her before, after, or during the time she attacked you? Or so much as saw her leave? Huh!? Answer me that!"
"I…" Gouta lowered his gaze in annoyed defeat. "I don't know…"
"That's right, you don't. Now shut up about it. We have a mission to accomplish…without being distracted by ghost stories."
"Fine, fine…" Gouta grumbled, turning away with a frown. "What's up with you anyway? You fall asleep on a rock or something? You're even more unpleasant than normal this morning."
Takeshi's eyes cracked open even wider. "The short answer is "I have a headache", Rookie-san."
"You have a hangover," Tokiko corrected, "and it's your own fault. Getting heated up in the bath, then drinking yourself to sleep; what'd you expect was gonna happen?"
Takeshi's eyes squinted shut again, still looking irritated. "Maybe so, but his storytelling isn't making it any better. Let's just drop this and continue with the mission…and if you all don't mind, keep it down. Urgh…"
Gouta stared after the fox-faced man, his gaze burning holes into Takeshi's back as the Assistant Commander fished around in his cargo pockets, finally producing a pill, presumably a headache cure of some kind, and popping it into his mouth. Gouta considered for a moment more, then lowered his eyes, knowing that, as good as it would feel at the moment, nothing good would come of attacking Takeshi. There would be other times.
At the moment, he was wondering what was going on with Tokiko and Mutou. Why had they just stood there while Takeshi had called him a liar? They hadn't said anything in his defense, despite how well they knew him! Weren't they supposed to be friends!?
This thought fizzled out quickly as a sharp, repetitive beep cut through the silent autumn air. All eyes turned to Tokiko as she pulled her phone out and glanced at the tiny screen. Moments after her eyes scanned the readout, Tokiko's face lit up with fresh determination.
"This could be it!" she cried, holding the phone out so that the others could see. A GPS map displayed itself on the phone with a blinking red mark flashing just a little bit off of the center.
"Tokiko-san, what's this?" Kazuki asked. He'd never seen something like this on his own cellphone.
"A signal," Gouta answered, looking it over. "One that comes from a program installed in our Warrior's phones. Well, the higher-level ones anyway. Shouldn't yours be going off, too?"
He turned to Takeshi, who was wincing slightly from the shrill signal. Pausing for a second, Takeshi reached into his cargo pocket and produced a cellular phone patterned in camouflage. Immediately, the signal got louder as the two phones sounded off together. Cringing, Takeshi hit a button on the side of his own, silencing it.
"Yeah, mine's picking it up, too…wasn't able to hear it in the storage dimension, though…"
"So don't leave it in there!" Gouta yelled, his face contorted in anger at this new example of his superior officer's incompetence.
"I told you to keep it down, punk!" Takeshi yelled back, his face just as angry.
"Both of you knock it off!" Tokiko shouted over, before clicking the silence option on her own phone. "This is important! Kazuki, this program is installed by the Alchemic Regiment just in case of exactly this situation."
"We were told during our briefing that the first reconnaissance team stopped checking in four days ago. We can assume that this means they're not answering any of the calls that have been sent to them either. Therefore, the Commander-General would have activated this program in their phones." Tokiko held hers up as she continued the explanation. "It allows the other Warrior's phone to send out a GPS signal that can only be detected with the settings the Alchemic Regiment installs, making it so we can pinpoint the locations of missing Warriors within a certain distance. Mine is currently picking up the signal of Warrior Hisagi's phone. According to the readout…Southwest of here, just a little over a mile! Let's go!"
The assembled group took off after Tokiko, hurrying towards the source of the signal. A feeling of mutual relief swept through the three Warriors; they'd finally managed to locate the other team! With this, it would be mission accomplished! Not to mention, as Gouta and Tokiko were both thinking, they'd finally be well rid of the annoyance masquerading as their superior officer.
Takeshi himself was a bit upset at the thought of ending the mission so quickly, as this would mean he'd be without any more monsters to fight…but maybe this could be a good thing, too! If the Commander-General saw that his first time leading a mission had resulted in such a quick success, it would mean major points on his record… Before long, he could be promoted again, all the way to full Commander! Maybe see about getting Ouka-chan to be his Assistant…Gya ha ha ha!
Being so distracted by his wishful thinking, it was only by pure chance that the fox-faced sake-lover happened to notice that Tokiko had stopped right in front of him. Grinding his boot soles into the dirt hard, he halted himself a hair before he would have plowed into her.
"Hey, hey, Tsumurin, don't stop so sudden-nnmph!"
Tokiko didn't even turn to look at him as she clapped a hand over his mouth, bringing a finger to her lips to signal silence. Her gold eyes scanned over the forest like a hawk's, aimed not at the ground, but the tree branches.
"Come out!" she called, putting on her fiercest tone. "We know you're there! Show yourself!"
The men looked around, shocked at this. Someone nearby? They hadn't noticed anyone! It made sense, however. Gouta and Kazuki were still inexperienced, and Takeshi, despite his years of training, had been well off-guard.
Everyone shifted in position, once again taking up a four-way back-to-back, and waited, silently, barely daring to breathe. What would happen? Who was hiding, and where? Would they reveal themselves? Maybe try to attack? No way of knowing.
A minute passed.
As the standoff approached twelve minutes, however, everyone began to wonder if maybe, just maybe, their mystery guest had lost interest. Tokiko strained her ears, hoping to catch another rustle of leaves as she had before…but to no avail. The woods were silent and showed no sign of changing that soon.
"I…" Tokiko glanced to the side, scratching the tip of her nose as her face reddened. "I guess it was just a squirrel, or something…my mistake."
"Don't worry about it, Tokiko-san," Kazuki reassured her. "Anyone could have made that kind of mistake, given the circumstances."
"Mutou's right, Senpai. This mission is putting all of us on edge. Better safe than sorry, anyway."
"I suppose so…" Tokiko mumbled, before shaking her head and striding forward again. "At any rate, we should get back to following-"
Everyone jumped at the sound and Gouta was given just a split-second's worth of time to notice the huge branch falling towards him. Surprised, but not completely deprived of his wits, he dove forward, evading the impending squish by inches. The heavy branch made a solid thud as it hit the ground, sending up a dusty cloud of dirt.
However, even with this brush with serious injury, the second the branch landed on the forest floor, Gouta got to his feet and joined his fellow alchemists in turning towards it, ready to fight. Just like his comrades, he had noticed the loud "kyaaaaa!" that had accompanied the falling limb. Last he'd checked, trees didn't typically scream.
Everyone tensed up, waiting for the cloud to settle. As the last wisps of gritty smoke faded, they beheld, at last, the person Tokiko had sensed.
The sight greeting them was…unexpected…to say the least.
The person before them was dressed in a full-body black uniform, even including a partial mask that stretched over the nose and mouth. They wore a green vest that was covered all over the front side in pockets, each of which was fastened shut. The black pantlegs were taped tightly to the ankles and the shoes were a strange, open-toed type of boot. Weirdest of all was the headband, tied up around a messy pile of dark tan hair, with a thin plate of metal attached to front. Engraved on the very center of this metal piece was a strange symbol, somewhat resembling a curl of smoke. This headband was worn in a lop-sided fashion, pulled down to cover the stranger's left eye. The right eye was currently squinted shut in a pained expression.
"Ow ow ow ow ow…that smarts…" The stranger lamented, the timbre of the voice marking her as most likely being female. One hand supported her forehead as the other massaged her butt, which had apparently taken most of the force of her fall.
The alchemist warriors just stared, unsure of how they should react.
"Uh…" Kazuki began.
At this, the girl's uncovered eye shot open in surprise. Its brilliant blue gaze glanced across the line of people facing her before she jumped to her feet and moved a hand to one of the vest compartments. From within, she pulled a small, black sphere, roughly the size of a large marble, and pitched it at her feet.
The ball exploded, once again shrouding the area in a thick cloud of smoke, this one a shade of iron grey. It was all for nothing, however. Even as his eyes started to sting, Takeshi gave the stranger no time to make use of her tactic. Striking a stance, he kicked upward with tremendous force, the wind from the kick gathering up the grey plume and shooting it up through the treetops. The girl was revealed standing shock-still, her uncovered eye bugging out. After a second, she blinked, cocked her head to the side, and sat back down on the forest floor, apparently thinking hard.
"Ohhhh…now what?" she wondered aloud. "Ninja are not meant to be seen…and the escape was a bust…what do I do in this situation…?"
Once again, the Warriors stared, this time sporting a collective sweatdrop. Finally, deciding to take the initiative, Tokiko stepped forth.
The girl glanced up. "Hello. Nice to meet you."
Tokiko's eyes shifted to blank white as her teeth turned jagged. "Don't just say, "It's nice to meet you" in this type of situation! Who are you!? Why are you following us around!?"
"Eep!" The girl backed away, her bright blue eye widening in surprise at the sharp reply.
Gouta stared at her for a moment, suspicion building in his eyes, before a look of realization crossed his features.
"Wait a second…"
The sandy-haired alchemist stepped closer, extending a hand. Once he was within reach, he grabbed the top edge of the girl's mask and yanked it down, fully exposing her face.
"I knew it! It's you!" Gouta exclaimed.
The mystery girl stared up at Gouta for a few moments, looking confused. However, a second later, she pointed up at him with a sharp "Ah!" of recognition.
"Hey, Mutou, Tokiko-senpai, this is her! This is the girl from last night! She appeared in the hot spring out of nowhere, and I mistook her for you, Mutou, and…and…"
He turned back to the young woman, suddenly angry. "And you hit me!"
She stared right back, pulling the headband away to reveal both eyes, letting her hair fall, and seeming more confused than ever. "Wasn't I supposed to?"
Now it was Gouta's turn to look confused. "Eh?"
"Well, from what I've researched, that is the most traditional response." She rubbed her chin, frowning as she pondered the matter. "I suppose I could have tried something else, but I didn't want to risk giving a completely wrong reaction, so-"
She paused, feeling a sudden vibration from below. The Alchemic Warriors likewise noticed the all-to-familiar tremoring begin under their feet. Sure enough, within seconds, the ground burst upwards into an army of earth creatures, easily equal in number to the group they had fought the day before. Tokiko pointed a sharp finger at the oddly-dressed young woman.
"We'll explain later. For now, just try to keep safe. Get back up the tree, if you can."
The stranger seemed to have gone momentarily deaf, however, as she was sitting shock still and gaping around at the soil monsters, eyes wide with…surprise? Fright? Perhaps equal amounts of both? Whatever the case, it didn't look like she'd be moving anytime soon.
Tokiko noticed, but decided her efforts would be better used eliminating the threat first. Activating her Busou Renkin after a high jump, she aimed her descent towards the thick of the swarming beasts, slashing viciously in all four directions at once. With this single attack, at least sixteen earth monsters lost their heads and crumbled to dust, new creatures surging in to fill the gaps almost instantly.
Kazuki spun the Sunlight Heart Plus over in his hands, carefully lining up his shot while dodging the heavy fists and snapping jaws. Concentrating on his goal, he waited for several seconds before widening his eyes and thrusting the lance forward with a fierce yell. The tip of the lance burst forth in a blaze of yellow light, piercing through close to thirty monsters at once, just as they had all lined up in front of it; exactly as Kazuki had been watching for. Without pausing to let these dissolve, Kazuki swung the entire length of his weapon sideways, mowing down another enormous group in seconds.
Gouta was weaving his way skillfully through his own section, alternating between Sky Walker and Knuckle Duster Modes. First he'd slide in with the speed of his Sky Walker, then shift the chakrams to his hands and lay into his enemies, aiming the spinning gears for the throat. Then, as each beast fell, he'd zip away with the Sky Walker before one of its comrades could catch him.
Takeshi just kept spouting his usual irritating laugh as he danced around all of the fists aimed his way. Following one especially hard punch that shattered the ground he'd just jumped away from, Takeshi pushed off with a kick from one creature and sent himself rocketing headfirst towards another. Upon reaching his target, he seized it around the neck with one partially-gloved hand and used his momentum to swing his body around it in a horizontal circle. While so doing, he extended one leg out, and obliterated every monster surrounding them with a powerful kick. After making a complete circle, he swung the leg back, shattered the head of the creature he'd been using, and landed heavily on his feet, chuckling like a demon.
The three Warriors and the Assistant Commander turned to one another…and discovered that all of them had finished at the exact same time, thus leaving no need to come to anyone else's aid.
"Geez…" Takeshi muttered. "You'd think they'd at least change their fighting style up a bit…I saw every one of their moves yesterday. I could've handled that in my sleep."
"Then we'll let you have 'em next time," Gouta retorted. "Better than listening to you complain."
"Nevermind that right now," Tokiko called. "We still have another issue at hand. Are you alr- Er…what? What is it?"
While turning to check the well-being of their mysterious friend in the ninja garb, Tokiko had been made a bit uneasy at the sight of her. She had removed the ninja outfit entirely, now wearing a pair of jeans and a white T-shirt that looked a couple sizes too big. The front of the shirt was emblazoned with a logo of a giant golden crown that had Shounen King written across it in black. She was currently standing with both fists clenched and her eyes replaced by twinkling stars.
"So…so…cool…" the strange girl breathed, casting her bright stare at each of the Warriors in turn and marveling at their weapons.
"Excuse me?" Tokiko frowned, a large sweatdrop forming at the back of her head.
The light from the stars faded as the stranger squeezed her eyes shut with an excited squeal. "That was amazing! The monsters appear, putting an innocent life in mortal peril, and before you know it the good guys show up…!"
As she had been speaking, the young lady had been waving her hands around in energetic gestures and accompanying her description with the appropriate dramatic poses. Coming to the part about "the good guys", she pointed sharply at the Alchemist Warriors.
"…and "Boom!", the monsters are history and the day is saved! Yes, that's exactly how it's supposed to go! You guys really know your stuff! Approved!
The final word was accompanied by a thumbs-up and wink. What followed was about a full minute of near-complete silence. (Near-complete because a bird could be heard cawing loudly overhead.) The Warrior's bizarre guest seemed completely oblivious to the overall awkward tension in the air, however.
I must be cursed. I just keep attracting more and more weirdoes. Tokiko sighed to herself, deactivating her Busou Renkin with this thought.
At the sight of the kakugane, the stranger's eyes widened and became totally serious.
"Hey…that thing…I've seen that before!" she hurried over, grabbing Tokiko's arm before she could put the hexagonal tool back in her pocket. Glancing up, she stared hard at the Alchemic Regiment crest on Takeshi's shirt. "And that mark…"
Releasing Tokiko's hand, she stepped away and surveyed the group as if she'd just seen them for the first time.
"You guys…are you…Alchemist Warriors?"
The four she was addressing shared a synchronized glance at this. Whoever this girl was, she knew about the kakugane and the Alchemic Regiment. Something was definitely up. Tokiko stepped closer, staring hard at the stranger's face, as if trying to detect any hint of dishonesty.
"Yes, it's true that we work with the Alchemic Regiment…but how do you know about it? Forgive my suspicions, but it's just not something that's supposed to be common knowledge."
Rather than answering, however, the girl responded with another question. "Then, do you know two people called Ichiro and Sakurako?"
At this, it was Takeshi who suddenly snapped to attention. "Yeah! …Well, if you mean Warriors Sakisaka and Kuonji…then, yeah, I know them. We're actually searching for them right now. Do you know something?"
"Yes, those are the names they gave me," the stranger answered. "They're taking up lodgings at my cabin right now. Unless they left while I've been gone, but…"
She paused, suddenly seeming to remember something, then a look of panic crossed her face as she clapped her hands to the sides of her head.
"Oh, NO! I've been gone for more than a day! I have to get back and make sure they're all right! So careless! Stupid, stupid, stupid!"
Takeshi rubbed his chin, then interrupted the girl's self-berating with another question.
"Is there a third person? There should be a Hisagi Tsuna with them."
The stranger glanced up, and scrunched up her face, putting the tip of her index finger to her forehead as she concentrated. Then…
"Nope. Sorry, but I've never heard that name before. Besides, there're only two people sharing my cabin with me right now. I'd remember if there had been even one more."
Takeshi frowned at this, seeming worried.
Tokiko paused to think, then turned away from the girl, motioning for the men to come closer. "Excuse us for a second…"
The four alchemists gathered together, huddling up to talk things over.
"Well, she doesn't seem to be lying…can't think of why she would, really, but you can't be too careful."
"True…but she says that she knows where two of our missing comrades are. Can we really afford to ignore something like that, Tokiko-san?"
"I'll agree with whatever Tokiko-senpai decides. Besides, I still have a few things I want to ask this girl."
"It's decided, then?"
Everyone turned back to their new friend, Takeshi extending out a hand.
"Well then, if you wouldn't mind, could you lead us back to your cabin? We'd like to find our fellow Warriors as fast as possible. Eh...?"
Everyone paused yet again. In the time they had spent turned around, the stranger had donned another new costume, this time dressed in a magenta and white kendo garb and woven straw sandals. A sword with a black sheath was at her hip and she had tied her hair back into a ponytail. She looked up with a serious expression, displaying a cross-shaped scar on her left cheek.
"As you wish. Follow this one. You shall be led to your friends immediately, degozaru."
Tokiko stepped forward, once again baring jagged teeth. "What's with this, all of a sudden!? Are you just joking with us!?"
"Oro!?" The girl took a step back, wide-eyed in surprise at the fierce reaction.
Kazuki put a hand on Tokiko's shoulder, leading her back behind the others and trying to calm her down while Gouta took over questioning their strange friend.
"So…why are you dressed like that? In fact, as long as we're asking, what was with the ninja get-up before?"
"This? Doesn't…everybody do this kind of thing?" She pulled the robe off and rubbed the scar off of her cheek before letting her hair fall.
"Er…no, why would you think that?"
"Oh…I had always thought…this is exactly what the etiquette training I'd read up on said to do…was I wrong?"
Etiquette training? Still having no reasonable idea what this girl was talking about, Gouta decided to skip the whole thing for now in favor of more important matters.
"So, which way to this cabin of yours?"
At this, she looked away, seeming a bit embarrassed. "Ah…about a days walk. Off in that direction."
She pointed, indicating the northeast.
"A whole day!? What are you doing so far out on your own?" Takeshi asked.
"The hot spring. I was going to head down the mountain for provisions, and figured I'd stop for a bath. Nothing quite like the natural warmth from that spring… It's a bit out of my way, but I thought I'd be back in plenty of time. Then, after I found you, I was curious to see what you were doing. I don't get many visitors."
"Why not walk up to us and ask?" Tokiko wanted to know.
The girl stared at Tokiko as if she'd just been asked why breathing was a good idea. "I had my ninja gear on. I couldn't just allow you to see me."
Before Tokiko could explode again, Takeshi stepped in front of her.
"Well…if that answers everything…" the Assistant Commander spun and pointed off to the northeast. "Lead the way, Miss……er…ah, excuse me, but what is your name? No, no, wait, let me first. It's only right to give your own name before asking someone theirs. I am Kakusu Takeshi, Assistant Commander of the Alchemic Regiment. Please call me Takeshi."
"Glad to know you."
We'll see how long that lasts. thought Gouta.
"These two over here are Mutou Kazuki and Tsumura Tokiko. They like to be known as "The Infamous Strawberry Pair". Urk!!"
Takeshi's eyes opened for a second as Tokiko punched him hard in the back, successfully hitting his kidney. The fox-faced pervert collapsed, frothing at the mouth and twitching in pain as Tokiko stepped over him and bowed her head slightly.
"I apologize for my outbursts before. It's nice to meet you, too."
The girl glanced down at Takeshi, cocking her head. "Will he be alright?"
"Hasn't stopped him yet," Kazuki answered. "He should wake up in a minute. Anyway, glad to meet you."
"The feeling is mutual, Kazuki-san, Tokiko-san. Tell me, what is a "Strawberry Pair"?"
Tokiko paused at this, turning slightly pink. "Well…we don't use any such ridiculous title…but it is true that Kazuki and I share a relationship…"
"You're married!? How romantic!"
Tokiko stumbled over the air in front of her, caught off balance by this one. She turned back to the girl, now glowing like a traffic light. "How do you jump to that kind of conclusion!?"
"We aren't quite ready for such an important step," Kazuki added, quickly, "but I think it's fair to say that we're more than just boyfriend and girlfriend."
Tokiko's blush did not dim in the slightest, but she did mumble a couple words of assent to this statement.
"Ah…I think I understand…" said the mystery woman, clearly understanding nothing. "And what about you?"
Gouta walked over, seeming a bit uneasy about friendly interaction with someone whose first impulse had been to knock his fillings loose at their first meeting. Even so, he bowed politely.
"Nakamura Gouta. Nice to meet you."
The stranger responded by bowing her head very far forward indeed, so much so that it was a wonder she didn't fall over. "My sincerest apologies for having hit you, Gouta-san. It will not happen again."
"Er…" A few beads of sweat slid down Gouta's face. How did he respond to that? "Don't…don't worry about it. It doesn't even hurt anymore. So…what's your name?"
The girl immediately raised her head and answered. "I don't know."
The three Warriors collapsed to the forest floor. That was way too quick!
"Hold on…" Gouta climbed to his feet, rubbing the back of his head. "What exactly does that mean?"
"Just what I said. I have no idea what my name is. I don't remember ever having one. Or having anyone else around to tell it to, really."
"Couldn't you pick one for yourself?"
Everyone started as Takeshi rose up, finally waking from Tokiko's kidney-shot.
"You can't just ask her to do that! A name is a very special gift!!" His normally squinted eyes were about halfway open and burning with a look of passion that they hadn't seen since his fight with Kazuki. "It loses everything if you decide it for yourself! Someone has to care enough to give you something that meaningful! And the one to do it is…you, Rookie-san!"
"What!? Why me!?"
"You found her, right? Take responsibility!"
"Now you believe me!? And furthermore-"
"Shut up and give this poor girl a name!" Takeshi shouted, his eyes now open completely. "I should kick you half to death for making her wait this long!"
"Alright, alright, calm down…" Gouta muttered. "Geez…alright, let's see…name, a name…mmmm….
Gouta glanced back at the plain face of the girl, waiting patiently with her icy blue gaze fixed on him, wondering what identity he would choose for her.
"Well…we first met you at a spring…how about Izumi?"
The girl started to answer, but was cut off by Takeshi.
"What!? Is that the best you can do!?"
"Then you do it! Why does this matter so much to you, anyway!?"
"Um…do I get a say in this?"
The blue-eyed girl waved a hand at them, trying to get their attention. After they stopped fighting, she paused, as if considering.
"I-zu-mi…" She said, letting each syllable roll off her tongue. She considered a moment more, then her face broke out into a glowing smile, directed at Gouta. "Yes, I like that. I would be happy to have it for my name. I accept, Gouta-san. Thank you."
Gouta didn't respond right away. He'd just spotted something distracting; this girl was quite plain in feature, that much he'd decided on already. The only thing truly remarkable about her were those impossibly bright eyes. And yet…just for a second, when she had smiled, he could swear he'd seen a shadow of the first time Tokiko had ever smiled at him. But then it was gone- the entire notion had been ridiculous anyway. This girl didn't look anything like Tokiko-senpai.
"No problem…so, uh, which way?"
"Ah! Right!" The newly-named Izumi turned and marched to the head of the group, leading them to the northeast. "Follow me! It'll be a bit of a walk, but I'm sure your companions will be pleased to see you!"
After a few hours, the group had come back to the same area they had first dropped in at. So far, they had needed to stop twice to deal with more attacks from the earthen beasts. Izumi had handled these situations surprisingly well, staying put when she was told to and allowing the Warriors to protect her from being attacked. Each time, she had gone starry-eyed yet again, proclaiming her admiration for her companions in a manner befitting a sports fan. Much like their friends back at Ginsei, Tokiko, Kazuki, and Gouta decided that this was one of those situations where it would be best to accept their new friend's bizarre quirks and avoid the headache of figuring her out. It came as a slight surprise that Takeshi was hitting it off really well with this girl. For some reason, she didn't find his perverted attitude to be offensive and was still holding a pleasant conversation with him.
"But then, who are the other five?"
"Well…" Izumi reasoned, ticking off five of her fingers, one at a time. "If you're the number six top scorer on this "survival training" in your regiment, there have got to be five above you, right? So who are they?"
Takeshi paused. He had told people of his achievements before, but most stopped listening before he got to this part. Even if they didn't, he had never been asked that question before. As a result…
"You know, I have no idea. Ah, well…" He pulled his phone out and began typing something in. "No time like the present for finding out!"
Gouta glanced over, watching as a list of statistics popped up on the miniature screen. "What's that?"
"Gya ha ha! This is the list of scores for each person who has gotten through the survival training and been made a full Warrior. Normally, all you can see is the score, but, part of my promotion includes access to the passwords. All I have to do is type that in and we can see who scored what."
"We were being scored on that?" Gouta asked, mildly surprised.
"Of course, Rookie-san! How else would they determine who was Warrior material? You think it's enough to just complete the training?"
Gouta hadn't considered that… Maybe that was why he'd made Warrior so long after Tokiko-senpai? If he had known that somebody was keeping score…
"Alright, here we go. Scores are determined by the amount of time you took reaching the goal, how good a condition you were in when you reached it, and the methods you used to survive," Takeshi explained. "Bearing all that in mind, our number five scorer is…oh. It's that guy…brrr…."
Takeshi shuddered, looking away from the screen as his face paled somewhat. Kazuki strained his neck and read the text onscreen.
"Warrior Inukai Rintaro? Hey, I remember him!"
"You ought to," Gouta replied darkly. "His Killer Rabies nearly ripped us apart."
"Killer Rabies…" Takeshi muttered, shivering. "Just the thought of those things makes my skin crawl…urrrrgh…."
"What's your problem?"
Takeshi glanced over at Gouta, still seeming uneasy. "You remember Warrior Ikusabe saying I'd been beaten by three other people besides Mutou? Bravo was one and Hayasaka-san was another. This man, Inukai…he was the third."
"Really?" Now it was Kazuki's turn to be surprised. "I'd have thought someone at your level would be more than a match for him. I mean, Inukai-san was no slouch, but even so…"
"I…have a little problem with d…d…d…"
Takeshi flinched as if someone had shot at him. "Yeah…those. It's kind of a deep-seated phobia…I've had it for a while. When I fought Inukai, I was…kinda…too scared to move."
"That's not such a big deal. Everyone's scared of something, right?"
"Yeah, well…anyway, who's next?" Takeshi tapped a key and glanced back at his phone. "Ah, this is interesting. From our branch in the United Kingdom; Warrior Edwards Shinsi at number four. Wow…impressive record on her. She's killed almost as many homunculi as Warrior Ikusabe…ah, that explains it…her parents were in the Regiment, so she knew about this stuff all along. Looks like she won't stay on the list very long, though…"
"Why not?" Tokiko asked. She wasn't about to admit it, but she was actually becoming interested in hearing about these higher ranking Warriors.
"Well, this list only includes the names of Assistant Commanders and below. Once you make Commander, they take you off. By the looks of things, this Edwards lady is due to be promoted to Commander in two weeks." Takeshi frowned for a second, feeling a twinge of jealousy. Ah, well, he'd get his promotion somehow. At any rate… "Number three is…ha! No surprise here. Warrior Kuonji Sakurako. I expected she'd be on this list somewhere."
"Ah! Sakurako-san!" This time, it was Izumi chiming in. "The same one who is staying with me?"
"That's her. She's the main reason I thought this mission would be easy." Takeshi told them. "If she's with that reconnaissance team, I pity whatever monster or homunculus gets in their way. That woman is tough as nails…kinda scary sometimes…but then, that's probably her biggest charm point! Not unlike you, Tokiko-chan!"
Tokiko shot him a sideways glare that would probably have reduced any sane man into a gibbering wreck. "Believe me, once this mission is done with and we have no further business with you, I'll give you an excellent notion of just how scary I can be."
"Heh heh…I'll look forward to that, then…anyway, at number two, we have…eh!?"
The surprised expressions seemed to be contagious, as Takeshi was now sporting his own, gaping in disbelief at the readout. Gouta and Kazuki peeked over his shoulder and, in a rare moment of total agreement between the two, both put on identical proud smiles.
"Number two best score at survival training," Gouta read off of the screen. "is Warrior Tsumura Tokiko."
"Particularly excelling in combat ability, resourcefulness, and cool intellect under fire." Kazuki added.
Izumi turned to Tokiko with round eyes. "Wow! As expected of Tokiko-dono! You really are amazing!"
Tokiko blinked. "What do you mean by "as expected"? You just met me today. And don't embellish my honorific over something like this. It's the first I've heard of it anyway."
It may have just been a glint of sunlight refracting in just the right way, but for a split-instant Tokiko seemed to be mildly pleased.
Takeshi stared into space for several seconds, forgetting about the phone in his hand.
Number two on the list… True, it's only the grade on the survival training, but even so… I'm beginning to wonder…if I haven't made an almighty mistake in my choice of who to pick on... Come to think of it... He shot a sideways glance at the scythe wielder as a bead of sweat dripped past his eye. A scar like that had to come from somewhere.
He shook his head, deciding that the issue was unimportant at present…and besides, it was giving him the willies!
"Now, here it is…the moment we've all been waiting for…" Takeshi pulled a cordless microphone from his cargo pocket, holding it up dramatically as he spoke into it. "Our number one scorer on the survival training is…ah…"
Once again, the Assistant Commander paled, and began to sweat much more heavily than before.
"Hayasaka Shusui…I should have suspected…"
"Yeah…" Takeshi scanned further down the readout, his skin growing steadily whiter as he spoke. "According to this, he completed the trial in just four days…and when he arrived at the goal, the only damage he'd suffered was losing the right sleeve of his uniform…"
Takeshi dissolved into more shivering as Kazuki absorbed this information, visibly impressed. Hayasaka-senpai may not have belonged to the LXE anymore, but his drive to gain strength had decidedly not diminished in the least.
"Hey!" Everyone jumped as Takeshi snapped out of his trembling daze without any type of warning. "What'd you place, Mutou-kun? I'm not finding your name in here anywhere!"
"Oh, well…I don't think I ever went through the survival training."
"Yes, you have," Tokiko said, glancing back at the lance wielder. "You went through Bravo's special training. Anyone who could survive that for more than a week is more than worthy of being an Alchemist Warrior."
"Really? It seemed like he was taking it pretty easy on me that time."
Takeshi was stunned anew. "You actually got personal training from Commander Bravo!? That's…he almost never…grrr, why not me, dammit!?"
Takeshi spent the rest of the walk that day with a blue funk hanging over his head, a sullen sort of expression that he'd not used at all during the time they'd known him, and taking frequent drinks from his sake gourd. Tokiko and Gouta didn't notice, being preoccupied with their gratitude towards whatever force had decided to shut him up.
By around sunset, the party had reached the base of one of the taller mountains. Tokiko once again called for a collective halt and had everyone start making camp.
"What!? Right now?" protested Izumi. "But we're so close! My cabin is just a little further beyond this mountain."
"It's too dangerous to travel when we can't see," Tokiko answered, very firmly. "We're not taking any stupid risks with the Regiment in a state of emergency as it is."
Izumi didn't look pleased, but nodded her head anyway. "If Tokiko-dono says so, then it's probably best. How do you want to proceed tomorrow, then? We can either go over at a less steep point, or just walk around. Going around the side is usually safer, but climbing over is quicker."
"Well…we can decide that before we set out tomorrow. Thank you, though. Your knowledge of the terrain has been a big help so far- Uh…"
In the instant it had taken Tokiko to ponder the question and turn back, Izumi had changed clothes again, this time being dressed in a blue and white striped top and an orange skirt. A wooden bracelet with a giant glass bauble set into the top was worn on her left wrist.
"If it's navigating, leave it to me! My skills are second to none!" she declared.
Tokiko dropped her forehead into her palm with a deep sigh. "Please…stop that."
Minutes later, with Izumi back in her normal clothing, and everyone seated around a campfire, everyone reached to their bags to pull out a bento box. (Excepting Takeshi, who pulled his from the Pocket Dimension.) As they started to eat, however, it came to their attention that Izumi had nothing. She had made no comment, but was eyeing the boxes with a masked look of longing.
"You know, if you're hungry, we can share with you," Gouta told her. "It's not a problem for us."
"Oh, no, I wouldn't want to impose on you," Izumi replied, waving a hand in front of herself. "I'm fine, really. I can go for quite a while without food. It comes from living up here in the mountains for so long-"
She was interrupted as her stomach emitted such a tremendous growl that her voice was drowned out. She fell silent and stared at the ground, her cheeks shining crimson. Gouta put on an understanding smile and held out his own meal.
"Here, go ahead. You're doing us a great service by assisting with our mission. The very least we can do is make sure you don't starve."
Izumi seemed reluctant, but finally edged forward and took the box from him. "Well…if you're sure…then, with your permission, I'll- urk…"
Izumi paused, glancing into the bento to find herself staring at a meal consisting of rice, pickled vegetables, and beef teriyaki. Dropping the box, (Gouta caught it) she turned and darted into a darker section of the woods. Kazuki and Tokiko stared after her in shock, but before they could move to retrieve her, they heard the unmistakable sound of someone retching. A minute later, the Warrior's guide returned, wiping her mouth and looking ashamed.
"I'm very sorry for that," came her meek whisper, as she stared down, unable to meet anyone's gaze. "But I have a problem with meat. I…I can't even stand to look at it. It just makes me feel sick to my stomach."
"Is that all?"
Everyone glanced back to see Takeshi dipping into his cargo pocket before he retrieved another bento with a set of chopsticks taped to the lid. He scaled this across the fire to Izumi, who caught it, looking surprised. She opened the lid and was relieved to find the box divided into sections of tofu, bean sprouts and white rice.
Takeshi grinned. "Can't claim to be vegetarian myself, but a man must always be prepared. Particularly if a lady is in need."
Gouta shot him a dark glare, choosing to take this comment as a jab at his own masculinity. Whether this was the case or not, he never got to find out as Izumi chose this moment to raise a question, with her mouth already full of rice.
"That…Pocket Dimension, was it? It's truly a wonder! What else do you keep stored in there?"
Takeshi smiled, flipping open the flaps of the cargo pockets. "Well…we've got this, this, this, a few of these, a couple of those…"
As he talked, the fox-faced alchemist was pulling all sorts of bits and bobs out of his pockets and tossing them into a pile behind his body. Included were an entire set of training weights, two or three more bento boxes, what looked suspiciously like several wallets, (Gouta gave an outraged cry as he retrieved one he recognized as his own) a collection of magazines on guns and other weaponry, as well as a few on subjects somewhat more…risqué, a framed picture of Hayasaka Ouka, an anti-mosquito coil, and a box of adhesive bandages.
"Wow…" Izumi marveled, her starry gaze back once more. "That sure looks handy. How does it work? I mean, do you remember right where everything is?"
"Gya ha ha! Conveniently enough, I don't have to!" Takeshi boasted, puffing out his chest as he rummaged around further. "All I do is picture what it is I want, and if it's stored in here somewhere, it comes to my hand immediately!"
"Quit being so loud, and clean up your mess!"
"Do you have to brag about everything?"
Where'd you get that picture of Ouka-senpai?"
"Excuse me, but could you let go of me?"
Everyone paused, not recognizing the deep voice that had just spoken. Eyes went in all directions until, at last, all gazes drifted to the left cargo pocket of Takeshi's Busou Renkin. Protruding from it, with Takeshi's hand closed around it, was the small, hairy face of what seemed to be a pig in a white bandana. Perched atop it's head was a small, grinning snail. At first, everyone believed they were seeing things until the creature spoke again.
"It's not that I'm not enjoying the break, but I really do have a deadline to meet, so-"
Whatever the piggish thing was, it got no further as Takeshi hastily shoved it back down into the pocket. Everyone was silent for several minutes following, staring at the open pocket with white, blanked-out eyes. Finally, Kazuki spoke up.
"Um…what in the world was that thing?"
"I…I don't know…" Takeshi confessed, looking very uneasy. "Let's just forget it, and never speak of this again."
Continuing his rummaging, Takeshi finally pulled out a tall bottle of sake with a smile. The label read Golden Fox. "Here we go! We've got a new member of our group traveling with us today, and a cute one besides! This means celebration! Drinks all around!"
"Not for me, thanks, I'm underage," Kazuki said.
"Not a chance, Ero-Gitsune."
"Put that away, you smell bad enough from all your drinking earlier," Gouta snapped.
"Uh…well…if Tokiko-dono doesn't want to, I should probably also not…"
"Bah!" Takeshi turned away from them, pouring out a big drink for himself. "Spoilsports…whatever, more for me."
As it was, Takeshi not only drank down the entire bottle that he'd pulled out, but half of a second one. As a result, he'd passed out before anyone and had to be unceremoniously rolled into his tent. His loud snores kept everyone else up for several hours, but eventually, sleep claimed them all.
Tokiko awoke at sunrise and came very close to activating her Valkyrie Skirt at the sight of another body in her tent, but quickly calmed down as she remembered Izumi. She shook her new companion awake and crawled outside, rolling her eyes as she took in the scene. Takeshi had not only forgotten to pack away his pile of random objects, but had left the half-empty sake bottle sitting out as well. Fortunately, the fire had been put out properly, so at least the camp hadn't been at risk of burning down if the bottle spilled.
"Izumi, if you would, wake up Kazuki and Gouta. I need to give our "commanding officer" a rough lesson in environmental safety."
"If you say so, Tokiko-dono," came the automatic reply.
Tokiko's eyes rolled again. She had never had someone hero-worship her before, and she wasn't particularly enjoying it. Well, she could set Izumi straight later. For now it was time to- what was that!?
Tokiko paused, waiting for the sensation to return. There it was; the ground was definitely tremoring again. However, there was a definite difference from the vibrations the group had experienced thus far. These were not continuous, but spaced apart in increments of a few seconds, similar to strikes with a hammer or…footfalls."
"Everyone," Tokiko called, letting her voice carry through the camp, "wake up! Things are about to get rough!"
Gouta and Kazuki stumbled out of their tents, both trying to run and finish getting dressed at the same time.
"What is it, Tokiko-san?"
"Shh! Stand still. Feel that?"
The two men stopped, and upon feeling the tremors, which had started to get stronger, their eyes became as serious as Tokiko's. Gouta pulled his kakugane out while Kazuki watched the surrounding trees, hand over his chest. Takeshi…still had not roused.
"Hey, Ero-Gitsune! Get out here! We don't have time for-"
A thunderous crash ripped through the air as the trees to the south bent and fell. Stepping between them was an enormous figure, standing easily at eight full feet. The huge person seemed to be a man, with short, spiky brown hair, and an impossibly muscular frame covered in a grey, sleeveless shirt and workout pants, but his grinning mouth was also filled with sharp, triangular teeth.
"So…" he boomed, with a voice similar to the cracking of wood that he'd appeared with, "let's see what we have here…"
The giant man flared his large nostrils at them, sucking in huge breaths. As he sniffed the air, his pointed grin grew wider.
"I count four, maybe five, delicious little humans…heh, heh, heh…I wonder if it'll all fit…"
As he chuckled, a spot on the upper left of the man's chest began to gleam. It brightened until it shined through the shirt, leaving the Warriors gaping at what they saw. The mark seemed to be a homunculus emblem, but it was divided into three sections rather than two, the top two sticking out diagonally while the bottom was in the normal position. The overall design seemed a bit like a three-leaf clover.
"Homunculus!" Tokiko growled, pulling her kakugane out.
"Hm? You know me?" The giant glanced down, spotting the kakugane in Gouta and Tokiko's hands. "Ah…Alchemist Warriors. Now I get it…"
The colossus raised up one enormous foot and brought it crashing down. At the moment of impact, the ground near his feet shifted and twisted itself into another shape; one the Warriors were already familiar with.
Indeed, the shape was a match for one of the earthen monsters that the team had been fighting for the past two days. The huge homunculus reached down a hand and patted the diamond shaped head.
"Now I know why so many of my little golems haven't been coming back…Ah well, that's not such a problem. I'll just take care of the interference, and get a good meal out of it right now!"
The Warriors braced themselves, gripping their kakugane, waiting for their enemy to move. From behind, a barely audible voice issued from Takeshi's tent.
The homunculus took another step forward, shaking the ground as he moved. His smile never dimmed as he looked over the assembled group.
"Which one, which one…? Everyone looks so tasty…"
Gouta put a hand back signaling to Izumi. "Get behind me. If we try to let you run for it, this thing will be all over you."
Izumi stared at the giant as she moved slowly, apparently not fully understanding the situation. As a result, she seemed to be quite scared.
"I think…" the homunculus paused, seeming deep in thought…then, out of nowhere, he moved, far faster than anyone his size should have been able to. "You!"
He bared his pointed teeth, aiming for Tokiko. The battle girl fixed him in her death-glare, about to call out her Busou Renkin and tear him to shreds. What happened next saved her the effort.
On the final word, Takeshi had practically exploded from his tent, dressed in his shirt, cargo shorts and boots, which he had fallen asleep in, and planted a fast, flying kick directly into the face of the oncoming homunculus. The attack sent the monster shooting back into the trees, and, by the sound of it, through at least three of them. Takeshi dropped to the ground, looking intensely annoyed and clutching his forehead.
"Jeez…no respect around here at all…what good's the promotion anyway? Can't even sleep off a hangover…"
As he grumbled to himself, Takeshi was walking around the camp, eyes on the ground, apparently searching for something. His charges watched him with looks of complete disbelief.
"Are…are you a complete idiot!?" Tokiko finally screamed. "Do you have the slightest clue what's happening here!?"
"Put a lid on it, Tsumurin!" Takeshi shot back. "Gimme a moment here…ah, here we go…"
Takeshi picked up the half-full sake bottle and sat down with it. "This'll do it. A little hair of the fox that bit me."
"Doesn't that saying go "hair of the d-""
"Don't say it!"
The Assistant Commander tilted his head back, taking a deep pull from the bottle before exhaling. At that moment, the crashing footsteps resumed and the homunculus' grinning head popped back into view.
"Heh heh heh! That was quite a good hit! This may be a more fun morning than I'd hoped!"
Takeshi glanced up, scowling. "Who the hell are you?"
"Takeshi, this guy's dangerous!" Kazuki called. "He's-"
"Hold on, Mutou-kun…"Takeshi replied. "I recognized his voice already."
The squint-eyed sake-lover tilted the bottle back again and drained the rest of the contents in a single gulp before slamming it back onto the ground.
"He's the guy who woke me up with all his yelling. And that means, he's got a special beating coming."
Takeshi got to his feet, cracking his knuckles. Gouta turned to him, exasperated.
"You idiot, he's a homunculus! Don't you get it!?"
At that, Takeshi paused, turning his squinted gaze back to his huge opponent. He scanned over the titanic form, finally locating the emblem. There was silence, then a laugh began to emanate from Takeshi's throat. It started small, but quickly rose into an excited cackle that bordered on insane.
"Gyaaaaa ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Well now!" Takeshi laughed, his eyes once again open halfway and dancing with energy. "It looks like this'll be just as you said, homunculus! Quite a fun morning shaping up!"
"Heh, heh…I don't mind if you want to volunteer to be first, human. I'd be honored to oblige your death wish."
"Big talker…alright, let's see how well you back it up! Here I come!"
-- Hee hee hee! And I start the year out on a cliff-hanger!! Bwa ha ha! I can be a mean Cap'n sometimes. Well, in case anyone is still majorly confused about Izumi's bizarre quirks, the reason she acts and dresses as she does is to be explained in chapter eight. See if any of you out there can figure out who she's dressed as! I promise no prizes, but it may alleviate some boredom. Izumi's name is the Japanese word for "spring" when referring to cold water, hence Gouta's choice. (Onsen (hot spring) doesn't make a very nice name.) Anyhow, now for the coming distractions. Next time, the true enemy has finally shown their face, and Takeshi is first out of the box to fight! But what starts as a match of excitement for our fox-faced friend turns to a personal deathmatch as Takeshi learns a few things about this giant maneater. What is it about this homunculus that has gotten Takeshi mad enough to pull out even his best techniques? The real question is, against the terrifying true strength of his opponent, does he even have a chance of surviving, let alone walking away victorious? Next time-- "Drunk With Rage! Shatter the Earth With Nine Tails!"
-- The Cap'n